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ISO Sensitivity / Noise levels

ISO equivalence on a digital camera is the ability to increase the sensitivity of the sensor. The works by turning up the "volume" (gain) on the sensor's signal amplifiers (remember the sensor is an analogue device). By amplifying the signal you also amplify the noise which becomes more visible at higher ISO's. Many modern cameras also employ noise reduction and / or sharpness reduction at higher sensitivities.

To measure noise levels we take a sequence of images of a GretagMacBeth ColorChecker chart (controlled artificial daylight lighting). The exposure is matched to the ISO (i.e. ISO 200, 1/200 sec for consistency of exposure between cameras). The image sequence is run through our own proprietary noise measurement tool (version 1.5 in this review). Click here for more information. (Note that noise values indicated on the graphs here can not be compared to those in other reviews). Room temperature is approximately 22°C (~72°F), simulated daylight lighting.

The EOS 5D Mark II is the first Canon DSLR with an upper ISO setting of 6400 as standard, which can be expanded a further two stops via C. Fn I-3 (giving a remarkable 10-stop range of 50 - 25600). There is no doubt this is a response to the Nikon D3 and subsequently D700, both of which feature the same maximum sensitivity.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II vs. Nikon D700 vs. Sony Alpha A900

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II: Canon 85 mm F1.8 lens, Manual exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Standard), High ISO NR (Default; Standard), JPEG Large / Fine
     
  • Nikon D700: Nikkor 85 mm F1.8 lens, Manual exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Normal), High ISO NR (Default: Normal), JPEG Large / Fine
     
  • Sony Alpha A900: Sony Zeiss 85 mm F1.4 lens, Manual exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Standard), High ISO NR (Default: Normal), JPEG Large / Fine

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 50
(L)

Nikon D700
n/a
Sony Alpha A900
n/a

   

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 100

Nikon D700
ISO 100
(L1.0)
Sony Alpha A900
ISO 100

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 200

Nikon D700
ISO 200
Sony Alpha A900
ISO 200

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 400

Nikon D700
ISO 400
Sony Alpha A900
ISO 400

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 800

Nikon D700
ISO 800
Sony Alpha A900
ISO 800

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 1600

Nikon D700
ISO 1600
Sony Alpha A900
ISO 1600

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 3200

Nikon D700
ISO 3200
Sony Alpha A900
ISO 3200

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 6400

Nikon D700
ISO 6400
Sony Alpha A900
ISO 6400

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 12800
(H1)

Nikon D700
ISO 12800
(Hi 1.0)
Sony Alpha A900
n/a

 

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 25600
(H2)

Nikon D700
ISO 25600
(Hi 2.0)
Sony Alpha A900
n/a

 

In truth there's little practical difference between any of the cameras here at the lower ISO settings, with all three essentially noise-free up to ISO 400. Once you get above ISO 800 the Alpha 900 starts to fall behind the rest of the pack, with considerably more chroma noise and obvious noise reduction artefacts. There's no two ways about it; if you're looking for this kind of resolution at higher ISO settings the EOS 5D Mark II runs rings around the A900.

Compared to the Nikon it is harder to call, with the 5D Mark II having almost double the pixel count of the D700. At the pixel level there is very little difference in noise up to ISO 800, but you can see Canon applying increasingly high noise reduction from then on, meaning that by ISO 3200 the 5D Mark II's resolution advantage has been wiped out and the the D700 steps into the lead, albeit by a whisker. The fine grained noise produced by the D700 is less objectionable in pictures than the rather more processed looking noise and noise reduction of the 5D Mark II, but in truth at normal enlargement sizes the difference between these two cameras will be minimal. Of course you can also turn down the noise reduction a little on the 5D Mark II if you prefer - see the next page.

