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Thread: How important is low light performance really?

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    Other side of the hill ... WhoDo's Avatar
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    How important is low light performance really?

    As an avid reader of all things photography related, I've noticed the industry seems to move in different directions according to phases the buying public are experiencing. In the digital era things like sensor size, megapixels, and image quality (IQ) have all received plenty of attention. Lately the buzz seems to revolve around low light performance, with ridiculously high ISO figures being touted for different brands.

    With the recent release of the Nikon D600 and and Canon 6D bringing full frame sensors within the reach of the masses (well most of them anyway), aficionado's of each brand have been keen to identify points of difference between these new monsters of the enthusiast and consumer markets. The most commonly cited difference is the stark variance in ISO range for each camera - the Nikon maxes out at 6400 while the Canon offers 25,600 (I think?).

    With that background information, I've been reading reports from Photokina (you haven't been living under a rock somewhere, have you?). The one covering Leica I found particularly enthralling, but it left me with a question. Here is one of the most respected brands in the photographic world, able to boast devotees among the world's most respected professional photographers, and their top of the line offering (the medium format S series @ $26k+) has a maximum ISO of 1600! Yep, only 2 zeros! Why? Some will say, "It's a studio camera". Sure, but think hard - how often do any of us really venture too far beyond ISO 800 anyway?

    I know there are some applications that require higher ISO, low light, low noise performance - event photography, indoor sports, bird photography where ISO is used to boost shutter speed, etc. Generally, though, who really needs more than about ISO 6400 in ANY application? And wouldn't ISO 1600 be perfectly usable for 99.99% of photographers anyway?

    Before the Canon crowd notice my sig line and suggest I'm making excuses for Nikon, let me state this is NOT about Nikon vs. Canon, even if the original impetus for the discussion came from that debate. I'm really interested to hear why we need the ever-escalating emphasis on ISO's in the 10's of thousands? Let the opinion's flow, but if you make any assertions I would really appreciate supporting citations if you have them. Game on!
    Last edited by WhoDo; 23-09-2012 at 9:18am.
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    Interesting point. I know I hate venturing past 800 and find that I probably wouldn't use anything more than 1600. I mean, 25,600 is just !!!! I would love to see an actual image taken with that ISO!
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    If a body has excellent performance at ISO 1600, for example, it's obviously going to have very acceptable performance at higher ISO. In my opinion the manufacturers are continually looking to improve ISO performance at average levels and with the improvement having come so far at lower to medium ISO levels the higher ISO level performance and the resulting ability to apply this to a body is part and parcel of the overall increased standard.

    I can't do night events in country level lighting because shutter speed is limited in my 1.6 body by poor high ISO performance. The high ISO ability of the newer full frame bodies is a game changer for many.

    In regards to the original question, to me, low light performance is very important.
    Last edited by norwest; 23-09-2012 at 9:59am.

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    I've been shooting with Canon's EOS 5D-series cameras since 2006 -- a line of cameras known for low noise -- but ironically, with the kind of photography in which I engage, I don't really need higher ISO settings.

    Most of my photography is based around subjects where freezing movement in low light isn't necessary. I shoot in low light quite frequently (I'm a landscape photographer, predominantly), so I'm shooting longer exposures, but at ISO 100, or 200 if I get desperate.

    The only time I've used an ISO setting above 400 in recent memory is for this starfield image.

    For people who shoot parties, concerts, theatrical performances, news, sports, weddings and other events (and perhaps even wildlife) I'd expect low-light performance at higher ISOs to be a very desirable and even necessary attribute in a camera.

    For people who shoot the sorts of subjects I shoot, which don't have issues of timing and motion freeze in low light, performance at higher ISO settings is nice to have, but not critical.

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    My take on it is that perhaps 'enthusiasts' like those of us in here may try to keep our ISO settings on the low side and to do that we might employ techniques such as supplement the light with off camera flash, slower shutterspeeds, tripods, etc. However, for many who like to take photos of the kids or pets in an everyday house having higher ISO performance will help them to get the shots they want more consistently. They are not too worried about going to the expense of flashes or tripods or getting the kids to pose etc, they just want a memory to post up on Facebook and having a camera that can take the shot in lower light but give an acceptable image is going to be of great interest to them.

    Professional wedding photographer David Ziser writes in his book 'Captured by the light' that he regularly uses ISO 1600 or 3200 because it allows him to use his preferred aperture of f5.6, get him shots that he would not otherwise get and also saves his flash battery power. Obviously weddings tend to be events where lighting may be more subdued but Mum and Dad might choose a camera that works well at 6400 without too much fuss and get the shots they could not 5 years ago. Of course this is fine until they want to blow it up onto a massive canvas but that is another topic.

