Thoughts & Ideas

The Day the ISO Went Berserk...

(With apologies to Ray Stevens fans, but the title is the furthest my creativity goes tonight.)
It was evening. The sun was getting low in the sky, and the light was quickly fading from the landscape. But the animals were out and about enjoying the fresh air, and me? I wanted some pictures! I had, after all, just bought a new lens for my recently purchased Olympus E-P1, and needed to play!
The lens happened to be the Panasonic 45-200 f/4 – f/5.6 m4/3rds lens, which you can get online for around $270. It happens to be a pretty good lens, too, though it can’t match my Canon EF 70-200 f/4 IS USM lens for image quality and sharpness. But it doesn’t have to – it’s lighter, smaller, and sometimes that’s just what one wants.

Anyway, the light was low, so that meant any images taken would be at high ISO. Normally I try to keep the ISO at or below 800 for the E-P1, but tonight, it was at 3200 quite frequently. And while it made for “noisy” images with a lot of missing detail, that high ISO let me capture some perfectly good images that work quite nicely as black and white captures. With more massaging, they might have even worked as color images, but it happened to be late, and I didn’t want to do that much work.
And so, being at such high ISO, I embraced the noise. For one thing, I rather like the E-P1’s noise – it’s very film-like to me, and I’ve yet to see any problems with banding on my particular camera. (Whereas my Canons will both band, though my XSi more frequently than my T1i.) So, while Lightroom will naturally reduce a little noise (and I could’ve gone all out and reduced it by quite a bit), I decided to turn off all noise reduction to enhance the noise. If you’re going to live at ISO 3200, you may as well have fun with it, right?
And with that, here’s four of the best from tonight – all of a squirrel doing his best to have his supper in peace, while I was doing my best to poke my lens where he felt it didn’t belong. (Oh, and btw: all are at ISO 3200, a focal length of 200mm, an aperture of 5.6, and close to a shutter speed of 1/200s.)

Supper in a Tree

Coming Down

Slip and Slide

Not a Step Closer!

Before I go let this squirrel finish his evening in peace, let me point out a couple of things that helped keep reasonably good detail in the images:

1. Shoot RAW

And no, not meat. I mean shoot with your camera’s RAW format. Where noise gets to be a really big problem is when a camera gets a bit over-sensitive about getting rid of any and all noise, and the place it does that is in the JPEG. So an ISO 3200 JPEG will appear noisy, but blurry and smeary and generally unusable. The RAW image, however, hasn’t had any of that smearing and blurriness applied to it, so it can be used to achieve a good effect.

2. Overexpose

Yes, this seems a bit counter-intuitive, but I like to overexpose my high ISO images by around 1/3rd of a stop. (Your subject and lighting conditions, of course, determine if this is even an option.) Technically this is called “exposing to the right”.

3. Spot Meter

The sky was still pretty bright, as far as my camera was concerned, but the objects on the ground weren’t. If I were to use the camera’s evaluative metering, it would expose for the sky, and render most everything else too dark. Since I happen to want to capture the things on the ground (and not in the sky), I used spot metering instead to meter directly for the subject. (Which will cause blowing out of the sky, as seen above, but the sky wasn’t the point of the image.)

4. Embrace the Noise

And, finally, if you’re going to have noise in the image, and lots of it, why not embrace it? These kinds of images usually make for good black and white images, since, for some reason, we seem to accept noise in a black and white image better than we do in a color image. And, unless the noise is distracting, it adds a bit of texture to the image which can also help obscure (a little) the loss of detail you suffer by shooting at such a high ISO. (However, some cameras have distracting noise. You know who you are. It’s best to avoid high ISOs in those cams.)

And now, squirrel, you can go enjoy the rest of your evening. I’ll leave you alone, I promise. At least until the next photo opportunity!
Until then,
Keep writing with light!

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