Sunday, January 6, 2013

getting high with ISO

Wasn't too sure which way to go with my post today. I was either going to rant about social media and how people neglect to use them to grow their businesses or to praise the powers of today's technology. I chose the latter. Fear not Facebook fiends, I will be sharing my POV about those powerful networks, very soon. It is something that has been gnawing away at consciousness for some time now. Stay tuned for that post, maybe next week. Can't be sure.

Now, let's focus on today's subject, getting high with ISO. If you are new to the world of photography, fear not, I'm not advocating the use of drugs. So parents, don't go thinking your child is reading about the latest in mind altering drugs. ISO isn't a new party favor like Vick's or Mollies. 

ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization. Without getting super nerdified, I'll give you the short and sweet of what ISO is and what it means to you as a photographer. 

I'm going to speak in terms of digital imaging, not the old film days. Don't want to cause any confusion. I'm making the assumption that all those reading here own at least one digital camera. Moreover, if you are seriously working as a photographer, I'm going to further assume (and I never assume) that the majority of repeat readers of this blog own at least one DSLR.

What is this ISO? The simplified answer is: ISO is a rating of how sensitive your camera's sensor is to light. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive the sensor will be. Most DSLR cameras today have a minimal ISO of somewhere in the 50 to 200 range. Low ISO settings are used primarily with bright ambient environments or with studio strobe lighting. Low ISO levels yield the lowest noise (grain) in the final images. 

Now, on the other end of that spectrum, the high ISO settings cause the camera's sensor to become extremely sensitive to light. With these high levels, a photographer can work with faster shutter speeds in lower light situations. Most consumer cameras max out with ISO levels around the 6400 range, while few pro cameras today are maxing out at 204,800. 

Don't let these numbers fool you. Just because your camera may have a max ISO of 6400, does not mean that it will perform awesomely at that level. The higher the ISO, regardless of which camera you have, the more noise will be introduced. 

What decides how much noise will come into your images at given ISO levels? It all has to do with your camera's sensor. Typically, if your camera has a relatively small sensor and it can get pretty high in the ISO department (ISO 6400), then chances are at that max level you will have a pretty noisy image. On the other hand, if you are sporting a camera with a gigantic full frame sensor, you can shoot at high levels and still get spectacular images. 

Just over six months ago, my new Nikon D4 arrived in the mail, months of waiting after the initial pre-order. Prior to receiving my new Nikon system, I was working with cameras that maxed out at ISO 1600 and basically crapped the bed at anything higher than ISO 200. In those days, I'd either work in super bright ambient environments or work with strobes. Once working with strobes/off camera flash, I quickly became hooking on this style of lighting. It looked awesome and I didn't have to worry about ISO, ever. 

Fast forward to the present. Those other cameras haven't left their bags since the arrival of the D4. This camera is stated as being the best in the world in many categories, one of them being low light performance. Is this all just hype? Nope. The D4 is a beast of a camera and the available ISO range is simply mind boggling. 

By the way, I am in no way getting a dime from Nikon to write this post. I mean, it would be nice if they threw me a bone here and there but there is nothing being exchanged for my article. 

So, the D4 on the low end can get down to ISO 50 and on the high end, 204,800. Yes, that number is not a mistake, there are no added zeroes there. Think about it for a sec, my last camera maxed out at ISO 1600 and would crap out in the noise department anything over ISO 200. Today, I'm working with a camera that gets ISO 204,800!!! It's a bit crazy. Talk about getting high, yes, the adrenaline starts pumping knowing that the doors of sensitivity have more than just opened, they have exploded. 

Lemme get back down to earth for a minute. Do you think that shooting the D4 at ISO 204,800 will give you beautiful noise free images? Not a chance in hell. In fact, the noise is, for artistic purposes, pretty unacceptable. I mention for artistic purposes since I feel that the camera is working wonders for those in secret government organizations, working deep under cover, who need to get images while working with nothing more than starlight. Because with just about zero light, you can still make a usable image for criminal or terrorist capturing purposes. 

For artistic purposes, I like to keep the D4 under 25,600. Anything above that, for photography purposes, in my opinion, gets a bit too noisy. Throw me in an environment that I can work ISO 10,000, bring it on baby, I'll work 10,000 all night long without blinking an eye. This brings us to the images you are seeing herein today. 

The scene was at my place, just after the holidays. Our semi-annual dinner party with Matt McColgan and Dana Cohen was about to commence. A few times a year, the wife and I have the couple over for an evening of music, dinner and drinks. The gathering starts in the early evening and ends some time in the early morning hours. Typically, by midnight, all memories are faded from my alcohol moistened brain. 

The couple had arrived by approximately 7 p.m. In the middle of winter, the daylight is long gone. The only ambient coming through the windows are the lights emanating from skyscrapers and street lights. Inside our home, to keep with a very chill environment, lighting is a bit low. Candles throughout the house do much of the lighting while the Christmas tree and few other lamps aid in the illumination of the house. 

Take me back to last year's gathering and I was panicking, knowing that if I wanted to create some candids, I'd either have to work at a super noisy ISO, pull out some strobes or drag the shutter to unacceptable levels. This year, no sweat. Although I like to work with strobes I try to keep them packed away and use only for situations that I want studio styled light. For this party, I wanted to work that ambient, no matter how crappy it was. I had no fear whatsoever. 

And to help keep things pretty simple I wanted to set an exposure that would be pretty close in every room of the house, even on the terrace. I felt that the Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 G ED would be versatile enough to get me through the evening. I locked in the exposure to f/2.8, 1/50, and ISO 10,000. If need be I could make adjustments but this basically got me through the entire night without a second thought. 

Matt, Dana, Stefanie and myself had a wonderful night of over indulgence. The couple parted ways probably somewhere around 3 a.m. I couldn't be too sure. As for the photos, I had no idea what was what until the following morning. 

The bottom line here is that I've been working with the D4 for just over 6 months now and I can truly say that it never ceases to amaze me. Its capabilities are far beyond anything I had conceived of. 

Yes, BOTH of the images here today were shot at ISO 10,000. 

Until next time...