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ISO Sensitivity / Noise levels

ISO equivalence on a digital camera is the ability to increase the sensitivity of the sensor. This 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. Room temperature is approximately 22°C (~72°F), simulated daylight lighting.

Pentax K-x vs. Canon EOS 500D vs. Nikon D5000 vs Olympus E-620

  • Pentax K-x: Pentax 50 mm F1.4 lens, Manual Exposure, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters (Bright), High ISO NR default (Medium), JPEG Large / Premium
     
  • Canon EOS 500D: Canon 50 mm F1.4 lens, Aperture Priority, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, Standard Picture Style, NR Standard, JPEG Large / Fine
     
  • Nikon D5000: Nikkor 50 mm F1.4G lens, Aperture Priority, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters. Standard Picture Controls, Active D-Lighting Off, NR Normal, JPEG Large / Fine

  • Olympus E-620: Olympus 50 mm F2.0 Macro lens, Aperture Priority, Manual WB,
    Default Parameters, Normal Picture Mode, Gradation Normal, Noise Filter Normal, JPEG Large / Fine
  Pentax K-x Canon EOS 500D Nikon D5000 Olympus E-620
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400  
ISO 12800    

As usual in our ISO-noise comparisons the differences between the contenders are pretty marginal up to ISO 800. From ISO 800 onwards the cameras' varying noise characteristics become more visible. The Pentax K-x does a very impressive job up to the highest sensitivities, balancing noise reduction and the retention of fine detail very well. Its output shows slightly more luminance noise (grain) than the Nikon D5000 but in turn blurs visibly less detail at higher sensitivities. The K-x's detail retention is better than the Canon's as well. The latter also shows noticeably more chroma noise.

At higher sensitivities the K-x shows a little more luminance noise than the Nikon and a similar amount to the EOS 500D. However, noticeably more detail is retained and the Pentax's results look visibly sharper. All in all the K-x's JPEG engine is doing a very decent job. Surprisingly at high ISOs the camera is a lot better than its bigger brother, the K-7, and is one of the currently best performing APS-C cameras in low light.

Noise graphs

The graphs below don't quite show what we have seen in the sample crops above. In numerical terms the K-x, EOS 500D and D5000 are not far off from each other (the Nikon has the lowest measured noise levels) but what we cannot see in the graph is the extra detail that is being retained by the K-x's clever noise reduction algorithms. The Olympus E-420 is by far the 'noisiest' camera in this comparison.

  Pentax K-x
Chroma
Black
Gray
Indicated ISO sensitivity is on the horizontal axis of this graph, standard deviation of luminosity on the vertical axis.

RAW noise

Finally let's take a look a the K-x's RAW output next to the competition. Removing any in-camera noise reduction and processing the images using Adobe Camera Raw (V5.6 Beta in this case, all NR set to 0) gives us the nearest thing to a 'level playing field' for assessing the relative noise levels of the four cameras' sensors.

With noise reduction turned off we get a more accurate idea of how noisy these sensors are and the image looks slightly different to what we've seen above in the JPEG section of this page. In the RAW comparison the K-x and Nikon D5000 are quite close in terms of both noise and detail (although the Pentax output is better by a small margin). That's not a surprise as both cameras are built around if not the same a very similar sensor (it appears the Pentax is using a weaker AA-filter though). The Canon and Olympus are both showing significantly larger amounts of chroma and luminance noise.

  Pentax K-x RAW Canon EOS 500D RAW Nikon D5000 RAW Olympus E-620 RAW
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400  
ISO 12800    

Raw Noise graphs

Here the graphs confirm what we can see in the sample crops. At higher sensitivities the Pentax K-x produces the cleanest RAW files. The Canon and Olympus are significantly noisier than the Nikon and Pentax.

  Pentax K-x
Chroma
Black
Gray
Indicated ISO sensitivity is on the horizontal axis of this graph, standard deviation of luminosity on the vertical axis.
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