Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A700's High ISO Capabilities-My Personal Experience Going Beyond ISO 1600

Yesterday evening I went to a demonstration of capoeria. I was invited by a friend who practices it as part of a workshop where he studies.

I have been looking for an opportunity to practice shooting under low light with people moving around. This because I sometimes take photographs of my brothers' band performing and most of the the time, I had to use flash because there was really no lightning rigs.

Ever since I got my A700, Ive been looking for an opportunity to shoot under low light with no flash, and today I finally got it.

The purpose of this entry is to describe my experience with high ISOs.

First of all, let me establish something, my A700 arrived to me 2 days before Firmware V4 was leaked on Sony's Japanese website. When it was leaked, I installed the upgrade right away, so all my shots taken so far, are taken with V4.

When I shoot with my H1, I tend not to go beyond ISO 100 unless its really necessary, then I go to ISO 200 or 400, depending on how low light is. I usually avoid ISO 400 due to how noisy the pictures are, but if there is no other choice, I use it.

This kind of thinking remained after I got my A700.

Admittedly, a picture looks much better with no noise in it, and the safe rule always is to stick to the lowest ISO possible.

One of the main reasons why I switched to DSLR, was the immense need of higher ISOs to work with. Not always you can shoot with enough light or flash light and slow shutter speeds sometimes just don't work to get the pictures you need/want.

Having read a lot of threads in DPR's Sony SLR Forum, I got used to the idea of not using an ISO higher than 1600. This fell into the same idea of not going beyond ISO 100 in my H1.

However, this past month I experienced how much difference there is between how the human eye and a camera sensor perceive light (I know I owe you an article on that, I'm working on it). I took pictures at two birthdays indoors with the Sony 28mm f2.8 and high ISOS (around 2000 or so) and the pictures came out perfectly with little noise to be seen.

However, tonight was a completely different game.

I arrived late to the event, but luckily I didn't miss my friend's performance. When I arrived, there was a group of musicians playing, so I decided to use that chance to set the camera properly for my friend's turn.

The gear I used was: A700, Vertical Grip, 18-200mm.

Since I knew that my lens wasn't exactly a fast one (f 3.5-5.6), I knew I was going to be playing with ISO instead of aperture this time around. The goal was to get properly lit pictures without resorting to flash.

I first started at ISO 1600 and it wasn't good enough, mainly because I needed a shutter speed around 1/40-1/60 to freeze movement as much as possible. The pictures came out a bit underexposed.

I bumped it to ISO 2000 and it worked just fine. The noise was somewhat visible, but that was because NR was set to Low and not to Normal, so I switched it to Normal.

When my friend came on stage, the lightning conditions had changed completely because they turned off all lights in the auditorium and when they turned them on again, they turned just the scenario ones, which were weak. The band playing before was using those lights and the auditorium's lights which helped to increase light conditions.

This posed a problem, my ISO 2000 just didn't cut it, nor any other ISO after that; except 6400.

Yeah, you read right, ISO 6400.

So the question here was: should I go with it and get noisy pictures or should I go down to ISO 1000 and open the shutter?

Answer: Go with it and get noisy pictures

Why? Simple, a great photographer called Marc Mantha once said in a course I read from him that its better to get noisy pictures than no pictures at all. And that is so true. I managed to get a load of great shots with ISO 6400.

I could have reduced the ISO and open the shutter, but then I would have got all the subjects blurry in movement. This time I was aiming for subjects well in focus but with movement, in other words, pictures where you could tell who is who while having their movements recorded to some degree.

Besides, you can always use noise removing software to improve the quality of the image, but you cant undo the blurry movement of your subject.

So what's the big fuzz about ISO 6400?

Personally, I don't know. The noise is something you can't eliminate completely from a shot, unless you manage to take photos with no light... You can suppress it, but can't get rid of it for good.

I've come to think that pixel-peepers have successfully inserted the idea in the photographer community that high ISOs are a thing from the devil. They want pictures with no noise, perfect focus and no artifacts all the time, pixel by pixel. That's an utopia, that's technical perfection, and that doesn't exist.

Of course ISO 6400 is far more noisy than ISO 200, so what? That means it shouldn't be used? If you take a look at old pictures, specially war and newspaper pictures, all those used ASA 400 or higher. They look grainy, but if you're looking at the grain and not the shot, then you're missing the whole point.

The shots I got tonight sure are noisy, but I can take care of that once I get a noise removal software (and a new computer...). However, they are not THAT noisy as some people make it sound: "OH MY GOD, THAT SHOT IS IN ISO 6400, IT'S SO HORRIBLY NOISY MY EYES ARE GOING TO POP OUT OF THEIR HOLES!"

On top of that, I used DRO Level 3 as well and the shots came out as I wanted them to.

The best scenario in this case would have been to use a long lens with a big aperture, say f 2.8, in order to reduce the ISO and increase the shutter speed even more but right now I'm working with what Ive got.

One thing I noticed about ISO 6400 is that I could go to speeds as high as 1/600 and I still could get properly lit shots, which shows just how sensible the EXMOR sensor can be...

My advice to you this time is:

Don't be afraid of going to ISO 6400 or the top ISO number of your camera. It's better to get a noisy shot than NO shot at all. And you can always remove the noise to a bigger or lesser degree with software. Sometimes, when you print, the noise isn't even noticeable. This has happened to me frequently...

If you can stick to low ISOs, that's great, but if you need more light, don't be afraid to raise the ISO.

Sure, high ISOs are noisy, but that's one trade off you got to accept if you want to be a photographer. You can work around it anyway. You can't work around not having a picture, sometimes you may get another chance, but if it's a once in a lifetime event, no software in the world can help you.

Your Alpha DSLR goes up to ISO 3200 or ISO 6400? GOOD! USE IT!


  1. Great post, but one thing it is missing is pictures! :)

  2. I know, I haven't even removed the pictures from the memory card yet...

    When I can post them here, I will make an entry about it.

    I'm glad you liked the entry, thank you for visiting Alpha Sight :)