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Kneecapped by the Mythical Fear of High ISO Noise

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Who’s Afraid of High ISO Noise?

For years both my inbox and the comments section of this blog have received messages critical of high ISO noise. Questions asking me, why on God’s green earth do you have an AUTO ISO program that uses ISO 12800, don’t you want a clean image? What is a photographer to do in low light when they don’t want to go above ISO 400 because they don’t want noise in the photo? And so on.

Then when I started teaching in-person photography lessons, this question also never failed to come up at some point. A student last week asked about it. Then a few days later, Derrick Story took a few minutes to discuss it on his podcast, sharing my own philosophy.

So here is my philosophy on that mythical fear of high ISO noise, a fear that is handicapping you as a photographer. Handicapping you from capturing moments, which I think is why we’re photographers, right?

Should you Be Afraid of High ISO Noise?

Back in the day – like over ten years ago, when camera companies were still figuring out this digital photography thing – they had a problem when amplifying the light hitting the sensor.

Just like when you amplify someone speaking softly into a microphone, you can hear them louder, but you also hear all the background noise too.

The same thing happened in those early cameras, there was all that noise as a byproduct of this amplification. And it usually came in the form of hot pixels, green/magenta blotches, and poor color rendition.

Camera & sensor technology has made immense progress in the past few years. We’ve cleaned up both the input signal and the output signal. Where this “high” ISO noise would start to appear at ISO 200 on older cameras, now you may not even notice it at ISO 1600 or 3200 on newer cameras.

Yet, based on comments I hear, photographers still treat anything above ISO 400 as a bogeyman.

Why?

I think it’s a relic of photography forum discussions and YouTube videos published a decade ago. All by well-intentioned people at the time, but irrelevant now. Yet it still lives on the Internet, so it must be true, right?

Please remind me to update this post in another few years to keep it relevant.

High ISO Noise Can Be Reduced

In addition to camera tech improving, so have post-processing programs. Apps like Topaz DeNoise AI can nearly obliterate that high ISO noise while preserving the important details.

Hell, even Lightroom and Capture One do a decent enough job for me that I don’t care to purchase anything extra.

What’s More Important than Caring About High ISO Noise

What do you care about more: impressing other photographers with your awareness of high ISO noise, or getting the photo?

high iso image
f/2.8, 1/60 sec, ISO 12800

Let’s look at an example. One of the guys I flew combat missions with in Afghanistan has ALS. We had a squadron reunion at his ranch, which included some amazing campfire stories. I haven’t seen some of these guys since I flew my last mission in 2009. We experienced the entire range of emotions this night, from sorrow to gut-splitting laughter. It was a night I’ll treasure forever given some of the things we experienced together way back when.

Anyways, the campfire. It was dark. I could have done three things here:

  1. Not take any pictures because it was night, which would have required a high ISO and thus noise which is apparently photographic sacrilege to some people (no memories at all).
  2. Stay at ISO 1600 for a “cleaner” image and risk a shutter speed of 1/4 second (unusable memories cause they’re all blurry).
  3. Go up to my max ISO of 12800 to at least get some semi-sharp usable images (useable memories and moments).

I went into my Fujifilm AUTO ISO 3 program, which is my gotta get the photo no matter what program – a program I’ve been criticized for because it’s too high. The camera will raise the ISO to 12800 if it needs to, and stay above 1/125 shutter speed if it can. If it still doesn’t have enough light, it’ll lower the shutter speed.

As it were, it was so dark that even wide open at f/2.8 and at ISO 12800, I still needed a shutter speed as slow as 1/30 second. When we threw another log on the fire the shutter speed momentarily increased and the ISO came down, but that was short-lived.

Whatever. I got the photos. I was happy, and so was everyone who got the photos the next day. Not one of them said anything about high ISO noise because

  1. the memories covered up the noise,
  2. the camera can actually handle it pretty well,
  3. I was able to reduce it in Lightroom, and
  4. none of them were photographers.
high iso
f/2.8, 1/60 sec, ISO 6400
high iso image
A brighter flame helped me lower my ISO to 2500; f/2.8, 1/60 sec.
dark light high iso
When the flame went down I had to raise the ISO to 12800; f/2.8, 1/30 sec.

Who Is Your Audience?

No matter which genre of photography you’re in, photographers rarely shoot for other photographers. We think we do and act like we do, but our end client is usually a larger population of people who don’t even know what noise is.

Most people (including even other photographers) aren’t going to look at your photograph and first wonder which ISO you were using.

Hopefully, if you’ve been practicing photography, your audience is going to look at the moment that you captured in your photograph and be so “wowed” by it that they don’t even notice the noise, if there is any.

They will notice a blurry photo.

Why would it be blurry? Because you were afraid of raising your ISO, so you (or your camera) lowered the shutter speed instead, and now you have unintentional blur from camera shake and/or subject movement. The photo is trashed.

Only a Few People Will See High ISO Noise

There are only two people who will even notice that noise. You’re the first. We’re our own worst critics, so yeah, you’re gonna see it.

The other person who will see the noise is the Internet forum photographer who gets a rise out of pointing out the noise in your photo, rather than talking about the content of your photo.

Oh, looks like you’ve got some noise in that photo. Which camera were you using? You should probably upgrade to a BSI sensor, full-frame only, never use smaller than a full-frame sensor. I would have opened that lens up to the maximum aperture, slowed the shutter speed, and not gone above ISO 200. I prefer clean images.

Forget those people! They’re the comment section trolls who do things like that to make themselves feel smarter. They don’t have an appreciation for art or photography that you hopefully have.

At the end of the day, all that matters is…

did you get the moment?

Natasha Blanco-Dominguez

Friday 8th of January 2021

You have, just now, after reading this, made my heart sing. Thank you so much.

John Peltier

Friday 8th of January 2021

Just trying to keep it real over here :) Cheers.

Tom

Wednesday 23rd of December 2020

How dare you share accurate, true information. This is the internet. You are supposed to be spreading misconceptions.

John Peltier

Wednesday 23rd of December 2020

I know, right?! It's a miracle I have any readers at all without the clickbaity, controversial, misleading headlines.

Don Rawd

Tuesday 3rd of November 2020

Well tried exposures of flowers at 1/400 f5.6 iso 11400 now nearly dark outside. Came out reasonably good with little noise. Will persist.

John Peltier

Tuesday 3rd of November 2020

Awesome! And remember that, in situations like that, use the slowest shutter speed that you can to freeze the motion, to give you a lower ISO. Unless it was windy you could get down to at least 1/100 in that situation, which would bring your ISO down to 2850. But it's good to see how your image will look at those high ISOs.

Don Rawding

Monday 2nd of November 2020

Makes you think. I use auto iso with a max of 3200 in my Nikon D5600. Now trying it at 12800. There is of course a reduction in colour quality but if it's that or a blurred photo so be it.

John Peltier

Monday 2nd of November 2020

I should also note that every photographer and camera is different, so just find where your personal limits of "acceptable use" are and run with it. 12800 may be too much - maybe it's 8000, 6400...just experiment with it and find what your personal limits are. And ask yourself, "would a non-photographer be distracted by that?"

Ron

Monday 2nd of November 2020

Excellent article. You are so right, I totally agree!!

John Peltier

Monday 2nd of November 2020

Thanks for the feedback Ron!