Saturday, November 21, 2009

The ISO Advantage

Text & Photography By Tom Bol Published in Shooting
  I recently returned from photographing brown bears along the Katmai coast of Alaska. I was leading a workshop for Photo Quest Adventures, and we had more than 20 bears at a time on the beach. I’ve been returning to the same area for more than 10 years and have captured some fantastic bear images along this rugged coastline. But this last trip was different. Instead of getting only a few keepers out of the thousands of images I shot, I came back with numerous publishable photos. What was the difference? I used the ISO Advantage.  When I first photographed bears at Katmai, I was using a Nikon 8008 and shooting Fujichrome Velvia 50 and Provia 100. I’d bite my nails, hoping the weather would be nice. If we had clouds and low light, my ratio of usable shots would be embarrassingly low. Photographing a 1,000-pound brown bear running in murky low light at ISO 100 was an Olympian feat. Even with wide-open apertures, my shutter speeds were really slow. I could push (increase the ISO) my 100-speed film to 200, but this only added one stop of light. So instead of shooting at 1⁄30 sec., I could shoot at 1⁄60 sec., resulting in grainy, blurry shots. I like to think of this part of my wildlife photography career as my “abstract period.” I produced a lot of abstract motion-blur images, but few tack-sharp shots.  How times have changed. Today’s cameras are technological wonders, and all photographers benefit using these advanced features. The default ISO for many cameras today is ISO 200, and pushing this number higher is the norm, not the exception. I use a Nikon D3 and regularly shoot at ISO 800, 1600 and even 3200, five stops faster than ISO 100. So instead of photographing those bears at 1⁄30 sec. in low light, I can shoot at 1⁄1000 sec. Bring on the charging grizzly!  There are lots of ways to take advantage of the high-ISO performance of today’s cameras. But before we explore high-ISO techniques, let’s look at how camera sensors work and what affects their ISO performance.  Camera Sensors Camera sensors consist of an array of photosites where light is captured. Sensors capture light (photons) and convert this into an electrical charge that’s eventually converted to a digital value by the analog-to-digital converter. The camera processes this digital value into the final image. Most camera sensors today are either CCD or CMOS. Page 1 of 4 1234   top 12 Comments      Holly      Friday, 04 December 2009     I always enjoy reading these articles but have found this one to be most helpful yet! Wonderful, easy to understand information that I can't wait to implement in my hobby! Thank you!      Fred McFaddin, Jr.      Monday, 07 December 2009     I have been 35mm film photographer for many years as a hobby. I have switched to digital 3 years ago and am now considering going pro. This article is one of the most informative I have read, The techniques discussed here will be a great help as I move forward. Thank you, Tom.      Seth      Monday, 07 December 2009     I am slowwly learing better ways to photgraph at night. Thanks for the information you shared with all of us.      Paulette      Tuesday, 08 December 2009     Thanks for the great tutorial. I just upgraded to a Pentax 20D this year, left the ISO default, and found some of my deep-woods photos a bit dark. I'll be dialing up the ISO on my next trip.      Doug      Wednesday, 16 December 2009     Excellent article!! Now out to try more with myD700!      Khurt      Thursday, 17 December 2009     My local photography club is taking a trip into Jersey City (NJ) to spend the day shooting. I was worried that I would not be able to shoot when they sun goes down without lugging a tripod and a flash. But after reading this I think I can make do with my just my Nikkor 35mm f/1.8.      Doifol      Wednesday, 10 February 2010     Great tutorial! Tnx!      Vilion      Friday, 05 March 2010     Thanks for the great tutorial!))      Alejandro      Monday, 03 October 2011     Nice reading! Just wanted to suggest, in case anyone is interested, that I have put together a couple of articles, comparing ISO performance (using a Canon 5D Mk II). Check it out at: Digital SLR High ISO performance      Alejandro      Monday, 03 October 2011     Apparently the link didn't work. Find the review here: http://blog.unveiledphotography.com/2011/01/of-isos-web-quality-part-1/" Enjoy!  12 Add Comment  Name Email (will not be published) Personal Web site/Blog URL Comment  reCAPTCHA challenge image 	Get a new challenge Get an audio challenge Help 	 	Privacy & Terms       Digital Camera     D-SLRs  	       Compact Digital Camera     Compact Cameras  	       Camera Bag     Bags & Cases  	       Lens     Lenses  	       flash and memory card     Flash &     Accessories  	       how to and camera     Photography     How-To       Image Processing     Image Processing  	       Plug-ins     Plug-ins  	       Printer     Printers  	       Writable Cds     Organization     & Storage  	       Computer     Computing &     Peripherals  	       Software     Software How-To       camera and flash memory     Camera     Accessories  	       Software     Software  	       Shutter knob     Camera Technique  	       Monitor     Sharing &     Websites  	       Printer Ink     Printing  	       Video Camera     Video  Advertisement Get 7 Issues of Digital Photo for only $11.97!   That's 66% off the cover price! Name: 	 Address: 	 	 City: 	 State: 	 Zip:  Email: 	 International residents, click here Local Guides  All Guides  Alabama  Alaska  Arizona  Arkansas  California  Colorado  Connecticut  DC  Delaware  Florida  Georgia  Hawaii  Idaho  Illinois  Indiana  Iowa  Kansas  Kentucky  Louisiana  Maine  Maryland  Massachusetts  Michigan  Minnesota  Mississippi  Missouri  Montana  Nebraska  Nevada  New Hampshire  New Jersey  New Mexico  New York  North Carolina  North Dakota  Ohio  Oklahoma  Oregon  Pennsylvania  Rhode Island  South Carolina  South Dakota  Tennessee  Texas  Utah  Vermont  Virginia  Washington  West Virginia  Wisconsin  Wyoming
I recently returned from photographing brown bears along the Katmai coast of Alaska. I was leading a workshop for Photo Quest Adventures, and we had more than 20 bears at a time on the beach. I’ve been returning to the same area for more than 10 years and have captured some fantastic bear images along this rugged coastline. But this last trip was different. Instead of getting only a few keepers out of the thousands of images I shot, I came back with numerous publishable photos. What was the difference? I used the ISO Advantage. When I first photographed bears at Katmai, I was using a Nikon 8008 and shooting Fujichrome Velvia 50 and Provia 100. I’d bite my nails, hoping the weather would be nice. If we had clouds and low light, my ratio of usable shots would be embarrassingly low. Photographing a 1,000-pound brown bear running in murky low light at ISO 100 was an Olympian feat. Even with wide-open apertures, my shutter speeds were really slow. I could push (increase the ISO) my 100-speed film to 200, but this only added one stop of light. So instead of shooting at 1⁄30 sec., I could shoot at 1⁄60 sec., resulting in grainy, blurry shots. I like to think of this part of my wildlife photography career as my “abstract period.” I produced a lot of abstract motion-blur images, but few tack-sharp shots. How times have changed. Today’s cameras are technological wonders, and all photographers benefit using these advanced features. The default ISO for many cameras today is ISO 200, and pushing this number higher is the norm, not the exception. I use a Nikon D3 and regularly shoot at ISO 800, 1600 and even 3200, five stops faster than ISO 100. So instead of photographing those bears at 1⁄30 sec. in low light, I can shoot at 1⁄1000 sec. Bring on the charging grizzly! There are lots of ways to take advantage of the high-ISO performance of today’s cameras. But before we explore high-ISO techniques, let’s look at how camera sensors work and what affects their ISO performance. Camera Sensors Camera sensors consist of an array of photosites where light is captured. Sensors capture light (photons) and convert this into an electrical charge that’s eventually converted to a digital value by the analog-to-digital converter. The camera processes this digital value into the final image. Most camera sensors today are either CCD or CMOS. Page 1 of 4 1234 top 12 Comments Holly Friday, 04 December 2009 I always enjoy reading these articles but have found this one to be most helpful yet! Wonderful, easy to understand information that I can't wait to implement in my hobby! Thank you! Fred McFaddin, Jr. Monday, 07 December 2009 I have been 35mm film photographer for many years as a hobby. I have switched to digital 3 years ago and am now considering going pro. This article is one of the most informative I have read, The techniques discussed here will be a great help as I move forward. Thank you, Tom. Seth Monday, 07 December 2009 I am slowwly learing better ways to photgraph at night. Thanks for the information you shared with all of us. Paulette Tuesday, 08 December 2009 Thanks for the great tutorial. I just upgraded to a Pentax 20D this year, left the ISO default, and found some of my deep-woods photos a bit dark. I'll be dialing up the ISO on my next trip. Doug Wednesday, 16 December 2009 Excellent article!! Now out to try more with myD700! Khurt Thursday, 17 December 2009 My local photography club is taking a trip into Jersey City (NJ) to spend the day shooting. I was worried that I would not be able to shoot when they sun goes down without lugging a tripod and a flash. But after reading this I think I can make do with my just my Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. Doifol Wednesday, 10 February 2010 Great tutorial! Tnx! Vilion Friday, 05 March 2010 Thanks for the great tutorial!)) Alejandro Monday, 03 October 2011 Nice reading! Just wanted to suggest, in case anyone is interested, that I have put together a couple of articles, comparing ISO performance (using a Canon 5D Mk II). Check it out at: Digital SLR High ISO performance Alejandro Monday, 03 October 2011 Apparently the link didn't work. Find the review here: http://blog.unveiledphotography.com/2011/01/of-isos-web-quality-part-1/" Enjoy! 12 Add Comment Name Email (will not be published) Personal Web site/Blog URL Comment reCAPTCHA challenge image Get a new challenge Get an audio challenge Help Privacy & Terms Digital Camera D-SLRs Compact Digital Camera Compact Cameras Camera Bag Bags & Cases Lens Lenses flash and memory card Flash & Accessories how to and camera Photography How-To Image Processing Image Processing Plug-ins Plug-ins Printer Printers Writable Cds Organization & Storage Computer Computing & Peripherals Software Software How-To camera and flash memory Camera Accessories Software Software Shutter knob Camera Technique Monitor Sharing & Websites Printer Ink Printing Video Camera Video Advertisement Get 7 Issues of Digital Photo for only $11.97! That's 66% off the cover price! Name: Address: City: State: Zip: Email: International residents, click here Local Guides All Guides Alabama Alaska Arizona Arkansas California Colorado Connecticut DC Delaware Florida Georgia Hawaii Idaho Illinois Indiana Iowa Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Maine Maryland Massachusetts Michigan Minnesota Mississippi Missouri Montana Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire New Jersey New Mexico New York North Carolina North Dakota Ohio Oklahoma Oregon Pennsylvania Rhode Island South Carolina South Dakota Tennessee Texas Utah Vermont Virginia Washington West Virginia Wisconsin Wyoming
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.

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) Nikon D3, Nikon 200- 400mm, ISO 1600

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.
Login to post comments
Subscribe & Save!
International residents, click here.