By December 28, 2012 17 Comments

ISO Noise Comparison: Lumix GH3 and Canon 5D Mk2

Hey there it’s Marlene Hielema and in this blog post I’m going to be comparing the ISO of a half frame mirrorless camera to a full frame dSLR.

I’m really fussy when it comes to sensor noise

I’m doing this comparison because I’ve recently switched to using a Panasonic Lumix GH3 mirrorless camera in my photography and video. And I’m a real stickler when it comes to sensor noise. You could say I’m intolerant of high noise. Some people don’t mind it, but I’m not a fan. Plus I got this comment on a previous video I made comparing the weight GH3 and the Canon 5d Mk2: “you cannot beat iso and image quality of ff.”

I’m not trying to prove anyone right or wrong

I just want to know this for myself and instead of relying on anecdotal evidence, I’d like to see it with my own eyes!

ISO tolerance test

One of the things I like to do when I get a new digital camera is an ISO tolerance test. What is that? I like to push the ISO up on the camera in 1 stop increments and find out at what point is the noise TOO much for my liking.

In this video I compare the sensor noise of the GH3 with the Canon 5D Mk2.

A lot of people think the smaller sensor cameras like the GH3 can’t hold up to the full frame sensor cameras. I’m going to do a live test with no practicing or cheating to see if that’s true. So I’m going to shoot the pictures at the same ISO and exposure settings and then compare on the computer.

I shot raw files in this test because I’m a raw shooter. With raw files you can do quick and easy noise reduction using LR, Photoshop or Elements Adobe camera raw controls, but sometimes I don’t like the look that produces. I do a quick demo in the video too.

Check out the photos

Here are the photos that I shot, and they are just the small portion I looked at in the video.








My conclusions

As expected the larger sensor has less noise, especially over 800 ISO. As I mentioned in the video, the highest ISO I’ll shoot on my 5D Mark 2 is 1600, and on my GH3 is 800, unless I really have to go higher. There would have to be extraordinary circumstances for that to happen. I shot the video at the top at 800 ISO and you can’t see any noise at all.

I can live with a small sensor and some noise at high ISO because:

  • the Lumix is lighter by 2.2 pounds than the equivalent Canon 5D Mk2 and 24-70mm 2.8 lens combination
  • the Lumix costs less
  • the Lumix has really good auto focus video, which my Canon does not have
  • and I’m really happy with the sharpness of the 12-35 f2.8 lens I got with the camera. (Did you notice how sharp it was?)
  • and I really like the flip around LCD screen on the back

What about you? Are you ready to make the move to a smaller sensor camera?

Let us know in the comments.

About the Author:

With over 20 years as a pro shooting editorial, sports, corporate and industrial photography, Marlene Hielema has become comfortable with the craft of digital output. As a photo and video tinkerer and troubleshooter, Marlene enjoys relaying the practical uses of photo and video hardware and software that you might not find on the manufacturer's or software publisher's websites. Thousands have seen her work on YouTube and her popular site where Marlene teaches photography and photo editing online, in the classroom, and one-to-one. Find out more about what Marlene can help you with here on discovermirrorless, as well as and

17 Comments on "ISO Noise Comparison: Lumix GH3 and Canon 5D Mk2"

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  1. PhotoLynch says:

    I used to own a 5d Mk2 and before that a 40D. After that I have a 60d and Rebels. One thing that stands out to me with noise tests is the quality of the noise. I don’t think people discuss this very often, but how does it visually look? I did use high ISO’s quiet a bit and it wasn’t uncommon to be in 1600 – 3200, from my experience I can tell you the 5d2 was great at overall noise but it was also lousy with the quality of it. There was odd chroma issues and banding problems even at some lower ISOs. The Sony NEX system handles noise well, but has bad quality compared to the Olympus OM-D which has great noise quality.

    When it looks more like a fine detailed grain vs. weird colors and artifacts I think it’s much nicer. I don’t listen to those who say a FF is king, sure it has many positives but it’s just another tool.

  2. I totally agree Steven. This is the first time I really noticed the quality of the noise, and I think it took this side-by-side comparison for me to realize that. And I quite like the “grain-like” noise of the Lumix too. Thanks for your comment :)

  3. RockyPtJoe says:

    Marlene, it was an interesting analysis. However, it came across as a conclusion in search of proof (or should I call it rationalization???). The only portion that was a “fair” comparison of the noise levels was the side by side, and that was up for a very short period of time in the video. When you start looking at the noise levels in a side by side as you have at the end of the blog, I can see the difference, even at 800.

    No doubt the Lumix is an excellent camera, particularly for video. Considering the size of the sensor, the noise levels at the various ISO you examined are also notable. The weight definitely could be a factor for some. The Canon has it’s limitations in the area of video, particularly when it comes to autofocus.

