As new digital cameras are built for speed, low-light photography may become much more than a shot in the dark.
ISO 104,200. Think about it. That's the top sensitivity offered by each of Nikon and Canon's just-announced flagship cameras, the D3s and EOS 1 Mark IV, respectively.
Pardon me while I take a few moments to express how this blows my geeky, pixel-peeping little mind.
What would have gotten an exposure of 1/60 sec at f/4 at ISO 400—at one time, the fastest anyone armed with a digital camera would dare to shoot at—would end up being something like 8 or 9 stops faster, around 1/1000 sec at f/8 at ISO 104,200. Shots that might have taken a second or two could now be shot handheld. Yeah, it would be grainy as hell, images would not be at full resolution, and the results would likely be...impressionistic. But you'd get some kind of image!
Meanwhile if you want to shoot at full resolution, both cameras top out at an incredible ISO 12,800. It seems like only yesterday that I thought ISO 1,000 was pushing the limits of usable photos. 12,800 can take you into lighting conditions you've never tried capturing before, or give you shake-free shots in moderate light. The grain? I've seen samples shot with both the D3s and EOS 1 Mark IV, and they were quite acceptable for photojournalism, sports, and documentary shooting.
I made a point to try out both cameras at Photo Plus Expo—the first time many photographers got a chance to see these cameras in person. I photographed a guy wearing a black shirt in the low light of the Javits center at ISO 102,400, and got an exposure that was something like 1/500 sec at f/8. Yes, it was grainy, but not as bad as I expected. You could see the details and folds in the fabric. I studied some ISO 12,800 shots in the LCD monitor at their highest enlargement, and the digital noise seemed to be very well controlled, even shooting in RAW, on both cameras. At some point in the hopefully very near future, Jack Howard and I hope to get our hands on these cameras and put them through their paces, and pixel peep the results in a more controlled environment, but I was impressed by what I saw.
"Oh, but those cameras cost around five grand each. Waaaay out of my price range." Agreed. These are high-end professional tools and if you're an enthusiast or your camera budget falls below the nosebleed level, that's where software can save the day. While I was at Photo Plus Expo a couple of weeks back, I had a chance to see a demonstration of DxO's Optics Pro 6 which, among its many talents, can tame digital grain. In the brief demonstration that I saw, it did an impressive job on some noisy RAW shots. We'll put it through its paces soon and report on our results, but if your DSLR maxes out at ISO 800 for reasonable grain (many APS-sensor-equipped models produce noisy shots even at ISO 640), software like Optics Pro 6 may let you squeeze a couple more stops of speed out of your camera.
Another solution is Akvis Noise Buster 7.0, which promises noise suppression of higher ISO images. Bibble offers its own solution, and there are numerous other noise-controlling software solutions out there which keep getting better.
High-speed ISO for the rest of us?
But back to hardware: Will there be a trickle-down effect? I believe so. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and, based on nothing more than my intuition, predict that by PMA, we'll see consumer-level DSLRs capable of delivering publishable ISO 3200 (or even 6400) in full resolution, and perhaps around ISO 50,000 in a low-resolution "hi" mode. I'm also guessing these cameras will come from Canon and Nikon, since they've already demonstrated that they've figured out the technology.
But what if you only shoot at lower speeds. Does any of this really matter? I think it will. Sensor improvements at high ISO may also serve to improve dynamic range, color fidelity and other more subtle aspects of image quality at the low end of the ISO sensitivity range. You will also be able to keep shooting when the lights go out.
Now if you'll pardon me, I'd like to go photograph some bats in a cave without a flash or tripod...
Would having the ability to shoot high-quality photographs at high ISOs change how you take pictures? Would you buy a camera that offered it? Leave a comment!