Sony NEX-5N vs Olympus E-PL3 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 200-800)
Let’s take a look at the ISO performance of the Olympus E-PL3 that has an older Micro Four Thirds sensor. The base ISO of the Olympus sensor starts at ISO 200 and it can go all the way to ISO 12,800. Please note that the E-PL3 has a 12.3 megapixel sensor, so I had to move my camera setup back and forth to get a similar field of view. No image resizing and rescaling was performed in Photoshop – these are 100% crops. All images were shot at the same shutter speed and aperture values.
Here is a comparison of both cameras at ISO 200 (Left: Sony NEX-5N, Right: Olympus E-PL3):
At ISO 200, both cameras look about the same.
Again both perform about the same at ISO 400, although the Sony NEX-5N looks a tad cleaner to me.
Increasing ISO to 800 adds more noise to both images, but the Sony NEX-5N again looks a little cleaner with less grain.
Sony NEX-5N vs Olympus E-PL3 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-12800)
Now here is where things get interesting. The Olympus E-PL3 gets significantly worse at ISO 1600, which is clearly visible across the frame, especially in the shadows; the grain is much bigger in size.
The situation is much worse at ISO 3200 for the Olympus. Large grain specks appear all over the image and in the shadows. Image detail is lost by a great deal, while the Sony NEX-5N still looks rather clean and very usable. I would say ISO 3200 is pretty much unusable on the Olympus E-PL3.
Increasing ISO to 6400 shows just how bad the Olympus looks in comparison. Olympus should have set ISO 3200 as the maximum ISO value, because anything above that looks plain ugly. And even worse, we also have ISO 12800 to showcase:
Nothing to say here, the image from the Sony looks rather clean compared to the one from the Olympus.
Sony NEX-5N vs Olympus E-PL3 Summary
As you can see from the image crops above, both cameras perform about the same at very low ISO levels below ISO 800, although the Sony NEX-5N already looks cleaner at ISO 400. Starting from ISO 1600, the difference in performance gets much bigger, with the Olympus performing very poorly at ISO 3200 and above. Not sure why Olympus included ISO 6400 and 12800, because they look really bad and completely unusable – the images from the Sony NEX-5N look clean in comparison. Another important factor to note here, is that the Sony NEX-5N has a 16 MP sensor, while the Olympus E-PL3 has a 12 MP sensor. The above comparisons are at 100% view on both, with a similar field of view. This is another huge disadvantage for the Olympus E-PL3, because once you down-sample the NEX-5N images to 12 MP, the performance differences are even greater! This example shows just how good the Sony NEX-5N sensor really is in comparison. Unfortunately, Olympus decided to use an aged Micro 4/3 sensor on the new E-PL3, which is why there is such a huge difference. The new Micro 4/3 sensors on such cameras as Panasonic DMC-GH2/G3 perform much better in comparison. Unfortunately, I could not obtain a GH2/G3 sample on time to perform additional comparisons.
When it comes to autofocus performance, the Olympus E-PL3 seems to perform better, especially in low-light situations. It also does not have the same lag when browsing the menu and reviewing images and video. Speaking of the menu, the menu system of the Sony NEX-5N looks a world better than the crappy menu system of the E-PL3. I have already written about this in my Nikon 1 V1 Review, but the menu system in the E-PL3 is one of the worst I have seen so far in a digital camera. Granted it has many more options than the Sony NEX-5N, but I have not seen a menu system this confusing and ugly. Olympus seriously needs to hire a better GUI designer and simplify its menu system. I should not have to dig inside the camera menu to try to find a way to reverse the rotary dial orientation.
The Sony NEX-5N is also ergonomically superior than the Olympus E-PL3, not only because of its much more comfortable grip, but also because of the better and simpler button layout. The only ergonomic advantage of the E-PL3, in my opinion, is that it has a traditional PASM mode selector on the top of the camera. While I personally do not mind accessing the menu to change the camera mode, I know many photographers actually prefer to have a dedicated dial instead. Another advantage of the Olympus E-PL3, is that it uses a standard flash hot shoe, so you can use many different types of flashes (including Nikon SB speedlights) and radio accessories such as PocketWizard to trigger off-camera flash. Where Olympus right now truly has the true lead is in the lens department – it has a wide array of lenses that cover everything from wide angle and macro to portraits/telephoto.
