Nikon D300, how much of an improvement?

Written by:

We were curious to see what improvements there are in the Nikon D300 compared to the Nikon D200. To find out we performed a few simple tests.
Almost all of the tests you are about to see were done on the actual RAW file using Matlab. This means that there is no image processing involved and that the results are as pure as they get. You can use these results to understand which camera will perform better in the real world when using the RAW software of your chose.

Dynamic range

A desired improvements is more dynamic range. To test this we photographed a special 41 transparent step chart with 13.6 EV stops of dynamic range. We define dynamic range as the number of steps between maximum saturation where the sensor can no longer capture light and the floor noise at the 1db limit. This means that dynamic range is limited by noise. We estimate a margin error of 0.15EV in our measurements.

The chart bellow shows the dynamic range in EV of each channel in each of the ISO settings.

ISO
Nikon D300 12 bit
Nikon D300 14 bit
Nikon D200
G
R
B
G
R
B
G
R
B
100ISO
11.6
11.3
12.6
11.6
12.3
12.6
12
12.6
13
200ISO
12.6
11
11.6
12.6
11.3
12.6
12.3
11.3
13
400ISO
12
10.3
11
12
10.3
11
10.6
10
10.3
800ISO
10.3
9
10.3
10.3
9.6
10.3
9
8.6
9
1600ISO
8.6
8.3
8.6
9
8.6
8.6
7.6
7.3
7.6
3200ISO
7.6
7.6
8
7.6
7.6
8
6
6.6
6.6
6400ISO
6.6
6.3
7
6.3
6.3
7
All values are EV (1EV = 1 stop)

As you can see, the green channel, which is the main channel, has about 0.3EV more dynamic range at 200ISO, the base ISO setting for the Nikon D300. It is interesting to note that the Nikon D200 gains some dynamic range at 200ISO in the green channel but loses some in the red channel. Comparing the base ISO setting of both cameras, the Nikon D300 gains 0.6EV more dynamic range in the green channel, which is not bad at all.

Because noise limits dynamic range it is no surprise that the Nikon D200 has only 7.6EV of dynamic range at 1600ISO while the Nikon D300 shows an excellent result of 8.6EV.

As for the long debate of 14bit vs. 12bit, we can clearly see a small advantage to having more bits in dynamic range. Sometimes having more accuracy means better signal to noise ratio at the low signal parts of the image.

Signal to noise ratio

To test signal to noise ratio we used the same data from the previous test. This time however, we calculated the signal to noise ratio from the 2 brightest stops of the chart. The results represent the ability of the sensor to gather light and are less relevant to the electronic side effect noise of the image. This is because the sensor is overwhelmed with photons and the extra electronic charge has very little effect on the overall charge.

The higher the result the better the sensor is capable of capturing light. The pixel size of the Nikon D300 is approximately 5.54 µm while the pixel size of the Nikon D200 is 6.09 µm. That alone should give the Nikon D200 slightly better performance. But there are many more factors to consider, such as the density of the microlenses and the spectral distribution of the color filters on top of each pixel.

The results are very interesting indeed. At seems that in most cases at low ISO settings the Nikon D300 has a better signal to noise ratio, even though the pixel size is slightly smaller. This means that Nikon (or shall I say Sony?) has done a very good job.

Noise floor

Noise floor is calculated by using the same data used in the previous tests. But this time we calculate the standard deviation values at the lower two EV steps. These results indicate the overall performance of the system. In most cases the last two stops contain some signals from light, but also contain some electronic noise that should not have been added to the image. Lower results are better.

From these results there is no doubt that the Nikon D300 is a big improvement on the Nikon D200. This is probably due to Nikon’s better handling of the electronics in the D300 but it is more likely due to the fact that CMOS sensors can separate non photon noise from light signal and subtract that noise from the each pixel. This is something CCD sensors can’t do. The result is a much less noisy RAW file. Once again, we see a small advantage to 14 bit accuracy which reduces the rounding (upwards or downwards) of signal and noise.

