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ISO Sensitivity / Noise levels


Standard Test

ISO equivalence on a digital camera is the ability to increase the sensitivity of the sensor to enable faster shutter speeds and/or better performance in low light. The way this works in a digital camera is by "turning up the volume" (gain) on the CCD's signal amplifiers. Nothing is without its price however and doing so also typically increases visible noise (random speckles visible all over the image).

We are now using a more reliable, repeatable and neutral method for evaluating noise. Shots are taken in daylight lighting in our studio. Noise is measured as the standard deviation of the medium gray patch on a Gretag MacBeth ColorChecker chart. The image is normalized before measurement of noise to remove the possibility of figures being affected by images with low contrast. Note that noise numbers shown on the graphs below can not be compared to those in older reviews.

In the comparisons below we used aperture priority mode and selected an aperture which would produce a shutter speed as near as possible the selected sensitivity value (ie. ISO 200, 1/200 sec).

The EOS-1D Mark II at ISO 50 and ISO 3200

Note that the recommended working range of the Mark II's CMOS sensor is ISO 100 to ISO 1600. Additionally you can access ISO 50 and ISO 3200 equiv. (indicated as 'L' and 'H') by enabling 'ISO expansion' on the record menu. The compromises at these sensitivities are: ISO 50 - reduced dynamic range (light tones are clipped to white earlier), ISO 3200 - reduced dynamic range, noise.

Test notes:

  • Shots taken at approximately 21°C (~70°F)
  • Lighting was simulated daylight measured as 10.1 EV (at ISO 100)

Canon EOS-1D Mark II vs. Nikon D2H (ISO 50 - 3200)

  • Canon EOS-1D Mark II: Canon 50 mm F1.4 lens, Aperture Priority (F4), Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, 50 mm F1.4, JPEG Large / Fine
  • Nikon D2H: Nikkor 50 mm F1.4 lens, Aperture Priority (F4), Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, JPEG Large / Fine
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 50
, 1/50 sec, F4
Nikon D2H
n/a
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 100
, 1/100 sec, F4
Nikon D2H
n/a
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 200
, 1/200 sec, F4
Nikon D2H
ISO
200, 1/200 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 400, 1/400 sec, F4
Nikon D2H
ISO
400, 1/400 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 800
, 1/800 sec, F4
Nikon D2H
ISO
800, 1/800 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO
1600, 1/1600 sec, F4
Nikon D2H
ISO
1600, 1/1600 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO
3200, 1/3200 sec, F4
Nikon D2H
ISO
3200, 1/3200 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels

Canon EOS-1D Mark II vs. Canon EOS-1D (ISO 50 - 3200)

  • Canon EOS-1D Mark II: Canon 50 mm F1.4 lens, Aperture Priority (F4), Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, 50 mm F1.4, JPEG Large / Fine
  • Canon EOS-1D: Canon 50 mm F1.4 lens, Aperture Priority (F4), Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, 50 mm F1.4, JPEG Large / Fine
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 50
, 1/50 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
n/a
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 100
, 1/100 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO 100
, 1/100 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 200
, 1/200 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO 200
, 1/200 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 400, 1/400 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO 400, 1/400 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO 800
, 1/800 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO 800
, 1/800 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO
1600, 1/1600 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO
1600, 1/1600 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Canon EOS-1D Mark II
ISO
3200, 1/3200 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO
3200, 1/3200 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels

Visible difference between the Canon EOS-1D Mark II and Nikon D2H are only apparent from ISO 800 upwards, and even then it's very subtle and unlikely to be enough of a difference to be noticeable in a normal shot. This is supported by the noise graph shown below, obviously what the D2H lacks is the Mark II's silky smooth ISO 100.

Compared to the original EOS-1D the Mark II manages to keep noise lower throughout the sensitivity range, this would be more noticeable at higher sensitivities such as ISO 1600 and ISO 3200. Another important difference between the EOS-1D and the Mark II is the pattern of noise, the original EOS-1D had a noticeable horizontal banding pattern at higher sensitivities, the Mark II has none, its noise looking far more like random film grain (see crop comparisons below graphs).

Luminance noise graph (ISO 50 - 3200)

Indicated ISO sensitivity is on the horizontal axis of this graph, standard deviation of luminosity (normalized) on the vertical axis. Note that for the EOS-1Ds the indicated ISO 1600 point is actually ISO 1250 (the maximum for this camera).

RGB noise graph (ISO 50 - 3200)

Indicated ISO sensitivity is on the horizontal axis of this graph, standard deviation of each of the red, green and blue channels (normalized) are on the vertical axis.

Increasing sharpness

As we noted earlier in this review the Mark II's default is to apply almost no sharpening at all (a Sharpness setting of 0), most users will probably increase the Sharpness setting to get slightly sharper images straight out of the camera. Sharpening also increases the visibility of noise (because it gets sharpened too), the graph below shows the difference in noise levels between a Sharpness setting of 0 and Sharpness of 2 (my preference). Thankfully increasing the sharpness only subtly appears to have almost no effect on noise levels, even at high sensitivities.

Noise pattern, compared to the original EOS-1D

As noted above the EOS-1D did have a noticeable horizontal banding pattern at high sensitivities, you can see this in the crops below (most visible at ISO 1600), the Mark II has a much more random noise pattern (easier to remove, looks more like film grain, less noticeable).

Canon EOS-1D Mark II Canon EOS-1D
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