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D3 vs D3x Noise Comparison: First Tests


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#1 ChipScar

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Posted 21 December 2008 - 07:45 PM

The D3's low noise signature is perhaps its most appreciated feature - especially for those of us who shoot it extensively underwater. Now comes the D3x, with roughly double the size of the sensor. We all know the key issue this raises - more but smaller pixels crammed onto a sensor of the same physical size as that of the D3 are theoretically bound to make for more noise. The only question is ... how bad is it?

With early adopters like myself having gotten the camera only yesterday (December 20, 2008), we don't have any answers to this question in the real world of underwater photography. However, we can make a few simple tests above water to get preliminary answers.

First, let me say that I DID NOT try to judge how much better the D3x was in terms of sharpness or resolution. Everybody and their brother will be doing this over the weekend, and I can assure you that casual inspection of side-by-side images made with both cameras, the same lens, etc. etc. showed that the resolution of the new sensor has ... well ... significantly higher resolution than that of the D3. I'll let the real camera geeks tell us just how much higher, but it's enough for me to a) feel good about paying a ridiculous price for the camera, and b) want to preferentially shoot this camera underwater, if the noise signature can be tamed. Note the word "tamed". More about this later.

If you would like to see the actual images I obtained from my tests, I suggest you go to the following link, which will take you to one of my older websites. I have uploaded all of the images there, and you can read everything that I’ve posted here in the proper sequence.

Pbase D3 vs D3x Noise Comparisons

Basic Methodology - D3 vs. D3x Direct Noise Comparison

My methodology to assess the D3x’s noise signature was pretty simple. First, I made a variety of similar images using a tripod, and a new Nikon 24-70 mm f2.8 lens set at 70mm. The idea was to vary the ISO on each camera, shoot on aperture priority (f5.6, just to make it interesting) letting the shutter speed adjust as required by the change in ISO, but to have everything else stay the same. The original reference image was of a backyard scene.

For the initial direct comparison test, I turned off just about everything I could in both the D3 and D3x. In short, there was NO in-camera noise reduction or sharpening applied. As it turns out, this is NOT the way I think we'll be shooting the D3x (are you still interested in this little test?) but it's the way many of us have shot everything from the D100 through the D2x to the D3. At least underwater.

I made similar images with each camera at ISO 100, 200, 400, 640, 800, 1000, 1250 and 1600. I'm sure some terrestrial photographers are checking out ISO 3200+ even as we speak, but for underwater photography, I personally try to keep the D3 at 640 and below if possible. I'll ramp up to 800 if required without too much angst, and I never shoot above 1250 even under dire circumstances (like Alcyone at 7:30 am in the rain). It's all about the noise, even with the magnificent D3. So, my personal shooting style dictated my ISO test parameters.

The biggest issue I faced this morning was how to process the RAW images. As we all know, Nikon doesn't even give you a raw converter in exchange for your $8000 (I plan to throw red paint on the Chairman of Nikon and shout "Shame! Shame!" if I ever meet him). Besides, I hate Capture NX2. However, the folks at Adobe are still struggling to keep ACR up to date with the raw conversion coding for every bloody new point-and-shoot that's come out in the last quarter, Phase I is behind as well, forget about Aperture, and even Bibble isn't ready for the D3x. Which led me to discover a rather marvelous little raw converter called ... you guessed it ... "Raw Converter", by Iridient Digital, Inc. For $125 I downloaded a license that is good for 15 months, and opens D3x raw files just fine. If fact, it may be hard to get me back to ACR. This is a very sweet little raw converter. But that's another story .... although I would suggest you check it out when you can:

Raw Converter Website

In any event, to keep everything as consistent as possible, I turned off everything I could in Raw Converter, INCLUDING SHARPENING AND NOISE REDUCTION. I also used all the default settings. NOTHING was optimized. I basically did batch conversions for all the images at once.

After doing the raw conversion, I cropped to the red rectangle and converted (via Raw Converter) each image to a TIFF. The images from each camera were then sized to 345 x 345 pixels and placed in conjunction with the corresponding images in Photoshop CS4. There was a little downsampling required for the D3x images compared to the D3 images – I did that in Photoshop using the bicubic sharpening sampling protocol (found in the image size dialog box).

