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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). Note that the D2H is calibrated from ISO 200 to 1600 and that ISO 3200 and 6400 equiv. are labelled has HI-1 and HI-2, this is a hint that while Nikon provide access to these sensitivities they are outside of the recommended sensitivity range of the camera.

Test notes:

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

Nikon D2H vs. Canon EOS-1D (ISO 100 - 6400)

  • Nikon D2H: Nikkor 50 mm F1.4 lens, Aperture Priority (F4), Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, 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
  Nikon D2H
n/a
Canon EOS-1D
ISO 100
, 1/100 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
200, 1/200 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO 200
, 1/200 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
400, 1/400 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO 400, 1/400 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
800, 1/800 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO 800
, 1/800 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
1600, 1/1600 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO
1600, 1/1600 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
3200, 1/3200 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
ISO
3200, 1/3200 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO 6400
, 1/6400 sec, F4
Canon EOS-1D
n/a
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels

Nikon D2H vs. Olympus E-1 (ISO 100 - 6400)

  • Nikon D2H: Nikkor 50 mm F1.4 lens, Aperture Priority (F4), Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, JPEG Large / Fine
  • Olympus E-1: Olympus 50 mm F2.0 lens, Aperture Priority (F4), Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, Noise Filter Off, JPEG SHQ
  Nikon D2H
n/a
Olympus E-1
ISO 100
, 1/100 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
200, 1/200 sec, F4
Olympus E-1
ISO 200
, 1/200 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
400, 1/400 sec, F4
Olympus E-1
ISO 400, 1/400 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
800, 1/800 sec, F4
Olympus E-1
ISO 800
, 1/800 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
1600, 1/1600 sec, F4
Olympus E-1
ISO
1600, 1/1600 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO
3200, 1/3200 sec, F4
Olympus E-1
ISO
3200, 1/3200 sec, F4
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels
  Nikon D2H
ISO 6400
, 1/6400 sec, F4
Olympus E-1
n/a
 Partial crop
Red Green Blue
channels

At ISO 200 the D2H exhibits similar noise levels to the Olympus E-1, higher than both the Canon EOS-1D and EOS-10D. At ISO 400 the D2H's noise level is noticeably lower than the E-1 and beginning to come into line with the EOS-1D and EOS-10D. From ISO 800 to ISO 1600 there is absolutely nothing between the D2H and EOS-1D, very similar noise levels.

I was disappointed not to see any advantage from Nikon's much lauded LBCAST sensor, indeed noise levels at higher sensitivities appear to be virtually the same as Canon's CCD sensor in the EOS-1D. A slight advantage can be seen from the Nikon sensor at the very high ISO 3200 sensitivity. Canon's six megapixel CMOS sensor (in the EOS-10D here) delivers silky smooth images at ISO 100 and remains cleaner than the D2H at ISO 200, 400, 1600 and 3200.

Enabling the 'Noise Filter' on the Olympus E-1 can have a subtle effect on noise levels (see the E-1 review). None of the other cameras have manually controllable noise reduction (although they may well be doing so automatically), but most significantly none suffer the huge processing overheads of the E-1's 'Noise Filter'.

Luminance noise graph (ISO 100 - 3200)

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

RGB noise graph (ISO 100 - 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. Note that the noise levels for the Olympus E-1 red & blue channels at ISO 1600 and all channels at ISO 3200 are greater than the maximum value shown on this graph.

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