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Sony Alpha NEX 3 / 5 (firmware v2) Gordon Laing, September 2010

Sony Alpha NEX-5 results : Real-life resolution / lens sharpness at 18mm / lens sharpness at 55mm / High ISO Noise / HHT / AMB

Sony Alpha NEX-5 vs Olympus E-P2 vs Nikon D90 High ISO Noise (auto contrast modes disabled)

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To compare noise levels under real-life conditions we shot this scene with the Sony Alpha NEX-5, Olympus E-P2 and the Nikon D90 within a few moments of each other at each of their ISO settings. Best quality JPEG and default noise reduction settings were used, but auto contrast modes were disabled on each camera. The NEX-5 was running firmware v2.

Each camera was fitted with its respective kit lens, set to their optimum apertures and adjusted to deliver the same vertical field of view.

Since the cheaper Sony Alpha NEX-3 shares the same sensor and imaging pipeline as the NEX-5, not to mention the same kit lens option, the results below are also representative of what you'd achieve with that camera.

Nikon's D90 may be an older model, but still represents one of the best cameras in its class, especially at high sensitivities; the results for the D90 also provide an indication of what you can expect from the cheaper D5000 and pricier D300s, as all three bodies share the same sensor and imaging pipeline.

The NEX-5 under-exposed this shot for the region we wanted to crop, so we applied +1EV compensation for the sequence below. The image above was taken with the Sony Alpha NEX-5 at 200 ISO with an exposure of 1/3 (following +1EV compensation) and the lens set to 20mm f5.6; the original Large Fine JPEG measured 4.5MB. The exposures from the D90 and E-P2 below have no compensation applied as their default metering delivered images which matched the desired subject brightness.

As stated above, the automatic contrast modes on each camera were disabled as these can artificially introduce noise. As such, the Dynamic Range Optimizer on the Sony and Active D-Lighting on the Nikon were both disabled, while Gradation was set to Normal on the Olympus.

Note we also tested the Sony's Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes in this location and you can see results for these on the next pages. But now back to the main ISO sequence. The crops below are taken from the areas marked with the red squares and presented here at 100%. The crops from the D90 show a larger area due to its lower vertical resolution.

Without a 100 ISO setting on the Sony, the sequence starts with the Olympus E-P2 and Nikon D90, albeit with the latter operating one stop below its base sensitivity. As you'd expect, both crops at this lowest sensitivity are detailed and bereft of noise, although the default JPEG processing strategies noted on our Real Life Resolution page remain quite apparent here. As such the Olympus E-P2's crops are arguably a little over-cooked with high sharpness and contrast, while the Nikon D90's are relatively soft and laid-back in comparison.

The Sony Alpha NEX-5 starts its campaign at 200 ISO with a very clean and detailed result, which again as we saw on our first results page, adopts a satisfying processing style somewhere between the other two models on test – that is to say, sufficiently processed to bring out the detail without causing undesirable artefacts. In the meantime, obsessive pixel peepers may notice the faintest whiff of noise textures on the other two models at 200 ISO, but it's absolutely nothing to worry about at this point.

Doubling the sensitivity to 400 ISO has virtually no effect on the NEX-5 crop which essentially looks unchanged from the 200 ISO sample. The Olympus E-P2 is however now exhibiting some noise textures; again nothing too serious with the rest of the image remaining saturated and detailed, but it's definitely visibly noisier than the Sony. In the meantime the Nikon D90 falls roughly in-between with less noise than the Olympus, but still a fraction more than the Sony.

At 800 ISO, a tiny amount of noise has crept into the Sony image, but the NEX is still holding it together very well. In contrast, the noise levels on both the Olympus and Nikon crops have increased, while the subject has gradually softened; again it's far from bad, but revealingly the Sony remains in front.

This leadership continues at 1600 ISO, where even though the Sony NEX sample is exhibiting visible noise textures, it remains cleaner than its two rivals here. It's also better-retaining subject detail and saturation.

At 3200 ISO, the Sony NEX is finally beginning to suffer from both higher noise textures and reduced subject detail, but it's leaps and bounds ahead of the Olympus E-P2 at this point; the smaller sensor in the Olympus is struggling now. Interestingly though, despite the D90 sharing the same sensor area as the Sony – not to mention a slightly lower pixel density – the DSLR is still falling behind a little.

At 6400 ISO, the Sony NEX image has become quite muddy, but again remains ahead of its rivals. The smaller sensor of the Olympus E-P2 is now operating way beyond its comfort zone, and revealingly the Nikon D90 is still visibly behind the NEX.

The Sony NEX then bravely goes onto offer a 12,800 ISO option which looks pretty bad and should only be used in emergency situations. But at this point it's roughly similar to the E-P2 at 3200 ISO. Indeed while we'd say all three cameras start at roughly the same point in noise levels, the Sony NEX quickly gains a one stop advantage over the Olympus E-P2, which extends to almost two stops by the time the maximums are reached.

To be fair the Olympus, along with other Micro Four Thirds cameras, has a smaller sensor, so it's not surprising to find the Sony NEX taking a lead at higher sensitivities, but it is a visible advantage - and from a smaller body too. What's really impressive though is how the NEX stacks up against the Nikon D90, which has lead high ISO performance in its class since launch. In our sequence below there's not a massive difference between them, but we'd say the NEX enjoys a small lead over this formidable rival. To match the D90 would have been impressive enough, but to exceed its performance – even by a minor amount – is an impressive feat from any camera, especially one that's a fraction of the size.

In short, a triumph for the Sony Alpha NEX-5 here, along with its cheaper sibling, the NEX-3 which again shares the same sensor. Sony's managed to deliver top-class DSLR performance at high sensitivities in a very compact body, and has laid down the gauntlet for rivals. It's a great result for the NEX system and also bodes well for the Alpha A33 which we believe shares the same sensor.

But that's not the end of the story. The NEX cameras additionally inherit a couple of neat tricks from the Cyber-shot range which promise to further increase low light performance. Check out our Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur results.

Alternatively if you've already seen enough, head on over to our Sony Alpha NEX-5 Sample Images Gallery for more examples across its sensitivity range, or head straight over to our verdict!

Sony Alpha NEX-5
Olympus E-P2
Nikon D90
100 ISO not available
100 ISO
L1.0 (100 ISO)
200 ISO
200 ISO
200 ISO
400 ISO
400 ISO
400 ISO
800 ISO
800 ISO
800 ISO
1600 ISO
1600 ISO
1600 ISO
3200 ISO
3200 ISO
3200 ISO
6400 ISO
6400 ISO
H1.0 (6400 ISO)
12800 ISO
12800 ISO not available
12800 ISO not available

Sony Alpha NEX-5 results : Real-life resolution / lens sharpness at 18mm / lens sharpness at 55mm / High ISO Noise / HHT / AMB

All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2017 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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