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Olympus OM-D E-M5 Ken McMahon & Gordon Laing, June 2012
 
 

Olympus E-M5 vs Sony NEX-7 vs Nikon D3200 noise in RAW

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  Olympus OM-D E-M5 results
1 Olympus E-M5 Quality
2 Olympus E-M5 RAW vs JPEG
3 Olympus E-M5 Noise
4 Olympus E-M5 Noise (RAW)
5 Olympus E-M5 vs Panasonic GX1 Noise
6 Olympus E-M5 Sample images

To compare actual noise levels under real-life conditions, I shot this scene with the Olympus E-M5, Sony NEX-7 and Nikon D3200 within a few moments of each other using their RAW modes at each of their ISO sensitivity settings.

Each camera was fitted with its respective kit zoom and adjusted to deliver the same vertical field of view. The cameras were set to Aperture Priority exposure mode with the ISO senstivity set manually.

On this page you'll see noise reduction turned off completely to reveal what's happening behind the scenes.


The RAW files were processed in Adobe Camera RAW using identical settings: Sharpening at 70 / 0.5 / 36 / 10, Luminance and Colour Noise Reduction both set to zero, and the Process to 2012 with the Adobe Standard profile. These settings were chosen to reveal the differences in sensor quality and isolate them from in-camera processing. The high degree of sharpening with a small radius enhances the finest details without causing undesirable artefacts, while the zero noise reduction unveils what's really going on behind the scenes - as such the visible noise levels will be much higher than you're used to seeing in many of my comparisons, but again it's an approach that's designed to show the actual detail that's being recorded before you start work on processing and cleaning it up if desired.

Once again the two 24 Megapixel contenders, the Sony NEX-7 and Nikon D3200, kick-off this sequence at 100 ISO. Despite sharing what I believe is the same sensor, their RAW output when processed using the conditions above delivers quite different-looking results. The D3200 crop is much better-defined with higher contrast than the NEX-7, but remember the purpose of the RAW conversion described above is not to make the images look good but to reveal the amount of detail and noise in them prior to processing. In terms of noise, there's a faint sprinkling in the background, but nothing to be concerned about.

The Olympus E-M5 joins-in at 200 ISO with a similar degree of background noise to the other pair, but very crisp details; meanwhile the text on the NEX-7 crop is already becoming less defined. At 400 ISO the noise levels have increased on all three, but again remain similar in amount and style when viewed at 100%.

At 800 and 1600 ISO the noise levels steadily increase, but again remain at similar levels across all three models when viewed at 100%. As the sensitivity increases though, look at the degree of fine detail that's still resolved. The text on the E-M5 sample is definitely more legible than the NEX-7, a difference that's particularly noticeable at 1600 ISO and beyond.

At the higher sensitivities the noise levels again remain fairly similar on all three models – again when viewed at 100% - but the Olympus continues to enjoy better details than the Sony.

I keep qualifying 100% views because that's what we're comparing below, but to be fair the higher resolutions of the Sony and Nikon mean you're viewing a smaller portion of their total images than the Olympus. While comparisons made at 100% are relevant, it's equally important to compare the quality made at the same reproduction, such as on the same sized print. You can simulate this on-screen by down-sampling the 24 Megapixel images to 16 Megapixels, at which point they show the same-sized areas when cropped. In this instance, any artefacts become smaller than when viewed at 100%, but even though this evens the playing-field between the Sony / Nikon and the Olympus, the fact is the E-M5 still keeps hold of finer details than the NEX-7 beyond 400 ISO in this test. Again it's particularly clear at 1600 ISO and beyond where anyone can see no amount of down-sampling on the NEX-7 image is going to match the E-M5's detail.

This is a very interesting result and one which will surprise many. Sony's NEX system with its large APS-C sensors is generally believed to deliver better low light quality than the smaller sensors of its Micro Four Thirds rivals. This may be true when the NEX models stick to modest resolutions, but with 24 Megapixels, Sony has arguably pushed the density a little too far and any advantage of its sensor real-estate for lower noise is lost. Of course it's a sacrifice you may be willing to make to have that amount of pixels in the image, but what this test proves is the actual degree of background noise at the pixel-level before processing on the NEX-7 and E-M5 is roughly the same despite their different sensor areas. And crucially the E-M5 is actually retaining more fine detail at higher sensitivities even when the NEX-7 image is down-sampled to the same resolution.

Now there are other factors at play here including the lens selection and how well – or not – the respective cameras handle the processing by Adobe Camera RAW. So since what's presented here may be perceived as a controversial result by some I'll try and perform another comparison in the near future with higher quality lenses on both cameras.

In the meantime though it's an excellent result for the Olympus E-M5. In this test it equals or surpasses the quality of the NEX-7, which ranks it as one of the best quality mirrorless CSCs using a traditional Bayer colour filter on the sensor.

The only test remaining is to see how it compares to its big rival in the Micro Four Thirds format itself: the Panasonic G3 / GX1. Both cameras share the same format and the same 16 Megapixel resolution, but is the sensor itself the same? Find out in my Olympus E-M5 vs Panasonic G3 / GX1 noise results, or if you've already seen enough, skip straight to my Olympus E-M5 sample images or verdict.


Olympus OM-D E-M5 RAW
 
Sony NEX-7 RAW
 
Nikon D3200 RAW
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Olympus OM-D E-M5 results : Quality / RAW vs JPEG / Noise



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