F#@k ISO – Take The Shot
First – Just take the shot. Expose and take it. Push your ISO to the limits if you have to. When it comes down to having a grainy image of a compelling, emotionally charged subject -VS- absolutely no image at all….. I prefer to have the grainy image. You can delete the bad photos later. Take the shot.
I used to have serious ISO issues. So jealous of silky, full frame ISO. The two cameras I’ve shot all of my RAW images on since 2010 are M4/3 Lumix GF1 and GH2. Wonderfully small in size and feature rich, both have poor ISO performance. A problem for someone who likes to shoot in low light with no flash.
Part of my problem was my processing techniques. I was using Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop to process one image at a time. When it came to noise reduction, I wasn’t satisfied with anything above 800 ISO. I see comments all over forums and blogs about people hating their camera’s high ISO performance. But I see variations of this phrase the most: “I don’t shoot above (xyz)ISO.” I used to think like that. Then I gave up and just started taking the noisy shots anyway.
Over time, while shooting at high ISO with these cameras, I figured out two simple changes in my tools that make all the difference in the quality of my low light, indoor, and even night time hand held photography. Best of all, very little effort is required to take advantage of them.
1. DxO Optics Pro (www.dxo.com) – I promise I did not figure out a way to make money on this endorsement. I tried. After testing the program myself and comparing both workflow and results to what I was able to do in Camera RAW, Optics Pro wins hands down on almost everything. These guys test camera body and lens combinations and build custom tuned settings within their own software for a surprisingly large number of them. If you have a camera and a lens by most any manufacturer, DxO will most likely auto detect and apply presets for you. Noise, exposure, color, barrel distortion, sharpness, contrast….the presets have always improved my photo.
If the only thing I ever did with Optics Pro was noise reduction and basic RAW processing using the built in auto adjustments, it would still be worth every penny of it’s roughly $160 price. Check out the before and after full crops below. I think I over sharpened the Processed version but it still looks far better than the original file.
But Optics Pro has other powerful uses. For image manipulation, there are a couple dozen intuitive sliders and drop down menus. One of my favorites that Photoshop and Camera RAW do not have is the Micro Contrast slider. If you add their aptly named FilmPack software, you can imitate dozens of film styles. Even the option to imitate the look of popular digital camera bodies, like the MKIII or M9. Creating my own presets and doing selective batch processing has been a breeze. I can spend a fraction of the time processing photos with DxO than Photoshop and get better results. That said, the two are ultimately different processing tools and I would always want a deeply capable compositing program with layering and masking capabilities like Photoshop. But most all of my processing needs are now satisfied by Optics Pro…..quickly.
And to the point of this blog post, the software saves my high ISO images. You can download a free trial if you’re interested. I can’t recommend it enough.
2. Fast Prime Lenses – Some of my favorite photos I took with slow zooms. I’ll always take a kit zoom over no lens at all, much like I’ll take any camera over no camera. Given the choice I’ll take the extra 4 stops, sharpness, color rendering, bokeh, and depth of field gained from nice primes. Lately the Olympus 45mm 1.8 has been my go-to. Such a fun lens. The point is, a nice prime -VS- a kit zoom can mean the difference between ISO 800 or 2400, which is huge on my small sensor cameras.
Want an easy way to justify a lens purchase? Think like an economist. A good lens, treated well, will see very little price depreciation. Camera bodies become worthless over a comparatively short period of time. Chances are that a new lens (or lightly used one), plus DxO could solve low light/high ISO issues you’re having while being less expensive and a better investment than a new camera body. Gear Acquisition Syndrome or not, I look for the biggest bang for my buck on useful equipment.
I’ll always want cameras with better ISO performance than my current camera. It helps me to let go of ISO when I focus on composition, emotion, and story….knowing I can improve the quality in processing with very little effort later on. It’s possible that years into the future even better software will be around that does flawless noise cleanup on all your old RAW files. Garbage photos are easy to delete. So even if you have zero processing capabilities right now and the least capable camera on the planet: Fuck ISO, Take The Shot.