My Nikon D3S makes images at ISO 800 that rival what my older cameras could do at ISO 100. It’s a fact that today’s digital cameras are simply capable of more dynamic range than ever before. But old habits die hard. Back in the film days, we automatically shot at the lowest ISO we could to get the best quality. That causes some photographers to abandon altogether the notion of ever shooting at high ISOs. That’s too bad, because they are missing out on all of their camera’s capabilities.
Here are three tips for getting better pictures from your camera at the higher ISO ranges.
1. The more light the better. I know, I know – you’re probably using high ISOs because you are in a low-light situation. But not all low-light situations are created equally. If you are shooting at sunrise or sunset, you have SOME light. An image made at ISO 1600 will look better at the beginning of the sunset than it will at the end of the sunset. There will be more visual information in the image shot when there’s more light. So if you can, cheat a bit and shoot when the light is relatively brightest.
2. Forget about noise. This is the biggest thing I’ve learned about shooting at high ISO. Just because the ISO is 800 or higher doesn’t mean you will actually see more noise. If you purchased a DSLR in the last 24 months at nearly ANY price point, the chances are that it has SOME built-in noise reduction. The built-in noise reduction on the flagship bodies by Canon and Nikon is mind-blowing. Even some compact cameras like the Panasonic LX3 (or its replacement the LX5) have great built-in noise reduction. If your camera’s noise reduction isn’t enough, then there’s always plenty of help in post. I use Dfine 2.0. For less than $100 it does an amazing job on the odd photo that I feel needs a bit more help. Don’t psych yourself out. The noise may just all be in your head.
3. Shoot in RAW. There’s plenty of information in the shadows that you can pull out of a RAW file that you cannot get out of a JPEG. Since current digital cameras shooting at high ISO aren’t necessarily contrasty like high ISO films were, you can get a good result as long as you don’t under-expose. This is why shooting RAW and exposing as far “to the right” as you can without clipping the highlights, will yield an amazing photo, even at ISOs above 800.
There’s no reason to be afraid of shooting at high ISOs. Depending on your camera, your post-processing skills and your final image display size, you may never even see the slightest difference between ISO 100 and ISO 1600. If you do NOT shoot because you were afraid you might get noise, then you end up with nothing. Shooting at high ISOs when needed at least gives you the chance to make a great image.