Friday, May 13, 2011

Dynamic Range Test: D3100 vs D700

I recently watched a video comparing the dynamic range of the Nikon D5100 vs the Canon T2i. That seems to be a fair test, since the Canon 18PM sensor in the 7D, 60D and T3i seem to perform the same. Seeing that test made me wonder how different some of the Nikon sensors perform in that area.

The new Nikon DX cameras (D3100, D5100 and D7000) have improved in terms of noise and dynamic range compared to their 12MP brothers from the previous generation (D90, D5000, D300s), but how do they compare to FX cameras that are several years old like the D700? I cannot compare one of the 16MP cameras, (D5100/D7000) so I'll have to test the D3100 against the D700.

For this test both cameras were setup in the same spot, set to ISO200 with a shutter speed of 1/60s. You'll notice a few differences in between the two cameras right away. Namely that the D3100 and D700 framing isn't exactly the same, this was difficult to achieve due to different lenses being used to achieve the framing. I used liveview to frame both shots to make sure they were as close as possible. You'll also notice that the D3100 image has more depth of field, which was unavoidable because I wanted to get the same shutter speed, so I had to use the same aperture setting on both cameras (F5.6). The D700 was set to 35mm, while the D3100 was set to 24mm to achieve similar framing.

Original Images:
These images have no major editing done, other than improving the colour (as they were shot RAW). 

Nikon D3100

Nikon D700



Edited Images:
Both of these following images were edited in Aperture 3, with the shadow slider moved to 50.38 (several stops of shadow detail were pulled out). I could have pulled out more shadow detail, but that created too much noise in either image. The same took place when I changed the black points as well.

In both cases noise becomes apparent due to the pulling out of the shadows, but the D3100 clearly lags behind once you take a close look at crops of the image. Even the superior resolution of the D3100 isn't enough to make up for the noise. No noise reduction was applied to these images. That being said, it appears that the D3100 may have retained more detail in the shadow areas of the frame. If you look at the curtain on the upper right side of the image you can see detail in the shadows, while the D700 appears to have clipping in that area. Looking closely you can see this in other areas of the frame as well. The D700 does appear to maintain more details in the brighter areas of the frame though, so one could overexpose the scene with the D700 to achieve a similar effect. (Click on the images for larger view)

Nikon D3100

Nikon D700

Crops:
This battle isn't over yet though, what about noise performance? Lets look at some crops, and keep in mind no noise reduction has been applied to these images. To achieve similar framing I had to crop the D700 image to 1.5MP, while the D3100 crop is 2PM. The superior noise performance of the D700 becomes apparent when you look closely at this scene. The D700 images also maintain more detail, due to having less noise. Again in some parts of these crops you can see that the D3100's image has more shadow detail than that of the D700.

Nikon D3100


Nikon D700

Conclusion:
At this point it is hard to come up with a solid conclusion. For one thing, the light may have slightly changed between shooting with the two cameras. The meter reading may have been the same, but that does not mean that some slight changes in the light took place.

In a direct test like this one, with all settings the same the D3100 appears to capture more shadow detail. The D700 on the other hand appears to maintain more detail in the bright areas of the frame. If one were to shoot with those facts in mind, you could over or underexpose said cameras to achieve similar dynamic range. In terms of noise the D700 clearly has the upper hand. Also overall retention of detail is superior in the image taken with the D700.