Let’s take a look at high ISO noise comparisons in a low-light environment between Nikon D300 and D90. I ran two quick tests – one with an external flash and one without. Both tests are performed on a sturdy tripod, with timed exposure to prevent camera vibrations. Both Nikon D300 and Nikon D90 were set exactly the same way, shot in manual mode with Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G at f/5.6. Exposures were exactly the same in both cameras, depending on ISO value. Shot both in RAW (Active D-Lighting off, High ISO NR Normal), then imported into Lightroom, cropped and exported with “Camera Standard” camera profile. The rest of the data is available via EXIF on the files to those who are interested in technical details.
- “Test 1” is 100% crop of the original image without using flash. Center focus on the house under “Pepperidge Farm”
- “Test 2” is 100% crop of the original image with an external flash on a shoot-through white umbrella. Center focus on the right eye of the doll.
Full “Test 1” photo, ISO 200 (click for full image):
D90 ISO 800 Test 1:
D300 ISO 800 Test 1:
D90 ISO 1600 Test 1:
D300 ISO 1600 Test 1:
D90 ISO 3200 Test 1:
D300 ISO 3200 Test 1:
D90 ISO 6400 Test 1:
D300 ISO 6400 Test 1:
Full “Test 2” photo, ISO 200 (click for full image):
D90 ISO 800 Test 2:
D300 ISO 800 Test 2:
D90 ISO 1600 Test 2:
D300 ISO 1600 Test 2:
D90 ISO 3200 Test 2:
D300 ISO 3200 Test 2:
D90 ISO 6400 Test 2:
D300 ISO 6400 Test 2:
As expected, both Nikon D90 and Nikon D300 produce almost identical results in ISO 200-800. Seems like the on-camera image processing is identical for this ISO range. However, starting from ISO 1600 and above, I noticed that D90 performs a little better in controlling noise. Looks like Nikon is using a different method of on-camera noise reduction on D90. My main purpose of this test was to test whether D90 images are sharper in higher ISOs than D300, as claimed by Ken Rockwell in his ISO 3200 comparison tests. I can now conclude that Ken Rockwell’s D300 definitely has focusing issues, since I did not see any sharpness differences between both cameras in my tests. In fact, I think D90 actually applies more noise reduction than D300, resulting in less noise in higher ISOs. Look at ISO 6400 – D90 grains look “squished” together (which typically happens because of more aggressive noise reduction), while D300 is showing more “normal” grain.
- D300 has a problem with over-exposing shots in matrix metering mode. D90 does not have this problem and seems to behave much better. I would recommend setting the exposure compensation switch to “-0.3 or -0.7” on the D300 to get proper exposure.
- I noticed that the images from D90 on “Test 2” look a little less sharp compared to D300 (look at the doll’s eyelashes). This might be due to a slight back-focus issue on the D90, but could also be due to the fact that D90 is physically lower than D300. I did not adjust the tripod while changing the cameras, so the focus could have shifted a little on D90.
- I have not posted full images of D90 and D300 from the above tests because the files are too big.
- The above tests only demonstrate camera capabilities in two different conditions. Other people might get different results, depending on light conditions, camera settings, etc.
- If you want to retain the best image quality, I would not recommend using ISO levels higher than 800 on either D90 or D300. Sometimes I might use ISO 1600 if the light conditions are poor, but anything beyond that impacts the sharpness of the image. Even noise reduction software won’t do much help at ISO levels higher than 1600.
- I did not have a chance to test the video capabilities of the D90. I know a lot of people are looking forward to this feature, but I wouldn’t get too excited about it. The camera won’t auto-focus in video mode and there are limitations and known issues with video on D90. Hopefully the next generation DSLRs will have better video mode functionality.