Saturday, October 15, 2011

Battle of the sensor sizes for low light supremacy – Nikon V1 versus Panasonic G3 versus Canon S95 / Canon G12 versus Nikon D5100

DPReview has updated their comparison engine with images from the very latest sensors, so I thought it might be time to perform an analysis of the updated sensors based on crops. I claim fair use copyrights for my screen captures of their crops and I will not display any of their images in full.

The market is rapidly moving to full coverage of sensor sizes now, with Nikon having plugged a hole right in the middle of the range with the new V1 interchangeable lens mirrorless camera. This completes the range from tiny to large and I will choose four popular representatives of their size for this comparison. All are affordable within their ranges, so this is a relatively fair comparison for your dollar per unit of low light supremacy :-)


The contenders are:

  • Nikon D5100 – occupying the pinnacle of the entry dSLR market, the D5100 has Nikon’s (and arguably the world’s) best APS-C sensor(crop factor 1.5x) in it. Superb dynamic range and superb high ISO clarity. At 16mp, the details it can pick up, even at 3200 ISO, are rather breathtaking.
  • Panasonic G3 – one of the most recent mirrorless cameras with a 4/3” sensor (crop factor 2x) in it. At 16mp, it is also capable of picking up breathtaking levels of detail, even at high ISO. But with less area for light gathering, the jpeg engine must start to compromise in certain areas and we will see that.
  • Nikon V1 – the newest camera in this group, the V1 is the first 1” sensor (crop factor 3) and so deserves special attention. Since this specific comparison is also a jpeg engine comparison, it will be interesting to see how far Nikon have managed to push this new sensor, especially in light of the camera being as large as the 4/3 cameras but with a smaller sensor. Can they compete in low light? At 10mp, the sensor gives up a lot of resolving power, but has the potential to maintain very good clarity at higher ISO in jpeg because of the lower amount of chroma noise reduction that lower densities tend to require. I expect a very competitive performance.
  • Canon S95 / Canon G12 -- the final slot in this test is occupied by a very popular pocket camera with an excellent sensor, the S95. This sensor is shared by the Canon G12 as well, so you can consider these results valid for either body. This slot should have been occupied by a 2/3” sensor (crop factor 4), but the only serious contender is the brand new Fujifilm X10, and it is not available on the tool yet. We’ll have to wait. Meanwhile, this 1/1.7” sensor (crop factor around 5) can stand in as the most popular one in its small sensor class. Despite its conservative 10mp resolution, the S95 gives up so much light gathering capacity that I expect it to run into real clarity issues at 3200 ISO. Note also that a new generation of sensors might be in the offing for Canon with the S100. But again it is too soon to see that one here.

Why 3200 ISO? Because that’s where you want to be able to shoot reasonably well at parties, and it is where the technology should be able to perform fairly well in this generation of sensors.

What we should see is a pretty clear improvement in details and smearing from the smallest to the largest sensors. Because this is also a jpeg comparison, we may see a slight disruption in the transitions, though. Nikon has some jpeg tricks up its sleeve these days and may compete with the 4/3” sensors a bit better than expected.

Watch Face

Starting with something fairly easy, the watch on the right side gives us a look at how well the small details like the signature and tick marks show up. The blue watch face gives us an indication of the smoothness of grain.


Analysis: The top two sensors (right side) pull a lot of detail and have no smearing. The V1 pulls good detail and shows little smearing. The S95 smears pretty badly, but the watch face is legible and would look ok at web sizes.

The order of clarity: D5100, G3, V1, S95


Dark area with thread

This is a really challenging area, since some of the details (a spool of thread on its side) are dark and in shadow. This is the first surprise of the comparison in my opinion, with the two Nikons easily defeating the others for detail retention.


The second and forth sensors (bottom) show us the general layout of the objects and show us some color, but the Nikons are resolving the little fluff balls and even some detail on the thread on the spool on its side. This is an expected performance from the D5100 and an amazing performance from the V1. It would appear that this smallish sensor has inherited some of the best properties of its big brother sensor, and that bodes very well.

The order of clarity: D5100, V1, G3, S95

The Globe

A test of resolution and cleanliness. Both must be there for the text to remain legible at high ISO. Amazingly, this does not quite adhere to the expected results … again.


