May 12, 2013

Commentary: What's The Deal With High ISO?

I have to admit, I really do not understand the obsession photographers have these days with cameras that give "noiseless" images at high ISO settings.  Seriously, it boggles my mind to no end.

Call me insane, or maybe even a little ignorant, but it often feels like this characteristic above all others is why many photographers justify the need to upgrade their digital camera bodies, or worse, switch camera systems completely every single year.  I suppose that is great for camera companies, but not so great for photographers and even worse for those just starting out who are incredibly susceptible to savvy marketing.

(Even with very dim lighting during the last 15 minutes of daylight I still managed ISO 500 at f/1.4 with a 50mm lens)

Folks, I am just going to say this early on - noiseless high ISO performance is just simply not that important!

Before I start ranting too much, I think it may be wise to remember what the term "photography" actually means:

In Greek (because you know...all words come from Greece) the word "photo" means light and the word "graph" means writing.  So if you put the two together the word photograph literally translates to "light writing".

So think about that for a moment.  Light is where we get the most emotional and powerful impact with any given photograph.  Even the most mundane of subjects can become interesting when rendered with dramatic lighting.  Flat, dim, and dark lighting rarely fits that criteria.  So sure, you are going to get a noiseless and grain free image, but you are going to get a rather boring and forgettable one as well.   

I am not saying dim lighting cannot be interestring or dramatic mind you, but it is rather rare and hardly warrants the emphasis on low light performance every camera review on earth seems to obsess over.    

(Photographed with only moonlight, ISO 400 and a hand held flash)

Now granted, I fully admit I am ignoring one very critical function of photography; the ability to simply record a moment for the sake of history as opposed to making visually pleasing art. Admittedly, this is probably what most people use photography for.  Pictures of friends, family functions, important events, and so on and so forth.  But guess what?  On camera flash was invented decades ago for this very reason and despite all the advances in high ISO noise properties, flash photography still seems to be the predominant means of adding visibility to a dark scene.

I am going to say something that a good chunk of people may consider a little crazy.  I would love to see digital sensor technology go the opposite direction and retain detail and dynamic range with lower as opposed to higher ISO settings.  It would be great if someone came out with a camera that could be set to ISO 50, ISO 25, or heck, even ISO 10!

What!?!?  That is crazy talk!  Why on earth would a photographer want that?  Well, I shall tell you why...

I, like many photographers, am quite fond of fast lenses.  One of my personal favorites is the 50mm f/1.1 Voigtlander Nokton.  I also like photographing outdoors as often as possible. Working with such a wide aperture outside in bright light can be a major challenge when my camera’s native ISO is 200 and I can "pull" to 100 but only with a loss in dynamic range quality.  I typically get around this by using neutral density filters but it is a serious pain in the ass to buy them in various sizes and drag them along to every photo session I do.  I typically will have at least two in my back pocket and not only do they make it hard to sit down, but it constantly looks like I have a stack of condoms in my pocket.  Trust me when I say I'm not cool enough to be the kind of guy walking around with a stack of condoms in my back pocket!  

What would be truely convenient for me would be the ability to set my camera to say ISO 25 and just be done with it.

(35mm film pushed all the way to ISO 1600.  Grain isn't always such a bad thing.)

But hey, clearly I am the minority opinion on this one.  I have no illusions that anyone of importance at Nikon, Sony, Fuji, etc are going to find this and say, "hey that Andrew guy is right! Let's change are entire marketing strategy and start making low ISO sensors!"  It would certainly be nice to have that kind of power but alas, I am just one humble photographer among thousands.

...millions really if you choose to count Instagram.


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