HHHR Extreme Noise Test

This HHHR extreme noise test shows a detailed comparison of HHHR (handheld hi res) versus standard resolution images. I’d like to thank one of our readers, Colin McNaught, for his suggestion to compare a Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) image to a standard resolution image.

When contemplating a comparison between an Olympus OM-D E-M1X HHHR ORF RAW file and a standard resolution ORI RAW file for the same image, I decided to push my equipment. Doing an extreme noise test seemed like a good challenge.

I went to the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory and decided to shoot a handheld hi res macro image. This would challenge my handheld technique when using the E-M1X’s HHHR mode. Not only that, I chose a butterfly that was in extremely poor light. This created two additional challenges for my E-M1X. Dealing with extreme noise, and auto-focusing in poor light.

The original image was captured handheld with an Olympus OM-D E-M1X with an M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens. Camera settings were as follows: f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm.

I used the high resolution ORF RAW file (8160 x 6120), as well as the standard resolution ORI RAW file (5184 x 3888) to create the comparison material in this article.

I needed to change the name of the exported DNG file made from the ORI file in DxO so it would not overwrite my ORF output. To ensure uniformity, I applied identical corrections in post processing to both the ORF and ORI versions of the DNG outputs.

To put this HHHR extreme noise challenge in perspective let’s look at the out-of-camera jpeg for our test image. This will give you a good idea on the degree of underexposure to which this ISO-6400 image was subjected. To my eye it looks like several stops. I think most photographers would not expect much from this underexposed ISO-6400 image captured with a M4/3 sensor camera.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) version, out-of-camera jpeg

The next two images show the photograph after work was done in post. Let’s have a look at the entire photograph in the HHHR version, then the standard resolution version. Both versions have been sized for website use @ 1200 x 900. You can click on the images to compare them back and forth

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) version
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, standard resolution version

To provide readers with some additional detail, I then took each of the full resolution photographs and cropped them into quarters. Top right. Top left. Bottom right. Bottom left.

After cropping the images into quarters I resized each section of the photograph for website use, i.e. 1200 x 900.

Let’s look at a comparison of the top right quadrant. First the HHHR version, then the standard resolution version.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) version, top right quadrant
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, standard resolution version, top right quadrant

Now, let’s look at the HHHR versus standard resolution for the top left quadrant.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) version, top left quadrant
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, standard resolution version, top left quadrant

The next pair of images compares the bottom right quadrants.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) version, bottom right quadrant
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, standard resolution version, bottom right quadrant

Our final HHHR versus standard resolution comparison is for the bottom left quadrant.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) version, bottom left quadrant
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 260 mm, standard resolution version, bottom left quadrant

No doubt most of you have read negative comments about shooting with small sensor cameras at high ISO. Some folks claim that ISO-1600 or ISO-3200 is the absolute limit for a M4/3 camera like the Olympus OM-D E-M1X. People are, of course, entitled to their opinion.

Reality can differ from opinion. When facing very difficult lighting like the dark, underexposed ISO-6400 situation for the image in this article, choosing the E-M1X’s HHHR (handheld hi res) mode over a standard resolution image can result in a cleaner and more useable finished image.

Technical Note:
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

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26 thoughts on “HHHR Extreme Noise Test”

  1. Interesting. The DR gain is impressive, but the HHHR images do look less sharp and seem to lose a tiny bit of DOF.

    I haven’t really experimented with HHHR on my E-M1 II yet because my macro subjects usually are subject to a little breeze. You’ve inspired me to try though!

    1. Hi Benjamin,
      You should have some good fun experimenting with HHHR… although I don’t think this feature is available on the E-M1 Mark II. If my memory serves the E-M1 Mark III and E-M1X models have this feature.

      1. Apparently it the Mark II does support it (it was the first Olympus to have it). You can’t go over ISO 1600 with it though.

          1. Yes, after some more thorough reading I’ve seen that too now. It was a rumour that the Mark II would get it too… Pity.

  2. Hello Thomas. Great article and a very interesting comparison. I am confused because when using HHHR one of the limitations is a maximum ISO of 1600. How are you able to use an ISO of 6400 while using this technique??

    1. Hi Mike,

      The High Resolution feature (tripod version) on E-M1 cameras is limited to ISO-1600. The Handheld Hi Resolution capability on E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III cameras has a broader ISO range with the top limit being ISO-6400.


