DPP Home Technique Camera Technique Breaking The ISO Barrier

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Breaking The ISO Barrier

Forget the megapixel race. The real digital revolution is in low-noise/high-ISO digital capture.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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For commercial photographers like Stableford, the lower quality of a noisy image has made high-ISO digital shooting irrelevant. Now he’s able to use low-noise ISOs in lieu of other old technologies that have their own shortfalls—like tripods.

“I don’t like using a tripod,” says Stableford, “because it shackles creativity when shooting people. So I’ll always try to bump up the ISO before tethering myself to a tripod. And since I can use lighter, low-power flashes that don’t require an assistant, I can work more intimately with a subject.”

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Stableford’s style is one of polished authenticity. This comes partially from the flashes he uses to augment the lighting in a scene, but it’s as much about the ambient lighting that dominates. In tricky or low-light scenes, having a clean high-ISO signal is essential to revealing that ambience; that ambience provides a sense of place, a meaningful context for the photo.

Gerd Ludwig, whose wonderful work with high-ISO/low-light photography is profiled in this issue, cites high-ISO digital capture as not only improving his ability to provide a sense of place with ambient light, but with a subtler use of flash and an increased depth of field as well. [Editor’s Note: You can see Ludwig’s “Moscow at Night” work beginning on page 46 in this issue of DPP.]

Making a camera capable of dealing with high ISOs begins with the image sensor and its parts. Getting a clean image on the sensor requires the utmost attention to detail at every glass-to-air interface.

“If you think of strobe photography,” Ludwig says, “the sense of place was hardly ever there as a sharp image. Everybody had to shoot so wide open that you hardly had any depth of field. Now all of a sudden it allows us to capture that place much more precisely and gives this sense of place. It allows us to get more depth of field in low-light situations.”

Ludwig says clean, high-ISO images have revolutionized the type of work he can do for demanding clients. He and his colleagues are able to photograph stories they never could with film—like Ludwig’s recent “Moscow at Night” work. “That story would have been impossible to shoot for National Geographic without digital technology,” he says. “I probably would have shied away. I know of colleagues who generally shied away from shooting too much at night in the film days. It definitely has changed the capability in photojournalism and documentary photography. I think people will seek out dark assignments. We will generally, I think, see photojournalists venture into areas that were very hard to capture before, just technically. The new technology does open up a new frontier.”

Adds Ludwig, “I still don’t try to go to the extreme, but I’m now shooting up to 3200. For the reproduction at National Geographic, anything shot higher than 500 was really hard to run as a double-truck. Maybe somebody got in a picture that was shot a bit higher, and it was a small image, but generally images were either completely blown out or had no shadow detail.


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