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Nikon D3: Noise from ISO 100 to ISO 25,600

2008-01-01 - Send Feedback
Related: exposure, Nikon D3, noise, optics
Nikon D3 with 45mm f/2.8P

Updated: December 11, 2007

This article is one of a group of articles and blog entries investigating the 12.1-megapixel Nikon D3 digital SLR.

For more on the Nikon D3, D3s and D3x, see DAP.


Images were processed from 14-bit lossless-compressed NEF files using Nikon Capture NX. Picture Control “Neutral” was used, along with Auto Color Aberration and a white balance of 10,000°K (actual color temperature was even more blue).

The in-camera setting of High ISO Noise Reduction was set to Low, which caused Nikon Capture NX to apply noise reduction of Low by default. This is not so easily dealt with in batch mode, see sidebar below.

Mouse-over the image below to see Low noise reduction compared with no noise reduction

ISO 25600, no noise reduction <=> Low noise reduction

The exposure was made such that ISO 200 showed no clipped blacks and no blown highlights. The ISO 100 image had slightly clipped highlights, apparently due to reduced dynamic range over ISO 200. The ISO 12800 and 25600 images had grayish blacks, but similar highlights to ISO 200.

Histogram of sample image at ISO 200

Noise and color temperature

Digital camera noise can be perceived differently (and actually be different) with different subject matter and different lighting. This example uses north-side shade (skylight) in December in California, a lighting situation of around 10,000 - 13,000° kelvin, quite common this time of year.

Linearity at “1EV under ISO 200”’

Nikon doesn’t offer ISO 100 or ISO 12800 or ISO 25,600; these are called “1 EV under ISO 200”, “1 EV over ISO 6400” and “2EV over ISO 6400”. Awkward to be sure, but ISO is a defined standard that apparently cannot be rigorously met at the ends.

At ISO 100, dynamic range appears to be reduced and to avoid blowing highlights an exposure that is 1/3 stop less (2/3 stop less than ISO 200) is required. For example, if the exposure is 1/30 @ f/8 at ISO 200, then 1/20 @ f/8 at “ISO” 100 is required (instead of 1/15 sec). However, the comparisons here did not use that adjustment.

Actual pixels crops

Ultra-smooth results at ISO 100, 200 and 400 make results at those values superb. It’s difficult to detect a difference between ISO 400 and ISO 200 except in the very dark areas; highlights are effectively identical in areas that contain detail (very smooth areas or gradients might show a slight difference).

Mouse-over comparisons

To compare the differences between ISO values, use the mouse-over pages:

Click to compare all ISO results to ISO 100
Click to compare adjacent ISO values


Nikon D3, ISO 100
Nikon D3, ISO 200
Nikon D3, ISO 400

A very slight graininess appears at ISO 800, and extremely fine detail is slightly smudged.

Nikon D3, ISO 800

At ISO 1600, the graininess seen at ISO 800 becomes stronger, but remains “tight” and very natural looking. Definition on extremely fine detail is being affected now.

Nikon D3, ISO 1600

At ISO 3200, the graininess begins to exhibit of discoloration. The results are still outstanding, though fine detail loses its “edge”.

Nikon D3, ISO 3200

At ISO 6400, the noise is obvious but not unpleasant, but it has become much “chunkier” and has begun to obscure detail noticeably (comments based on entire image).

Nikon D3, ISO 6400

At ISO 12800, noise develops colored speckles and “chunkiness”. Fine detail is now significantly obscured (comments based on entire image). ISO 12800 is the limit of performance for “reasonable” images.

Nikon D3, ISO 12800

ISO 25600 is usable, but should be avoided if at all possible. Brightly-colored “hot pixels” have begun to appear, and sharpening is going to be quite difficult. Noise reduction is called for, and fine detail is obscured significantly. Still, a respectable-looking 12X8" print could be made, and perhaps even a 19X13" print would be reasonable with appropriate noise reduction techniques.

Nikon D3, ISO 25600


The Nikon D3 controls digital noise exceptionally well, with ISO 100, 200 and 400 providing outstanding results. ISO 800 and 1600 offer excellent quality and ISO 3200 still offers very good “bang for the buck”. ISO 12800 and 25600 are best reserved for specialty uses, and noise-reduction processing will be necessary for many images shot at those high values.

Is the Nikon D3 the “noise king”? It appears to be the case as of December 2007.

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