A Whole New Wonderful World
Monday, February 25th, 2008 by Reed Hoffmann
By now everyone's heard about Nikon's two new cameras, the D3 and D300. And you've probably heard they handle high-ISO noise better than in the past. That's an understatement.
Every camera records some noise during exposure, and the higher up you push the ISO, the more noticeable it becomes (and you start to lose color saturation as well). Most people don’t notice it in the 100-400 ISO range, and above that, how much you see is partly determined by your exposure and what you’re shooting (more visible in dark areas), and how well the manufacturer is able to remove that noise during processing. If you want to see noise, take a photo shot at 800-1600 ISO, open it into Photoshop, and look at the Blue Channel (Control-3, or Command-3). See how the image is mottled? That’s noise.
Early digital cameras had heavy, objectionable amounts of noise at even 800 ISO. As newer, better cameras were developed, the noise levels slowly dropped as well. Despite all that, most photographers avoided shooting much above 1000 ISO because of the noise. There were even software packages developed (such as Noise Ninja, from PictureCode.com) just to remove, or lessen, noise.
With all the new features that Nikon added to their two new cameras, the two most anticipated by sports and news photographers (and anyone who has to work in low light, such as wedding photograhers) were the new autofocus system and promises of amazingly good noise performance. These last couple of weeks I wanted to put them to the test.
There was a big wrestling tournament at my kids’ high school, so I took the D300 with the Nikkor 70-200 2.8 VR lens and headed there. I shot from 1600 to 3200 ISO, and the results were truly impressive. While there’s still noise, it’s at a much lower level, and the color quality remains strong. The image I’ve posted here was shot at 2500 ISO, cropped slightly, with no processing of any kind in Photoshop.
For the D3, I headed west to Lawrence, home of the Kansas Jayhawks, and a game they had against Iowa State. The D3 uses what Nikon calls an “FX” sensor, and most people call “full frame.” That means that the sensor’s the same size as a frame of 35mm film. There was a lot of surprise when Nikon announced the camera, as it only (only!) had 12 megapixels on that big sensor. The payoff is a great reduction in noise.
For the basketball game, I shot the camera primarily at 6400 ISO (both photos here are at 6400 ISO). Two things interesting here – I’ve NEVER shot a camera, in my life, at 6400 ISO. 3200 is as far as I’d ever pushed film, and rarely that high with digital. Second, at that high of an ISO, I could use a lens I’ve never (that “never” word again) shot basketball with – the Nikkor 200-400 f/4.0 VR. I got a lot of strange looks from the other photographers. After all, an f/4.0 lens is just too slow (not a fast enough aperture to allow a high shutter speed) to shoot indoor sports with, right? Not anymore.
And the results? Again, there’s noise. But it’s not heavy, and the color and contrast are very good. The new 51-point autofocus system performed extremely well, and I especially liked the new 3D-Tracking option, which uses color information from the initial focus point to help track the subject. Way cool.
The final test was a few days ago when I went to Manhattan (Kansas!) for a K-State women’s game against Oklahoma. This time I didn’t push the cameras hard at all, “just” shooting at 3200 ISO. And as I get more comfortable with the new AF system, I’m liking the 3-D Tracking more and more.
So why did I call this a “Whole New Wonderful World?” Because what camera manufacturers are doing today to improve high-ISO performance is going to change how photographers work. As noise gets lower and lower, this allows us to choose whether or not we add light to a scene based on content and creative intent, not due to limitations of the camera. And that’s a win-win for all of us.