Several months back I upgraded cameras from my trusty Canon EOS 5D to the newer model, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The Mark II boasted a range of new features that made it a worthwhile investment, including a larger and clearer LCD screen, a stronger and more weather proof build, easier to navigate menus, customizable settings, HD video, a sensor dust cleaning function as well as greater resolution (21 MP), updated processors and firmware and reportedly better image quality. Over time I have found that, really, just one feature of the newer camera has fundamentally changed the way I can take photos. That feature is the greatly improved performance at higher ISO settings.
Hand held at 1/40 second, f/9, ISO 500
ISO is the standard by which the sensitivity of film or a digital sensor is measured.Â Better sensitivity, lower noise and improved in-camera noise reduction at higher ISO settings are hallmarks of the latest generation of digital SLR cameras, and high ISO performance will surely continue to improve in the near future.Â I have always used Canon digital cameras by choice, but the most current high end digital SLRs from Nikon, Sony, Minolta and others all have much better high ISO performance than their predecessors.
Hand held at 1/100 second, f/8, ISO 320
I haven't done quantitative tests to compare the high ISO performance of older DSLRs and current ones, but the improvements are so dramatic to be readily apparent with a simple inspection of the image files at 100%.Â There are plenty of independent testers out there who have done careful scientific comparisons if you want the raw data.Â My goal in this article is simply to share some images I have taken recently that either would have previously been impossible or would have required more equipment and more labor intensive techniques.Â Of course, you would need to see high resolution image files to get a complete understanding of the image quality, but for the purpose of this article I think these screen size images give you the main idea.Â I should also point out that in addition to improvements in ISO performance, improved noise reduction algorithms in software like Adobe Lightroom and Camera RAW, as well as improved image stabilization technology in lenses take some of the credit.
Hand held at 1/13 second, f/4.5, ISO 3200
How does better high ISO performance allow for new opportunities in photography? As the sensor becomes more sensitive to light as the ISO setting is increased, the camera is able to maintain faster shutter speeds in lower light conditions and still get a proper exposure. Essentially it means you can shoot in lower light situations or with smaller aperture settings without the need for a tripod.Â However, with past cameras the increased sensitivity to light at higher ISO settings came with an unacceptable trade off; increased image noise or digital grain. Until I acquired the Canon 5D Mark II, the higher ISO settings were generally useless to me. My images need to be very clean and sharp, so I would always shoot at the lowest ISO setting (ISO 100) to ensure adequate image quality. This almost always meant the need for a tripod to get a sharp image.
Hand held at 1/15 second, f/5.6, ISO 3200
Experimenting with the ISO capabilities of the 5D Mark II during my travels in Mexico this month have left me impressed and excited about the possibilities. I still use my tripod most of the time, but I find that in situations where a tripod is impractical, time prohibitive or creatively limiting I can often raise the ISO to between 200 and 500 to allow for fast enough shutter speeds for hand held shooting with a very slight loss in overall image quality. Images at these ISO settings are certainly good enough for publishing and even fine art printing.Â There are times when having the ability to photograph without a tripod is extremely freeing and allows for flexibility, mobility, spontaneity and creativity that wasn't possible before.
Hand held at 1/20 sec, f/4, ISO 3200
What's more, I have found that I can also hand hold my camera in minimal light situations, such as indoors or for night time city scenes, by increasing the ISO dramatically. I have increased the ISO to as much as 3200 and still been able to capture very usable images.Â A slight degree of noise in these images is acceptable to me for the fact that they would have been almost impossible to get otherwise. While I still return to the tripod if image quality is essential, it is exciting to be able to photograph people and other moving objects in low light conditions and not have them be blurred. Most of my night city photography does not include people because of the blurring of objects in motion with slow shutter speeds. Â Being able to hand hold the camera and get sharp images of moving subjects indoors and at night opens a whole new world of possibilities.
Hand held at 1/30 second, f/4, ISO 3200
I'm sure the technology in ISO performance will continue to improve for some time. Within a couple of years there will be cameras that allow us to photograph in almost complete darkness with fast shutter speeds and produce noise free images. Until then it is exciting to know how good the ISO performance is right now, and that photographers have the ability to take photographs that were previously impossible or impractical.
Hand held at 1/15 second, f/7.1, ISO 500
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Hand held at 1/30 second, f/4, ISO 3200