Why all the Noise about ISO?

Just as a disclaimer, this article isn’t based on science, it’s based on my experience as a photographer as well as an observer of so many amazing photographer’s work, quite possibly yours included.

I walk into the camera store and head to the counter where there is a typical exchange of words taking place between the customer and the sales person; Customer to Sales Person: “No no, I need the *insert new camera name here* because *insert review site* said it has a slightly better high ISO performance…” I instantly tune out, I giggle a little bit turn my ISO up to 4000 on my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and head off to shoot a wedding.

For those who aren’t in the know, ISO is the setting in your camera that determines the sensitivity of the camera to light. Higher numbers mean you will be able to achieve better low light images (less blur etc) but as a trade off they introduce grain into your image. I often find however that people are terribly mislead as to exactly how severe the trade off actually is, especially when most of us aren’t producing large wall prints with our photography. Now it’s important to note that I’m not the world’s most renowned or fussy photographer so my limits may be different to yours but I have had years of experience shooting all types of systems in all kinds of environments, high end compacts, mirrorless cameras, full frame, aps-c, Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Olympus, you name it; and the thing I really pride myself on in my photography is that I try to keep photography human and real. My workshops don’t contain tech specs, no jargon, no scientific tests, just real world photography that speaks to people and so today we are talking about ISO PERCEPTION not measured performance.

The internet is full of side-by-side comparisons and personal opinions but today I want to ask you this question: What distracts from an image more? A blurry photo or a slightly grainy photo? A couple of years back I had to ask myself this question in a rather panicked situation when I shot my first wedding. I was in the Myer Mural Hall in Bourke St Melbourne with 300+ guests and the setting was spectacular, but it was dark and even with my flash I couldn’t get the ambient light right. I had a bride about to turn down the isle and the camera settings (at 1/30th of a second) told me “this will be a little bit blurry” which for those who haven’t shot a wedding before is a particularly bad look. That was it, I ramped the ISO up from what I was told was a the acceptable upper limit of my OM-D E-M1 and locked it in at a whopping 4000 and started firing off my shots. Shot after shot I checked back, the subject seemed sharp enough with no blur and whist yeah there was a bit of noise (grain) I figured “hey, Ansel Adams photos had grain in them and we still love his work… right?”. After an exhausting 13 hours shooting, running through 6 batteries and upwards of 6 memory cards I collapsed into bed and stared at the roof; What had I done? How can I recover these images? I’ve been warned before about going too high with the ISO on my OM-D and tonight I absolutely pumped it.

ISO 4000 Olympus OM-D E-M1 – Compressed for upload… the same way most of us view our images!

ISO 1250 Olympus OM-D E-M1 – Compressed for upload… the same way most of us view our images!

Morning came around and with 2500 images to process I was bracing for a long few days. I opened the laptop and head-down-bum-up started the mammoth task and it was precisely at that point in my photography that I turned my back to the forums, shunned the pixel peepers and realised that photography isn’t about science, it’s about art. Forums and blogs had me worrying about using high ISO values telling me it was noise-armogedden yet I had (by necessity) pushed pass conventional limits and discovered that whilst no one can argue that higher ISO’s introduce more grain into your image, the term “more grain” was one that was up to personal interpretation and it’s more than likely that your camera is far more capable than you give it credit for. Ultimately I presented the images to my client and you know what? Not a peep about the ever so slight grain in the image, instead, adoration for such beautiful memories being captured with so much life and storytelling.

These days I use a number of different cameras for my wedding and pro work and sure, some perform better than others in the ISO department but message is clear: you never actually know the limit of your camera or your personal taste until you exceed it. So turn down the volume on the ISO conversation and find your own limits!

Wanting to lean more about your ISO? Check out my Courses & Workshops page!