ISO WARS: The Olympus E-P3 vs The Sony NEX-5!

ISO WARS: The Olympus E-P3 vs The Sony NEX-5!

When Olympus released the E-P1, the camera suffered from slow AF, poor high ISO performance and it always lost out to the Panasonic M4/3 camera (slightly) and other larger sensor cameras. The E-P2 did nothing to improve upon the high ISO but the AF did get a speed boost and the video control improved. With the new E-P3, Olympus claims better high ISO performance, and if you read my review you would have seen that I loved the AF speed boost, and just about everything else about the camera. But I did not really get into high ISO performance so much and I recieved a few e-mails asking me  to pit it against the Sony NEX-5 at 3200, 6400 and 12,800.

It was just over a year ago when I reviewed the Sony NEX-3 and 5 cameras. At that time, their high ISO capability was unheard of! 12,800 ISO in a small camera like that was a first, and everyone raved about the quality of low light shots, even me!

With its APS-C sized sensor (not quite full frame, but larger than the Micro 4/3 sensor) the Sony was able to do better at high ISO and low light than other small cameras and it competed with larger DSLR’s. The E-P3 is here and still has the 4/3 size sensor of course, so I wanted to see how it would stand  up to the NEX, not only in noise, but in detail. I used the 12mm f/2 lens on the Olympus at f/3.5. On the Sony I shot with the higher end 18-200 at 18mm, f3.5.

I did a quick and dirty test, using the STEADYSHOT  of the 18-200 and the built in IS of the E-P3. I turned OFF the Noise Reduction on the E-P3 as you can. The Sony does not allow you to turn it off but it does let you switch it to “WEAK”, so this is what I did. I wanted to let each camera give the most detail without letting Noise Reduction get in the way and smear it all up. I shot JPEGS as there is still no Lightroom or Photoshop support for the E-P3 RAW files.

The first comparison shot of a couple of books was taken in my living room, at night, with a very dim lamp shining in from my office. Here we go!

FIrst I will show you a couple of resized images from each camera – ISO 3200 and then ISO 12,800. After that I will show you the crops from each at 3200, 6400 and 12,800. You can click on the images for larger 1800 pixel wide versions.

The E-P3 at ISO 3200 – 12mm – f/3.5 – 12mm (24mm)

Sony NEX-5 – ISO 3200 – f/3.5 – 18mm (28mm)

Ok, let’s go to ISO 12,800

BELOW: E-P3 at ISO 12,800 – Click image for larger version – scroll down for 100% crops

NEX-5 at ISO 12,800 – Click image for larger version – scroll down for 100% crops


E-P3 1st, NEX-5 2nd

ISO 6400

ISO 12,800

What happens if you convert the JPEGS to black and white?

First the E-P3 at ISO 12,800 – Click image for larger 

NEX-5 at ISO 12,800 – Click image for larger

How about another subject with a little more light. I my Kitchen area…

The E-P3  – ISO 3200 – This time I had it set to F/2 though. MUST CLICK IMAGE FOR FULL 100% CROP VIEW!


and one more…




What I see in all of the images is that the Noise Reduction in the NEX is hindering the detail. Also, the Olympus 12mm lens is a sharper lens than the $799 Sony 18-200. I actually prefer the grit and grime of the E-P3 versions over the somewhat dull and mushy NEX versions. Olympus did a good job with the E-P3 and when NR is turned off there is still plenty of detail in the files, even at high ISO. Next test should be against the X100 🙂

Also, if you have been on the fence about the 12mm Olympus Lens. I HIGHLY recommend it. It is simply SUPERB. B&H sells it HERE.

HOW ABOUT MORE VIDEO SAMPLES WITH THE E-P3? Even a low light video that is pretty free of grain!

I’m still waiting for the “PRO PEN” with a built in EVF. Also, the rumored Sony NEX-7 with built in EVF should up the stakes yet again. Below are a couple of high ISO shots taken with the E-P3 this evening just to test it out. Enjoy!

