Friday Foto Talk: Noise, ISO and Your Camera   11 comments

A clear, quiet morning at Bench Lake, Mt. Rainier National Park. 30 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/11, ISO 320, handheld.

Camera makers have been providing ever higher quality images, with lower noise at higher ISOs.  No, I’ve not become a cheerleader for big corporations.  But this little factoid is true nonetheless.  By the way, a rule of thumb:  the larger the sensor in your camera, the less noise you’ll have when shooting at high ISO.  It’s one reason that cameras with full-frame sensors have become so popular.  Size isn’t the only thing affecting noise, but it’s an important factor.

Besides sensor size, camera makers have been improving noise performance across the board, even on crop-frame sensors.  It’s especially true with high ISOs, but noise has also improved for very long exposures.  My last post focused on ways you can shoot without a tripod, the easiest way being to simply raise ISO.  This post will cover some tips on balancing noise and ISO with your exposure needs.

A hoary marmot is getting ready to chow down on some lupine high up on Mt. Rainier, Washington.  100 mm., 1/500 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500, handheld.

A hoary marmot is getting ready to chow down on some lupine high up on Mt. Rainier, Washington. 100 mm., 1/500 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500, handheld.

The Oregon Coast Range.   135 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100, tripod.

The Oregon Coast Range. 135 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100, tripod.

Don’t fixate on how high ISO can be set on your particular camera model.  That’s pretty well meaningless.  Just because you can set your ISO over 25,000 doesn’t mean you’ll be able to shoot a decent picture at anywhere near that ISO.  Think of the max ISO advertised for a given camera as a general guide to ISO performance.  Real-world shooting is the only way to see how high the ISO can be set for a given situation, and still allow a fairly sharp image to be captured with low levels of noise.

So Heres a TIP:  Fairly soon after buying a new camera, learn how high you can raise ISO and still capture an image with manageable amounts of noise.  Manageable noise is noise that you can handle with the software you have.  Lightroom does a very good job with noise, but there are plug-ins (like the great Topaz DeNoise) that can reduce or even eliminate high levels of noise.  It’s going to take some practice with both your camera and your software.

I got a kayak!  Here it is 1st time on saltwater on a bay at the Oregon Coast.  Handheld shot.

I got a kayak! Here it is 1st time on saltwater on a bay at the Oregon Coast. Handheld shot with polarizer.

While you’re figuring out what that ISO ‘tipping point’ is, remember these two caveats:

  • Caveat 1:  As I’ve mentioned in several prior posts, the longer your focal length, the faster your shutter speed needs to be for sharp pictures.  This also means, assuming you’re off-tripod, that you’ll need to raise ISO more for shots with longer focal lengths.  Obviously you’ll need to raise ISO more for dimly lighted subjects as well.
  • Caveat 2:  This one is more subtle and refers to the shadowed or dark areas in your image.  If you anticipate later filling (brightening) those areas on the computer, you will have increased noise in those areas (but not so much in brighter areas). The more brightening you need to do in post-processing, the more noise you’ll need to handle.  But it’s area-specific.
Precious rain, Oregon.  100 mm. macro lens, 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, tripod.  ISO raised for faster shutter b/c of breeze.

Precious rain, Oregon. 100 mm. macro lens, 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, tripod.

This guy l ives along Coldwater Lake, Mt. St. Helens.  100 mm. macro, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250, hand-held.

This little guy lives along Coldwater Lake, Mt. St. Helens. 100 mm. macro, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250, hand-held & braced against a rock.

This relationship between the variable brightness of your scene and noise means, in effect, that you can get away with raising ISO more for overall higher-key (brighter) images that have fairly even illumination than you can for lower-key (darker) images that have a lot of dynamic range (contrasting illumination) across the frame.  Of course, if you anticipate leaving shadowed areas fairly dark, you don’t have to worry so much about noise; it won’t be visible.  That was true for the dark face of that marmot above, for example.

This leads inevitably to the differences among different camera makers.  The big two, Canon and Nikon, have been competing in both the low-noise/high ISO arena and the resolution (megapixel) arena.  Meantime, Sony has been working a lot on dynamic range, along with (more recently) ISO/noise.  I could say a lot more about this but it won’t really help you take better pictures, so I won’t.  Remember, this is not the blog for specific gear recommendations.

A  monkey flower at Mt. Rainier.  100 mm. macro, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1250, hand-held & small breeze.

A monkey flower at Mt. Rainier. 100 mm. macro, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1250, hand-held & small breeze.

The important thing is to use the camera you have in your hands to its limits.  Don’t hold back.  Practice with it in the dark, on moving platforms (boats, etc.), in situations where it really isn’t made to produce perfect photos.  It’s not your job to exactly match your gear’s supposed capabilities, and it’s senseless to wish for something with more megapixels, or more dynamic range.  Rather it’s your job to stretch the capabilities of your gear.  If you really work at this, you’ll invariably miss on a lot of shots.  But those you hit on will shine!

Have a wonderful weekend, and happy shooting!

Back home!  Sunset in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.  50 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.

Back home! Sunset in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. 50 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.

 

Advertisements

11 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Noise, ISO and Your Camera

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The one unique feature about this is that the auto system doesn’t change your ISO at full steps, such as 400 ISO to 800 ISO, instead it can change your ISO from 200 ISO to 210 ISO.

  2. Have fun in the kayak!

  3. Thank you for this wonderful tutorial Mike. Your photos are just stunning, especially the marmot, your red kayak and one of my all time favorites, the frog.

  4. Excellent tutorial. Thanks!

  5. This is great!!! Beautiful photos! Thank you.

  6. Thank you for yet another super tutorial!
    Happy weekend to you too!
    Dina & co

Please don't be shy; your words are what makes my day!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: