High ISO. Noise. Grain. These are all words that are thrown about photography forums all over the net, and within magazines. There seems to be a crusade to banish any noise from our photos and achieve a silky smooth finish to our photographs. Perversely, actual film grain has become stylish, sexy and cool and the hipsters love it. It should be noted that if you are shooting photos for a stock site, they can be rejected if the noise is prevalent. Something to consider if you plan on making a side living from stock photos.
This was originally written for TheTimeChamber’s blog a few years ago, since then we haven’t really used a tripod that much. We have also upgraded cameras, which means even better ISO performance to boot. With that in mind, we have expanded the original post and included a few more photos.
But noise isn’t something we should avoid all together. What would be the point in having a camera that is capable of shooting at ISO6400 relatively cleanly and not use it? Why tie yourself down to using a tripod all the time? Digital cameras nowadays offer a huge degree of flexibility to the photographer. Previously, with most film cameras you had to stay with the ISO speed you started on. Since upgrading our camera to a higher model, and subsequently upgrading again since we first published this post, we have found that the high ISO capability offered by the camera is something we simply cannot ignore. This comes in very handy when out poking about a derelict building as the tripod can be left abandoned at home. Allowing for a greater freedom of movement. We have found that in certain situations, the ISO can be pushed much higher than we would normally be comfortable with and still produce a usable image. Our Exploring photos are testament to this.
When we first purchased a camera over ten years ago, a Nikon D40, noise was an issue and we shot the majority of our photographs at a low ISO. We kept it low and slow, only shooting below ISO400. Someone, somewhere, cracked it around 5 years ago and the usability of ISO sensitivity increased exponentially. It was around this time we upgraded to a Nikon D7000 and headed over to Chernobyl in the Ukraine for a 3 days. Here we discovered just how useful high ISO could be as tripods were forbidden. Due to the nature of the dense undergrowth, the buildings we visited were quite gloomy. We subsequently spent a lot of time shooting at ISO1600 and above. Admittedly, this was a whole new world to us and we reveled in it. As is a consequence of the relentless upgrade cycles that digital cameras undergo, we overheated the credit card and made the jump to full frame with a D750. Which has astounding ISO capabilities.
The above image from the Littlewoods Factory was shot at ISO6400. If you compare this to our first digital SLR, it is like comparing apples, and well, melons. The difference is huge. OK, we will admit that background texture has help to disguise some of the grain, but it is a situation where would wouldn’t have been able to tell what ISO it had been shot at. Our cameras now allow us to head out and leave the tripod at home. There is something we should add, the background has a huge sway on the perception of noise. A busy background, such brick, will disguise it quite nicely.
Continuing the theme, we have found ourselves in more than one situation where we have not had a tripod to hand, or have been forbidden from using them. Take the shot above within the R3 bunker at RAF Neatishead. No tripod, no problem. This isn’t to say that we have completely done away with tripods and left them gathering dust at the back of the cupboard. We still use them for certain scenarios. Very low light shots still require a tripod and shots with a large amount of black are not suited to higher ISOs as the noise becomes very obvious. The same can be said for shots where the background colour is homogeneous, such as photographing birds with a long focal length.
Something to remember: grain is only an issue when you start to pixel peep very closely at an image, or enlarge an image in print. Only severe grain will show up on an image shown at normal size. If you print an image out, the grain becomes hidden further from the viewer. We produced a photobook on our trip to Chernobyl, and one of our favourite blog posts, which was compiled with images shot at ISO1600 and above, and we can’t tell the difference!
Note: This post was inspired by excessive pixel peeping, problems with scanning negatives and a slight love/hate relationship with our tripods. Skills in post processing are also required to allow noise to be tackled correctly.