    As far as high ISO images being usable - I posted a thread recently with images at 25600 and 51200. http://www.ausphotography.net.au/for...h-ISO-with-1DX Also, over a friends house the other night he was messing with some shots of the dogs and the ISO was at between 10,000 and 16,000 with the images perfectly usable for facebook etc.

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    Account Closed Wayne's Avatar
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    As others have said, it greatly depends upon your subjects.

    I have shot quite alot of country sports, often in late afternoon, some even fully at night and they simply don't have the big budget lighting that some city fields have as Norwest mentioned. Basketball played indoors is the same, their lighting leaves alot to be desired. I have shot some of these games for the media and even with the Nikon 400/2.8VR or for indoors 200/2VR wide open at base ISO (200 for Nikon D3/3s/700) I would struggle to get a shutter speed > 1/15, so shooting ISO3200-6400 is very common even with the fastest of glass.
    The same applies for many indoor events, weddings etc that take place in dimly lit churches and reception venues.

    Wildlife such as birds that need fast shutter speeds to freeze their action are another area as you already noted.

    Without these high ISO capable bodies, I simply couldn't do much of what I do and again as Norwest said, having the capability is a game changer for me too. Having the new D800 and all it's monster of pixels requires even more discipline and steady hands when using slower shutter speeds, so being able to crank that ISO a couple of stops is the difference between sharp and a little fuzzy.

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    Sunrise Chaser
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    I have to agree with John on this subject, Mostly I shoot at 100, Lately I have experimented using 400 to get the water movement I wanted in the early dawn light (1/2hr before Sunrise) And I ventured to 400 to get Surfing shots just after Sunrise to stop the action , And even at f7.1 ISO400 I can get from 1/800th up to 1/1250th sec , Thats all I need , So to need ISO25,600 must be very dark and really fast action This is all on a 7yr old 8.2mp cam
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    http://steveaxford.smugmug.com/ Steve Axford's Avatar
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    For still photos I rarely use above iso1600 on the 5d 3. But for video I often use 25600. I would love it if I could get good images at 1,000,000iso. Just consider with video you use manual focus, so high fstops are needed or you risk shooting everything oof. Also, with wildlife, light is often very dim and the minimum shutter speed for video is 1/30s. This is starting to teach me the value of high ISO for wildlife and maybe I will start using it more.

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    Still in the Circle of Confusion Cage's Avatar
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    @ Waz.................
    And wouldn't ISO 1600 be perfectly usable for 99.99% of photographers anyway
    I pretty much used the same words recently in a post on the Pentax forum.
    Last edited by Cage; 23-09-2012 at 7:14pm.
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    It's all about the Light!
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    Example: http://www.ausphotography.net.au/for...rra-ISO-12-800 (12,800)

    The better ISO performance is only needed sometimes.
    But being able to shoot wildlife at 1,600 or better and do little NR is a big plus.
    It gives us more options!
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    Quote Originally Posted by fess67 View Post
    Also, over a friends house the other night he was messing with some shots of the dogs and the ISO was at between 10,000 and 16,000 with the images perfectly usable for facebook etc.
    I won't use an ISO over 100 - 200 for any photo I want to keep, if i can't get it at that, I don't really want it, maybe that's my fault for not being able to use it properly. Because I want to display "keepers" on a big screen, or to be able to print in a large format. If all we wanted was to put a few pics up on Facebook, we would only need PnS's.

    I like this discussion, thanks OP.
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    Moderately Underexposed I @ M's Avatar
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    I have no doubts whatsoever that clean high iso performance is a godsend to sport and event photographers when wide apertures and lack of light can't give the shutter speeds that are needed.
    How far they actually have to go with the amplification is another matter to me. 1600 to 3200 seems to do the trick in most applications.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by gbamber View Post
    I won't use an ISO over 100 - 200 for any photo I want to keep, if i can't get it at that, I don't really want it, maybe that's my fault for not being able to use it properly. Because I want to display "keepers" on a big screen, or to be able to print in a large format. If all we wanted was to put a few pics up on Facebook, we would only need PnS's.

    I like this discussion, thanks OP.
    Failbook photos and high resolution monitors are the worst at showing noise degradation. Prints from small to large show a helluva lot less "noise" and at the same time retain the detail.

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    Other side of the hill ...
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    Quote Originally Posted by I @ M View Post
    1600 to 3200 seems to do the trick in most applications.
    Yep. I'd even be prepared to concede 6400, having seen some of Lance's results in low light with birds, etc. But 25,600? Maybe it is a video thing after all? I mean, even sports photographers and event photographers wouldn't push it to 25,600 would they? If it's required for low light video then all I can say is in the 2 years since I bought my first video-capable DSLR I have never had cause to use the "Record" button ... never! I even hate it when I accidentally record video instead of shooting a still with my iPhone.

