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Assessing your camera's high ISO capability

From: Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light

Video: Assessing your camera's high ISO capability

As you should know by now, as you increase ISO, you also increase the amount of noise in your image. This means you can't just necessarily crank the ISO up until you get your shutter speed down to where you want it. If you do, you may end up with an unacceptable amount of ugly noise in your image. Fortunately, these days, most new cameras offer very good noise response. On my SLR, for example, I can go all the way up to ISO 400 with no perceptible increase in noise, and I regularly shoot all the way up to ISO 3200 without worrying about unacceptable noise in my final shots.

Assessing your camera's high ISO capability

As you should know by now, as you increase ISO, you also increase the amount of noise in your image. This means you can't just necessarily crank the ISO up until you get your shutter speed down to where you want it. If you do, you may end up with an unacceptable amount of ugly noise in your image. Fortunately, these days, most new cameras offer very good noise response. On my SLR, for example, I can go all the way up to ISO 400 with no perceptible increase in noise, and I regularly shoot all the way up to ISO 3200 without worrying about unacceptable noise in my final shots.

Beyond that though, I find that my images simply get too grainy and noisy, so I only use ISOs higher than 3200 when I absolutely have no other choice, and I alter my expectations to assume that the images that I get will be compromised by noise. If all I am trying to do is document something then that's not a problem, but if I am going for a high-quality fine-art level of output, then I know that I will probably be disappointed above ISO 3200. Before you go out shooting, therefore, it's a good idea to have an understanding of how high you can push ISO on your specific camera before you get a noise level that's not acceptable for the work that you are doing, and that's something you can easily determine with a few simple tests.

You can do this anywhere in your house. I had some flowers delivered. I've got them set up here just in a normal room. I have got kind of a moderate amount of lighting. What I am going to do is just take some pictures of these flowers at different ISO settings. I am going to take the same frame at all of my ISO settings, actually. So I am starting out here at ISO 100. I have got my camera set at aperture priority because I want as much depth of field as I can get. I dialed into about f/9. That's going to give me a pretty slow shutter speed at this light level.

So I am going to take that shot. It's about 3 seconds. And I am just going to crank my ISO up to 200, the next stop, and I am going to shoot the same shot again. So nothing fancy about my setup here. I am just on a tripod and again, I am just chosen an object. It doesn't have to be flowers, although these are very nice. And I am just trying to get shots at all my ISOs so that I can go look at them later and see how bad the noise gets. So here I am up to ISO 400. That's down to half a second. When I get done with this, what I am going to do is lower the light in the room.

You are going to be shooting in lots of different levels of low light. Some are going to be levels that are actually pretty reasonable for your own eyes, a little rougher for your camera; others are going to be darker than what your eyes can see, but your camera is going to be able to pick up stuff. So you want to, after you shoot this set, turn down the light in the scene and do the exact same set again. Same shots, same ISO settings, and run through all of those combinations. When you get all done, then it's time to assess the results.

This next bits pretty easy; all you got to do is get your images into your computer and look at them. So to do that, you need an image browser or an image editor that will let you see your images at 100%, and that will provide you with an EXIF display so that you can see exactly what ISO you were using with each shot. Now you might also need a printer, because to accurately assess your camera's noise response, you want to be evaluating your images in whatever form that you will ultimately be outputting them in. The thing is, an image from your camera has millions of pixels, megapixels, and if you were to take any one individual pixel and print it out, it would be invisible.

They are so small by themselves that they're almost irrelevant. So it doesn't make a lot of sense to, on my monitor, zoom into 100% and really worry about each and every pixel. What I want to do is get my test images out in the way that I will ultimately be delivering them. If that's print, then I want to print them out at the size that I expect to deliver them. If I'm going to be sizing them to a particular size and posting them on the web, then I want to look at them that way. That will give me a more accurate assessment of whether noise is really a problem in the way that I intend to output my pictures.

As far as doing the actual assessment, I tend to just open my images up, print them, or get them the sized the way that I want onscreen, and then look at each image that I shot at each ISO. Noise is a really subjective thing. What is acceptable to you may not be to somebody else. It's up to you to decide if an image is too noisy or not. Look for luminance noise--those are the bright speckly kinds of noise; chrominance noise, those are the color swatches; and stuck pixel noise, those are going to be individual little white spots.

If you decide that at a particular ISO, boy, that's just too crunchy and noisy, I don't like it, then you know that that's not an ISO that you want to go to when you're out in the field. So try to identify that upper level of ISO that you're comfortable shooting with.

Show transcript

This video is part of

Image for Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light
Foundations of Photography: Night and Low Light

55 video lessons · 37438 viewers

Ben Long
Author

 
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  1. 2m 27s
    1. Welcome
      2m 27s
  2. 6m 20s
    1. What can you shoot in low light?
      2m 17s
    2. What you need for this course
      4m 3s
  3. 28m 54s
    1. Working with exposure parameters in low light
      1m 13s
    2. Working with image sensors in low light
      4m 35s
    3. Working with shutter speed in low light
      3m 3s
    4. Considering motion blur
      1m 14s
    5. Working with ISO in low light
      2m 29s
    6. Assessing your camera's high ISO capability
      4m 52s
    7. Working with in-camera noise reduction
      2m 4s
    8. Working with aperture in low light
      2m 10s
    9. Understanding dynamic range
      2m 2s
    10. Working with color temperature and white balance
      1m 11s
    11. Exposing to the right
      4m 1s
  4. 34m 39s
    1. Introduction
      1m 36s
    2. Talking with Steve Simon about low-light photography
      13m 46s
    3. Shooting by candlelight
      1m 55s
    4. Choosing a mode
      4m 34s
    5. Exploring the role of lens stabilization
      3m 1s
    6. White balance considerations
      3m 27s
    7. Flash considerations
      1m 18s
    8. Problem solving
      1m 35s
    9. Understanding aesthetics and composition
      3m 27s
  5. 30m 4s
    1. Introduction
      2m 20s
    2. Preparing for the shoot
      5m 25s
    3. Act I: adjusting to the light
      3m 48s
    4. Intermission: reviewing the strategy
      1m 53s
    5. Act II: moving to the back of the house
      2m 35s
    6. After the show: lessons learned
      1m 18s
    7. Reviewing the performance images
      12m 45s
  6. 19m 18s
    1. Shooting in the shade
      2m 55s
    2. Street shooting
      2m 52s
    3. Shooting flash portraits at night
      4m 5s
    4. Controlling flash color temperature
      2m 50s
    5. Adjusting exposure to preserve the mood
      2m 34s
    6. Dynamic range considerations
      4m 2s
  7. 41m 0s
    1. Shooting lingering sunsets
      1m 42s
    2. Exploring focusing strategies
      5m 17s
    3. Composing and focusing at night
      10m 42s
    4. Shooting the stars
      9m 27s
    5. Practicing low-light landscape shooting
      9m 55s
    6. Focusing on the horizon in low light
      3m 57s
  8. 13m 4s
    1. Light painting: behind the camera
      7m 34s
    2. Light painting: in front of the camera
      2m 13s
    3. Manipulating long shutter speeds
      3m 17s
  9. 1h 4m
    1. Correcting white balance
      8m 49s
    2. Correcting white balance with a gray card
      3m 50s
    3. Correcting white balance of JPEG images
      2m 0s
    4. Blending exposures with different white balances
      7m 13s
    5. Brightening shadows
      9m 8s
    6. Reducing noise
      7m 44s
    7. Sharpening
      9m 14s
    8. Correcting depth-of-field issues
      9m 32s
    9. Correcting night skies
      6m 39s
  10. 53s
    1. Goodbye
      53s

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