The resulting images were very usable, especially when viewed at 100 - 200% on my screen. Unfortunately, when I first uploaded all of these images, I found that at the size I prepared for my original post, you really couldn’t see the noise patterns very. So, for purposes of this test, I rezzed up each image in Alien Skin Blowup 2 to 1600 pixels across the horizontal margin. This makes for very nice, big, juicy images that show the noise patterns well.

Results

Part I. D3 vs D3x Direct Comparison

The direct comparison images are shown in the gallery here:

Part I

With every noise reduction aid (and sharpening) turned OFF in both cameras, there is no doubt that the D3x is noisier than the D3. This can be seen on inspection, and also by quantitating the amount of noise using Noise Ninja (run at default settings). Again, I’m sure some of our noise geek friends will have ways of adding precision to all of these measurements I’ve made, but for real world purposes, I think we could say that the amount of noise generated by the D3x sensor (IN THIS TEST) is roughly the same as the D3 at ISO 100, about double at ISO 640, and about 3x at ISO 1600. Mind you, those are multiples of what is a small noise signature to begin with. But they are multiples.

Part II. Effect of In-Camera Noise Reduction

If you read everything said by Nikon about the D3x and noise, there has always been a discussion about improved NR routines built in to the camera. To test this claim in a rough and ready manner, and more importantly, to see if the in-camera NR could significantly ameliorate the noticeably greater inherent noise signature of the D3x, I re-ran the tests several hours later with the D3x in-camera noise reduction turned to “Low”, “Normal” or “High”. I didn’t repeat the D3 tests in a similar fashion – my own experience is that in my real world usage (e.g. underwater) the D3 in-camera NR isn’t very helpful until you go above ISO 1250, and then comes at the cost of a meaningful loss of sharpness. Put another way, if I could get the D3x noise signature down to that of the unaided D3, I would be a very happy camper.

The results again speak for themselves:

Part II

At ISO 640, 800, 1000, 1250 and 1600, for which I have made comparative images, turning on the in-camera noise reduction is VERY HELPFUL … especially at the higher ISOs. Furthermore, it doesn’t look like it makes much difference, under my test conditions, whether the in-camera NR is set to low, normal or high … either in terms of noise reduction or loss of sharpness. In fact, to my eye, there is little or no loss of sharpness in any of these NR’d images. I’m sure the guys who do this for a living will have expert commentary on this within a few weeks, but at first blush, it all looks like the D3x is very usable within the ISO range that I’ve tested, so long as you leave some degree of in-camera noise reduction turned ON. I’m sure purists will moan and whine about this, but I don’t really care how we get there so long as the final result meets my admittedly high standards.

Part III. Effect of Noise Ninja on Images Captured with In-Camera Noise Reduction Turned On

As my final initial look at the issue of noise and the D3x, I processed several sets of images captured at ISO 800 and ISO 1600 with a) low, normal or high in-camera NR turned ON, and b) then subjecting the resulting images to post-processing noise reduction via the Noise Ninja plug-in in Photoshop CS4. The results were again very gratifying:

Part III

The already improved noise signature associated with in-camera NR turned ON could be further improved in the final image, without adding any significant loss of sharpness, by running the Noise Ninja plug-in filter in Photoshop CS4. Quantitatively, this strategy brought the noise signature at ISO 800 and 1600 to very low levels normally associated with ISO 400 and below, and almost comparable to that achievable with the use of Noise Ninja in low ISO images captured by the D3.

The attached table shows the noise signatures as reported by Noise Ninja’s profile of each image. Again, Noise Ninja was run in full default mode, with NO tweaking of any image.

Noise Comparison Chart

Final Thoughts and Comments

Well, hot diggety-dog. The D3x is, as expected, inherently noisier than it’s noise-optimized good twin, the D3. However, it appears to me that Nikon wasn’t just blowing smoke when they claimed that the noise processing engine in the D3x has tamed much of the noise generated by the more densely-packed D3x sensor.