    Once upon a time we were clamouring for more and more megapixels ... probably still are in some senses, although we're getting more discerning about the size of the sensor they're jammed upon. When the ISO pressure subsides, maybe the next big thing will be software ... Android power, pixel peaking, whatever. Maybe I'm getting too old but this is a merry-go-round pushing people to update from perfectly serviceable equipment to the latest and greatest, and I for one have had enough of travelling in ever diminishing circles.

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    The three basics of photography. Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO.

    We can already fairly much go to any shutter speed we want from an hour or more, to 1/8000th of a second. Aperture is a lens based setting and really reliant on the quality and build of the lens. ISO is the only one left that manufacturers can 'play' with..so play with it, they do!
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    Ausphotography Regular swifty's Avatar
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    Although I don't venture past ISO1600 usually, improvements in the very high ISO ranges usually helps lower down too.
    Afterall we're talking amplification in digital so if u can get cleaner 12800, u can usually also get cleaner 1600. Not always the case of course since it depends how the high ISO results are achieved.
    Then there's the subjective noise quality issue that's difficult to measure but important nonetheless.
    But generally speaking my view is that noise'll be less and less of an issue across all formats as even smaller formats get usable results in the medium ISO ranges.
    And I get the feeling as digital display density increases, our perception of noise on these displays will also decrease.
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    Arch-Σigmoid Ausphotography Regular ameerat42's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ms Monny View Post
    Interesting point. I know I hate venturing past 800 and find that I probably wouldn't use anything more than 1600. I mean, 25,600 is just !!!! I would love to see an actual image taken with that ISO!
    Here are some, Monika...
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    Sir Rattus79 - The Proclaimant
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    As a predominate landscape/candid style photographer, far more important to me then ISO is dynamic range.

    This was the single most deciding matter for me to upgrade my Pentax k10 to the k5. Only the d800 still bosts a better dynamic range (not including the new offerings from canikon)

    with that upgrade came better ISO performance, and I've got to tell you it's franky amazing! Where on the k10 I would shudder to go to ISO 400, on the k5, I have no problem going to 3200 or 6400, especially at night, in a street style when you're trying to emulate Ilford Delta 3200.

    Has anyone else notice a spate of astro photography with perfect replications of the milky way recently? I tried this once on my k10 at ISO 1600 .... well, that was a noisy affair.

    Todays high ISO capabilities make this entirely possible now without super expensive equitratorial tracking equipment.
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    To me, absolute ISO numbers are largely irrelevant. The number that means something to me is the ISO number to which I can push my camera without an appreciable decrease in image quality. Thankfully I'm spoiled (in APS-C terms) with my K-5 but that doesn't mean I don't want for more.

    If someone can produce a camera with acceptable image quality at ISO 64,000+ I'd use it for sure. I love being able to shoot without limitations. At the moment I'm comfortable pushing to about +/-1600 with my K-5. I could certainly push it further, and might in certain circumstances but 1600 is pretty darn fine image quality.

    Last edited by Eberbachl; 24-09-2012 at 3:28pm.
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    Weddings - 4000 ISO max

    Travel/Photojournalism work - 6400 ISO max

    commercial/editorial - 100-200 ISO max

    yeah I need the high ISO performance of modern cameras in order to get shots for work which would be otherwise impossible, or much harder to achieve.
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    Ausphotography Regular MissionMan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by WhoDo View Post
    Yep. I'd even be prepared to concede 6400, having seen some of Lance's results in low light with birds, etc. But 25,600? Maybe it is a video thing after all? I mean, even sports photographers and event photographers wouldn't push it to 25,600 would they? If it's required for low light video then all I can say is in the 2 years since I bought my first video-capable DSLR I have never had cause to use the "Record" button ... never! I even hate it when I accidentally record video instead of shooting a still with my iPhone.

    Once upon a time we were clamouring for more and more megapixels ... probably still are in some senses, although we're getting more discerning about the size of the sensor they're jammed upon. When the ISO pressure subsides, maybe the next big thing will be software ... Android power, pixel peaking, whatever. Maybe I'm getting too old but this is a merry-go-round pushing people to update from perfectly serviceable equipment to the latest and greatest, and I for one have had enough of travelling in ever diminishing circles.
    I've shot at ISO6400 and wished for higher on many occasions although most of it is sports related. I'd also recommend you try shooting indoors with a toddler. They move faster than most professional sportsmen. I prefer not to use flash where possible and having the ability to shoot at 1/200 in conditions that I couldn't before is a major benefit. The way toddlers move, I'd shoot at 1/1000 if it was an option in low light.

    Sure 25,600 still has heaps of noise with most of the current cameras, but as technology gets passed down to the smaller cheaper models, everyone benefits. How much of the technology we currently see was developed in F1 racing or in Fighter jets? Plenty. There were very specialised applications for them but now a lot of it is technology we take for granted.
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