Nikon High ISO Comparison using D600, D800E, Df, D4 and D4s

After I posted my last article comparing the high ISO performance of the Nikon D4s vs D4, a number of our readers requested that I provide a similar comparison with other cameras such as the Nikon D600/D610, D800 and Df. Instead of posting multiple articles that show these comparisons, I decided to put it all into a single article, so that our readers could look at the side by side comparisons, or download the files to their computers for closer examination. Before you start comparing the below images, however, I would like to point out that the images are just provided as a reference, and only represent one side of the camera performance – high ISO in low-light, indoor conditions. Each camera comes with its own set of features, strengths and weaknesses, so please do not draw conclusions from these shots. Please note that ISO performance might vary in different lighting conditions. My recommendation would be to read the comment exchange I had with Brad Hill of Natural Art Images in the previous Nikon D4s vs D4 comparison article, where we discuss the topic of comparing sensor performance in detail.

Nikon D610 vs D800E vs Df vs D4 vs D4s

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Nikon D4s vs D4 High ISO Comparison

I have been working on testing the performance of the new Nikon D4s to compare it to the D4 and see what advancements in sensor technology and image processing pipeline Nikon delivered in the latest revision of the top-of-the-line camera. Designed for sports, news and wildlife photographers that often have challenging light conditions and demanding environments, the high-end camera line is supposed to feed the never-ending thirst for more pixels and better low-light performance. Does the Nikon D4s deliver better image quality than its predecessor? While we know that the resolution of both cameras stayed the same, the big question is whether Nikon was able to enhance the existing 16.2 MP sensor and perhaps use better software algorithms to decrease noise – and that’s what we are here to find out today.

Nikon D4s vs D4

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The Riddle of Intermediate ISO Settings

I guess today is a “blow your mind” Friday, because we have a guest post here by Iliah Borg, the person behind the RawDigger software that is used to analyze RAW images. I had a chance to engage in a conversation with Iliah when discussing the noise performance of the Nikon Df, where he not only proved me wrong on my assumption that the Df had exactly the same sensor as the D4 (turns out that they are similar, but not exactly the same), but also shared some incredible information about testing procedures, data analysis and other crazy, mind-boggling stuff! The learning curve with photography never ends, especially when you get into the whole sensor and image processing pipeline side of it. I must warn our readers though – the below article is very technical and is not intended for beginners! Hope you enjoy it! Nasim.

If one is shooting raw, they might be interested to know if there is any benefit in using intermediate ISO settings like ISO 125, 160, etc. There is no single answer to this question, because it depends on implementation of these intermediate ISO settings in the particular camera. Sometimes they are implemented the same way as the main ISO settings, but other times they are a result of certain manipulations, like digital multiplication.

To demonstrate how this can be determined, we will first analyze the so-called Masked Pixels (often called optically black area, or simply OB), which is a portion of the sensor that we normally do not see in our images. It is covered from light, so it can be a good indicator of the lowest possible noise of the sensor, while noise is what we analyze to learn how to use a given sensor optimally. We are taking a series of shots at varying ISO settings, from the lowest to the highest and, of course, using all intermediate ISO settings available. The subject of the shots can be anything – you can even shoot with a lens’ cap on.

Next, bring the first shot of the series into RawDigger and set RawDigger preferences to display the black frame (Display Options, Masked Pixels checkbox, checked) and not to subtract black Level (Data Processing, Subtract Black checkbox, unchecked).

RawDigger Preferences 1

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Nikon Df vs Nikon D4 ISO Performance

In my previous articles comparing the Nikon Df to other cameras like D800, D700 and D610, I posted images from the D4 as if they were from the Df in the articles (note that I clearly pointed out that the images were from the D4), because I was pretty sure that the Df had the same sensor. Some of our readers criticized me for doing that, arguing that Nikon’s sensor technology and the imaging pipeline might have changed since the introduction of the D4. I received the Nikon Df last week, so one of the first things I did was compare its performance against the D4 to see if I could spot any differences. Below is a detailed comparison between the two, which shows that both cameras utilize the same or similar sensor technology. So my previous comparisons are still valid and can be referred to for comparing between the different Nikon DSLRs.

Nikon Df Nikon D4

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Nikon D600 High ISO Performance Comparison

Here is a quick comparison of ISO performance (low ISO and high ISO) between the Nikon D600, Nikon D700, Nikon D800E and Nikon D3s. Please note that all of the images below were shot in JPEG, since Nikon D600 RAW support is not available yet. All images were also down-sampled to the Nikon D700/D3s resolution (cameras with the lowest resolution). Everything was shot in ambient light (lab results are posted in the Nikon D600 review here) with all camera corrections turned off and camera profile set to standard (default, no changes). Cropping and export was performed in Lightroom 4 and I used Photoshop to add the text on the bottom of each image.