ISO 6400 – spot metered on the can – in camera B&W JPEG (not the art filter grainy B&W, but MONOTONE color selection. Click for larger.


ISO 3200, night..f/2 – 12mm

E-P3 – 12mm,  f/2 – ISO 6400, in camera B&W, NR OFF, evening, no lights on.

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  1. Thanks, Steve, for your many reviews. I agree with you that the Sony is suppressing detail, and I have always preferred a well defined “grain” (ie noise) to mush, avoiding certain fine grain developers in the old film days because I did not like seeing grain (and resolution) dissolved away. With the Olympus Pen cameras and the Panasonic 20mm f1.7, the Olympus 45mm f1.8, or the Olympus 12mm you used, one would rarely have to use the film speeds you tested. I just took an Asian trip where I did a fair amount of nighttime street photography with the 20mm and th 45mm mentioned above. 95% could be shot at iso 400, some at 800, and a very few required 1600. I never went near anything higher. Having taken up photography when one had to push asa 400 film to get higher speeds, the statospheric iso settings just don’t interest me, nor do I find I need them. I don’t use them, although I would have to if I kept the slow kit zooms on my camera. Oh! APS-C is more than a “bit” smaller than full frame 35mm, though it is “a bit” bigger than 4/3. I try not to assume my tastes are right for everyone, but the Olympus Pen system can make a very versatile and compact kit, and there are now at least three outstanding fast primes for it — not to mention the old OM lenses that work beautifully if you don’t mind manual focus. Unless Olympus’s camera division goes belly-up, which I think is unlikely, I’ll keep my micro 4/3 system as my main daily shooter and look into a full frame model for those “must have absolute optimum quality” times. I do miss my vintage 1950s era Hasselblad, which I believe would put the mighty Nikon full frame digital models (and lenses) to shame.

  2. In my opinion, I think you have got to stop letting the cameras pick the exposure in auto mode and set all test cameras to the same iso and same manual settings…

    • No, I have stated this many times before. When I test cameras for ISO it would be RIDICULOUS for me to set them to the same exposure settings. I use the same lens, same aperture and let the cameras choose the exposure. Why? Because 98% of the people buying these cameras will be using auto exposure. SO what you see here is what you will get from each camera. If I changed the exposure then it skews the results of what you would get from said camera when using it to take photos. This test is for those 98% who let the camera choose the exposure when taking photos. Not the 2% who would have both of these cameras and trying to match the output of the other.

      • I understand you keeping the shutter on auto but disagree that you are testing real world conditions. In the real world, there is no need to have a high ISO if you use a tripod to take a shot of a static object.

        The main reason I use a higher ISO on my camera is to get a faster shutter speed in low light condition. If I didn’t need a faster shutter, then I wouldn’t have used a higher ISO setting to begin with. Without knowing the exposure settings, I can’t get an accurate understanding of what the cameras can do in the real world.

        • Used a tripod as this was a test to show HIGH ISO performance of each camera. End of story. Wasn’t doing the test to see how low of a shutter speed I can handhold, but showing what to expect noise wise at high ISO’s. It’s a real world ISO test, not a studio ISO test. Thanks.

  3. Another good articles Steve.

    After reading most of your E-P3 stuff I finally go buy that camera :).

    On this page you mention NR OFF, do you mean the Noise Reduction or Noise Filter ? Noise filter I think also help reduce noise ? correct me if I am wrong?

    Honestly I have no idea the different between those two (Olympus user manual not that good at explaining haha ).

    • Noise Filter only affects very long exposures, so it can be left ON unless you regularly take long exposure photos and prefer it the other way.
      Noise Reduction actually can affect every image as it tries to reduce noise on all images.

      Personally I leave it on LOW, and it seems OK. I use Aperture and it’s NR is so-so. If you use Lightroom, you can do a way better job at it.

  4. Well, the Sony NEX-5 just has a cleaner image cause of the software in it, being enable by default…good one, Sony! If you put the ep-3’s output in photoshop or some software and take out the noise, it will look just the same !

