5.22.2012

Going backward to make better photographs. The slow movement.

Slow ISO's mean more latitude for opening up shadows without noise.

In the race for speed and glory we may have forgotten an overriding consideration in photography.  The ultimate image quality.  The pursuit of high ISO performance seems to have clouded the judgement of both manufacturers and practitioners as to what the end clients of commercial photographers really want, and have always wanted: good, clean, sharp images of the product, service or people being presented in the advertising and promotion.  Getting an "acceptable" image at 1600 ISO is not the same thing as getting a "perfect" image using ISO 100.  Or ISO 50.

Every camera seems to have a base ISO at which the sensor is able to achieve both the lowest noise floor and the highest dynamic range.  In fact, the two parameters go hand in hand.  As the noise floor rises the dynamic range declines.  The race to get to higher and higher ISO's has led camera makers to do strange things.  Many sensors (such as the one in the Olympus OM-D and EP-3) now seem to be optimized to deliver their best performance at ISO 200.  It's ultimately counter-intuitive as most of the lenses designed for the smaller sensor format seem to be near diffraction limited at nearly their maximum apertures.  When used outdoors or in any favorable light (which is the predominant environment for the vast majority of picture taking) these cameras struggle with too much light.  When shooting with an optical system like the Leica Summilux 25mm 1.4 I find that I struggle to use it at its real business end (aperture-wise) because I am limited by the highest shutter speeds of many cameras.  Pity, since the lens really performs well around f2.  And it has a wonderful aesthetic look at f2....

One maker who seemed to understand that low ISO's aided in getting quality images was, ironically, Kodak.  They had a wonderful mechanism in their SLR/n camera with which you could set the camera to ISO settings of 12, 25, and 50 and the camera would do long exposures which were really a series of exposures stacked on one another with all noise anomalies cancelled out.  The end result was files that could be printed to enormous sizes with high sharpness (partially lens dependent) and with absolutely no electronic or sensor noise.  While the cameras had to be used on tripods and the exposures could run into the seconds the process was as easy as shooting with a view camera and that was something many pros did right up until their ultimate conversion to high res digital capture.

When I switched camera systems to the Sony SLT cameras I tested them at various settings.  At first I was a bit disturbed by the high amount of noise present at ISO 3200 and beyond.  I chalked it up to the price I had to pay to get 24 megapixels on an APS-C sensor. What I have now come to understand is that the engineers at Sony were/are working with a sensor, the performance of which peaks at ISO 50. Rather than being a design fault it is, in fact, a chance for us to go back to the practice of wringing ultimate quality out of our files instead of ambling down the path of least resistance and handholding our cameras at ISO 12,000 and wondering why the saturation and integrity of our files is....mediocre.

People say that the Sony sensor is really optimized at ISO 100 but they don't have any more objective information at their fingertips than me.  I tested the camera at all the lower settings, up to 200, and I looked at them at 100%.  I also looked at the DXO DR curve that showed 50 ISO as the highest differential between noise floor and signal.  Doesn't matter if I'm 100% correct or if Sony has massaged the ISO 50 setting in a way that's similar to the way Canon and Nikon massage their high ISO's with software processing.  All that matters are the resulting images.

I spent a large part of my professional career shooting black and white films like Agfapan APX 25 (ISO 25) and Ilford Pan-X (ISO 50) as well as color films like Kodachrome 25 and 64, Ektachrome 64 and 100 and various slow Fuji films because, when blown up big, they showed more detail, more sharpness and less grain than their faster brothers.

With the new Sony cameras I've started to hew back to the old ways. I'm finding that using a tripod and medium apertures will get you a very high impression of image sharpness.  The Sony a77 also incorporates a unique setting called Multiple Frame Noise Reduction.  The camera shoots six frames in a row at whatever ISO you want then micro-aligns each frame, kicks out all spurious and random noise, blends the files together and presents you with a noiseless image.  

In studio portrait situations I'm pulling out bigger strobes or using longer exposures with continuous lighting.  It's a different look.

I know there are times when a high ISO is useful.  If you are shooting fast action in the low lights of the UT Swim Center you'll need to start at 1600 and go up to freeze fast action.  To freeze a dive might require you to go into the 6400 ISO area.  When you go to the summer Olympic this year you might need fast ISO for the indoor venues.  And if you shoot NFL Football for a living you certainly don't need to confer with me about which lenses and what ISOs you'll need to use in some God foresaken taxpayer funded arena somewhere in the midwest.  But I'm guessing it will be fast, long lenses and a high ISOs.  

I use high ISO settings on cameras when I shoot theatrical dress rehearsals.  But I don't need high ISO in the street, on the beach, in the mountains, at the outdoor pool or, with fast lenses, in most of the restaurants and coffee shops I patronize.

But lately I've seen just how different ultimate low ISO performance can look.  We moved away from top quality as a compromise between camera handling and convenience.  But it is a different look.  Perfection is a different look as well. (not that we'll ever achieve it...).

