D4 vs. D800E – High ISO Shootout

As promised, I took my Nikon D4 and D800E out for a night shoot to test their high ISO capabilities. Everyone already knows that both cameras look amazing at low ISOs, so I’ve started my comparison at ISO 3200. I didn’t even start to notice unpleasant noise in shots from either camera until ISO 6400, and even then it was only apparent when I zoomed in to the 100% view.

Below are several composites of all full-size photos from the shootout followed by 75% crops of each shot. At the end of each section are side-by-side shots that show what each camera’s photos look like at comparably high ISOs. All the D4 shots are slightly darker because they were taken immediately after the D800E shots, while the light was still fading. What I was really trying to illustrate was the noise characteristics of each camera at different ISOs, so I’m not too worried about the slightly different exposures.

The following photos were all shot in 14-bit RAW, AdobeRGB, with the cameras set to aperture priority and auto white balance. All shots were imported, resized and converted to 8-bit .jpg files via Adobe Lightroom 4. I used Adobe Photoshop 6 to create the composites and add text. With the exception of cropping and resizing, all photos appear exactly as they came out of the camera.

95mm @1/160, f/2.8, ISO 3200
95mm @1/160, f/2.8, ISO 3200
95mm @1/200, f/2.8, ISO 3200
95mm @1/200, f/2.8, ISO 3200

ISOComp1

Shots from both cameras at these ISOs seem great to me. The crops definitely highlight the D800E’s better sharpness thanks to its higher megapixel count, but the low noise in both shots is very similar, and very good! Let’s see what happens when we crank things up a notch.

A2web

95mm @1/320, f/2.8, ISO 6400
95mm @1/320, f/2.8, ISO 6400
95mm @1/400, f/2.8, ISO 6400
95mm @1/400, f/2.8, ISO 6400
95mm @1/640, f/2.8, ISO 12800
95mm @1/640, f/2.8, ISO 12800
95mm @1/800, f/2.8, ISO 12800
95mm @1/800, f/2.8, ISO 12800
95mm @1/1250, f/2.8, ISO 25600
95mm @1/1250, f/2.8, ISO 25600
95mm @1/1250, f/2.8, ISO 25600
95mm @1/1250, f/2.8, ISO 25600

ISOComp2

Honestly, I’m impressed with shots from both cameras up through ISO 12800. Shots from the D800E look way better than I expected at these high sensitivities, but I can definitely see some noticeable chroma noise in the shadow areas at ISO 25600. The D4 seems to handle color noise in the dark areas better as well as hold better color accuracy at higher ISOs. The D800E’s shots appeared to render colors cooler as I cranked up the sensitivity.

Just for fun, I’ve included shots from the D4’s crazy HI2, HI3 and HI4 settings, which are wisely unavailable on the D800E.

95mm @ 1/2500, f/2.8, ISO 51200
95mm @ 1/2500, f/2.8, ISO 51200
95mm @ 1/5000, f/2.8, ISO 102400
95mm @ 1/5000, f/2.8, ISO 102400
95mm @ 1/8000, f/2.8, ISO 204800
95mm @ 1/8000, f/2.8, ISO 204800

I can’t imagine too many scenarios where you would need to use any of the D4’s wildly high ISOs, but at least they’re there if you’re feeling creative. Shots at ISO 204800 do have a very painterly feel, so I guess there’s always the chance that these HI settings can be used to achieve some sort of artistic effect.

As for my overall opinion, based off these highly unscientific results; I’m torn. To be able to provide a fair assessment I think I’d need to conduct another shoot in controlled light, like an indoor theater or arena. The foggy twilight scenes above just had too many variables. That said, my gut tells me that the D4’s low light performance is slightly better.

In the types of situations I most often shoot, better low-light capabilities are much more valuable than improved sharpness and extra megapixels. However, the D800E’s absolutely stellar performance up to ISO 1600, and admirable performance up to ISO 12800, makes me feel much more confident about carrying it as a second body in mixed light and low light shooting situations moving forward.

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