One of the big headlines when the first Nikon Z6 and Z7 tests appeared online is that they exhibited a pattern of “banding,” or line pattern noise, when recovering shadows too much. Although most reviewers were quick to point out that 5-6 stops of shadow recovery is excessive, this issue nonetheless drew a lot of attention. But now that we have performed complete dynamic range tests on today’s mirrorless cameras at Photography Life, my question is… why?
Let’s start with an example. The following image has been underexposed by six stops at base ISO 100. I opened it in RawDigger, then exported as a TIFF and recovered the image with the “Exposure” slider in Capture One. As you can see, there are indeed visible lines of noise, although only in certain parts of the image. I’ve circled the most obvious patterns:
However, just because the Nikon Z6 has these patterns of noise doesn’t mean that…
Ah, sorry – it looks like the image above isn’t from the Nikon Z6, but from the Canon EOS R. (UPDATE: This is from the older firmware 1.0.0 on the EOS R. The new 1.1.0 version is actually much worse in terms of banding, as we explain in our new article.)
Okay, here’s the image I meant to show. Once again, I underexposed this photo by six stops, recovered it in RawDigger and Capture One, and then circled the offending noise. Note that this is a 100% crop:
This time, there is noticeably less line pattern noise, although it’s still visi—
Oh, that’s the Sony A7 III. My bad.
All right, I’m kidding around. But the two examples above go to show that line pattern noise isn’t a Nikon-only factor. The Canon EOS R has a decent amount, and the Sony A7 III has a bit as well. I’ll cut out the act now and show how the actual Z6 sample image compares:
No tricks, that’s the Z6 image. The most noticeable thing to me is that it appears greener than the other photos – but that’s something you can correct with a small white balance adjustment. In terms of line pattern noise, though, it has perhaps a slight bit more than the A7 III, and definitely less than the Canon EOS R. Certainly not what you would expect based on the articles online.
Just for good measure, here is a sample image from the camera that sparked this discussion, the Nikon Z7:
I’d say the Z7 is the best of the lot. This is largely due to the lower base ISO of 64; the other cameras here would likely show similar performance if they offered such a low native ISO. Although you can see a bit of line pattern noise in some of the gray color swatches on the right, it is far from objectionable.
Here are the same four images one more time so that you can click and compare without the circles covering them. Note that I downsampled the higher-resolution photos so that they all appear the same size for comparison:
I definitely don’t begrudge initial reviewers for writing about the Z6’s and Z7’s line pattern noise when the shadows are boosted too much. It might not be the most real-world of tests, but part of this job is figuring out how these cameras fundamentally work, and—
Cough, cough! Who underexposes images by six stops?? Ahem.
Sorry, something in my throat.
Anyway, the Z6 and Z7 certainly aren’t perfect in terms of line pattern noise. However, I can’t help but feel some surprise that this issue became so strongly associated with them, yet is hardly mentioned in discussions of other mirrorless options today. After all, the root cause of these banding issues is generally due to on-sensor phase detection pixels, which are part of the autofocus system in nearly all modern mirrorless cameras – making this more than just a single company’s problem.
So, how did it happen that the Z cameras took most of the heat for this type of noise? A large part of it is due to the trickle-down nature of camera reviews. One or two big websites publish a set of high-quality tests; several others copy the pro/con page and hammer out a watered-down version of the original review. You can see obvious examples on any website that lists “banding” as a negative for the Z6 or Z7, yet not in their review of the EOS R. It means the website most likely did not test these cameras side by side, but simply took existing information and repackaged it with a few unique sample images. It’s the quick, easy way to write a review, and I’m guessing you’ll see more and more of them in the coming years.
That doesn’t mean it is a bad idea to read about small differences like this, but you also shouldn’t take everything you hear about cameras today at face value. Look at sample images for yourself, and try to figure out whether you’ll see any of these issues in your own images. At least in the case of line pattern noise, you almost certainly won’t; we’ve taken thousands of photos with all these cameras and never once seen the issue in real-world shooting. In short, there are many more important things to care about when buying a camera today, like whether it was manufactured in Thailand or Japan, and what color the camera is.