With in-camera NR turned on, and under these limited test conditions, I found the “noise-to-resolution” tradeoff to be strongly in the D3x’s. I also found that using Noise Ninja in a post-processing environment had additional benefit, seemingly with – to my untrained eye – very little further loss of sharpness. I would also comment that performing additional noise reduction in the raw converter of your choice may also yield very satisfactory results in lieu of using Noise Ninja … we’ll have to wait and see once all the engineers have enabled their converters to handle D3x files.

As for the underwater world … this will be the real test of the D3x vs. the D3 for myself and my colleagues. Digital cameras optimized for terrestrial photography (e.g. ALL of them) show their worst sides from a noise perspective when taking essentially monochromatic images of blue water that has not-so-subtle light gradients and lots of junk floating around. The D2x was a big improvement on the D100 in making underwater images, and the D3 was an even bigger improvement on the D2x. I suspect that when we all get the D3x underwater in the deep blue wide-angle world, we’ll find we have to give up a smidgen of noise and smoothness of those pesky blue and cyan gradients, but will get the great benefit of being able to crop down our wide-angle images for compositional purposes, and still be able to print at huge sizes. That’s worth the trouble and, for some of us, the expense of this new and promising camera.

As for macro photography, where you have control of the light, can shoot at ISO 100, and are on top of your subjects … hoo boy! I predict those 3ft by 5ft metallic prints of pygmy seahorses will never look more dazzling than when captured on this remarkable camera.

Chip Scarlett
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#2 jeremypayne

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Posted 21 December 2008 - 08:39 PM

Thanks for putting in all that work! Very interesting to see the images side-by-side.

One quick question (and it may be a dumb one) ... if you are shooting RAW, aren't in-camera noise-reduction settings irrelevant? I had always thought these settings only applied to in-camera JPEGs and didn't have any effect on RAW files.
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#3 rustyworld

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Posted 22 December 2008 - 09:57 AM

Chip, you are always a leader in imaging technology, fine work once again. I look forward to seeing all your new D3X works of art on your new website. . .what is the URL of that site. . .is it up and running yet? Let's get the show on the road so you can begin telling the underwater story at up to five frames per second.
Cheers my friend.
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#4 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 22 December 2008 - 10:31 AM

Great info Chip. Thanks for sharing.

Did you use ISO 100 or 200 (base ISO) for the D3 in the tests?

I am surprised that the Noise Ninja measure of noise goes up on the D3X at ISO 800 when you have the noise reduction ON increasingly stronger settings. If these were RAWs and they weren't processed in Capture NX2 then I doubt the in camera settings are making any difference to the files. And the slight increase is not significant?

By eye I find D3/D700 files at ISO 800 almost indistinguishable from ISO 200 (base). Therefore I'd suggest that Noise Ninja noise measure of less than 20 is a very clean file.

From that think the D3X with Noise Ninja (when required) might be all you'd ever need, unless you are planning particularly dark wide angle photography.

I found it very hard to find a subject with both the D3 and D700 that really needed above ISO 800 under normal diving conditions. And if you are using strobes you rarely need above ISO 200 for wide angle, unless you are in very unusual conditions. And as you say macro would be ISO 100.

If I was to throw red paint on Mr Nikon I think it would be for not improving the AF coverage from the D3 - an upgrade there would have made the price increase more palatable.

Alex

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#5 loftus

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Posted 22 December 2008 - 11:12 AM

Great stuff Chip.
It appears this camera is definitely a winner; the test images posted here
http://www.imaging-r...S/D3X/D3XA7.HTM
show pretty impressive resolution, possibly a little better than the 1DSMkIII as one would expect and reviewed on the same site. So I don't think Cor has to worry about Nikon falling behind.
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#6 Tom_Kline

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Posted 22 December 2008 - 02:40 PM

If I was to throw red paint on Mr Nikon I think it would be for not improving the AF coverage from the D3 - an upgrade there would have made the price increase more palatable.

