In the early years of digital photography, it seemed like there were two simultaneous battles between manufacturers: the “megapixel war” and the “noise war.” It seemed like everyone was rushing to put more pixels on their sensors, and also make them produce clean images at what were unheard of ISO settings for film users (if you used film, ISO 1000 was very grainy).
All of these battles led to better and better sensor technology, and the production of larger sensors for digital cameras. At any megapixel resolution, a larger sensor means larger photosites, and in-turn, a cleaner image at high ISOs. With the release of the Nikon D3, and later D3s, a usable ISO 12,800 was a real possibility.
But here’s the funny thing about noise. In today’s cameras, it really only shows up at the extreme sensitivities (usually ISO 3200 and higher) and at extreme magnification (ie, viewing your shots at 100%). At one point in time, this was important; if you wanted to deliver a clean two-page “double-truck” spread for a major photo magazine, or make 16x 24″ prints, you needed a clean image. But how many of us are making prints that size anymore, if we’re even printing at all?
Ask most people how they display and share their photos these days, and they’ll answer “on Facebook.” Or maybe, they use a dedicated photo-sharing site like Flickr, or my new favorite, 500px. For the most part, we view these images on a computer screen with a maximum pixel dimension between 800-1000 pixels. Sometimes, even smaller. And at those sizes, even cameras with fairly small sensors, like my CX-format Nikon 1 V1, produce perfectly usable images!
Don’t get me wrong, my V1 isn’t even close to what the D3s can do at any given ISO. But if you’re not making big prints, then maybe you shouldn’t fixate on zooming in to 100% to look for imperfections that no one will even notice at the final display size.