Advanced noise processing is resulting in the greatest images ever, even at high light sensitivity (ISO). The Old Masters of nature photography shot primarily with large-format cameras. These cameras exposed a scene to a 4x5-inch or larger negative, and because the negative was so big, it didn’t have to be enlarged very much to make a large print. There would be grain in the negative, but it hardly would be noticeable because, for example, making a 16x20-inch print from a 4x5-inch negative is only a 16x enlargement.
Compare that to a 35mm film camera; 35mm film never caught on with the Old Masters in large part because of the much smaller negative. Certainly, these cameras were capable of capturing highly detailed images, but once the photo was blown up to be printed, the grain of the film—the size of the light-sensitive, silver-halide crystals that composed the emulsion—noticeably affected the image. The crystals were the same actual size in the film as they were with a sheet of 4x5, but the 35mm frame is enlarged some 230x to make the same 16x20-inch print as the example above.
This is where newer D-SLRs have a key advantage to 35mm film and why large-format’s biggest advantage—its beautiful detail in large prints—is eroding. Although even a full-frame D-SLR image (like those from the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EOS-1Ds Mark III, the Nikon D700, D3, D3X or the Sony A900) is still being enlarged some 230x to make a 16x20-inch print, the grain (or noise as its called in digital images) is so low that the enlargements look much more like a print from a 4x5 negative instead of a 35mm negative.
D-SLRs have a considerable advantage over film in that the smaller sensors of D-SLRs are capable of producing high-quality images in highly portable cameras, and they do so with minimal noise. In a D-SLR, an ISO rating is given as an equivalent to film speed to denote how sensitive the sensor is to light. With digital, simply changing a dial or pressing a button amplifies your sensor’s sensitivity and thus the ISO rating. There’s still a sacrifice, however, as amplified signals result in higher noise—the signal-to-noise ratio drops. As the signal-to-noise ratio drops, you see luminance noise, which looks a lot like film grain, and chrominance noise, which looks like pixel-level color distortion. Nikon D700 In the beginning, noise was readily apparent in ISO ratings of more than 100 or 200, but now D-SLRs are capable of producing practically noise-free images at much higher ISO ratings. Many photographers shooting with current high-end D-SLRs have no problem with images shot well in excess of ISO 800, and cameras are currently providing ISOs all the way up to 25,600! Toyo Field Camera This number could go even higher because the science of noise reduction is constantly being improved. While high-ISO images look good, photographs shot at low ISO (100 and 200) are practically noise-free, and when combined with highly sophisticated noise-reduction programs like Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 (www.niksoftware.com), Noise Ninja (www.picturecode.com) and Photoshop (www.adobe.com), the results are even more stunning.