I'm starting a movement.  It may end up having only one full time member (me) but it's antithetical to the pervasive practice of photography today.  I'm going to try to shoot every possible digital photograph at the optimum ISO of my cameras.  In the case of the Sony a77's I've decided that the right number is 50.  In a pinch I'll go to 64 or 80 or even 100.  I'll practice my steadiest camera hold and try to optimize all the other parameters.  That means shooting at f4 and f5.6 with most of my lenses.  It means shooting the Leica lens on the m4:3rd cameras at f2 and f2.8.

I already try to shoot as much as I can on a tripod and I keep one in my car.  I won't use it for street shooting because I'm more interested in being highly mobile than perfect but in genres where rapid response is secondary to vision I'll continue to press a good tripod into service.

For generations we worked easily with slower films and made images that stand the test of time (perhaps better than digital).  There's no reason why we can't migrate these best practices back into our digital efforts.  The end result might just be much better imaging.  A slower and more thoughtful pace.  Fewer reasons to join the seasonal hunt for the newest and greatest cameras.
And most importantly, prints and electronic images that you can be proud of.  Not proud because you were able to pull something out of a bad situation with a compromise...but actually proud because you came closer to achieving the potential of your vision.

So, for me it's about good tripods and good glass.  It's about letting subjects take time to settle.  It's about finding and using optimum apertures and shutter speeds.  Amazingly, there is a reason why the camera makers put all those different ISO settings on every camera they sell.  While most people will race to the high ISO extreme the engineers know that most things look better at the other end of the "dial."   Slow down and shoot better.

Finally, in marketing and advertising and art, if everyone is rushing to do things one way it's always more interesting to take the opposite point of view from the pack.  Herds don't make art. 


27 comments:

atmtx said...

Yay!, blue hour and architecture, my kind of photography. Maybe I need a camera that does ISO 50....

Brad C said...

You aren't alone! I just read an article in this month's issue of Photo Life (http://photolife.com/currentIssue.php) on slow photography by Jocelyn Mandryk... I'm working overseas right now and trying to focus on fewer, more considered images than my usual tendency to overshoot and edit later. Only bringing the 25mm and 45mm primes with me helps slow me down...

Spencer H said...

I shot (and still prefer) the nikon d200 for many years, and I always brought along a very sturdy tripod, and shot as iso 100. Always. I remember being dumbfounded when I used a d300s and later a d700 where the base iso is 200. And again on my pany g3 with a base of 160.

Please. Give me iso's of 25 50 100 200 and 400 and i would be just fine.

Who shot with ISO 400 film? Photojournalists?

cidereye said...

I too started photography using Kodachrome 25, still don't understand all the guff written & fuss about ultra high ISO's on digital cameras.

When you read gear reviews and they complain a certain camera is poor over ISO 3200 how does it make a camera poor? It means squat in real life to 95% of photographers I'd wager.

Travis said...

I can't say I really appreciate having base ISOs of 160 and 200 on my GH2 and E-M5. Great cameras otherwise, though.

For what it's worth, I've found the aperture sweet spot to be around f/5.6 on m4/3s when it comes to sharpness - past that and we do start to lose something to diffraction. I've shot a lot of studio work there with the Oly 45 and PL 25, and the files are wickedly sharp to the point where I'm looking to reduce detail. (They're also damn good wide open.)

Jamie Pillers said...

Kirk, thanks for this great reminder! I used to love working slowly, using a tripod. Then I got caught up in all the high ISO, hand-held blather that came along with the digital explosion. Your thought feels like it has set something free in my search for the perfect gear.

Can you explain how I can go about determining optimum ISO for any given camera?

Michael Matthews said...

Beautiful views. I could learn to not hate shopping centers.

Are these not HDR processed or otherwise blended for highlight/shadow balance?

How long before I can do this with my newly acquired EPL1? Just tugging your links, Kirk, come back down from the ceiling.

Michael Ferron said...

First off I want to say I love that opening shot.

I'm a daylight photographer and almost never go beyond ISO 400. I also don't understand the demands by amateurs like myself for affordable cameras that shoot clean at 6400 and the harsh criticism of cameras that get noisy beyond 1600. Sure Sports pros in dingy gyms and photojournalist might appreciate clean high ISO's for available light shots but for what I do? Nah.

Bold Photography said...

You're certainly not alone -- as much as the 5DII can go to high ISOs, I strongly prefer to use as low an ISO setting as possible (and yes, I'm aware that the ISO50 setting is faked...). I also have the tripod in my car at all times -- even if the camera isn't there... I have a CF tripod, but man - the wood one is just fantastic for most of what I do. Anything I shoot for pay is done on a tripod and anything I shoot for "art" is done on a tripod, if possible....

Keith I. said...

Love the photos.

I for one was quite happy that my A900 seemed to be optimized for amazing dynamic range around ISO 200. I've gladly traded high ISO performance for that "feature". I tend to let my NEX-7 roam the ISO range, but I have noticed I am typically happier with the ISO 100 shots.

kirk tuck said...