  3. Exactly; a “flat” line indicates a high degree of ISO invariance … because it’s reflecting minimal deviation from a perfectly linear decrease in PDR corresponding to increase in ISO, which a theoretical perfectly ISO invariant camera would exhibit (Bill Claff confirmed this as the correct understanding of his chart).


  4. Tom. FYI; I’m encountering problems with entering comments – related, I suspect, to whatever you’re doing/using to block cut/copy/paste in this section.

    I’ve twice written an explanation of Bill Claff’s “PDR Shadow Improvement vs ISO” chart – and as I was halfway thru both attempts, my screen reset and took me to the top of the comments section – only to find the Comment box empty. Not going to risk a 3rd attempt.

    Just thought you might like to know … John

    1. Hi John,

      It would be helpful if you could let me know if you were simply typing in the comment box, or if you were trying to copy and paste something in from another website. Or, perhaps trying to put a link in your comment from another website. I spoke to my webmaster this evening and we couldn’t find anything obvious in the setting for the Copyright Protection plug-in that looked as if it would create a problem.


      1. Hi Tom – I was simply typing, in both cases.

        I’m a “clumsy” typist, tho, and I may well have hit a key-combination that your plug-in didn’t like … in both cases, the impact was that my screen “reset” and the contents of the comments box was cleared.

        Mine is a standard Win10 environment – nothing out of the usual.

        Hope that helps … John

        PS. I’ve just noticed that my last typed version appears just below … so, the result, it seems, is that I (somehow) activated “save page” !

        1. Hi John,

          Well… that’s good news that your comment got posted! Keep me posted if you have any difficulties moving forward. We can’t see anything in the plug-in that would cause an issue.


  5. Hello again, Tom. Regarding the “PDR Shadow Improvement vs ISO” chart on the photonstophotos site; there’s not much info available explaining what this actually charts – and it took me a while to work it out.

    It’s based on the “Photographic Dynamic Range (PDR) vs ISO” chart on the same site.

    If you select your OM-DE-M1X for this chart you’ll see that it’s a downward sloping line that reflects the fact that dynamic range performance decreases as ISO values increase.

    However, you’ll see that the line is not perfectly linear – – and, for an extreme example of this, select the Canon EOS RP.

    So, what the “PDR Shadow Improvement vs ISO” graph is charting is the difference, at each ISO setting, between what the PDR value should be (if the line was perfectly linear) and what it actually … showing the deviation from a theoretical perfectly ISO invariant camera.

    The OM-DE-1MX looks to be very close to ISO-invariant (whereas, the EOS RP is most certainly not).

    Hope that helps – John TKA

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for adding this explanation. I was wondering if a ‘flatter’ line would indicate a higher degree of ISO invariance. I did an article about doing your own ISO invariance test and showed results for my three different Nikon 1 camera bodies. There was a big difference between the three cameras with the V3 being the worst by far. The Shadow Improvement line for that model is a lot steeper than for the V2 or J5 cameras so your explanation makes a lot of sense.

      This discussion has sparked an idea for another article… thanks!


  6. Tom,

    Impressive noise levels kept to a minimum.
    As a shifter to a smaller sensor camera myself, I tend to think that those who pass quick judgment on the M4/3 and APS-C cameras are often doing so out of either blind brand loyalties or trolling tendencies. Especially so when there’s test and real-world image evidence that shows the opposite. In the end, it also depends on the end application of the images we take. People can get fixated on specs that we lose out on the artistic side of things.


    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion Oggie! I agree that brand loyalties and trolling tendencies come into play for some people when they pass quick judgement. Assumptive thinking can also be a big factor for some people.

      There is an overall assumption that a full frame sensor will have better dynamic range and colour depth than smaller sensors like APS-C and M4/3. This is not always the case. For example, if we look at DxOMark test data and compare the full frame Canon EOS RP and the M4/3 Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II we see that at base ISO the E-M1 Mark II actually has more dynamic range (12.84 EV compared to 11.9 EV) than the Canon EOS RP. A difference of 0.5 EV is needed to become noticeable. In terms of colour depth the Canon is slightly ahead at base ISO 24.3 bits compared to 23.7 bits. When we consider that a difference of 1-bit is needed to be noticeable we can assess that there is no practical difference between the two cameras.

      If we go to photonstophotos.com and compare the dynamic range of the Canon EOS RP against the E-M1X, E-M5 Mark III and E-M1 Mark III we find that the three Olympus M4/3 cameras all have better dynamic range than the full frame Canon EOS RP at the lower end of the ISO scale. This is counterintuitive for many people given the sensor size difference between the cameras. When we consider the effects of shooting handheld with HHHR or the IBIS performance of Olympus cameras one can appreciate that Olympus users have additional ways of getting the most out of the M4/3 sensors in their cameras.

