Rethinking low-light photography

Mason's Monday Musings

Not too long ago, Nikon and Canon almost simultaneously wowed the photographic world when they introduced high-end DSLRs that could capture images at ISOs as high as 102,800. Image quality at that speed, not surprisingly, was noisy, but not as bad as I expected. (Noise, for those of you who may not know, is a kind of distortion that results in grain and color splotches in your photos. It usually gets worse at high ISOs.) At more down-to-earth speeds like ISO 3200, both cameras delivered image quality that rivaled that of much lower speeds. A slew of cameras with improved low-light/high ISO performance have come out since then.

More affordable cameras such as the Canon T2i (above; recently replaced by the T3i) and 7D, the Nikon D7000, the Pentax K5, and the Sony NEX 5 sported new sensors that, according to DxO lab tests, brought high image quality and less digital noise to hereto unheard-of ISO speeds. The D7000 and K-5, for instance, can deliver low-grain images at ISO 1600 in RAW mode. Shooting JPEGs with internal noise reduction turned on, acceptable images were possible at even higher speeds.

Think about it: It wasn't so long ago that film camera users (remember film?) were thrilled when they could get decent image quality at ISO 200 and we learned to almost always shoot at ISO 100 or less for best image quality. Until recently, when shooting digital, depending on your needs (read: how large you were going to make your pictures), you could get away with ISO 400 in most cases, ISO 800 in fewer cases. ISO 1600 was dangerous territory with a DSLR. I remember pushing Ilford HP5 film to ISO 800 and thinking that was as good as it could get. In fact, those photos have more grain than what I can now get at ISO 2000 on my Canon 7D.

While the lowest speed on any digital SLR with an APS sensor or larger will yield the best image quality, the qualitative difference between ISO 100 and 400 or 800 in the latest generation of these cameras has narrowed considerably, to the point where the casual viewer looking an an 11x14-inch print at normal viewing distance would be hard-pressed to tell you which shot was made at what speed.


And it's not just improved ISO performance that's affecting our low-light photography capture abilities. Anti-shake technology has entered its third generation and is more effective than ever. Some lenses can now give you as much as four extra stops of handheld shots without motion blur (depending on how much coffee you've consumed). And of course, there are large-aperture lenses. While there have always been plenty of primes with f/1.8 apertures or larger, Canon and Nikon now offer zooms with constant f/2.8 maximum apertures covering all the most frequently-used focal lengths.

In the realm of compact cameras, back side illumination CMOS technology (BSI), which can be found in the Canon PowerShot G12, Nikon P7000 (above), and others, is claimed to reduce low light noise. In my practical field shooting of these cameras, I've seen modest improvements in higher-ISO performance; ISO 400 on the G11, the G12's predecessor, for instance, looks much better than on typical compact cameras, and the difference from ISO 100 to 400 is not that great. If you're shooting up to 8x10 prints with these cameras, you shouldn't see a major grain increase. Apply noise reduction and noise is reduced geatly, albeit at the expense of detail sharpness.

How does this technological evolution effect taking pictures in the real world?


Bride and groom cut their wedding cake. © Christian Rummel/

Professional photographers

To see the effect of cameras like the Nikon D3s and Canon EOS 1D Mark IV is having on professional photography, all you need to do is to turn to the pages of Sports Illustrated or the sports section of your local newspaper. The quality of night and indoor sports photography has improved dramatically. Baseball games shot at night show players frozen as they slide into third base, balls seemingly motionless as they leave the pitcher's hand. I have seen many photos that look like they were shot at a day game but I know they were taken at night. The photos are sharp and noise-free.  That's huge.

For photojournalists and event photographers shooting with natural light is a big plus despite the current trend towards multiple, wireless strobes. Being able to pull off great natural-light wedding shots or news photos in low light without turning on obtrusive flash gives the photographer more options. (If you need the flash, and there will always be situations where a light kit will help, you can always turn it on, but it's great that now you don't have to when you see a scene that would be ruined by a flash.)

Many pro shooters are combining their high ISO cameras with ultrafast lenses to further stretch their system’s low-light capabilities.

Paris at night © Max Homand/


If you're a photography enthusiast, cameras like the Nikon D300s, D7000, Canon T2i and  the Pentax K5 deliver outstanding low-light results. While they may deliver surprisingly good ISO 800-3200 images while the big rigs produce outstanding shots at ISO 6400, the range of high ISO performers cuts across most price levels, and that's very good news which will only get better as new DSLRs are introduce that use the higher-quality sensors found in the D5000 and the like.

This sensitivity flexibility frees you up to play and experiment with existing light, shooting indoors, at night, by candlelight. Rather than relying on that pop-up flash or even a single off-camera strobe with a modifier, you can start to look at how light falls on a subject, the dimensionality that it creates by wrapping itself around a face or casting a harsh shadow, how light bounces around a room. And you'll be able to capture this light without adding any of your own!

You can stretch low light even further by shooting with a prime (non-zoom) lens, which invariably will offer wide apertures. Invest in a modest 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens, and shoot wide open. What a difference this will make in your work! (Actually, you can invest in this kind of lens no matter what DSLR you own, and immediately enjoy the 1-2 stop benefit that it will give you, even if you have an older DSLR with relatively fair ISO performance.)



Noise reduction is more of a factor in compact digital cameras with sub-APS sensors, and so you will never achieve DSLR quality (although at ISO 100, if you are careful to hold your camera steady or shoot with a tripod, you can achieve surprisingly good results). High-end models such as the Canon G12 (below) can deliver image quality as high as ISO 800 that is not that far from the quality you can get at ISO 100, although you do lose a little detail sharpness. Will you notice the difference on an 8x10 print? Maybe. What about at 4x6? Not likely.
By the way, according to industry surveys, 95% of all photographic prints ordered in the United States are 4x6. So for most people, the difference between ISO 100 and ISO 800 on a consumer camera will be minimal.


Jerusalem Old City Market. © Y-Image/


For snapshooters, the main advantage of ISO improvements will become apparent when shooting at longer telephoto lengths and when using flash.  Almost all compact camera zoom lenses have a smaller effective aperture at full zoom length, limiting their usefulness in low light by as much as 2 stops. Improvements in ISO sensitivity takes some of this back.



A month dedicated to low-light photography

There's a lot more to say about the impact of new sensor technology, fast lenses and increasingly effective anti-shake technology. Read on over the course of this month as we explore the many different facets of low light photography and how changes in camera and lens technology are making it easier to shoot in the dark!


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