Don’t be afraid of high ISO!

Pull & Bear. Bucharest, Romania, 2016.

Pull & Bear. Bucharest, Romania, 2016. Shot at ISO 6400.

Once again: don’t be afraid of high ISO!

Are you mad? My photos look like sh!t with high ISO!

Indeed, there will be noise, but noise in the digital world is not something fatal. It can be reduced, or even totally eliminated, in post. Plus, modern cameras offer higher ISO performance which are increasing at every single release. We’re reaching a point were ISO 800 is almost noiseless, and sensitivity values over 6400 are more than usable.

While our cameras capabilities are growing at a very fast pace, we’re still thinking as in the film era, or digital inception era, were anything over ISO 400 is a lot of grain, or a lot of noise. It’s not the case anymore. Softwares too have progressed quite a lot, with intelligent noise reduction algorithm that can reduce drastically the noise of a photo without impacting its content.

Because content is everything.

Way too many people judge a photo by its aesthetics, and unfortunately by its aesthetics only. How sharp, how much noise, etc. It’s often the same guys who are shooting brick walls and pixel peep. Aesthetics is of course a huge part of the photo, it’s even critical for studio/commercial photography, landscapes… but in the end, the content matters the most. For me, content is way above aesthetics.

I don’t care how much noise there will be, if I’m in a situation were the light is low, I’d rather shoot at high ISO and get some noise than do not get the shot. And with that, get a photo with a fantastic content. Because that is what will be the differentiator in the end: have something that strikes the viewer. No one will be amazed by how low is the noise on your photo… rather what striking figure it represents. Most of the most influential photographs taken are grainy (“film’s noise”), and no one cares. Content is everything.

That said, it doesn’t mean one should not care at all about getting the best image quality possible. Of course. When I can use tripods and longer exposures for my low light shots, I go for it. There is no point of introducing noise, except for… aesthetics motives, of course 🙂 But I don’t limit myself and it doesn’t bother me to crank the sensibility to ISO 6400 when I need to, and solve the noise problem with Lightroom.

I often see photos in low light situation were the photographers tried to use a very low speed to avoid getting over ISO 800 for example. The result? A blurry photo that can’t be saved in post. The can reduce noise, but we can’t (yet) reduce blur efficiently. I’d rather crank the sensibility by 1 or 2 stop and get a correct speed.

Run! Bucharest, Romania, 2016.

Run! Bucharest, Romania, 2016. Shot at ISO 6400. Get a print.

The noise problem doesn’t really exist.

One interesting thing is that the people who complain the most about noise are the same people who don’t actually need the highest quality possible. They shoot family photos, export them at lower resolution and share them on social networks. Of course, the photos are only looked at 100% in Lightroom (or the software of your choice). And guess what? Resizing a photo to a lower resolution actually reduces the visible noise on the photo! Unless you actually use your photos at 100% size, the noise that got introduced while shooting with a high ISO will at least partly disappear by itself. Last but not least, don’t forget one thing: the social networks you share your photos on will compress again your photos and destroy it anyhow. Facebook and Flickr are experts for that. So why restricting yourself?

Summing up: give it at least a try.

TL;DR? Let’s sum it up:

  • Modern cameras have high ISO performance that are incredible, and are getting even better.
  • Software noise reduction algorithms are getting better and better.
  • Content is the key, do anything to get it right.
  • Don’t pixel peep.
  • Noise may not even be a problem for you.

And that’s it. Don’t overthink it. Just go out and shoot, low light situations won’t bother you anymore. Don’t limit yourself.

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