Jamie, set up a scene with lots of lights and darks, put your camera on a tripod, find the best aperture (5.6?) and then shoot at all the apertures from the lowest up to about 400. The one with the most open and detailed shadows and textured and detailed highlights is probably the one you want. The Olympus cameras (EP3, etc.) actually tell you that they are at their best at 200.

Frank Grygier said...

I would be happy if DSLR manufactures buried a setting down deep that let a user adjust the gain on the chip to get the lowest possible signal to noise ratio.

schmedia said...

I like how you end this blog post with the call to go against the heard. Last Fall I was in the market for a new camera and was looking at the 5DMkII, which is a brilliant camera. But everyone in the heard is shooting with it and all of the images start to look the same. Looking to stand out in the crowd, I upgraded to the A77 and man am I happy!

I just started reading your blog but I’m really enjoying your common sense approach to photography. Keep up the great writing!

Ian said...

Kirk,

I enjoyed your first photo today. I can see why the Whole Foods Market is on your regular circuit. A well presented building.

kirk tuck said...

Ian, This is their newest store in Bee Cave, Texas, out near Lake Travis. I was shooting it for the store, the builder and the architect. I don't often shoot architecture but I'm warming up to it. Love a store with a fire pit. Might head out there next Fall and have a glass of wine or something and watch the flames dance....

ohnostudio said...

Time to pull out the Kodak and use the low ISO setting. It's such a shame that the Kodak SLR/n is hear and I have regrettably never really used that function.

Craig Yuill said...

I think the high-ISO fuss is partly related to the fact that so many people are shooting with slow kit zoom lenses. My wife recently bought me a DSLR with two zoom lenses. I never thought I'd need ISOs above 400, until I started shooting with those lenses. Suddenly I regularly needed ISO 800, 1600, and 3200. I've recently been shooting a lot with my 50mm f/1.8. Stopping that lens down is like keeping my new zooms wide open. Now I'm able to shoot at ISO 400 or lower. I think my photos look better now.

Poagao said...

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with you on image quality being the overriding consideration for a photograph. To me it's more about the moment, the composition, the emotion, the oomph, than the technical image quality. Of course, I'll take as much IQ as I can get after those considerations are met, and I don't want a blurry, indistinguishable mess, but thankfully I don't have to deal with such issues too much these days.

kirk tuck said...

I'll agree that all those things come first. Absolutely. But in the commercial world you need those AND the quality. I'm not saying that getting quality is easy. And I wouldn't want to give up the emotion. I'm selfish. I want both!

Poagao said...

Fair enough! I am not really part of the commercial photography world, so I'm sure you know a lot more about it than I. Thanks again for posting your thoughts.

Blaufeld said...

I usally shoot at ISO 200 with an f/1.8 prime, or at 400 with an f/2.8, on my G3. Sure you had to take care stabilizing your shots, and taking the right framing can be difficult, but the rewards when you take a beautiful one are great...

cidereye said...

That's a good point you make there Craig, I guess most people these day's shoot DSLR's with zooms. When I shot Nikon digital with a D200 or D2X and wanted low light or indoor my 50mm f/1.8 was always the go-to lens as zooms where as about as much use as a chocolate tea pot in low light with poor high ISO's of those two cameras.

Looks like I will need to buy another Nikon 50mm f/1.8 again as Kirk got me thinking and I am now going back to a Nikon D2X again where I was once oh so happy and never shot above ISO 400 anyway. Primes are where it's at most of the time anyway if we really want true photographic happiness. :-)

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Awesome photos as always, Kirk. And I am using ISO 100 whenever and wherever I can (and sometimes can't). Would my cameras offer something even slower, I'd probably use that. Time to buy and try out some ISO 50 film I guess...

Cpt Kent said...

That's the thing that bugs me most about my new E-M5 - ISO 200 min.

Wally Brooks said...

If you shoot an Iso 400 4x5 sheet film AND you film speed test lets you shoot at Iso 200 you still show up at dawn because of the light AND the wind is usually still which is important because you may be shooting at 1/2 second f 45-64 depending on how you meter! Shooting an ISO 100 film makes the exposures even longer and you probably will figure in reciprocity failure, which kicks out exposure times even longer! All this forces shot discipline and concentration on image making. Shooting digital at low ISO forces the same discipline on a digital shooter! Don't forget the Tripod AND cable release!

Tom said...

OK, I'm a believer in the slow food movement. My wife isn't so sure, although the family did enjoy their dinner tonight...
But I know that she won't handle me being a slower photographer! I guess I'll have to be a closet member of the movement for now.....
And thanks for the image, which I'm sure all the clients love. Given me a project, building a firepit like that at my sister's cottage in the mountains.
Cheers, Tom

TJ said...

I shoot landscape and wildlife. While I usually shoot at ISO 100 whenever I can, shooting wildlife is not that easy using low ISO. I thought of selling my a77 and get a57 instead. Your post let me fall in love again with my a77. I will start using ISO 50 but I still might get the a57 as an addition to the family.