I’ve been shooting with the Nikon D500 long enough to become comfortable now, though I’m learning something new every time I shoot with it. I bought the D500 because I wanted to return to Nikon, and return to DX shooting, where I’d been most comfortable in the past. However, I also lusted after the low-light capability. The D500 natively supports ISO settings up to 51,200 and can be pushed to ISO 1,640,000. As you might imagine, anything shot at ISO 1,640,000 is a hot mess. But certainly settings up to 25,600 seem to be pretty usable.
I took a variety of images from a variety of cameras I’ve used over the years, at high ISO settings (1600 and above). Because these represent photos shot as, well, photographs, and not test images, I don’t suggest this is scientific by any means. Consider this an experiential look at high ISO settings over the years. These screencaps of unprocessed raw files loaded into Adobe Camera Raw — in particular, noise values set to zero. I saved all the screen caps as PNG files — still compressed, but less noisy than JPEG compression. So it’s possible the compression may have introduced some noise, but it’s all relative, as we’ll see.
What’s really interesting is how the quality of the noise has changed over the years. Let’s go back and look at a Nikon D300 photos shot at ISO3200.
Yep, that’s noisy. The full photo looks okay at a distance, but what’s interesting is the high degree of color noise, mostly represented by splotches of green and red pixels.
What about a full-frame photo from that era? Let’s look at a D700 photo.
I shot this at ISO 3200 on a D700. The noise levels are noticeably lower than the D300, as you’d expect from a full frame sensor, even though both are 12 megapixels. What about the D700 at ISO 6400?
At ISO 6400, the blotches of colored pixel return. So a very rough rule of thumb seems to be that the D700 is roughly one stop better at noise. Notice all the caveats in the last sentence!
Let’s look at a little more recent full-frame sensor, the 24-megapixel sensor used in the Nikon D600.
Sure, it’s somewhat noisy, but not bad; remember, this is just a 640×480 bit from a 24-megapixel image. The actual photo looks pretty good.
Let’s move forward and see how the micro 4/3rds Olympus OM-D EM-1 handled high ISO.
That doesn’t look so hot — and this is just at ISO 1600. Even thought the EM-1 can capture superb images, the sensor has its limitations. Surprisingly, the white background looks cleaner than the facial tones.
At ISO 6400, the Olympus sensor really shows its weakness. We not only see significant color noise in the facial tones, but also the white background.
All right, that’s a brief historical tour. So how does the D500 fare? Let’s start with something easy.
I captured this at ISO 1600. You see a little color noise, particularly in the black of the headphone, but it’s spread out much more evenly. This monotone dark color seems to be the worst of it. So let’s check out two captures from much higher ISO.
I shot the first photo at ISO 14,400, the second at ISO 16,000. Both look pretty noisy in these closeups, but the noise looks a lot more random, without the clusters of colored pixels. Let’s look at how this looks as a photograph. I did have to crop it a bit, only because of upload limitations of my host. Again, I applied no noise reduction, and may have even introduced a little extra noise through JPEG compression.
You can click on the image to see it at full size, roughly 4500 pixels wide. I’d say this ISO 16,000 photo looks like a pretty usable as a photo, don’t you?
In the old days (last year), if you shot at high ISO values, you’d need to apply relatively aggressive noise reduction, often resulting in a somewhat soft image. That’s where the real secret sauce in the D500 lies when it comes to high ISO. Sure, the sensor is better, but that’s not the whole picture. Now you can just shoot and live with the noise, since the quality of that noise is vastly better than years past.