A Photographic Discovery: High ISO

Remember film cameras? Remember how you had to choose the correct film speed in order to get your pictures to come out?  Oh c’mon, you remember – ISO speeds – those numbers that indicated how sensitive the film was.  ISO 100 was only for pictures outdoors in the sunlight, ISO 400 was all-purpose, ISO 200 was somewhere in between.  Back in the film days if you didn’t have the correct film in your camera your pictures just didn’t come out. If you needed a different ISO, you had to give up the rest of the photos on your roll and put in a new one. But with digital cameras you can change the ISO speed on the fly.  If it’s sunny out, use ISO 100, if you have to go indoors, bump it to ISO 800.  Sure, your pictures won’t look the same at both speeds, but they’ll still come out.

ISO is something that I never really trusted on digital cameras.  I generally don’t go above ISO 400.  This is a behavior from my film days.  Almost all the film I shot was ISO 400 because it was all-purpose.  ISO 100 and 200 were too specialized. They were great for well-lit outdoor shots, but if I took the camera inside, most of my images would not come out well. ISO 800 was too grainy.  It was also specialized.  It worked well for indoor shots, but if I went outside to take a picture it would have all that grain.

When I started shooting in digital, I held onto these concepts, partially because higher ISO settings on digital cameras produce more noise.  But that was several years ago on my Pentax. High ISO image quality has improved significantly in recent years and I now shoot with a Canon that produces far better images than my Pentax ever did.  It’s time to allow high ISOs again.

The original image at ISO 3200

I decided to start playing with high-ISO images this week at a Spring concert for my niece.  The concert was held in a school gymnasium with tall ceilings and less-than-stellar lighting.  I was at least 30 feet away from the kids, so a high ISO was required if I didn’t want to use flash.  For most of the pictures I ended up using flash, but there was one in particular that I didn’t.  It’s a shot that I like to call “Chillaxin”.  I set the camera to Auto ISO so that it could figure out the best ISO speed based on my aperture (f/4.0) and shutter speed (1/125 sec).  For this shot it chose ISO 3200.  In the past I wouldn’t have even dreamed of taking a picture at ISO 3200, but the result was actually quite usable.

The image at the left is the original ISO 3200 image from the camera (click on it for a larger version).  Overall, the image isn’t that bad.  When viewed up close you can tell that it’s not an ISO 100 image, but you wouldn’t necessarily guess that it’s ISO 3200. There is some obvious grain but it doesn’t obscure any of the details .  The color and contrast are reasonable.  If it were to be printed out as a 4×6 it probably wouldn’t look much different than most of the JPEGs that come out of digital cameras with standard sharpening.

The same image with Noise Reduction applied in Lightroom

So the ISO 3200 image out of the camera isn’t too bad, but could it be better? Of course. I took the same image and applied moderate sharpening(about25% of the maximum amount) in Adobe Lightroom.  The grain almost disappears while retaining most of the image’s sharpness.  Now you can’t even tell that it was a high ISO image.  At quick glance I’d guess it was an ISO 400 image.

I’m pretty impressed by all this.  Here I was, avoiding 1/2 of the ISO settings of my cameras because I assumed that the output would be crap.  Now instead of sticking with ISO 100, 200, 400, and sometimes 800, I can feel safe using ISO 1600 and 3200, and even use ISO 6400 and 12,800 in a pinch.  So there you have it: don’t avoid the higher ISO settings on your cameras.  Modern SLRs have pretty good high-ISO output and you can make it look even better with a tool such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture.

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