Photography : ISO Performance from a Proper Perspective

Photography hobbyists today (and over the past years) are too focused on ISO performance (noise control) that it makes it so difficult for them to decide on what to buy.

Every time a new camera body appears, the ISO performance would be the first (or at least, top 3) things anyone talks about. You can see the sheer amount of excitement on discussion board as comparisons of high-ISO noise control appears, discuss are often on which camera bodies work better at high ISO (ISO 6,400 – 102,800)


Some event a particular camera because of the awesome performance at those high ISO range but do they actually use it?

Truth be told – most purchase cameras with good high-ISO performance but never photograph using high ISO. In fact I do come by many who bought a spanking new camera and insists on using ISO 400 and below because a friend tell them ISO 800 and above is noisy and not good.

Upon closer scrutiny, I realize that these complainants are often very new in photography, and more often then not they love to pixel peep, usually beyond 100%. And because they had no prior experience to cameras like those circa 2005 – 2007, they don’t realize how noise control has improved over the years and they’re already getting top notch noise control even on entry level bodies over any brand.

They do not realize that noise control has improved by leaps and bounds since 2007, even in 2009 the noise control on entry level bodies like Canon 500D was already superb while high-end bodies like the 5D Mark II proved to be even greater but yet even in 2013, I still see people complaining that noise control isn’t good enough, some insist to use ISO 400 and below.

Have a look at the Noise Control comparison for 550D and 500D in this article.

Noise Control In Photography

Hobbyist tend to end up progressing very slow in photography when they are too focused on noise control. They have not come to the realization that noise control is just a very small part of photography. They waste the bulk of their time pixel peeping.

If you ever attended or viewed a judging session of a photo competition, the judges often look at composition, colors and details more than anything else. Noise is easily forgiven over a strong picture while a clean photo doesn’t mean a thing if it’s just a snapshot.

The photo above was taken with a Canon EOS 350D X @ ISO 800

As a professional commercial photographer, I find that noise control of cameras has not been an issue for the past 3 – 4 years. Even a camera of many years back, eg Canon EOS 5D / 30D / 350D (not familiar with Nikon and other brands, not mentioning but you get the idea) work fine at ISO 400, while noise control at ISO 800 were often very usable (ISO 1600 for bodies like the 5D). I typically use ISO 400 for product and interior photo assignments, ISO 1000 – 1250 for events.

The photo above was taken with a Canon Powershot G1 X @ ISO 1600

Is noise really an issue? My take is that noise should not an issue for the general public. Most people are just uploading to Facebook / Flickr where the photos are resized to under 2MP where noise is often not even visible. In fact, as long as there’s a hot chick in the photo – all is forgiven, right? 😛

As for myself, I’m particular with noise level only when I’m on paid assignments and also when I intend to submit the photos to stock photo websites. The above photos you saw passed their assessment, however I’ve also had ISO 200 – 400 rejected for noise. In stock photo, what I feel is that better noise control reduces the number of reasons for them to reject your photo but if your photo is good enough for them to deem as one with potential demand, they could possibly just overlook it.

For assignments such as event coverages, I’ll use usually set my ISO to 1000 – 1250 for faster shutter speed. Furthermore noise control on cameras like the EOS 60D is already very good at that range. Furthermore in event photography, it is more crucial that you manage to capture the moments and the faces. The people who engage you does not care if it’s some 24MP image or ISO 200 photo, they do not have the time to zoom and pixel peel. The photos used for press releases are often small where even 8MP is more than enough for it.

For outdoor photography, ISO is likely to be around ISO 100 – 400. Noise is not an issue. I do use higher ISO like 1000 – 1600 range on my 70-200 F4 lens to gain faster shutter speed for paintball photography. Noise control isn’t an issue when one is using flash as well. 🙂

For my Interior photography and Food photography assignments, I use ISO 400. I don’t see the need to use ISO 100 as it’s more time consuming while the image quality differs very little.

If you intend to be photographing concerts then you should put lenses with wide aperture into the equation. 🙂 f/2.8 would give you huge advantage (2-stops) over f/5.6 when it comes matching a usable the ISO setting for decent shutter speed.

When Professionals Talk

I do hang around with other professional photographers from time to time, and when we talk about cameras (yes, we do talk about gears) – our focus are on more important matters dynamic range, color accuracy, the camera’s metering capability and even focusing capability. Noise control is rarely part of the discussion because being professionals, we already view noise in a proper perspective.

The photo above was shortlisted Photo for Maybank Photo Awards 2012 – Street Photography. Taken with a Canon Powershot G1 X @ ISO 1600

Final Words

Photography hobbyists are just overly concerned over noise issue because of their peers who are also who are pixel peepers and have yet to appreciate how good noise control are these days.

Get your understanding of ISO straightened and don’t be shy to use high-ISO when need to. The role of a photographer is to balance the 3 elements to get the picture, and among the 3 elements I give priority to shutter speed (freeze the frame) and aperture (depth of field) over ISO (noise control).

A moment captured is a memory even if it’s noisy BUT a blurry capture of a moment is a failed photo no matter how clean it is – just a clean memory of a failed capture.” – Brian Chong aka goldfries.

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