Sony NEX-5N vs Nikon 1 V1 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 100-800)
Let’s see how the Sony NEX-5N compares to the Nikon 1 V1, which has a much smaller 2.7x crop factor sensor. I had a hard time matching up images, because there is a huge difference in resolution – the Nikon 1 V1 sensor is 10 MP, while the Sony NEX-5n is 16 MP. Therefore, the Sony crops below look a little bigger.
Here is a comparison of base ISO 100 on both cameras:
At base ISO 100, both cameras seem to perform about the same, although the shadows on the Sony seem to be a little brighter, probably because of higher dynamic range.
ISO 200 seems to be a little cleaner on the Sony NEX-5N.
The same with ISO 400 – the Sony NEX-5N is a tad cleaner.
And even at ISO 800, the NEX-5N has a slight advantage over the V1.
Sony NEX-5N vs Nikon 1 V1 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-25600)
Unlike the Olympus E-PL3, the Nikon 1 V1 does a great job at ISO 1600. There is very little grain in the image, but it still looks worse than the NEX-5N.
Increasing ISO to 3200 adds more noise to both images, but the Sony NEX-5N still looks better. Grain is smaller and a little more manageable than on the Nikon 1 V1.
Nikon’s maximum ISO boost is 6400 and it is the last image that I can compare to the Sony NEX-5N, which has two extra ISO levels. Again, the cameras are comparable, but the Sony NEX-5N seems to be slightly better. Both cameras seem to retain good colors at high ISOs.
Sony NEX-5N vs Nikon 1 V1 Down-Sampled High ISO Comparison (ISO 800-6400)
Comparing sensors with different resolutions can be challenging. The above comparisons show pixel-level performance, which is typically in favor of a lower resolution sensor. Without a doubt, a camera with more pixels per inch equals more noise due to simple physics – the smaller the pixel, the more the noise. Let’s see what happens when images from both cameras are normalized, which in this case means the Sony NEX-5N 16 MP image gets reduced to 10 MP. Since there are many different ways to down-sample an image in Photoshop, I tried a few different methods and came to a conclusion that the regular “Bicubic (best for smooth gradients)” resizing algorithm results in the least amount of noise, which is what I used for the below images.
As expected, the results are in favor of a high-resolution NEX-5N sensor:
The differences are obvious right at ISO 800 – the NEX-5N looks very clean with smaller grain. In fact, if you take the ISO 1600 sample from the NEX-5N and put it against the ISO 800 sample from the V1, you will see that NEX-5N still looks a tad better, which means that there is more than a stop of difference between the two, when down-sampled to the same resolution. The NEX-5N images will also look sharper due to this down-sampling technique.
The same story with ISO 1600 – NEX-5N looks very clean in comparison.
When putting NEX-5N ISO 3200 against V1 ISO 1600, the image from the NEX-5N is still a tad cleaner, so there is still over a stop of difference between the two.
ISO 6400 on the V1 has plenty of large grain, while the same on the NEX-5N looks cleaner with smaller grain.
Again, this test shows what happens when both cameras are at 10 MP – the extra 6 MP of resolution on the NEX-5N results in over a stop of high ISO advantage.
Sony NEX-5N vs Nikon 1 V1 Summary
I specifically added two different tests at 100% magnification and down-sampled to 10 MP, because it is the only fair way to compare sensors with different resolution. Looking at an image at 100% view will always put the camera with a higher resolution at a disadvantage, although it is not really true in this particular case, because the Sony NEX-5N has a much bigger sensor. Still, the maximum print size from a 10 MP sensor will always be smaller than the maximum print size from a 16 MP sensor, so it is best to normalize the latter to 10 MP and then look at its noise performance. As you have seen from these comparisons, the NEX-5N has over a stop of advantage compared to the V1 when down-sampled. Don’t forget that the sensor of the NEX-5N is over 3 times larger than the one on Nikon 1 V1, so the V1 stands its ground really well with its tiny sensor. A larger size sensor also means larger lenses – and that’s Sony’s biggest weakness. It has a very compact camera body, but much bigger camera lenses (with the exception of the 16mm pancake lens). When shooting with mirrorless cameras, the Nikon 1 V1 with its 10-30mm kit lens fit my jacket pocket much easier than the Sony NEX-5N with the 18-55mm kit lens.
At the same time, a large sensor also means two things: shallower depth of field and better dynamic range – two major factors that work in NEX-5N’s favor. Sony has a few other advantages, such as swivel / touchscreen LCD, in-camera editing, HDR, panorama and 3D modes, but lacks a serious feature that the Nikon 1 V1 has, which is a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF). An excellent high-resolution OLED viewfinder can be purchased separately, but for $350 more; plus it eats up the same socket that can be used for mounting a flash unit. I also really like the ergonomics of the NEX-5N when compared to the V1. The grip is great, much better than the little bump on the front of the V1.
