The D5 Dynamic Range Discussion

March 25th
Quite a bit of discussion is being made of Bill Claff’s initial D5 dynamic range testing. We need to do this in steps, I think. First, here’s Bill’s D3s versus D4s plot:


At the higher ISO values, the D3s manages to come quite close to the D4s. Both cameras tend to have fairly flat response in the base to ISO 800 range, though the D4s does indeed do better than the D3s in this range by an observable and sometimes useful amount.

But let’s discuss what these things might mean in real life. 

The first thing you have to ask yourself is this: what is the range of light values in the scene you’re trying to capture? Is it less than what the camera can capture at the ISO you’re using? If so, you’re not going to see any tangible difference between a D3s and D4s as long as (a) you exposed correctly; and (b) you’re not attempting to raise the shadows greatly in a lower ISO image. 

The funny thing that’s going on right now is the inverse of what didn’t happen at the D3s/D4 transition: people are now complaining about the low ISO gap they tolerated before. Technically, many (if not most) who had a D3 series camera looked at the D4 series performance and didn’t really see the advantage of moving up to the new camera. Indeed, Nikon’s changes to battery and other accessories, plus the fact that the focus system and other parts of the camera didn’t change much in useful ways, tended to make them overlook the dynamic range performance gap at the low ISO values. I don’t remember anyone running around proclaiming that the D4 was a clear winner because it had better dynamic range at low ISO values.



When we look at the D4s versus D5, the D5 is still doing the same thing the D3s did in the low ISO values, but look at the shift in the high ISO values: better than the D4s or D3s. 

So what’s my conclusion? Well, the D3s was a fine camera and still one I recommend to people looking for a lower cost for pro level performance and attributes. The D5 starts to clearly outperform the D3s at about ISO 2500, but probably just matches it below that. This time around, however, Nikon has made changes to the other systems that are in the camera, especially focus and video. 

The irony of all this is that Canon seems to be working towards trying to get better low ISO dynamic range, while Nikon—having benefited from the Sony on-sensor ADC for so long—appears to some to be going the other way.

In one discussion I wrote “You choose the tool for the job.” If shooting in low light is the job, the D5 is clearly the right Nikon tool. If shooting at base ISO is the job, the D810 probably is the right tool. As I’ve written many times now, I dislike that Nikon has removed the ability for us to use the same exact body for different purposes: D1h and D1x, D2h and D2x, D3 and D3x, but starting with the D4 only D4 and D810 or now D5 and D810. 

Here’s my question to Nikon: if the h/x pairings were the right thing to do from 2000 to 2012, what happened in 2012 that made it the wrong thing to do? ;~) 

I don’t think we’d even really be having this discussion were there a D5h and D5x pair. We’d simply use the D5h in low light, the D5x in good light. Of course, the D810 is a lot cheaper than the D3x was, so we did get that benefit. Still, if Nikon’s going to optimize to specific tasks, I think they’re pursuing the wrong product line strategy with bodies. I really want to see a D5h/D5x and a D850h/D850x set. 

So is this dynamic range panic that’s going on in some discussions something you should be concerned about or not? I’d say not. We’ve got more pixels, better low light performance, and no worse than D3s low ISO performance. Is that really terrible? I think not. 

Do we want it all? Sure. Who wouldn’t? But personally, I’m not concerned about what Nikon’s done at the sensor at all. I suppose it does mean that my D5 won’t be doing a lot of landscapes in tough lighting, but I’m looking forward to using it in situations where I do have to push the ISO.

I can’t remember when I first wrote this (probably just after the D3x was introduced): if you’re absolutely trying to nail every last ounce of data integrity you can from the photon-to-electron transfer, you use Camera A (D3x) up to some ISO (800 then) and Camera B (D3/D3s) above that. As you can probably guess, that thought still applies:


And oh, by the way, the D810 is still the best all-around DSLR you can buy ;~). 

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