Sunday, March 27, 2016

High ISO - When Is Enough, Well, Enough?

Ethical Drugs - Hollywood, California
Captured using a Sony RX100 II at ISO 1600.
I recently saw some high-ISO image samples from the upcoming Nikon D5. The camera's maximum ISO is 3,276,800, which is just insane, but the maximum usable ISO is 64000 (that's not a typo--I didn't mean ISO 6400, I meant ISO 64000), which is still insane. This isn't the first camera with incredible high-ISO capabilities.

And it makes me wonder, when is enough, well, enough when it comes to high-ISO?

I remember back in the old days of film (talking like this makes me feel old) thinking that ISO 400 was high-ISO. Sure, on a very rare occasion I might use ISO 800 or even (gasp!) ISO 1600 film, but most of my photographs were captured using ISOs between 25 and 100. I tried not to go above ISO 100 unless I absolutely needed to, and then it was usually only as high as ISO 400.

Fast forward to digital. My first DSLR, a Pentax K-x, had a maximum practical ISO of 800 (marginally ISO 1600 was usable), and I had no problems with that. I was used to shooting with much lower ISOs. Now ISO 800 is usable even on pocket point-and-shoots. My Sony RX100 II, with it's 1" sensor, has a maximum practical ISO of 1600. The entry-level Nikon D3300 has a maximum practical ISO of 3200, and even ISO 6400 is usable situationally.
The Conductor - Fillmore, California
Captured using a Sony RX100 II at ISO 1600.
Compared to the "old days" this is nothing short of fantastic! But some cameras now go well beyond that. You can shoot handheld under moonlight.

But do you really need to? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the type of photography you do. I try to keep the ISO as low as practical. Even though I can go higher on the ISO, do I really want to? I don't need to shoot at ISO 64000, but maybe that would benefit you and the type of images that you capture.

The gap between image quality on smaller sensor cameras and larger sensor cameras has shrunk. There is still a dynamic range gap, but it's not nearly as large as it once was. The biggest gap remains high-ISO capabilities, but smaller sensor cameras are now where larger sensor cameras were roughly 10 years ago. So this gap is becoming less relevant.

If you do a lot of handheld low-light photography, then having amazing high-ISO capabilities is great. For most people, however, it's overkill. Most people don't need ISO 6400, let alone ISO 64000.

The difference between expensive "pro" gear and inexpensive "amateur" gear isn't huge, with one exception: price. You really pay for that slightly larger dynamic range, that greater high-ISO capability, that ever-so-slightly faster autofocus, etc. If you need those things, then great! Camera technology has come a long ways and what once seemed impossible is now available. But for the rest of us, we need to be careful to not get caught up in all the hype. G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) can be painful.

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