Alex



I think we will have to wait for a hypothetical D4 generation for this. The difference in high ISO IQ between D3 and D3X seems much less than the leap from the D2X. I do not like going above 400!!! The D2X at 800 may be noisier than the D3X at Hi2 (have not seen this comparison, just a guess).
Tom :lol:

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#7 scorpio_fish

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Posted 24 December 2008 - 05:56 AM

Your noise chart has four ISO groupings. The last three list ISO 800 and 16000. I assume this is a typo and should have been 1600.

Thank you for your report.
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#8 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 04:32 AM

I have been looking at some of the tests on the web. There are lots easily found on the DPReview forums. The D3X seems very impressive - excellent detail and very good at high ISO. I guess the Nikon patents on that are starting to pay dividends.

But I have been surprised that nearly all the tests contain shots that have focus issues or camera shake issues (even the luminous landscape ones, and several of the other ones too). Clearly all those megapixels are very unforgiving if you want to pixel peep. The D3X is a camera that will reward excellent technique with amazing detail, but punish any sloppy photography.

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#9 loftus

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 04:55 AM

I have been looking at some of the tests on the web. There are lots easily found on the DPReview forums. The D3X seems very impressive - excellent detail and very good at high ISO. I guess the Nikon patents on that are starting to pay dividends.

But I have been surprised that nearly all the tests contain shots that have focus issues or camera shake issues (even the luminous landscape ones, and several of the other ones too). Clearly all those megapixels are very unforgiving if you want to pixel peep. The D3X is a camera that will reward excellent technique with amazing detail, but punish any sloppy photography.

Alex

I think what will be interesting at some point is to compare 'achievable' resolution and IQ in the field, between high MP and lower MP cameras, particularly underwater. My sense is that significant improvements in IQ will mostly be apparent for very controlled macro situations, whereas for wide angle images with larger water interface, camera and/or subject movement etc, differences in IQ will be hard to detect.
Also other attributes of cameras such as exposure metering and autofocus will become more critical.
I'm still hoping that the camera manufacturers will now start to concentrate on achieving higher dynamic range now that further increases in resolution seem to hold little value for most shooters and consumers. Of course we will have to see concurrent improvement in our ways of viewing images with higher dynamic range.

Edited by loftus, 29 December 2008 - 04:57 AM.

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#10 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 05:50 AM

I'm still hoping that the camera manufacturers will now start to concentrate on achieving higher dynamic range now that further increases in resolution seem to hold little value for most shooters and consumers. Of course we will have to see concurrent improvement in our ways of viewing images with higher dynamic range.


I can't believe that I am quoting dxo! But if you look at their dynamic range rankings there is definitely an increased upward trend in this regard (newer cameras have more than older ones). So I think manufacturers are slowly chipping away at this one.
http://www.dxomark.c.../DxOMark-Sensor

It will be interesting to see what bodies Nikon gives to Fuji for its next generation of DSLRs?

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#11 Drew

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 05:51 AM

I have been surprised that nearly all the tests contain shots that have focus issues or camera shake issues (even the luminous landscape ones, and several of the other ones too). Clearly all those megapixels are very unforgiving if you want to pixel peep. The D3X is a camera that will reward excellent technique with amazing detail, but punish any sloppy photography.

Well maybe there are just many sloppy photogs out there, or they have bad eyesight to even post those pics in the first place. ^_^

I think what will be interesting at some point is to compare 'achievable' resolution and IQ in the field, between high MP and lower MP cameras, particularly underwater. My sense is that significant improvements in IQ will mostly be apparent for very controlled macro situations, whereas for wide angle images with larger water interface, camera and/or subject movement etc, differences in IQ will be hard to detect.
Also other attributes of cameras such as exposure metering and autofocus will become more critical.
I'm still hoping that the camera manufacturers will now start to concentrate on achieving higher dynamic range now that further increases in resolution seem to hold little value for most shooters and consumers. Of course we will have to see concurrent improvement in our ways of viewing images with higher dynamic range.

We shouldn't forget if uncropped, the 24mp picture printed out should have some advantage over the 12mp on noise due to downsampling which reduces noise. So high MP does have advantages. They already have higher DR cameras... the foveon Sigma and Fuji's are out there, seems no one in housing manufacturer likes them much :cry:

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#12 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 05:59 AM

Well maybe there are just many sloppy photogs out there, or they have bad eyesight to even post those pics in the first place. :cry:


Thats true!

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#13 Tom_Kline

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 06:12 AM

But I have been surprised that nearly all the tests contain shots that have focus issues or camera shake issues (even the luminous landscape ones, and several of the other ones too). Clearly all those megapixels are very unforgiving if you want to pixel peep. The D3X is a camera that will reward excellent technique with amazing detail, but punish any sloppy photography.

Alex



The same is true about the D2x and even back when shooting medium format film. It helps to use to flash!
Tom :cry:

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#14 Drew

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 06:32 AM

I can't believe that I am quoting dxo! But if you look at their dynamic range rankings there is definitely an increased upward trend in this regard (newer cameras have more than older ones). So I think manufacturers are slowly chipping away at this one.
http://www.dxomark.c.../DxOMark-Sensor

It will be interesting to see what bodies Nikon gives to Fuji for its next generation of DSLRs?

Alex


I know... so I'm going to quote this again to make sure it's true.... Alex the measurebator! :cry:
Fuji has been getting the middle of line pretty much every time. I think they'd get a bigger share if they could snag the CAM3500 and a faster fps for auto DR, it'd be a real competitor. But I doubt Nikon wants another competitor.

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#15 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 11:14 AM

I think that there is hope. Nikon gave them the D200, which was their number 2 camera for the S5. So maybe this time it will be the D700? If Fuji want to go Full Frame.

Alex

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#16 jeremypayne

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Posted 05 January 2009 - 03:01 PM

Thanks for putting in all that work! Very interesting to see the images side-by-side.

One quick question (and it may be a dumb one) ... if you are shooting RAW, aren't in-camera noise-reduction settings irrelevant? I had always thought these settings only applied to in-camera JPEGs and didn't have any effect on RAW files.


For the record ... I was able to confirm that on the Nikon D3/3x/700 the in-camera High ISO Noise Reduction settings have no impact on the sensor data collected into the .NEF files - with the exception being that they do leave markers that can be read by the Nikon Raw Converter. Even if you are using the Nikon converter, you can alter this setting in post with no added benefit or penalty.
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#17 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 08 January 2009 - 04:52 AM

Another of Nikon's D3X brochures dropped through my letterbox today. I decided not to just ignore this one. And I have to say that looking at the pictures in it, I can't help feel that the D3 could have taken all of them. At typical book and magazine reproduction sizes you just can see the difference.

There is one image that they have printed on a fold out section - flamingos across 4 pages. What an awful, muddy image - and it is supposed to make you want to buy the camera!

Wish they'd say that the sensor was exclusive the D3X. They started something when they made the D3 sensor a hand-me-down after just 6 months. D700x in July/August for $3-4000 less than the D3X?

Oh, but they did give me a free diary!

Alex

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#18 loftus

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Posted 08 January 2009 - 04:58 AM

An interesting review here:
http://www.luminous-...big-three.shtml
Personally I think the D3X noise performance is a twinge better at high ISO than the Canon 5DMKII, but maybe not, and I'm sure it can be put down to Nikon bias on my part.
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#19 jeremypayne

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Posted 08 January 2009 - 05:41 AM

Personally I think the D3X noise performance is a twinge better at high ISO than the Canon 5DMKII, but maybe not, and I'm sure it can be put down to Nikon bias on my part.

To my eye, I see the reverse, but only very slightly ... but I think it would be difficult to say which of the two has "more" noise ... I think it comes down to which noise you "prefer" in a rather subjective way ... and I bet that would change from image to image.
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#20 Alex_Mustard

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Posted 09 January 2009 - 12:46 AM

Just to promote some ranting replies - Ken Rockwell, well known Nikon lover and unreliable sage, has posted this base ISO test with the D3X and 5DMk2:

http://www.kenrockwe...-5d-mark-ii.htm

The 5D2 is uprezzed to 108% so it is hardly a fair test.

Alex

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