Lifepixel, perhaps best known for its high quality infrared digital camera conversions, recently added a new service to its list – removing your DSLR’s anti-aliasing filter. The price varies between $400-500 depending on your specific camera model. The notion of removing a DSLR’s anti-aliasing feature is not new. Maxmax.com has been doing this for years. Anti-alias filter removal, in the digital camera arena, has been thought of in a similar manner to overclocking your PC (before some manufacturers eliminated this capability) or perhaps souping up your car’s engine via a special engine conversion kit – a bit risky but capable of producing good effects. Why is this “risky” with respect to your DSLR? Voiding the warranty for one. Benefits? A sharper image.
With the non-stop onslaught of higher megapixel sensors and technology price reductions, I suspect many people lost interest in the idea of removing their DSLR’s anti-aliasing filter, if they ever contemplated it to begin with. As you may recall from some of the D800 articles on Photography Life, the anti-aliasing filter was introduced to reduce the effects of moire created when photographing subjects with fine, repeating patterns. The anti-aliasing filter accomplished this by slightly diffusing the image, which also slightly reduced sharpness. With the introduction of the Nikon D800E, however, Nikon once again raised this issue to the forefront by offering a camera model with the anti-aliasing filter removed as a product – not as a after-market service. Lifepixel, being one of the premier camera modification service providers, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the new-found interest and market for an anti-aliasing filter removal service. So for a mere $400-$500, you can have your DSLR’s anti-aliasing filter removed and be assured of maximizing your sensor’s resolution. Below is an example discussed by Nasim in his review of the D800 and D800E.
I know what some of you may be thinking, “Gee, that seems like a lot of money to gain a bit of sharpness.” Perhaps. But if life has taught me one lesson, it is this – never, ever underestimate people’s willingness to spend money to get a bit of an edge, however slight. That is not a criticism of my fellow man, but merely an observation regarding human nature. I recall when some of us found out about the ability to overclock our PCs. Despite the warnings about “frying” our machines, many of us marched ahead anyway. We were determined to soak up every speed advantage we could find. And while I never ended up turning my PC into a smoldering hunk of silicon and metal, quite a few of my DIY colleagues that were not so lucky!
Of course, having your DSLR’s anti-aliasing filter removed is not quite as dangerous as overclocking your PC. The only real downside (gulp!) is the invalidation of your DSLR’s warranty (not insignificant to some, but certainly less dangerous than too much power toasting your PC’s innards) and some additional moire when taking photos of subjects that have very fine repeating patterns of detail, such as fabric, buildings, and some products.
Lifepixel or DIY?
Why rely on Lifepixel to remove your anti-aliasing filter vs. doing it yourself? First, there is a real fear of damaging your DSLR (think “interesting paperweight”). Secondly, you need a very clean environment for such operations, since hair, some dust, etc. may invalidate the very effects you are attempting to achieve. You don’t want to be attempting this operation on your DSLR only to find that your home’s heater kicks in and starts blowing air and dust into the room and inside your DSLR. Lastly, some DSLR models have their anti-alias and infrared blocking filter (also known as “IR cut” filter) fused, thus requiring a new infrared blocking filter be inserted into the camera after the original combination filter set has been removed. None of these operations are for the faint of heart, let alone those with serious caffeine addictions! You need to be very precise, have significant magnification, and a squeaky clean environment. Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! As the infamous warning label suggests, “Don’t try this at home!” I am sure I will hear from some that have successfully completed such operations in the comfort of their home offices. To you, I say, “bravo!” You dodged a bullet… this time. For the vast majority of others? I would would strongly suggest leaving such efforts to the pros. Save your penchant for DIY projects for lower-risk endeavors such as creating a low-cost flash snoot! ;)
As I wrote in my article on Infrared Photography, I have had Lifepixel convert two of my cameras (brand new, BTW) for infrared-only photography in the last few years. I have never had an issue with either camera. The staff of Lifepixel has been very generous with their time, knowledge, and advice. As such, I have the utmost confidence that they will do an excellent job in removing the anti-alias filter, just as they do for their other DSLR alteration services. Below are two photos I recently took of the Louisiana State Memorial in Gettysburg, PA, with my infrared D90 and D800.