    Now you really can’t compare these two, Sony just has a slightly bigger sensor to it’s advantage, if that can be an advantage in this situation, but that brings ridiculous lenses and basically no lens choice further than it’s own, while Olympus has better and smaller lens and a lot more choices, plus, better AF and better built quality overall. So, I guess the future is u4/3 cause it being an open format and just look at how good this Olympus looks and acts !
    Well done, Olympus !
    I have now Olympus SLR, but I guess they did a good move with this one, even if at first I thought they’re plain idiots….it seems they aren’t, after all.

    • And when I said enable by default I don’t mean the settings you can, no, but the settings that you can’t change. It shows clearly that Sony is simply cheating and try to sell a big bulky lens camera with a tiny body, in a market where people simply want an ..e-p3 :). They just try to play the same game as Canon or Nikon, on the DSLR market, where “bigger” and heavier is better….well, this is another game, folks !

  5. Hi Steve,

    I love that you’re slowly getting back to the u4/3 fold 🙂

    Just a note about your comment that an APS-C sized sensor is “not quite full-frame” but larger than MFT:

    APS-C, especially Canon APS-C, is actually about 1/3 of Full-Frame, whereas 4/3 and micro 4/3 is about 1/4. I find it interesting that 4/3 is the only sensor format that quotes its actual non-imaging area, whereas basically no APS-C chip ever has its non-imaging area quoted (making it seem bigger vs 4/3 than it really is).

    This diagram from Camerapedia is telling:

    What does it mean? Really, it means that the size difference is really marginal, as opposed to multiple, but it means that Sony + Canon are a bit ahead of the game in sensor design, vs. Panasonic’s current crop of 4/3 sensors.

    Not that any of this matters, of course, since you could take good pictures with anything 😉

  6. the sad truth is that unfortunatly there is nothing attractive about digital grain, whether induced or real as here.

  7. No one shoots jpeg with the nex, and certainly no one uses Sony’s horrid slow e-mount lenses.

    It’s all about the adapted MF glass; and the newer Nex C3 sensor has offset lenses which are far superior at color cast handling than the M9(!!!), not even needing profiles for rangefinder ultrawides. All the proof that Sony knows where the real market is for the Nex cameras.

    In this regard the NEX stomp the competition into the ground so hard that they cannot even take a gasp of air before the end. Yeah they need to get some good AF primes out badly, but this is as much Zeiss and others dragging their heels and Sony’s inability to make good glass.

    • Say no more…

      With their weird usability and operation layout, the NEXes so far most definitely have been aimed to the people making the step up from P&S cameras – the beginners. And they don’t shoot JPEG?!?! Now that’s major news to me.

      And sorry: if a camera can shine with adapted lenses only something seems to be going terribly wrong at the manufacturer, doesn’t it?

  8. I don’t think that the EP3 can do much better than the original EP 1. Olympus has squezed the lemon enough…it is time to develop new products around a second generation sensor.

  9. Well I guess we should all expect this. It is a much large sensor after all.

    Recently I found out (yeah! I know everyone else knows this) that the LiveMOS is a CCD sensor. So that explains a lot about the noise.

  10. Thanks for the comparison..honestly, I am not impressed with either camera. I feel that despite its drawbacks, the X100 far surpasses these two with regards to providing an acceptable IQ in a small package, making it the best camera in this segment. If they would only address the current issues in their next model……if…sigh..

  11. I like your comparison, but still, it would be more interesting (to me at least) to compare the Olympus NR to the Sony NR. Comparing one camera with NR *on* to another camera with NR *off* at 3200 tilts the playing field.

    Olympus might still win, of course. (Oly has great NR, and Sony doesn’t.) But any consumer camera using NR at 3200 will give you mushy pictures. Not just Sony.

  12. Hi Steve, maybe disabeling NR on the “smaller-sensor-cam” is a little bit unfair. Guess almost nobody will shoot e-p3 with iso 3200 or 6400 and NR disabled in real world. Would have been interesting to see at least one e-p3 photo with NR in weak+standard setting to compare with the sony pics. Kind regards!

