Thursday, September 8, 2016

Thoughts On High ISO Photography

Early Autumn - Ogden Canyon, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1 @ ISO 6400.
There was a time when I considered ISO 400 to be high ISO photography.

I typically used films in the ISO 50-100 range (sometimes even ISO 25). But if I needed to photograph in darker places I'd grab some Ilford Delta 400 film. Sometimes I would push-process that ISO 400 film a stop or two in development. I tried Ilford Delta 3200, and that was really high ISO (and really grainy, too).

For color photographs I didn't like going above ISO 100, but would on a rare occasion go higher. A couple of times I used Fuji Pro 800Z--I never used a color film that was faster than that. Color photographs typically don't hold up as well to high ISO as monochrome does.
First Fall Colors - Ogden Canyon, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1 @ ISO 6400.
Digital has changed that, although not at first. High ISO and digital photography didn't exactly get along until the last decade or so. My first DSLR (a Pentax K-x) didn't look all that great above ISO 800 (especially for color photographs). I didn't really know that those weren't great results because that's what I was used to with film.

The "rule" was to always shoot at the lowest ISO that you could get away with. The lower the ISO the better. You would only use a higher ISO if you absolutely had to.

Times sure have changed! With my Fuji X-E1 camera I now set the minimum ISO to 800. For out-of-camera JPEGs (with the settings a certain way) that's where the maximum dynamic range is achieved. There isn't any noticeable difference in image quality between the camera's base ISO and ISO 800. I set the camera to auto-ISO with the upper limit set to ISO 6400. Even color out-of-camera JPEGs look good at ISO 6400, so I don't think twice about using it.
Sunset At Pineview Reservoir - Huntsville, Utah
Fujifilm X-E1 @ ISO 6400.
Take the first two photographs in this article, Early Autumn and First Fall Colors, for example. I didn't plan to make these photographs, but I spotted the scene while driving around and had my camera with me (but no tripod). The sun had already set and it was beginning to get dark. Even at ISO 6400 I actually underexposed the images by about a half stop. I then manipulated the out-of-camera JPEGs a moderate amount (using Nik's Color Efex).

After editing, the equivalent ISO is around 9600. Yet these color images would look just fine as 8" x 12" prints (and maybe even larger than that). To me that's unbelievable! Many modern full-frame DSLRs can do this, and even a few digital cameras with smaller sensors. This was impossible not very long ago.

The last image, Sunset At Pineview Reservoir, is a strait-out-of-camera JPEG shot at ISO 6400. A good looking color ISO 6400 camera-made JPEG with lots of dynamic range? 10 years ago the suggestion would be laughable. Now it's commonplace. Camera technology sure has come a long ways.

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