In this Nikon D700/D3 vs D3s High ISO Noise Comparison, I will be focusing on providing information and image samples from the first-generation Nikon full frame cameras (Nikon D700 and Nikon D3) as well as from the current high ISO king – Nikon D3s. High ISOs are needed in low-light environments, where the amount of ambient light is insufficient for hand-held photography at standard ISO sensitivity values. While doubling the ISO number doubles the shutter speed to freeze motion or prevent camera shake, it also introduces noise into the picture.
All tests below were performed on a sturdy tripod, with timed exposure to prevent camera vibrations. Both Nikon D700 and Nikon D3s were set exactly the same way, shot in manual mode with Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G at f/8.0. Exposures were exactly the same on both cameras, depending on ISO value. I shot 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 in the files to those who are interested in technical details.
Here is the full area that I shot for these tests:
The first test is at ISO 800. The image on the left is Nikon D700 and the image on the right is Nikon D3s (click to enlarge). Both are extremely good at ISO 800, but Nikon D3s is a little cleaner in the background areas.
At ISO 1,600, the Nikon D3s starts to shine, showing a significantly less amount of noise in the background.
The same thing at ISO 3,200 and this time Nikon D3s is showing a 1-1.5 stops of improvement over Nikon D700.
At ISO 6,400 we are already seeing some loss of details on the Nikon D700, while Nikon D3s is still super sharp, with a slight amount of noise.
ISO 12,800 looks pretty darn good on the Nikon D3s, while the image from Nikon D700 is almost unusable with color blobs appearing in random spots.
As expected, the image is unusable at ISO 25,600 on the Nikon D700, while Nikon D3s is still kicking butt at ISO 25,600 with very few, barely noticeable color spots.
As you can clearly see from the above images, the Nikon D3s outperforms D700/D3 by approximately 1.5 stops. I cannot say that the difference is full two stops, because the Nikon D3s has a little more noise/grain at two stops than Nikon D700. For example, here is what we see when Nikon D700 @ ISO 3,200 is compared against Nikon D3s @ ISO 12,800:
Sharpness-wise both images are very similar, but when you look at noise levels, Nikon D700 @ ISO 3200 is a tad better than Nikon D3s @ ISO 12,800, which is already remarkable. The ISO on Nikon D3s can also be “boosted” to ISO 51,200 and 102,400 for those, who need to be able to shoot in extremely dim environments or want to get faster shutter speeds. Let’s take a look at those crazy ISOs:
ISO 51,200 is not bad at all and is much more usable when compared to Nikon D700’s ISO 25,600. I wouldn’t use ISO 102,400 though, because it is not only too grainy, but there seem to be issues with blue and red color blobs getting added to the picture (nearly impossible to deal with in post-production).
The Nikon D3s is labeled as “high ISO king” for a reason – it clearly delivers outstanding results on high ISOs when compared to the first generation Nikon FX sensor. Nikon did the right thing by keeping the resolution the same as in Nikon D3 and not chasing after more megapixels like Canon has been lately. Keeping the number of pixels low allowed Nikon to use the same pixel size, also known as “pixel pitch” as in Nikon D3 (8.4 µm), while significantly increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. The difference between DX and FX has been shifted to a new level now, making it a whopping 3 full stops of light! This means that ISO 1,600 on a DX sensor will look very close to ISO 12,800 on a D3s FX sensor.
I will be posting a full high ISO noise test between Nikon D300 (DX), Nikon D700 (FX) and Nikon D3s (FX) tomorrow, so stay tuned!