    • I run my E-P3 with the NR disabled and think most on the user boards are going that way. I have not yet needed to shoot above iso 1600, though, due to the fast native glass.

  13. Surprisingly, my conclusion looking at these pictures is that the EP3 is a superior low-light camera, because of its ability to deactivate NR. I can produce better looking final images using the EP3 jpegs along with Dfine, Noise Ninja, etc., than what the Sony produces with onboard NR. That is not what what I was expecting!

    Perhaps RAW will be a different story.

    Thanks for conducting this “experiment” Steve. I love it when practical application overturns conventional wisdom!

    • Yes, RAW is a very different story. Sony jpegs have long been known to be rather heavy handed with NR. Sony RAW is fantastic.

  14. That EP3 starts to look tempting. The grainy noise of the iso3200 night shots look quite pleasing. The potential of the superior NEX5 sensor seems to be held back by conservative noise reduction and stronger AA filter. Looks as if an EP3 system is capable of wiping the floor with the NEX and kit lenses.

  15. Hmmm. I’m getting the feeling the NEX may be better with a better lens and of course RAW. Still … seems like a fair enough comparison to me.
    I like the EP3 photos a little better .. they seem to have more contrast.

  16. There is a considerable exposure difference between these shots. Just compare the cover of the book “This is gonna hurt”. There is very little shadow detail in the EP3 shots relative to the NEX5. This considerable difference in exposure benefits the EP3 in this comparison. If the exposure was equal, the NEX5 would look even better. The EP3 is appealing on many fronts, but the lack of progress in IQ is disappointing. The NEX5 is a year or so old and the NEX7 is likely to be considerably better.

  17. Whichever results you prefer, and this is entirely subjective, I appreciate the comparison because it brings up issues I probably did not even give much thought to before. I think the E-P3 looks better up close, but the NEX is more pleasing to my eye from a distance. Weird, huh?

  18. This is definitely a crazy review, for sure. I like the Olympus dials and ergonomics and even the lovely, overly expensive 12mm lens, but the noise is pretty bad. Even with better detail, which I do like, the noise in these images is disturbing to me. Many may not like the NR in the Sony, but the results to me seem much more pleasing to the eye than the Olympus. Just looking at the comparisons here, the Olympus is extremely noisy, more so, than the Sony is annoying in the NR effect. But, this is my opinion. I love the Olympus dials and detail, (up to a point), but the Sony to me does much better in low light using high ISOs.

    • Um… he turned all noise reduction OFF on the E-P3 for this test to see how much detail there was in the files. The images do look quite a bit better with at least *some* NR applied, I think.

        • Id rather have some noise and detail then a blurry smooth blob look with none. Think it comes from shooting the Leica which is noisy but with great detail. But we all have our own preferences, which is what makes it all so interesting!

  19. Great read, the EP3 looks better than I’ve seen from any m4/3rds, looking forward to a head to head with the X100

    • As i wrote before, i disagree.
      We cannot tell which jpeg engine is more powerful because they have too much of a different approaches towards Noise, on the other side, we can see the difference in noise reduction “ideology” between Sony and Olympus

      • “Reduction ideology”, this is original one. It is down to different jpeg engines as DF and others said-do you own these cameras? I used to own EP2 and I own Nex5 and high iso noise is really obvious in EP2, although in jpegs it appears that it retains more details when you import raw file into adobe camera raw noise is so omnipresent that if you try to clean it up detail is lost. On the other hand, while sony might be overly aggresive in their jpeg apporach raw is different story, it cleans up really nicely and you easily remove noise and retain details even without third party noise reduction plug ins. Absolutelly reverse situation than with jpegs. Also Sony dynamic range is way better than with micro 4/3, offcourse this is logical due to the larger sensor.

        Olympus is very nice camera and it has obvious charms and I can see why people like it and no one is disputing that, shoot with whatever camera you like but what is problematic with comparisons like these is trying to persuade people than one is better than the other which it clearly is not. No other site claims that ep3 iso perfomrance is better and there are clear reasons for that.

