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I recently upgraded from a Nikon D750 to a Nikon Z6 II and came across this graph plotting the read noise (Y axis) against the ISO setting (X axis) of both cameras:

Input-inferred read noise versus ISO setting

As you can see, there is a big drop in read noise on the Z6 II at ISO 800, while the read noise of the D750 is a lot more "ISO invariant". I am wondering what this read noise actually is, how it relates to the noise I see in my photos, and how the information in this graph can help me take less noisy pictures.

Let's say I'm in a situation where either ISO 800 or ISO 640 would give a somewhat proper exposure. Given the huge drop in read noise, would I be better off choosing ISO 800 than ISO 640 to minimize noise? And given that the lowest read noise is at ISO 25600, why shouldn't I always shoot at the highest ISO? And finally, why is there less read noise at higher ISOs in the first place?

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Read noise is essentially circuit noise from readout of the sensor photosites up through ADC conversion into digital values. It is typically mostly amplifier and capacitor switching noise.

But that is an input referred noise graph. It does not mean what you think it does... more the opposite really. It is a graph of the input current required to generate the same system noise as the circuit does in normal use.

What you probably want is this chart: "Read Noise in DNs" (digital numbers)... which includes ADC error/noise contributions. https://photonstophotos.net/Charts/RN_ADU.htm#Nikon%20Z%206II_14 enter image description here

Here you see the same drop in read noise at ISO 800; but otherwise noise increases with ISO, and the lowest value is at base ISO as one would expect.

That drop in read noise is typical of a sensor that uses dual gain photosites, and it occurs when the second gain stage (capacitor) is disabled. In this case it does indeed mean you would be better off using ISO 800 than ISO 318-640 in terms of read noise.

But probably equally relevant is this chart: "Photographic Dynamic Range Shadow Improvement" https://photonstophotos.net/Charts/PDR_Shadow.htm

enter image description here This chart shows the increase in useful information recorded by using a higher ISO (as compared to underexposing/recovering). You can see that from base ISO - 640 there is only about .25 stop/EV of improvement (less than ~.5 stop is visually insignificant). But at ISO 800 there is a full stop increase, which is significant. And then it essentially doesn't change after that point; which means the sensor is "ISO Invariant" from 800 on. Basically the camera has (effectively) two levels of ISO invariance... ISO 100 for dual gain operation, and ISO 800 for single gain operation.


Edit: I do have permission to reuse/repost Bill's copyrighted material in context.

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  • I do not have permission, but I'll leave the question of whether sharing a line chart to study it constitutes fair use or not to law.stackexchange.com. I hope Bill's not mad. Anyway, amazing answer with all the right details. Thanks! Jan 30 at 18:49
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    I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be... it's kind of the reason he posts it (education/discussion/study) Jan 30 at 18:58

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