In a word – holy sh*t!
Not only is the D3100 a *massive* improvement over the D3000 in image quality at high ISO, it is in fact in a virtual tie with the D90 at high ISO. And since it adds 2 megapixels and sits at the bottom of the lineup, this is really big news! This camera leaves nothing on the table in my opinion. And note – I am strictly talking about high ISO image quality here.
So how did I divine this, since I do not own any of the camera in question? The answer, as always, is that I fashioned a set of crops from the images at imaging-resource. I favor their low light images in the high ISO series of the mannequin … I always take crops that encompass the left eye and some hair, so we can see how the high contrast eye will fare next to the low contrast hair, which is much more difficult to get right.
I equalized the sizes up to the D3100. The difference in resolution at every level was minor, in fact trivial for D90 up to D3100.
So … the crops. Click through because it is obviously much larger than the 400px version shown here …
- The D3000 images are mediocre at best and excrutiatingly noisy at worst. I hope the camera is better than that in practical use.
- The D3100 matches the D90 almost exactly at every ISO. Wow.
- 3200 ISO is usable now from the entry level D3100. That’s a miracle.
- 14mp is a trivial improvement over 12mp, a bit better on top of the 10mp of the D3000. But it’s all psychological, let’s face it.
Nikon has a real winner here. Small, light and packing a fantastic sensor. I really am very impressed. This would be a definite buy if it supported my AF lenses and AI lens. Who knows …. it still might be.
Edit: ReD BaRoN added a comment asking me to compare the D5000 and T2i as well. I agree that more cameras could be compared in this way to try to guess a bit which ones will be satisfying in low light and which might not be …
First off, I did not include the D5000 because it has the same sensor as the D90 and the jpegs are awfully similar. I don’t really consider the images coming out of the D5000, D90, D300 and D300s to have any differences worth contemplating.
But I *did* include the T2i. And I added the NEX-5, since people are pretty excited about that camera nowadays. And I droppe din the Pentax Kx since many think it has the best jpegs out there today. So let’s have a look, shall we?
My further analysis (and please click through to see the crops at 100%):
- First, let me correct a slight oversight. The D90 crop at 3200 ISO has visible color blotching around the eye. Not a lot, but enough to tip me towards the D3100 … wow, Nikon really scored with that cam.
- Now, the Canon T2i. Nice (very) detail around the eye. Looks like the cam is really good with high contrast details. Pretty good detail in the hair as well. This might be because Canon has a lot of pixels and so this cam was downsized quite a bit to match the D3100. That said, I dislike the white balance … all the others are close to each other, and this one is way off. It is also a bit dark, hiding some important details like eyebrow hairs. (Yes, I know these are normalized to 100% crops from the D3100, and this is like looking at 40” posters.) Anyway, the 3200 crop looks like pretty much a tie with the two Nikons. So get whichever one you want … the only difference I see is the white balance.
- The Sony NEX-5 certainly holds its own at 800 ISO. Not bad at all. 1600 seems to be on par with the upsized D90, but the D90 and the other cams hold better detail in the hair. It’s not massive and it is absolutely invisible at web sizes, but it is visible at these sizes.
- And finally the Pentax Kx … the cam everyone thinks is the second coming … and if you look at the eye detail – especially that upper eyelash – you will find it amazing. There is also no chroma noise anywhere to be found around the hair and eye … amazing. Yet there is a weakness, and it is exactly the kind of weakness I really dislike … the hair is excessively smoothed. The bands of flat loking non-detail are wider than they are on any of the others. The hair looks wet … almost helmet-hair. And that’s even on the 800 ISO shot (quite subtle, but there.) This is really disappointing to me … I would much rather have coraser looking hair with the impression of individual strands that very nice fine hair with patches of helmet. I am frankly surprised.
The new bottom line:
- The D3100 and T2i are tied on tier 1
- The D90 is only a hair behind so it remains on tier 1, but in 3rd place
- The Kx is on tier 2 because I *hate* clumping of the hair at high ISO, so all that work for wonderful high contrast details kind of feels wasted
- The NEX 5 is definitely tier 3
- The D3000 should pick up its marbles and go home
Interestingly … for those willing to shoot RAW, my guess is that the D40x through D3000 still make a fine and very cheap travel camera. But if you want a party cam, please opt for the more modern sensors …
Oh … and one more thing … I am a huge fan of the Canon and Nikon hegemony … and the reason is that I like their systems (huge), I like their used markets (huge) and I like the idea that I can rent a lens or body anywhere in the world if I need to for whatever reason.