        • I never said one was better than the other, just sated the facts of this JPEG comparison. The ep jpegs are noisier but have more detail. If this were raw the Sony would have more noise and be sharper as well but this was a jpeg comparison.

          It is what it is. When there is raw support for the ep3 I’ll do a raw comparison. The DR of the E-p3 has improved over the 1 and 2 it seems. Usability, ep3 easily beats the nex.

          • Steve, you’re really stirring things up with these “crazy” comparisons! How can this EP3 be better at anything if it has that puny, microscopic, worthless sensor! Nothing else matters Steve! NOTHING! Big sensor good. Little-er sensor bad!
            Forget lenses, JPG rendering, usability, portability, everything. Forget everything. None of it matters. Only bigger sensor matters.

            Seriously, good job. Keep up the crazy comparisons. All cameras have their pros and cons. Some things are more important to some and others to others. Almost any current DSLR or ILC is capable of fantastic results, and even compacts are upping the standard. Glad to see we have another great camera on the market.

          • Steve, you did say you prefer the detail Oly results vs the mushy Sony’s. So yeah, you did say the Oly is better.

            I do think that its not a fair comparison because you turned off the NR on the Oly. This is why the Oly showed more details. How about turning on the NR on the Oly and see what happens? I bet you won’t see more details on the Oly.

  20. Well, my main conclusion is that ISO 12800 pics from both cams are usable when scaled down for the web 🙂
    It also seems that size is not everything, sometimes technique can help a lot 😉

    Regarding the noise and the level of detail still visible: Some people like spinach, some hate it. If you like detail and can live with noise, go for the E-P3, if you want clean shots and don’t care for detail, go for the NEX. If you want clean and detail, buy a cam with FF sensor.

  21. Looks to be pretty obvious that the Sony has less ISO noise than the Olympus … but to my eyes the Olympus is arguably capturing as much or more detail up to ISO 3200 in some shots (though that might be due to the lens rather than the sensor/processing).

    I love my Olympus Pen cameras and lenses but I confess that my Sony NEX-3 (bought on an impulse) is surprisingly usable at all ISOs while I rarely shoot above ISO 1600 with my Olympus cameras.

  22. I like the olympus high ISO much better! Sony, sony, sony – would you stop increasing the megapixels and trying to smoothen out the beautiful grain in high iso shots?

  23. Strange that the post disappeared. I don’t mind the pixel comparisons. Sometimes it is nice to see. Even from Steve, who always talks about real life photography versus staring at test shots. 😉 I think many photographers like to see some of the details before they buy a camera. In the end it doesn’t matter that much if a good street shot is grainy or not. Other elements of the camera are more important, like the crispness and the rendering of light.

    • Exactly..crispness and rendering of light is where Leica shines. I see some of that in the E-P3 and 12mm as well. I like some grain sometimes, and much prefer is high ISO is rendered without the mushiness of NR.

      • Steve

        From my experience with the NEX-5 there is one more factor that contributes to the mushiness besides the noise reduction and the lens. This factor is the shutter, or more specifically shutter bounce. The NEX camera is so small and lightweight that there is not enough mass to dampen shutter bounce, which is just enough to make a Zeiss or Leica lens look a little mushy even in bright light.


        PS. I might be persuaded to loan you a Voitlander 16mm for a re-test.

  24. Now this truly is a ‘Crazy Comparison’! The much bigger Sony APS-C gives a finer, more detailed, smoother picture than the tiny-weeny Olympus micro 4/3 sensor even when the latter is equipped with an optically superior lens. Is anybody really surprised by this? This is like comparing icebergs to ice-cubes; clouds to candy-floss; Ludwig van Beethoven to Lady Gaga… 🙂 !

    • but this is the actual conclusion of the review:

      “I actually prefer the grit and grime of the E-P3 versions over the somewhat dull and mushy NEX versions.”

      maybe that’s why it is called crazy comparison 🙂

    • The E-P3 puts out more detail if you look at the larger images. I much prefer the E_P3 to the NEX which is mushy, and has less detail, also a bit more dull looking. BUT everyone will have their own opinions and preference. Some prefer smooth and mushy over detail and gritty.

