Specifically, what happens when we combine the square pixel aperture, the sensor OLPF (based on a 4-dot beam splitter) and the Airy function (representing diffraction)? First off, this is what the MTF curves of our contestants look like:
good fit for the D40 and D7000 sensors. The dashed blue curve represents the MTF of the square pixel aperture (plus diffraction), i.e., a box filter as wide as the pixel. The dashed red curve illustrates what a Gaussian MTF (plus diffraction) would look like, fitted to have an MTF50 value that is comparable to the OLPF model. Lastly, the solid vertical grey line illustrates the remaining contrast at a frequency of 0.65 cycles per pixel, which is well above the Nyquist limit at 0.5 cycles per pixel (dashed vertical grey line).
Note how both the Gaussian and the OLPF model have low contrast values at 0.65 cycles per pixel (0.04 and 0.02, respectively), while the square pixel aperture + lens MTF, representing a sensor without an AA filter, still has a contrast value of 0.27. It is generally accepted that patterns at a contrast below 0.1 are not really visible in photos. That illustrates how the OLPF successfully attenuates the frequencies above Nyquist, but how does this look in a photo?
Ok, but how would it affect my photos visually?I will now present some synthetic images to illustrate how much (or little) anti-aliasing we obtain at various apertures, both with and without an AA filter. The images will look like this:
The left panel is a stack of four sub-images (rows) separated by white horizontal bars. Each sub-image is simply a pattern of black-and-white bars, with both black and white bars being exactly 5 pixels wide (in this example). The four stacked sub-images differ only in phase, i.e., in each of the four rows the black-and-white pattern of bars is offset by a horizontal distance between 0 and 1 pixels in length.
The right panel is a 2x magnification of the left panel. Note that the third row in the stack is nice and crisp, containing almost pure black and pure white. The other rows have some grey values at the transition between the black and white bars, because the image has been rendered without any anti-aliasing.
These images are rendered by sampling each pixel at 2362369 sub-pixel positions, weighting each sampled point with the relevant point spread function.
The aliasing phenomenon known as frequency folding was illustrated in a previous post. When a scene contains patterns at a frequency exceeding the Nyquist limit (highest frequency representable in the final image), the patterns alias, i.e, the frequencies above Nyquist appear as patterns below the Nyquist limit, and are in fact indistinguishable from real image content at that frequency. Here is a relevant example, illustrating how a frequency of 0.65 cycles per pixel (cycle length of 1.538 pixels) aliases onto a frequency of 0.35 cycles per pixel (cycle length of 2.857 pixels) if no AA filter is present:
The "4-dot OLPF" column shows a clear difference between these two cases. If you look closely you will see some faint stripes in the 2x magnified version at 1.538 pixels per cycle, i.e., the OLPF did not completely suppress the pattern, but attenuated it strongly.
If we repeat the experiment at f/4, we obtain this image:
Ok, rinse & repeat at f/8:
Finally, at f/11 we see some strong attenuation in the sensor without the AA filter too:
ConclusionSo there you have it. A sensor without an AA filter can only really attain a significant increase in resolution at large apertures, where diffraction is not attenuating the contrast at higher frequencies too strongly. Think f/5.6 or larger apertures.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the aperture range in which aliasing is clearly visible, as shown above. In other words, if you have something like a D800E, you can avoid aliasing by stopping down to f/8 or smaller, but at those apertures your resolution will be closer to that of the D800. At apertures of f/5.6 and larger, you may experience aliasing, but you are also likely to have better sharpness than the D800.
Not an easy choice to make.
Personally, I would take the sensor with the AA filter.