    However, if you are “fussy” (as you state) when it comes to noise, the Canon full frame is the obvious winner in that area, at least to my eye and preferences. I still remember “grain” shooting Tri-X “pushed”! If you like the Lumix and prefer it for your work, that’s great. I would definitely agree if I did more video. Just don’t rationalize your choice and evaluation when it comes to the comparative noise levels.

  4. Jay_S says:

    There are some other differences noticeable in these images. It appears there is a focus issue with the 5D II relative to the Lumix. Are we looking at the same f/stop in each image (there is also some metering differences it appears) in terms of contrast. Are these RAW, what sharpness setting on each, tripod and remote shutter, etc. Not saying the Lumix is or isn’t better in some instances, but without some of the above, it’s hard to know how much of a 1 to 1 comparison we have, e.g. the 24-70 2.8 is softer at 2.8..

  5. Yes there are other differences and you’ve spotted them all Jay. I realize my experiment is not as scientific as is could be. Yes, I used same (default) sharpness settings, same f-stop and shutter speed in each pairing and similar file size as well. Because of the smaller sensor of the Lumix, you get better depth of field. I’ve been told that one of the reasons pro videographers like the ff sensors so much is because of the fast lenses that result in shallower depth of field than “regular” video cameras. Having said that though, I’ve got no problems getting nice bokeh from this camera/lens combo and I plan to do a future vlog post on that very topic. Thanks for your comments! Always great to have feedback.

  6. Great comments Rocky! You’ve got me there. Granted this isn’t the most scientific experiment, and sensor experts here at DM will attest to that, and have also let me know the weak points in my argument. They also assure me that size doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to sensors, especially now that sensors are getting so much better in quality with each generation. And they tell me that in-camera processing (ie jpgs) is much better than the method I used. So I’m going to shoot some jpgs next and see how the jpg noise and the RAW noise of the GH3 compare. I hadn’t even thought of that before doing this test, as I don’t shoot many jpgs, but now I realize how important it is, as video is 30 jpgs per second, so I better know what my ISO limit is!

    I’m using this camera as an all-rounder. I shoot as much video as stills these days and was very frustrated with the video process via the 5D Mk2. And all the extra gadgets needed like heavier tripod, Z-Finder, plus the heavy 24-70mm lens were making me NOT want to shoot at all. The Lumix has relieved that pressure. I travel regularly, and it always felt like work when I had to haul the 5D entourage around, so often, I just left it at home and instead took the mini Lumix LX5, which feels like wearing a necklace by comparison. Now I will have no qualms taking a “real” camera on a cycling trip. Plus I like to do carry-on baggage.

    Thank you for taking the time to write such thoughtful comments and constructive criticism. I know it’s not always easy to do. I definitely see it as a way to improve my future blog posts. ~M

  7. Jay_S says:

    Thanks for the reply. So yes, DOF is going to be critical in some roles. A 1.2 or 1.4 prime in portrait photography can be an amazing tool and for much the same reason, with video on a DSLR, you’ve got more of the artistic effect you see in film making.. Higher end video cameras with interchangeable lens’ avoid the small sensor and camcorder issue. Will look forward to the vlog. :-) Happy New Year!!

  8. RockyPtJoe says:

    Thank YOU for the reply! AS I indicated, if the Lumix works for you and what you shoot, that is great. There is now a choice for photographers with the mirrorless, and they have to decide what tradeoffs they are willing to accept….there are always tradeoffs!!!

  9. Yes, there are always tradeoffs indeed! I’ve enjoyed our discussion. Happy New Year! Marlene.

    p.s. I always try to respond to comments, especially when they invite discussion, as yours did.

  10. PhotoLynch says:

    Couldn’t agree more about the weight. I’m only shooting with a 60D / T2i combo and still having to use a very heavy video tripod. If I want to do an ENG Style carry around I have a shoulder rig which is also not light and takes some strength to use.

    Unfortunately I was in a car accident this year and hurt my neck and back and I physically have trouble carrying the heavier gear around now. Another reason I’m selling!

    My GF3 has been great in the size / weight.

    Happy New Year!

  11. Yes, it’s shocking how light the GH3 is and how it packs all the punch I need. I’ve had hip and neck problems from carrying a 30+ pound camera bag on assignment shooting bike races and walking for miles with all the gear. This camera can hang off my neck no problem.

    Happy New Year to you too Steven! Thanks for your comments. Great to have the feedback.

  12. agachart says:

    maybe miss understood of this proof
    GH3/GH2 HACKED vs 5d FF sensor can you compare
    in alias,moire and artifacts because ISO
    tiny sensor cannot beat giant sensor alway
    ,i sure others test(such as moire) is different

    or you are only still camera shooting
    you don’t know about deep video camera !!!

  13. agachart says:

    mistake in wrong way ,maybe GH3 Vs. 5D MARK III
    is very interesting.GH series can beat 5D in video mode.
    Can you test again check moire,alias and DR .

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