      • I agree that NR is overly agresive in Nex but these are jpegs and they are applying heavy handed NR probably beacuse they think that people don’t want to bother with raw files. I had oly ep2 and currently have nex, when you work with raw files in adobe camera raw or whatever might be you program of choice nex files are way better in terms of noise than ep2 (dynamc range as well), you can easily clean up luminance noise and preserve details without too much effort which isn’t possible with oly files and it is logical in the end, much small sensor.

      • The E-P3 puts out more detail? Not true, just focus at the small printing failure inside the first “O” of “INSTANT PHOTOGRAPHY” above Andy Warhol, which is much more detailed in every single NEX crop. Same comparing the label on the oranges. The E-P3 is quite impressive with it’s smaller sensor, but it’s not more detailed. Unfair comparison anyway of an one and half year old camera that’s gonna be replaced this month using totally incomparable lenses and noise reduction instead of using raw files.

    • Hum, the m43 sensor covers 70% of the APS-C sensor… The ratio is 4:3, not 3:2 that explains the difference (the height difference is only 2mm).

      When you compare the size of the available lenses for m43 and for Nex, I think that it is not fair. It’s like comparing my uncle’s fishing boat and the USS Washington 🙂

      That explains why Sony doesn’t need to provide rear lens cap for its kit lens… because it’s the camera itself 😀

  25. Interesting comparison but I have to wonder decision to compare prime against ultrazoom and even more setting prime on some of the photos at optimal aperture while ultrazoom was not even stoped down. I know that e mount is lacking in lenses but there are adapters so you can always stick zeiss whose price is comparable with oly 12mm… Also comparing out of camera jpegs instead of raw photos…

    • This was an ISO test, not IQ test. Also, I do not have the 16mm on hand, nor are there any 16-18 Leica lenses laying around. It was more important to keep the same perspective with the shots. Was just testing ISO! It was also, as stated, a JPEG test. Photoshop/Lightroom (ALL I use) does not support the E-P3 RAWs yet. Would not be fair to shoot the NEX in RAW and OLY IN JPEG. This was an out of camera JPEG ISO test. That is all.

    • This was “noise reduction approach difference between Sony and Olympus when shooting Jpeg”
      Which i’m sure would interest a lot of readers, but it was not “ISO” comparison.
      Thank you for your work either way.

      • No, it was a comparison of how each camera puts out high ISO JPEGS. The NEX defaults to NR and you can NOT turn it off, so this is what you get. I could have left the E-P3’s on but I wanted to show you can indeed get more detail out of an E-P3 at the same ISO as you can turn the NR OFF, which is what I would recommend. This comparison as an high ISO JPEG test was as fair as you can get.

        • Yes but the main difference that are visible are due to different approach to HIGH iso noise reduction, not really about the difference of the bigger APS-C vs M43 sensor (which i guess wasn’t your goal here)

          I’m sure many of your site readers still shoot Jpeg, but for the minority that shoots RAW it would be great if you could make a comparison with RAW (using RawTherapee which can open both formats)

          Thanx again!

  26. Hey…I agree with everything that is written in the post that Ben lists above from jpgmag……Truly! BUT…that all being said and agreed upon…it is good (and a lot of fun), to know your equipment that you are using to record your inner voice. I think it is all part of the experience.
    I thought that this comparison was going hands down to the Nex….but I looked at all of the photos first came to an awareness and then read what Steve had to say..I have to agree with pretty much everything he had to say. I do not like (would not own) the Sony camera because of its basic mechanical style, lenses too big and not that great, no viewfinder (one soon I believe tho)…
    I can see that Sony clearly has the larger sensor that clearly does have better capability that the MFT..but the lenses and software appear to be lacking…. I get the feeling if the Leica and Olympus engineers (Oly for the jpeg, Leica for he lenses) has taken the Sony concept and had the financial backing…the camera would be a much better performer. Interesting article tho.

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