Noise reduction improvements

The following is for the JPEG shooters among you. While the improvements above were all about RAW files and sensor SNR, here we will discuss improvements Nikon has made to their noise reduction algorithm. The low SNR and low noise of the Nikon D300gives us a better starting point for noise reduction algorithms, so we will try to highlight some improvements in the Nikon D300 that bothered us in the Nikon D200.

All the crop images below are taken from our studio setup with the same 50mm Nikon lens (at f8) at 1600ISO. All crops are 100% of our studio setup.

Chroma noise and pleaseing grain

One thing the Nikon D200 was free of is chroma noise in flat areas. This is not different in the New Nikon D300. Only when setting the noise reduction setting to the OFF setting there is some chroma noise.

  • RGB View
  • Luma View
  • Chroma View
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR

Grain is one of the most important aspects of noise reduction – get grain right and people will accept your image as pleasing (something that adobe seems to miss). By clicking the Luma view you can see that the Nikon D300 has a little less visible grain. I do not particular like that, and I much prefer the Low result of the Nikon D300 for grain.

Shadow grain

Grain in the shadows was one of the most problematic issues with the Nikon D200. While most of the tone range filtered well, the dark tones contained too much grain. This made images with mostly dark tones look very grainy and noisy.

  • RGB View
  • Luma View
  • Chroma View
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR

Here the shadows are filtered much better. This helps the image look more pleasing and appealing overall. I do feel that the Normal NR setting filters a bit too strongly, I much prefer the Low setting as it leaves some nice looking grain which makes the image look a bit more natural.

Details

One of the common misconceptions photographers have about noise reduction is the loss of detail. Performing noise reduction does not necessailry mean losing details. In many cases, details that are otherwise hidden by noise can be “extracted” by detecting fine edges. On the other hand, if the algorithm is incapable of detecting those fine edges some unneeded filtering may occur. In reality, there is always a tradeoff that needs to be made between details and filtering. If the algorithm is very good, this tradeoff is small as it is possible to filter noise and detect fine edges as well. But even then, there will be a small tradeoff which in many cases the camera maker lets the user choose.

  • RGB View
  • Luma View
  • Chroma View
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR

The Nikon D300 has a small advantage over the Nikon D200 when it is set to Normal NR. But once again, using the Low setting shows those nice little details. I am quite pleased with the Low setting.

Shadow detail

Details in the shadows is yet another issue that bothers us with the Nikon D200. We are happy to see that Nikon has improved this issue.

  • RGB View
  • Luma View
  • Chroma View
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR

As you can see, there is good progress here. The Nikon D300 shows better results in every setting. I prefer the Low setting as it gives good balance between edges and grain.

False colors

False colors are a side affect of noise reduction. Those are little color noise leftovers nikon left behind on edges. I am happy to say there is a good progress on this issue too.

  • RGB View
  • Luma View
  • Chroma View
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR
Nikon D200 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Normal NR
Nikon D300 Low NR
Nikon D300 High NR
Nikon D300 OFF NR

As you can see only when the Nikon D300 is set to OFF some false color artifacts appear. There is also very faint false color with the Low setting. This problem seems to be handled very well now.

Final words

Both in our lab tests and in real world the Nikon D300 shows over all less noise than the Nikon D200. This is very true for RAW files that are now more usable then ever. When using JPEG files from of the Nikon D300, we see some very good progress on Nikon’s ability to reduce noise (performance which many different RAW converters can only dream of). The big breakthrough was accomplished with the Nikon D200, but now all of those image processing problems in the Nikon D200 have been solved or improved. The main noise reduction improvement stems from the fact that Nikon can now filter dark tone more strongly than highlights or mid tones.

I much prefer the Nikon D300 1600ISO JPEG results when it is set to Low NR setting. There are more details with not too much extra color noise, but more important the monochromatic grain with the Low setting looks more pleasing. As a results, the whole image looks more pleasing and detailed.