Sony’s menu system is very good, but has a lot more options than on the Nikon, so beginners might find the Nikon 1 V1 easier to operate. Nikon’s stronghold is its hybrid autofocus, which works faster than Sony’s AF. So the Nikon 1 V1 is clearly better at tracking and shooting action / sports. On the other hand, Sony lenses have a manual focus ring and manual focus operation is much easier, as shown on the first page of the review.
Comparing these two cameras, I would say that they are targeted at different audiences. The Sony NEX-5N suits photo enthusiasts and pros that shoot landscapes and portraits, because of a larger sensor, more megapixels, shallower depth of field, higher dynamic range and great image quality / ISO performance. The Nikon 1 V1, on the other hand, is a great everyday camera that can shoot action and sports – something soccer moms and birders will appreciate.
Sony NEX-5N vs Sony A65/A77 Low ISO Comparison (ISO 100-800)
The base ISO performance of the A65/A77 cameras seems to be on par with Sony NEX-5N performance. Noise levels are relatively low both in highlights and shadows.
ISO 200 is also clean on both with a slight advantage on behalf of the Sony NEX-5N.
ISO 400 shows more noise on the Sony A65/A77.
At ISO 800 we start seeing bigger grain on the Sony A65/A77 sensors and the Sony-NEX5N looks much cleaner, especially in the shadows.
Sony NEX-7 vs Sony A65/A77 High ISO Comparison (ISO 1600-16000)
The Sony A65/A77 sensor looks similar to the Olympus E-PL3 in terms of pixel-level performance at high ISOs. Anything above ISO 800 is grainy, including ISO 1600. As can be seen from the above crops, the Sony NEX-5N has much less and smaller grains in the image. But mind you, we are comparing 24 MP versus 16 MP!
ISO 3200 is even worse for the 24 MP Sony A65/A77 sensor – noise levels are very high with large grains and there is visible loss of details across the frame. Some colors are also lost as a result. The Sony NEX-5N looks much cleaner in comparison (again, with less total pixels).
And ISO 6400 looks pretty unusable for my taste when viewed at 100% on the Sony A65/A77 cameras. Too much detail and colors are lost.
It is unfortunate that Sony is allowing ISO 12800 and 16000 on the A65/A77 sensor for marketing purposes. These images look horrid and completely unusable at 100%.
Sony NEX-5N vs Sony A65/A77 Down-Sampled High ISO Comparison (ISO 800-6400)
Let’s see how the sensors compare when both are down-sampled to 10 MP:
Down-sampled, the noise performance at ISO 800 looks very good on both cameras – images look very clean. Let’s see what happens at ISO 1600:
Again, noise performance is very similar on both cameras.
ISO 3200 looks a tad cleaner on the NEX-5N.
And the same is true for ISO 6400 – NEX-5N looks a little cleaner in comparison, with a little more details to work with.
Sony NEX-5N vs Sony A65/A77 Summary
I won’t go into feature differences between these cameras, because we are not comparing apples to apples here. But one thing is clear – high resolution and small pixel size equal more noise for the new Sony sensor, when viewed at the pixel level. When down-sampled and resized to 10 MP, however, both the Sony NEX-5N and the Sony A77/A65 look more or less similar. Why is there such a difference? As I have explained in my “benefits of a high-resolution sensor” article, having a high-resolution sensor does not automatically mean that it is not a camera for low-light situations. Most people make the mistake of comparing image samples at 100% view, in which case a high-resolution sensor will always show more noise and grain. However, once you normalize the image by resizing/down-sampling it, those noise differences might start to disappear, which is what we are seeing in this comparison as well.
On top of that, with a high-resolution sensor you have the option to shoot at base ISO and get lots of resolution, while you could never efficiently up-sample an image to get more resolution out of it. Hence, a higher resolution sensor gives you two benefits: the option to down-sample the image to reduce noise (when necessary) and the option to provide high resolution and clean images at base ISO. Does this mean that the Sony A77/A65 cameras have a superior sensor compared to the NEX-5N? Yes, I believe so, but only if you need the higher resolution (most people don’t). Lastly, the Sony NEX-7 should provide even cleaner images when down-sampled, because it does not have to boost the sensor sensitivity the same way the A77/A65 cameras have to – there is some loss of light when it passes through the translucent mirror employed in those cameras.
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