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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The ISO Advantage

How to use the excellent high-ISO performance of today’s cameras

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2) Nikon D3, Nikon 200-400mm with 1.4x converter, ISO 800
2. Leave The Tripod At Home. Well, not exactly. Tripods are a great tool and result in tack-sharp images (I use one whenever I can). But what if you’re in a small boat, bouncing in the waves, trying to photograph a black oystercatcher. You can’t use a tripod because your shooting platform is too wobbly. Simply dial up your ISO to increase your shutter speed to a level at which you can create sharp images. Another benefit is that you can handhold long telephoto lenses, especially if you have image stabilization. Last summer in Alaska, I was photographing bald eagles from a skiff in the ocean. Almost everyone in our boat was handholding a 400mm or 500mm ƒ/4 lens and using high ISO to shoot fast. The resulting images were incredible—tack-sharp bald eagles soaring against the snowy peaks. Handholding 400mm lenses? Amazing!

3. Shoot At Night. Just when you thought your shooting day was over, now you can shoot all night long. Night photography is popular, especially light painting. No doubt this is due, in part, to improved ISO performance and instant feedback on your LCD. Long exposures used in night photography was the one advantage film had on digital until the improved sensors arrived. I shot star trails recently, a one-hour exposure, and had minimal noise, very similar to results I get when using film. Even better, now I can dial up my ISO to 3200 and shoot the Milky Way and stars at short shutter speeds with stunning results. This wasn’t a reasonable option a few years ago; ISO 3200 had way too much noise. One important camera feature to turn on is “long exposure noise reduction.” This will reduce noise in long exposures greatly (although not all cameras have this option).


4) Nikon D3, Nikon 24-70mm, ISO 800
4. Capture A Live Performance. Most of us want to photograph a live performance at one time or another. Maybe it’s a concert, a high-school basketball game or a birthday indoors at home. Flash gives us one option of tackling these low-light situations, but sometimes you miss a candid moment waiting for your flash to recycle. Some venues don’t allow flash photography. Once again, the ISO Advantage comes to the rescue. Dial up your ISO, and shoot away. I attended a tango performance in Buenos Aires last year, and flash photography wasn’t allowed. The scene was very dark, so I dialed up my ISO to 6400 and got the shot.


6) Nikon D3, Nikon 200- 400mm, ISO 1600
5. Give Your Flash A Break. TTL flash photography has advanced as much as sensors have improved in the last few years. Many flashes work wirelessly, and output can be controlled by a transmitter on the camera. Numerous light modifiers and accessories have cropped up, allowing even beginning photographers to create dramatic portraits. All you need is one or two TTL flashes. A downside to using TTL flash is that shooting full-power bursts results in long recycling times, and you can go through AA batteries quickly. One solution for this problem is increasing your ISO a few stops, making your camera more sensitive to light and requiring less flash output to get your shot. Imagine if I’m shooting a scene at ISO 200 using ƒ/11. If I set my ISO to 800, two stops more sensitive to light, I can shoot at ƒ/11, but use two stops less flash power to get the same results.

6. Increase Depth Of Field. I mentioned earlier how increasing ISO allows use of faster shutter speeds to freeze the action. But what about aperture in this equation? Since aperture controls depth of field in an image, now you can capture more depth of field in low-light situations and also when using long telephoto lenses.

Photographing sea otters recently, I discovered a perfect use of the ISO Advantage. We found a patch of kelp in which the otters had anchored themselves to keep from floating away with the strong tides. Not just a few otters, but more than 100 were resting in this kelp bed. I focused on an otter about 30 feet away with my 400mm lens and got a nice head shot. But I realized there were numerous other otters in the background, all out of focus because I was shooting at ƒ/4 at ISO 200. So I dialed up my ISO to 1600, gaining three stops, and shot at ƒ/11. The otters in the background were sharper.

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