This one is close in the middle again. The D5100 easily crushes the others, with the G3 second in detail gathering, as it should be. But, the word Tanzania (to the right of CONGO) is not all that legible because of high grain. The V1 is equally legible down to reasonable text sizes (for its resolution) and the overall smoothness is better than the G3, looking like a smaller version of the D5100. Definitely amore pleasing crop than the G3 and S95. This makes the V1 and G3 tied in my opinion (YMMV), each being strong in one of the two areas that matter at high ISO. The S95 is just pounded here.

Order of clarity: D5100, G3/V1, S95

The Bottle Cap

This one is about smooth detail and surface roundness. In other words, does a smooth metal rounded surface look 3-dimensional? The results are again a bit off the beaten path.


Here, the V1 looks the best to me. The perfect combination of contrast and tone, and absolutely perfect roundness (which really means that the transitions and edges are all intact with no smearing or noise reduction blur.)

The D5100 is also essentially perfect but suffers from slightly lighter tones, which hurts this crop a bit. The G3 is one step down again, with some loss of edge detail in the knurling. And the Canon is horrid, as might be expected.

Order of clarity: V1 (!), D5100, G3, S95

Becoming a believer yet?

The Feathers

This is a very tough test of super fine details of moderate contrast and excellent edges. There is also a feather on the right that has extremely low contrast, making it the most difficult detail in the entire test.

The results here are equivocal.


The difficult feather on the right is resolved only by the D5100. The V1 comes close, but the G3 misses badly and the S95 is embarrassed, again.

The less difficult feather on the left gives us a hint of the strength in Panasonic’s jpeg engine, edge detail of moderate to high contrast. The small, but well-delineated feather veins are clearest on the G3 with the D5100 right behind. The V1 does remarkably well also. Forget the Canon.

The D5100 gets the nod when the whole crop is analyzed, with the G3 and V1 pretty close to each other overall. The Canon is left in the dust.

Order of clarity: D5100, G3, V1, S95

The coin and face

I always go to this crop as a second test of 3-dimensionality. The face also has some of the very finest high contrast detail available in the cross-hatching of the eyebrows. We again have a surprise winner.


Clearly, the G3 has it all here. It picks up the subtle texture on the forehead (although the D5100 does it a bit better) and it picks up the hatching of the eyebrow, which none of the others manage (including the D5100.) Again, edges and high contrast are simply amazing on the G3. The coin is well handled, although again I like the Nikons for a more rounded appearance. But it is clean on the G3 and that’s what really matters. Details in the hair and above left of the head are sharper and clearer on the G3 than any of the others as well. So …

Order of clarity: G3, D5100, V1, S95

And Finally: The Wool

The needlepoint in the middle is, for me, the quintessential test of 3-dimensionality and smearing. It shows us what can be achieved in fine, low contrast details like hair when the noise reduction is balanced just right. It also requires a very efficient sensor, since you need a lot of light to resolve low contrast detail.

The order is again unexpected as the Nikons run away with it by many lengths.


The D5100 and V1 show us exactly how the needlepoint should look. For 3200 ISO, this is a magnificent performance in my view.

The G3 looks ok, but the texture in the wool has vanished to smearing. The jpeg engine definitely needs work in this area. Or perhaps the sensor is not very efficient.

The Canon is what it is … a decent performance for a tiny sensor, but totally outclassed just as the laws of physics would tell us.

Order of clarity: D5100/V1 (!), G3, S95


A surprisingly close battle.

The D5100 wins easily overall. The G3 holds its own and even excels when there is a lot of edge detail and moderate to high contrast. The V1 gives up to much resolution to compete where edge detail is concerned, but clarity and low contrast details are superb. I consider it an absolute toss up between the 1” and the 4/3” sensors, at least as seen through these two jpeg engines.

And finally, the Canon. Defeated easily at 3200. You really don’t want to go there. In RAW, maybe you could eek out more detail, but then the other three pull that much further ahead as well.

Final order of clarity: D5100, G3 / V1, S95

My opinions and your mileage may vary. But were I looking for a small mirrorless camera, my ownership of Nikon lenses would make the V1 a slam dunk over the G3. Wow …