The Value Proposition
“Is it worth it?” The ultimate question, is it not? Well, that all depends on… you. There are other no-cost and low-cost alternatives to improve sharpness without spending money on an anti-alias filter removal process. Nasim has an excellent article outlining how to take sharp images. It is worth checking out and goes into more detail than I offer here.
Here are some no-cost (or pretty darn cheap!) methods of improving sharpness:
- Improve your ability to hold the camera – Cheap and easy. With a bit of practice, this alone can improve your photos’ sharpness more than anything else. In-camera or in-lens stabilization is very helpful, but it isn’t meant to overcome sloppy habits.
- Shoot at a lower ISO – Noise is a killer, particularly since the noise removal process inherently reduces the sharpness of any image. Always make sure you check your ISO setting and select the lowest ISO suitable for the situation. If you have it set to Auto ISO, check your ISO setting from time-to-time to ensure that it is adjusting to changing conditions. And if you have the opportunity, re-position your subject in more favorable light.
- On Camera Flash – Using a flash in a low-light situation enables you to shoot at lower ISOs.
- Clean your lenses and sensor – It makes little sense to spend gazillions on DSLRs and lenses only to enable something so trivial as dust specs negatively affect the outcome. Splurge on a few rocket blowers and always have one handy. It literally takes seconds to give your camera’s sensor and lenses a few shots of pressurized air. Carry some lens cleaning solution and wipes to handle any fingerprints or sticky dust particles. Make sure that your DSLR’s setting for dust removal menu item is set for startup/shutdown, as this will maximize your DSLR’s opportunity to keep its sensor clean. There are far better ways to spend your photography time than wasting hours attempting to clone dust spots out of sky of beautiful landscape photos.
Care to spend some additional money on something other than an anti-alias conversion to improve the sharpness of your photos? Here are a few more ideas:
- Buy a better lens (preferably with VR/IS/OS stabilization capabilities) – If I were to advise people where to spend their scarce/finite photography resources, I would put the purchase of good lenses at the top of the list, since sharp lenses (along with good technique) will help get the most sharpness out of any DSLR. DSLRs come and go (and drop in price!), but good lenses last a lifetime and retain their value. “Better” encompasses lenses that are sharper and/or faster. Faster lenses enable you to shoot at lower ISOs and higher shutter speeds, both of which contribute to cleaner, sharper images.
- Monopods/Tripods – Even a well-made economical legs/head combination will allow you to shoot at a lower shutters speed and lower ISO.
- External Flash – More powerful than on-camera flash but helpful for the same reasons as listed above.
- Buy a camera with the anti-alias feature already removed – Your options are pretty limited on this front. If you are contemplating a new Nikon D800, you may wish to consider the D800E and save $200 ($300 cost difference between the D800 and D800E vs. Lifepixel’s $500 anti-alias filter removal process) if ultimate sharpness is your priority. Pentax recently announced the K5-IIs, which, at $100 more than the base K5-II model, can be had without an anti-alias filter. I suspect that Nikon and other DSLR manufacturers will take note of how the D800E and K5-IIs sell compared to the their sister models. If the percentage of DSLRs sold without their anti-alias filters is high enough, look for Nikon and other DSLR manufacturers to introduce additional anti-alias filter models in the future.
My Humble 2 Cents
I looked over quite a few examples from the D800 and D800E before placing my order for a D800. I wasn’t quite as impressed with the sharpness difference between the D800 and D800E. I share the opinion of quite a few people; photos taken with the D800, with just a bit of sharpening via Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask tool, are able to achieve a similar level sharpness as those taken with the D800E.
Of course, I am well-aware that many others, including some of the contributors to Photography Life, hold a very different opinion on this matter. The simple truth is that many serious amateurs and pros crave every bit of extra sharpness that can be wrung out of their DSLR – even if that may require them to spend $400-$500 on an aftermarket alteration process. Thus, despite my personal opinion, I can easily see owners of higher end camera models, such as the Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 1DX, and Nikon D600, opting for this service. I suspect it won’t be quite as popular for entry or mid-level DSLRs, costing between $500-$1,200, since the value proposition isn’t quite as strong.
Would you send your DSLR in to have its anti-aliasing filter removed? What are your thoughts regarding the value of such a service? Weigh in with your thoughts below.
You can find more information on Lifepixel and its services here: