Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Nikon D3100 ISO test

I picked up the new D3100 today and the first thing I wanted to do was test out the High ISO capabilities. The D3000 was such a stunning failure at high ISO settings that I sold the camera not long after I got it because the images were barely usable at ISO 800.

With the addition of the CMOS sensor in the D3100 as well the new EXPEED 2 image processor I was hoping that the D3100 would be able to compete with some of the other cameras in its class such as the D5000 and the D90, although I was concerned about the higher pixel density which commonly leads to lower signal to noise ratio (read: more noise).

I set up the D3100 with a lens I picked up today to test out, the Sigma 17-70 f/2.8-4 HSM OS (which is a great lens, by the way, and inexpensive). I set the camera up on a tripod, set the camera to Aperture Priority and the aperture to f/8 and zoomed to 70mm. I preset the WB using a grey card and shot with available light and center-weighted metering. I shot a set with NR on and NR off for comparison as well. All images are at 100% crop and shot in JPEG. No, this isn't a definitive scientific test shot in a lab. It's a real world shot in a regular everyday setting. I chose this image because it has shadows, highlights, and mid-tones all in the same shot. See the uncropped version here.

Click on the images for a closer look.

So, how did the D3100 fare? Lets take a look.

 At the native ISO of 100 it's clean as a whistle. No surprise there.

At ISO 200 once again no noise.

ISO 400 if you look really really close you can see some luminance noise, but you need to look super hard. ISO 400 is great.

At ISO 800 is where you generally start to see noise creeping up. If you look real hard you can see a tiny bit of chroma noise and a small amount of luminance noise. It's not enough to even be concerned about. This image is shot with NR off. The next shot is NR on.

At ISO 800 with the NR on I see no appreciable difference.

Here's where it starts. You can start to see the chroma a little easier, but it's still very low. Luminance noise is a little chunkier, but still not bad at all. Remember this is with NR off.

Here's ISO 1600 with NR turned on. The chroma noise is has been desaturated and the luminance is smoothed out a bit. You'll notice that you lose a bit of sharpness.

At ISO 3200 you can really start to see it. The chroma noise is definitely noticeable and there's a good amount of grain especially in the shadow areas. Still it's not bad. It's definitely usable. I wouldn't be afraid to print an 11X17 with an image at this setting. Remember no NR here.

With the NR on the shadows and even the mid-tones are starting to look a little smeary from the fairly aggressive NR algorithm. There's no way to adjust the amount of NR on the D3100. Shooting at 3200 I'd recommend keeping the NR off.

ISO 3200 is the highest native setting that the D3100 offers and it's pretty damn good. The next two settings are what are known as "expanded" settings. These aren't "true" ISO settings but are created by increasing the gain in the signal amplifier. This will NOT give optimal results. Sensors are designed to work within a certain range to achieve optimal results so I don't recommend using these settings unless it's a necessity. Anyway for comparison I shot the expanded ISO range as well. The settings are Hi 1 (6400) and Hi 2 (12,800). 

At Hi 1, there's significant noise of both the chrominance and luminance variety. Of course it's especially bad in the shadows which is common, but it's also pretty bad in the mids and you can even see it showing up in the highlights.

The NR cleans it up well at Hi 1, but you lose a lot of sharpness and detail in the mids and highs. The shadows are smeared badly. If I were in a pinch I'd use this setting, but I'd have to think about it real hard.

At Hi 1, the noise is real bad, but I wouldn't expect it to be good. It is what it is I and can't really find a fault with it, because in reality if you pushed film to ISO 12,800 it would look worse. So...

There's not much I can say about Hi 2 with NR on. It looks kinda like Claude Monet and Georges Seurat have taken over the image processing. Splotchy and blurry. Not usable at all. Again, I really didn't expect it to be.

Bottom line is that the D3100 kicks the crap out of the D3000. Hands down. Of course it did. The D3000 sucked. In my opinion The D3100 holds it's own the the D5000 (maybe a little better), outperforms the D90, outright slays both the D300 and D300s. I'd like to compare it to the D700 and the D3/D3s, but it's not quite that good. Nikon does apply NR to all images shot at high ISO settings even when the NR is turned off (D3100 manual pg.134), so there's a slight loss of detail at ISO 1600 and above even with the higher resolution. For a camera at this price point the D3100 has a stellar low-light performance.

Being a professional concert photographer I wouldn't be concerned going into a photo pit with this camera. Apart from the high ISO performance, the 11 point AF system inherited from the D90 makes this camera very usable from a pro perspective. It doesn't have the build quality I would need for constant use, but it will definitely capture the images and do it well.

So boys and girls, I'll close this out by saying the Nikon has a real winner here.

Check out my D90/300/700 comparison

I'm skipping the Slayer/Megadeth/Anthrax metal extravaganza this weekend and I'm heading to Memphis TN where I'll be giving the D3100 a real workout at the GonerFest

Stay tuned for a full review!

You can order my Nikon D3100 Digital Field Guide by clicking on the Amazon link!


Anonymous said...

great to have someone take test pictures...
in http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/937767/0 user elkhornsun pointed out problem with noise on people faces. i had the same problem with Nikon D90 in good daylight but one facehalf in shade - for me there was too much red noisepixels, otherwise great picture. if you ever test (again?) it would be great to have "facetest" or similar

ldm616 said...

Thanks for conducting the test and posting the results. I'd be interested in reviewing the D3100 DFG for you if you like. I'd be happy to post reviews on Amazon, etc.

Do you like the Sigma 17-70 as an upgrade to the 18-55mm kit lens on the D3100?

How much better do you think the D7000 is? I had one for a day and returned it. Too heavy for me coming from a Pany GF1. Love the size/weight of the D3100 and am guessing I'm losing something, but not too much in IQ, ISO performance, etc. Bad assumption?

J. Dennis Thomas said...

The Sigma 17-70 f/2.8-4 OS is one of the best lenses I've owned. I can't say enough praises about it. It's small, relatively fast, sharp, and has a macro feature. It's truly a great all-around lens. For the price you just can't beat it.

The D7000 is a great camera, but the only thing it really has over the D3100 is a better build quality and a few more pro features like added functionality with more buttons.

You're not losing anything IQ-wise by switching to the D3100. What really counts is that you're happy with the camera so you'll use it. If the D7000 is too heavy you won't want to shoot it as much. You made a good choice based on your needs and not what the fanboys and marketing execs say. Kudos.

If you want a review copy of the D3100 DFG send me an email. I'll be sending the addresses out to my publisher next week.


Marco Angelo D'Souza said...

Hey, nice blog--came across it from the D3100 Flickr group. I'm a photography nut myself, and blog about the subject extensively.

I agree--the D3100's noise performance is immensely superior to the D3000, and I even found my ISO 3200 photos to be very usable.

But there's a way to make what's already good even better! I use the fantastic luminance and color noise reduction capabilities of Lightroom (3.3 RC, which supports the D3100) to process my photos during import itself. This enables me to start with a much purer photo for other tweaks like exposure, lens correction etc. I've blogged about this technique and others here:

I look forward to exchanging notes with you.