Behind The Lens: HIgh ISO:

The Stream and Pool image I posted last night was shot at ISO 1600. I would have never considered this high an ISO in the past but my new 5D3 handles it with aplomb and 17X22 prints should not be a problem. I did it because I could see that on the LCD screen, the ISO 100 pictures had very blurred out water totally devoid of the lovely reflections I was seeing. Even 800 didn’t help but ISO 1600 and 1/8 of a second at f11 solved my problem.

This thought triggered something that came to mind over the weekend while out and realizing I’d forgotten my filter pack.

A couple of weeks ago a friend brought over his new Canon DX1 and I got to actually touch it. We spent an afternoon calibrating the micro focus for all of his lenses, and then after dinner, spent some time experimenting with the ISO to get a sense of how high he could crank it before noise became a problem.

My feeling was that the noise level of the DX1 at ISO 16000 was very close the noise I see on my 7D at ISO 1600 — in other words, something that I’d deal with as part of a normal workflow in my images without thinking about it at all. Starting with ISO 32000, we saw enough visible noise that I’d want to do more to the image, but I found that Nik’s Dfine plug-in cleaned it up using default settings without any noticeable loss of sharpness or any problem with image quality.

Just thinking about those ISO numbers kinda makes my head hurt. Having the ability to crank a camera to ISO 8000 without thinking changes the ballgame in so many ways it’s scary, especially for someone who still vaguely remembers shooting high school football under the lights with Tri-X. I know my “real film” days still impact my thinking in terms of ISO usage, and I’m still retraining myself to see ISO as a strategic choice, not a “you have to keep it as low as possible or the noise will kill you” of the elder days; I’ve finally gotten comfortable going out and shooting in the ISO 400 range without twitching.

Forgetting my filters this weekend got me thinking, though. Why haven’t camera manufacturers gone the other way?

What are the most common filters we still carry with a digital camera these days? The polarizer, and ND filters. I’ll save the debate on Grad-ND filters for some other blog post, but it’s “generally” understood that the two filters you can’t simulate/fix in Photoshop or via HDR are polarizers and using ND’s to slow shutter speed to smooth water flow and other similar uses.

The question for ND filters is, why don’t cameras do this? When we can take a sensor and make it work from ISO 50 to ISO 32000 without breaking a sweat, shouldn’t the sensor geeks be able to find a way to turn the ISO sensitivity off in the other direction? Give me ISO 25? ISO 12? ISO 0.000032? (we’d have to figure out what to call this: what is 10 stops below ISO 50, anyway?). If raising ISO to these levels is figuring out how to make sensors more sensitive without destroying the image with noise, why can’t we reduce sensor sensitivity and allow photographers to replace those ND filters with an in-camera setting?

Seems to me this should be possible. Perhaps it’s because we (as photographers) haven’t been asking for it?

So — I’m asking!

What would it take to make the ND filter obsolete and support it in camera?