D300 Low ISO Noise? - Here are some tips and ramblings

Started Dec 21, 2007 | Discussions thread
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anotherMike Forum Pro • Posts: 10,550
D300 Low ISO Noise? - Here are some tips and ramblings

Preface: When I initially received my D300 and ran some tests (including a photo shoot with a model) on it, I was lukewarm on the camera overall, mostly due to what I perceived was a bit of low ISO noise (that I termed "grit") compared to my D2X. Over time I've seen some folks claim the camera had better low ISO noise characteristics than the D2X, and while initially doubtful of those claims, the reality is that some of the folks presenting this argument have both a good posting history and a good eye, meaning I had to look further. So I decided to do some more research and testing to dig into this a bit.

At the current time I still am not 100% convinced that the D2X still does not offer some slight advantages for low ISO work for some types of work, and the key phrase there is "some", meaning I do feel the advantage of one body over the other is scene dependent, but I can definitely say that the "problems" I experienced initially with the D300 are for most purposes "gone" now that I have sat down and spent a lot of time testing and shooting, and learning the camera. Note also that I am primarily a studio shooter and my needs may be different than someone who is primarily shooting landscape.

The primary theory I have arrived at is that the D300 is one of the most flexible bodies in terms of how you can set it up to take images, and thusly, also flexible in how you can process those raw images through Nikon Capture NX or View NX, since these two programs allow you access to the "Picture control" utility. Note that if you are using an ACR or Lightroom (or any other raw converter) workflow, you are going to have to go a different route than I do and a lot of what I say may not pertain since I have found how you set the picture controls (in camera, or in raw converter) do have a significant bearing on the ultimate image quality. The reality is that neither ACR nor Lightroom can replicate the picture control settings easily - not to say either converter is "bad", just that for the purposes of post-shot experimenting with what I'm about to explain, they are not going to be useful. I'm not going to get into a flame war over converter choices. I use NX, even though it's a PITA, and for a D300, I do feel it offers more choices about changing the overall final look of a D300 raw file. However, one could set the picture control settings in camera and then see how the final file reacts in ACR/Lightroom - but that's not the way I've been testing.

  1. 1) Chill out with the picture control sharpening. I'm using a sharpening of "2" in camera - that's it. The scale runs 1-9. Increasing the sharpening from 2 to 5 increased noise in the lower mid tones by almost 20% in both luminosity and chroma noise. I'd rather be slightly soft out of the camera and sharpen later in CS3 with smart sharpen - the end result is much better low ISO noise. For what I do, even a sharpening in camera of "3" produced a level of low ISO grit in continuous toned backgrounds that bothered me.

  1. 2) ISO's under 200 are your friend. I have currently settled on ISO 160 (low -.3 or whatever it's called). Even dropping down just 1/3 of an F/Stop made some difference. I may run with 125 or even 100 in some shoots, but some preliminary gray card noise tests indicated to me that 160 is a nice sweet spot. so that's where I'll play. But don't be afraid to go down lower.

  1. 3) "Standard" isn't optimum. The standard default picture control as it comes out of the box produces really nice bright happy colors and punch, with a fair amount of mid-tone bump - note to the "the camera overexposes" guys - it's this mid tone bump that is making it look overexposed sometimes. Well - all this fun candycorn and lolipop color comes with a price, and that price is (you guessed it), low ISO noise to some extent. In my tests, I got better noise characteristics working out of the "Neutral" set, never adding any additional in camera saturation, and if any extra contrast, never going beyond "+1" on the contrast. God help your blue sky noise if you shoot Vivid - that's entirely too much.

  1. 4) Picture Control is your friend. First thing I'd suggest if you are unhappy with your blue sky or other continuous toned noise is tell you to get into the picture controls and start playing. Hopefully you shot RAW and can do this in View NX or Capture NX (yes, I fully realize both programs, while capable of excellent output, do royally s*ck in the user interface department - sigh...), so you can play here (in the picture control utility) with shots you've already taken. Jpeg users - you're out of luck, you'll have to try again with different settings. For me (keep in mind my speech about what I shoot), I've found that I am much happier with using one of three picture control settings:

a) D2X mode II with sharpness at '2' and brightness at "-1"
b) Neutral setting, contrast at +1, sharpen at 2, brightness at -1

c) a custom curve neutral setting that I built using the picture control utility within Capture NX and exported to the camera - it has a very slight S curve to increase contrast slightly and bump midtones very slightly compared to what my D2X used to produce, but nowhere as "mid tone bright" as the standard curve.

When I did measurements on a shot of mine, running the RAW file through the various settings I just described, I got FAR better noise characteristics in the mid shadows of backgrounds and such than I did with the "Standard" picture control settings.

Bottom Line: learn and experiment - the D300 is quite flexible.

Hope this helps.


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