What this means is that Canon has managed to walk the tightrope between high resolution and manageable noise pretty successfully, retaining a good balance of detail and noise in the most commonly used ISO range, and providing usable output at higher settings through heavy - but not excessive - noise reduction. While it may not the first choice for users who need the best high ISO performance (and over 6400 it's really 'emergency use only'), it is still a very good option that will produce comparable results in the same circumstances as the D700 - certainly at normal enlargement sizes.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II vs. EOS-1Ds Mark III vs. EOS 5D ISO 800-3200

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II: Canon 85 mm F1.8 lens, Manual exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Standard), High ISO NR (Default; Standard), JPEG Large / Fine
     
  • Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III: Canon 85 mm F1.8 lens, Manual exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Standard), High ISO NR (Default; Standard), JPEG Large / Fine
     
  • Canon EOS 5D: Canon 85 mm F1.8 lens, Aperture Priority, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Standard), JPEG Large / Fine

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 800

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
ISO 800
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 800

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 1600

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
ISO 1600
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 1600

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 3200

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
ISO 3200
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 3200

This comparison presents the same kinds of problems as with the D700, namely that the original 5D is almost half the resolution as the 5D Mark II. What we can see is that even at ISO 800, the original 5D is showing more noise, and continues to be noisier than the Mark II all the way to ISO 3200 (the highest setting on the MK I), though it retains its per-pixel sharpness advantage all the way up the scale. This is partly down to noise reduction - there's no doubt that the Mark II is using more (and more effective) NR, particularly for chroma noise - but some of this must also be down to better hardware.

A comparison with the EOS-1Ds Mark III is more interesting as the two cameras have the same nominal resolution. As with the original 5D, the 1Ds Mark III is noisier than the 5D Mark II from ISO 800 and stays that way till ISO 3200, at which point the difference is quite marked (the 5D Mark II shows virtually no chroma noise). The 1Ds has lower default noise reduction than the 5D Mark II, producing a more 'honest' output, but one that shows visible noise at anything over ISO 800.

Noise graphs

The graphs below compare the measured noise for the gray patch (middle gray) and for the black patch (shadows).

Luminance noise graph (gray patch)

The gray noise graph confirms confirms what was seen in the crops - noise levels are very similar up to ISO 3200, and at higher ISO settings only the Nikon D700 beats the 5D Mark II.

Indicated ISO sensitivity is on the horizontal axis of this graph, standard deviation of luminosity on the vertical axis.

Luminance noise graph (black patch)

Much the same story for the black patch (which generally represents shadow noise), with the 5D mark II showing marginally lower noise than the other 4 cameras up to ISO 3200, and being bested by the D700 at ISO 6400 and over.

Chroma (color) noise graph

The differences between these five cameras are most apparent in the chroma noise graph. The original 5D, the 1Ds Mark III and A900 perform similarly, while the 5D Mark II and D700 produce lower noise, with the D700 again being lower than the 5D Mark II at ISO 6400 and above. As mentioned elsewhere this is an indication of the efficiency of the noise reduction systems as much as it is of any inherent advantage one sensor might have over another.

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Comments

Total comments: 3
BobFoster

I work in Nyc as a fashion photographer and I have to say the the 5d series are the most used cameras out side of medium format cameras .Ive been shooting with the mark 3 for over a year after shooting with the mark 2 for 2 years great both great cameras. You can see the shots I've taken with it for my work on my website www.brianschutzaphotography.com hope it helps!! also note I only shoot RAW format.

1 upvote
EcoPix

Was it really 2009? I'm still in the first flush of my love affair with this camera. And I'm still fathoming the depths of its capability. Okay, she's got a lot of paint missing these days, but the images are still magic. Whenever I use another camera, I sigh and wonder why I didn't use the 5D2.
A brief history of photography:

silver chemistry

flexible roll film

Kodachrome

Velvia

5D Mark 2...

0 upvotes
reanim888

As I know when the original 5D debuted three years ago, it wasn't clear why most enthusiasts would want such a camera. Though it captured excellent, high resolution images, it was slower and bigger and more expensive. Today the market has changed significantly, and it's clear that the market is ready for full-frame digital SLRs that can turn out high image quality. High quality is one thing, but being a camera that can deliver high quality over a wide range of lighting conditions and different ISO settings is what makes the Canon 5D Mark II such a compelling choice, and a clear Dave's Picks.
It's really very very good.

1 upvote
Total comments: 3