From Canon to Nikon: Noise

On September 2, 2008, in Photo, by peterb

(Part 1 of this article explains my rationale for answering the question “How hard is it for a Canon shooter to go Nikon?” After a month with a D300, I’m ready to answer that question. If you buy equipment from Amazon via links on this page, or click on the ads, we get a little cash, which helps us maintain this site.)

Noise and High ISO performance

Nikon DSLRs have traditionally lagged a bit behind Canons in terms of digital noise at high equivalent ISO settings. The D300 levels the playing field to the point where this is, effectively, no longer a useful distinction between the two systems.


ISO 640

Some people aren’t bothered by ISO noise, others find it intolerable. I fall somewhere in between. If a photo works in a black-and-white treatment, often you can leverage the ISO noise into something that adds character and grain. In color photographs, I find it a bit more distracting. The D300 gives you a number of tools to deal with sensor noise. At low ISOs, the noise profile of the D300 is indistinguishable from its Canon counterparts. The D300 allows the user to set the noise reduction level used at higher ISOs. When this is on, the D300 is arguably less noisy than its crop-sensor counterparts:


ISO 1600, 1/125th, using Auto-ISO

All of the Nikon cameras also have a wonderful “Auto-ISO” mode. You tell the camera what the minimum shutter speed you want to allow is (I use 1/125th, because I can’t hold a camera steady to save my life), and you tell it what the maximum ISO you want to go up to is, and it will adjust the ISO dynamically as you shoot in order to preserve your minimum desired shutter speed. The medium-level Canon cameras either don’t have an Auto-ISO mode, or, like the 40D, have one that has various restrictions and limitations (you can only use Auto-ISO on Thursdays when the moon is full, in towns with more than three syllables in the name).

The best way to avoid ISO sensor noise, of course, is to light your shoots such that you don’t need to use high sensitivities. If you’re me, that simply isn’t possible. Your next best alternative is to have a camera that can use high ISOs while still not having a distracting level of noise. The D300 does this, and it does this impressively.


ISO 1600, 1/50th

ISO 6400

If you meet a cow that can ride a unicycle, you don’t nitpick about how clumsy she is while doing it. The impressive thing is that she can do it at all. That’s sort of how I feel about the ultra-low light performance on today’s cameras.

The D300 has an ISO extension mode that lets you get two full stops past ISO 1600, up to ISO 6400. As you could guess from the “extension” label, this isn’t intended for everyday shooting. But it’s worth talking about nonetheless.

Here’s the only 100% crop I’m using in this article. This was taken at a wedding in near-complete darkness, at ISO 6400, f/2.8, 1/20th of a second exposure:


Yes, it’s noisy. But the fact that I could take this picture at all is nothing short of amazing. There are going to be moments when having the ability to shoot at this sensitivity is the difference between making a shot and not making it. It’s a good tool to have in your back pocket for emergencies.

Next, I’d like to share my conclusions with you.


2 Responses to “From Canon to Nikon: Noise”

  1. Elle says:

    Noob question: Is this why my first, super-cheep and super crappy digital camera always took pictures that were hopelessly full of color-noise?

    I have a semi-decent Kodak point and shoot digital now, and it does have some tweakable ISO settings, and I’ll sometimes get pictures that still have that sort of noise in them, especialy sans flash. Is there a decent beginer’s guide to adjusting settings to avoid this?

  2. psu says:

    Small sensors at low ISO in bright light can be pretty noise free. But that’s about the only time.