      The challenge for every photographer is to understand their camera gear and how to get the best performance from it given the intended end use of the images it creates for them.


  7. Thank you for doing this comparison, much appreciated. Looking at the embedded images in the web page, there doesn’t seem a large difference between the images. However, when I compare the full size images (1200×900 pixels) there is a huge difference. The jpgs derived from the normal resolution images are way noisier than the HHHR. This caused me to think about what is going on in HHHR captures. I had been wondering wondering whether I really needed the HHHR feature (the new M1mkIII has it unlike my M1mkII), and whether having more pixels would really help, didn’t think about the possibility that the HHHR images would be less noisy at high ISO.
    I believe HHHR works by taking multiple shots with the sensor displaced to slightly different positions. Is the lower noise in the HHHR image a function of this as more light is captured than a normal resolution capture? This seems very desirable result.
    I then took the normal resolution image and ran it through Topaz De-Noise AI which resulted in a big improvement in noise. The result was much closer to the HHHR image but had an ‘over sharpened’ less-pleasant look compared with the HHHR image (I’d be happy to share the image directly). It certainly got me thinking about the upgrade seriously, for which I thank you.

    1. Hi Colin,

      The Handheld Hi Res mode takes a series of 16 images and uses the IBIS in the camera to adjust sensor movement. If my memory serves it moves the sensor about 1/2 a pixel or so in a random order depending on the movement of the photographer. Then the 16 images are combined in camera. The output is a large hi res jpeg, an ORF RAW hi res file, plus on ORI RAW standard resolution file.

      I’ve found that I get the best results when I compose using the rear screen of the camera. My E-M1X seems to do a better job assessing my body movements than when I hold the camera up to my eye.

      The combination of 16 images does a great job dealing with noise as you can see from the sample image in this article. Most folks think about HHHR from the perspective of making very large prints, not from a noise reduction orientation. I look at HHHR from both perspectives.


    1. Hi Ed,

      I did apply PRIME noise reduction to both the ORF and ORI RAW files. This is part of my standard process that I do with every one of my images.


  8. Very interesting comparison, Tom.

    Also impressive that the HiRes output from your OM-DE-M1X is in RAW mode (instead of only JPG, as is typical of similar features from other manufacturers).

    Looking at this graph (photonstophotos.net/Charts/PDR_Shadow.htm) for your camera, I reckon you could probably go even as far as ISO 12800 and still get good results … where the reasonably flat nature of the graph between 6400 – 12800 indicates that “brightening” in post should not have much negative impact on “photographic dynamic range”.

    Regards, John TKA

    PS. DxO’s PRIME noise handling feature is probably also contributing to your excellent results.

    PPS. Given your experience last year, I understand why you disallow copying of text from your site – – but it would be helpful to allow copy/paste within this comments section (I had to hand-type the web address above … hope I got it right)

    1. Hi John,

      One of the things that I really like about the Olympus Handheld Hi Res mode (HHHR) is that it produces full resolution RAW files, giving me a lot of latitude in post. I cannot go past ISO-6400 when using HHHR as this is a limitation that Olympus puts on this particular function. As time permits, I do have some ideas about doing some additional high ISO testing with my E-M1X to assess how far I can push the camera with standard resolution images.

      Thanks for the photonstophotos reference. The graph for the Olympus OM-D E-M1X in terms of “Photographic Dynamic Range Shadow Improvement” looks pretty flat throughout its ISO range and appeared similar to Nikon models like the D7000, D600 and D800 (all camera that I used to own). I also noticed large differences with some other camera manufacturers like Canon and some Nikon models like the D5. There were some interesting differences between J5, V2 and V3 graphs with the J5 being the flattest of the three. I’ll need to do some additional reading on this subject to help understand the practical impacts.

      I totally agree that the DxO PRIME noise reduction contributes to the results I am able to achieve with my E-M1X. The comparison in this article was designed to compare HHHR with standard resolution within the parameters of how I always work with my files.

      Copyright Protection is becoming a mandatory safeguard for anyone who produces online content. The amount of intellectual theft on the internet is at epidemic levels. Some very known photography sites that depend on advertising revenue for their survival are being especially hard hit. A lot of their advertising revenue is being siphoned off by pirate websites. This could have serious longer term consequences.


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