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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 (ie. ISO 200, 1/200 sec for consistency of exposure between cameras). The image sequence is run through our own proprietary noise measurement tool (version 1.4 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.

Nikon D3 vs. Canon EOS 1-DS Mark III vs. Nikon D300 vs. Canon EOS 5D

  • Nikon D3: Nikkor 85 mm F1.8 lens, Manual exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Normal), High ISO NR (Default: Normal), JPEG Large / Fine
     
  • Canon EOS 1-DS Mark III: Canon 85 mm F1.8 lens, Manual exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Standard), High ISO NR (Default; Off), JPEG Large / Fine
     
  • Nikon D300: Nikkor 50 mm F1.4 lens, Manual exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Normal), High ISO NR (Normal), JPEG Large / Fine
     
  • Canon EOS 5D: Canon 85 mm F1.4 lens, Aperture Priority, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Standard), JPEG Large / Fine

Nikon D3
n/a

Canon EOS 1DS Mk III
ISO 50
(L)
Nikon D300
n/a
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 50
(L)

Nikon D3
ISO 100
(L1.0)

Canon EOS 1DS Mk III
ISO 100
Nikon D300
ISO 100
(L 1.0)
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 100

Nikon D3
ISO 200
Canon EOS 1DS Mk III
ISO 200
Nikon D300
ISO 200
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 200

Nikon D3
ISO 400
Canon EOS 1DS Mk III
ISO 400
Nikon D300
ISO 400
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 400
Nikon D3
ISO 800
Canon EOS 1DS Mk III
ISO 800
Nikon D300
ISO 800
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 800

Nikon D3
ISO 1600
Canon EOS 1DS Mk III
ISO 1600
Nikon D300
ISO 1600
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 1600

Nikon D3
ISO 3200
Canon EOS 1DS Mk III
ISO 3200
Nikon D300
ISO 3200
Canon EOS 5D
ISO 3200

Nikon D3
ISO 6400
Canon EOS 1DS Mk III
n/a
Nikon D300
ISO 6400
Canon EOS 5D
n/a

D3 Higher ISO settings

Nikon D3
ISO 9000
Nikon D3
ISO 12,800
Nikon D3
ISO 25,600

Up to ISO 400 all four cameras produce images that are noise-free in practical terms, and all produce perfectly usable results at ISO 800 and ISO 1600. The higher pixel density of the DX sensor in the D300 means noise starts to take an effect at ISO 800 and once you get much higher the effect of noise reduction starts to take its toll on fine image detail. At ISO 1600 and over the D3 really starts to shine, leaving the competition behind and producing perfectly usable results at ISO 6400. Nikon's light-handed approach to luminance noise reduction means that graininess starts to creep in at the highest ISO settings, but the results still look surprisingly sharp and detailed. Only the very highest setting (and we're talking about an unfrequented ISO 25,600 here) looks unusable, though for black and white use in 'no alternative' situations there's enough detail in there for reproduction at smaller sizes.

The ability to produce usable results at sensitivities of up to ISO 6400 (or higher, if you're prepared to accept some compromise) will be a godsend to sports photographers and photojournalists working in the most challenging conditions. Nikon's engineers must be applauded for not merely knocking the EOS 5D's high ISO supremacy into a hat, but for totally redefining what professional users can expect to achieve in low light conditions or with slower lenses.

* These results are with the cameras in their default modes, all four cameras offer some control over the amount of noise reduction used at higher ISO settings.

Update: D3 vs Canon EOS-1D Mark III (ISO 800-6400)

Since the D3 review was published we've been able to get a production Canon EOS-1D Mark III into our studio in order to add some further comparisons to various sections of this review.

Nikon D3
ISO 800

Nikon D3
ISO 1600
Nikon D3
ISO 3200
Nikon D3
ISO 6400
Canon EOS-1D Mk III
ISO 800
Canon EOS-1D Mk III
ISO 1600
Canon EOS-1D Mk III
ISO 3200
Canon EOS-1D Mk III
ISO 6400

The EOS-1D Mark III and the D3 have little to choose between them at lower ISO settings, but once you get above ISO 800 the D3 pulls ahead thanks to its slightly lower pixel density. By comparison the EOS-1D Mark III images are noisier and show more loss of detail due to noise reduction (the examples here are taken with high ISO NR turned off - if you turn it on you'll get images from the EOS-1D Mark III that have very little chroma noise but are otherwise very similar). We'll cover the EOS-1D Mark III in more depth in a future review.

Noise graphs

Note that we normally show both gray and black results on the same graph, comparing four cameras this became too difficult to read hence we have two separate graphs, one for the gray patch (middle gray) and one for the black patch (shadows).

Luminance noise graph (gray patch)

Unlike the D300 the D3's noise rises in a fairly linear fashion as sensitivity rises (though inevitably the curve starts to get a lot steeper once you get towards the high reaches of the range). Unsurprisingly the D3's noise is the lowest here at most settings, something that's more impressive when you look at the actual output and realize that the only way the other three cameras keep up (and the difference isn't greater) is that they are all applying visibly more noise reduction at the higher settings.

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 little measurable difference between the three full frame cameras in the range up to ISO 1600. Once you get into the highest reaches the D3 pulls ahead of the competition despite the fact it's obviously not applying a great deal of luminance NR. Again noise only starts to rise steeply once you get past ISO 9000 (which is when the crops at the top of this page start to look distinctly grainy).

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

Chroma (color) noise graph

The D3's inherently better sensitivity (bigger pixels) gives it a head start here, and it's obvious that the D300 (which has twice the pixel density) really ramps up the chroma noise reduction at ISO 800. The D3 beats the EOS 5D at all ISO settings (though only by a small margin), whilst the EOS 1DS Mark III (which again has a much higher pixel density) has the highest chroma noise here - the difference between it and the D300 is almost certainly nothing more than the amount of NR applied to JPEGs in-camera.

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

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