Digg this story   Add to del.icio.us





Related Posts:


10 Responses to “Nikon D300, how much of an improvement?”

  1. Jeff Folkins Says:

    Thanks for the informative article on the D200 vs D300 sensor capabilities. If I might suggest it would be even more valuable if you added some analysis at the end to tell us what aspects of photographs are sensitive to the SN vs the Noise Floor vs the Dynamic Range. Everyone wants to know: is the D300 1 stop better, 1.5 stops better etc. I am assuming it “depends”. But what are the scenes that it is one way vs the other.
    thanks
    Jeff

  2. MrToes Says:

    Excellent analysis – ISO 1600 looks usable for the first time with Nikon. Thanks very much for this!

  3. sent2null Says:

    Jeff, just look at the noise floor graph. The SD readings can be used to determine the relative difference in noise. At 100, the D300 is about 1/3 lower in noise, from ISO 200 – 400 , it’s just over 2x lower, at 800 it is almost 2 and 1/2 times lower, at 1600 and above its almost 3x lower. What is amazing is the newer , denser sensor is not only lower in noise floor increasingly with ISO but it also has more DR to extract tones from the scene, add to this the smarter NR settings and it makes for a significant improvement over the D200. In terms of stops it appears it goes from somewhere around 1 stop better at ISO 200 to 2 stops better at ISO 3200. A good chunk of the improvement being in the retained detail and DR (no doubt due to Nikon/Sony’s novel column parallel noise suppression architecture) as well as the lower noise floor at progressively higher ISO’s.

  4. Royi Says:

    As always – Thorough analysis…
    I guess Sony has learned how to produce CMOS sensors as good as its CCD sensors.
    The question is, will a D200 equipped with the D300’s processing engine be inferior to D300 to a human eye?

    The way I see it, today, the most important aspect of a new camera it the math of its algorithms.

    Thanks.

  5. James McClean Says:

    Thank you for taking sensitometry to new digital levels! I am obsessed with low ISO long exposures, and somewhat disappointed with how the D2Xs handles aurora photographs in that I have a lot of banding and sensor noise. Want to upgrade but couldn’t decide if D200 CCD would handle sensor noise better at low ISO, now I have data to guide my purchasing decisions. Thank you for your excellent research and fine web site. Cheers, James “IMNI” McClean

  6. Peter Steinhoff Says:

    Nikon does some processing to the NEFs and has been for sometime. The D300 supposedly cuts of the signal when it is below a minimum level and there are some noise reduction present that you can’t turn off. Supposedly Capture NX also puts some NR on everything at ISO800 and above even if you shut off. Since raw isn’t really “raw” how would procssing like that affect the results in your test?

  7. John Hughes Says:

    Thankyou for the excellent comparison. I have both a D200 and D300, and although I am not completely into the technological differences betwen the two cameras, I can absolutely say with total confidence that the D300 is a significant improvement in real world photography over the D200. I always felt that there was something lacking with the D200 although just difficult to pin-point. The D300 simply takes fantastic pictures and I am not left wanting for anything else

  8. peter harrap Says:

    I have had 2 D300 bodies after bad experiences with banding and oversaturation on D200 Nikons. Your alanlysis is interesting, very. Thus in theory the D300 should have a higher visual dynamic range and less noise helping that to be achieved. Unfortunately the different colour channels do not exist in a recorded image, which is a mixture of them all.

    To someone viewing at 100% on a well-corrected monitor, or in print, there is much more noise visible at base ISO in the D300 images. It is why , in the A700, Sony use in-camera NR. Nikon D300 images have one overriding problem for those who habitually use RAW to get the best quality.

    As Tom Hogan pointed out on a Dpreview posting. Nikon D300 lacks any admitted or settable noise reduction at all for every image made below 800 ISO. Dave Etchell’s even queried, in his Imaging Resource review, whether shooting at less than 800 was worth it because of this!!

    This means that to achieve a detailed image noise reduction MUST be INDIVIDUALLY applied to each image made at 100, 200, 320, 400, 500, 640 etc ISOs!!!

    You CANNOT get the best result using batch processing, as even the slightest subject/exposure variation greatly affects the amount of noise in the image, so what “works” in one wont do in a neighbouring file in all probability.

    Now, that said, it has to be admitted that WITHOUT noise reduction ALL files have noise that is visible in an average exposure, not the case withy the D200.