1) Nikon D600 ISO Performance

Nikon D600 ISO 100 Nikon D600 ISO 200

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Fuji X-Pro1 Camera Comparisons

I have just updated the Fuji X-Pro1 Review with detailed camera comparisons with the Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800. RAW support has finally become available with the latest updates from Adobe for both Lightroom and Photoshop, so I was able to extract RAW files from all cameras to do a comprehensive analysis. My findings? The Fuji X-Pro1 RAW images look as impressive as the JPEG images. Despite the fact that I down-sampled the Nikon D800 and Canon 5D Mark III images, which should give them an advantage in terms of handling noise, the pixel level quality of the Fuji X-Pro1 sensor is still superior at low ISOs! At first, I thought that I did something wrong in Lightroom – maybe accidentally applied noise reduction to Fuji X-Pro1 images. However, after looking through the images in detail and resetting to RAW file defaults, I was surprised to find out that the Fuji X-Pro1 RAW files indeed looked cleaner. Here is an example comparison at ISO 200 between the Fuji X-Pro1 and the Canon 5D Mark III:

Fuji X-Pro1 ISO 200 RAW Canon 5D Mark III ISO 200

Take a look at noise levels on both crops and compare noise levels on the second DVD from the bottom. The output from the X-Pro1 looks cleaner!

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Nikon D800 has the best sensor in the world

If you have pre-ordered the Nikon D800, you will have a smile on your face after you read this. Remember my first post on the Nikon D800, where I said that it will take the #1 spot at DXOMark? Well, guess what – I was right on that one. DXOMark has just released their latest data for the Nikon D800 and it took the #1 spot away from the expensive Phase One IQ180 medium format camera. With an overall score of 95, nothing comes even remotely close to its sensor performance:

DXOMark-Nikon D800

While most of us were expecting to see incredible dynamic range performance from the D800, many photographers and critics out there were complaining about small pixels on the sensor and their implication on low-light performance. When I saw the negativity about the pixel size, I published an article on the benefits of a high resolution sensor. For some, the concept of “down-sampling” was quite new, while others strongly disagreed with me and kept on repeating the same old tune on how smaller pixels negatively affect high ISO performance. Well, those who doubted me can now take a look at the data that DXOMark has published today – the Nikon D800 pretty much matches the Nikon D4 in terms of high ISO performance. Wait a second, how is that possible, you might ask? After-all, we are not only comparing two completely different cameras for different needs, but also two cameras at completely different price points – the D4 costs twice as much as the D800.

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Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3 ISO Performance Comparison

While I have not yet received my copy of the Nikon D4, I had an opportunity to test it today and perform some comparisons against the original Nikon D3 and D3s cameras, thanks to my new friend Michael Sasser, who was kind enough to let me use his D4. The purpose of this Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3 ISO comparison is to show how the new professional D4 compares to the older-generation Nikon cameras in low and high ISO performance. I will start working on a full Nikon D4 Review once I receive it and hopefully will finish it up with plenty of image samples and my analysis sometime in early April (planning a couple of big projects for the Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras).

Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3

Some background information for the below crops:

  1. All photographs were taken in a controlled environment, with a single studio light (octabank, modeling light), placed on the left
  2. All cameras were set to 14-bit NEF / RAW format, Active D-Lighting, Noise Reduction, Vignetting set to Off
  3. White Balance: Auto, changed to 3300 Temp, +6 Tint in Lightroom 4 (Process Version 2012)
  4. Lightroom Settings: Default
  5. Due to the difference in resolution (16 MP on the D4 vs 12 MP on the D3 and D3s), images from the Nikon D4 were down-sampled to 12 MP for a fair comparison

Here is the full image and the cropped area:

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Nikon D800 High ISO Image Samples

Our Russian friends at Ferra.ru have published the first Nikon D800 High ISO image samples. I am providing them here, because their website might get too busy and go down due to the high number of requests, just like Nikon’s websites did yesterday.

Preliminary analysis: the high ISO samples look really good. As expected, there is some noticeable noise at very high ISOs (see the ISO 25600 sample). But judging from what I am seeing, it looks like the noise levels are really good compared to what Nikon D700 produces. Down-sampled to 12 MP, the images look stunning (see the down-sampled versions below). Please note that the below images are JPEG, straight out of the camera. No noise-reduction has been applied and no image conversion took place.

If you have not yet pre-ordered the Nikon D800, now is the time to do it!

Nikon D800 High ISO Image Sample (1)

Link to download the image | Downsampled to 12 MP | Shutter Speed: 1/250, Aperture: f/1.8, ISO: 800
Photographer: Victor Zaykovskiy

Nikon D800 High ISO Image Sample (2)

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Benefits of a High Resolution Sensor

As camera manufacturers are continuing the megapixel race, with Sony releasing a bunch of 24 MP APS-C (1.5 crop-factor) cameras like Sony A77, A65 and NEX-7, and Nikon releasing a high resolution 36 MP Nikon D800, many of us photographers question the need for such a high resolution sensor. Some of us are happy while others are angry about these latest trends. Just when we thought companies like Nikon abandoned the megapixel race, instead of seeing other companies do the same, we now see Nikon back in the game with a new breed of product with a boatload of pixels. Why did Nikon all of a sudden decide to flip the game? Why does everyone seem to be going for more pixels rather than better low-light / high ISO performance? Does a high resolution sensor make sense? What are the true benefits of a high resolution sensor? In this article, I will provide my thoughts on what I think has happened with Nikon’s camera strategy, along with a few points on benefits of a high resolution sensor.

Nikon D4 Sensor

Pixel Size, Pixel Density, Sensor Size and Image Processing Pipeline

OK, this topic is rather complex if you do not know anything about pixels and sensors. Before you read any further, I highly recommend to read my “FX vs DX” article, where I specifically talk about pixel and sensor sizes and their impact on image quality.

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