    Users must therefore waste valuable time (your life is time- not money!) trying to eradicate noise WITHOUT eradicating detail.

    Well, in an average scene, perfectly exposed, this is, at the moment, using NX, Bibble, Lightroom Elements and CS3 with the plug-in, IMPOSSIBLE.

    Once fine detail is smaller than the biggest noise clumps, what do you do? For example, well-lit fine detailed textured cloth in an image that has visible graduated large areas of tone on walls and shelves that gets daker as you move away from the light source.

    Even at 200 the noise floor rapidly rises IN PRACTICE such that midtone and shadow noise exceeds in intensity and dimension, the size of the fine details mentioned.

    Reducing the noise a bit allows the details to remain, but progressively more reduction moves the blurred smeared areas NR brings with it more and more into the picture, and the fine detail and texture of the shot is the first to go ! Shadow noise can still be present and very visible, but all the great detail the sensor can record has gone, and that is that.

    This is WHY Nikon didnt apply ANY in-camera NR at low isos.

    What does this say to the user. It says, put up and shut up, or buy another camera, because, at the moment, there’s nothing we can do about it unless, of course you want a D3.

    At high ISOs its a great machine, but at 200 iso and under the D2X, D2Xs, D200, D80, and D40x and D40 ALL have lower noise levels , not as instruments measure them, but as our eyes see them.

    As Dave Etchells hinted no point at less than 800 iso then! Which means that all fine detail is lost. There is just a limit to what this size sensor can do for Nikon and Sony at the present time…

  9. Nyk Fry Says:

    Peter Harrap: What? “…no point at less than 800 iso then! Which means that all fine detail is lost”? ALL fine detail? Really, ALL? no point at ALL? We just all give up and go home? Nikon has no point in existing, at least in detail, AT ALL?

    Let me relate: I have just shot a proof of concept ad campaign for a national tequila brand which was detailed and clean enough it made everyone involved go with those images shot on D300 with 50mm f1.8 lens at L1.0 (100 ISO equiv.). This instead of final reshoot (which was planned with a Hasselblad, but then canceled based on how good the D300 images came out IN PRACTICAL TERMS). I am not saying these two cameras are in any way interchangeable of course, rather that your statement is missing the mark by a very long chalk (or “long lens”, to be topical), even if scientifically substantiable in many other ways.

    I will admit it all came our cleaner than I expected too. Look for magazine ads and billboards near you soon.

    Zooming in anywhere on the D300 image was just delightful for what it was, and moreover: PRACTICALLY acceptable, and, I have compared to D80 in my hands, me shooting (owned one for 18 mo.), and at low ISO too. What I notice are not the fine measurements of noise, but how the picture looks. My impression is cleaner from D300 over D80, D200, Xti, D5 even.

    Get camera and take great pics. Enjoy life. That’s the way to measure.

    Oh, I thought I’d share one of the images here: http://www.nykfry.com/luna/bottleandglass.jpg Even though, yes, a lowly jpeg I think it will show detail enough to sway the opinion back to a more measured median, rather than the rash “no point at all” zone. Noise floor is not the only factor in image quality, but please you be the judge even of that even in the image. Indeed, the whole NR switchability is an interesting point. I turn mine off anyway, because it affects the FINE details negatively. I assume Nikon don’t impose NR at lower ISOs for actual clarity and where it is PRACTICALLY not necessary. Surely otherwise it would be like driving around with one’s safety airbag deployed? You may wish to do this, of course.

    Interestingly, this image was eventually rejected for the campaign because it was TOO CLEAN. The client chose more grainy, and moody images from another series shot, again on on D300, which I took as an alternate and added grain later in PS.

    In closing. Bear in mind another very impotant factor. The D300 is also capable of this performance at up to 6 fps for $1700, or just under $2000 for 8 fps (with battery pack/grip) at full 12MP res. You could add to that the humble $120 50mm f1.8 lens if you didn’t already have one. How do you like them apples?

  10. peter harrap Says:

    “I turn mine off anyway, because it affects the FINE details negatively. Thanks, Nik, just what I was saying!!

Leave a Reply