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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New Percentages


Today, “high ISO” means values like 25,600 instead of 800. These dramatic advancements are giving nature photographers a whole new way to think about making images.

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High ISO ratings are also making it possible to extend the capabilities of lenses. In Africa, Lepp made use of a 500mm ƒ/4. “Having the ability to go higher with the ISO makes that lens like having a 500mm ƒ/2.8,” he says. A 500mm ƒ/2.8 would be a big, heavy and very expensive lens, and being able to make up for the extra stop by going with a higher ISO has some obvious benefits. Of course, the 500mm ƒ/2.8 has other characteristics, like being able to create a very shallow depth of field when the lens is wide open, but frequently, nature shooters aren’t going for that look necessarily.

Pack Of Wild Dogs: This was an amazing moment. As Lepp describes it, “Twenty-plus wild dogs on the hunt, and we were able to tag along. The only problem was that the sun had gone down. I kept setting the ISO higher as it got darker. This image was made at ISO 2500, and we continued on until it was nearly completely dark.” Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 100-400mm (400mm plus 1.3x), 1⁄350 sec., ƒ/5.6 and ISO 2500

Traditionally, we’ve thought of higher ISO as being what you use in fading light, but it’s becoming clear that it’s now a tool that extends far beyond low-light photography. Of course, if you’re shooting in low light, the usefulness is pretty obvious. Natural-history photographers will be able to use high ISO to particularly good effect. As the day fades, we now can get crisp, smooth images of behavior that would have been impossible previously. Look at the image Lepp made of the pack of wild dogs. These canines came out of the brush shortly before sunset. In the dimming light, they were on the hunt. As it got darker and darker, Lepp and his companions were able to follow the pack and could continue shooting. They were getting perfect photographs of behavior that had been all but impossible to capture before.

Malachite Kingfisher: “This is a tiny bird that’s a bit shy,” says Lepp. “I was working from a boat with a tripod, but a 500mm with a 2x tele-extender was used to make a full-frame composition of the colorful bird. He’s moving, I’m moving, the magnification is extreme.” Without a fast shutter speed, this image would have been a mess. Instead, Lepp was able to set ISO 1600 and get 1⁄750 sec. for a shutter speed, and he made a remarkable photograph of a rare and secretive little bird. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 500mm plus 2x tele-extender (1000mm plus 1.3x), 1⁄750 sec., ƒ/8 and ISO 1600

We think that compared to resolution, ISO is going to be a much more compelling technology to follow in the future. We have resolution numbers now that give photographers the ability to print large and to crop an image as necessary. Boosting resolution from its current levels gives diminishing returns. Having higher ISO, on the other hand, can truly revolutionize photography, and nature photography, in particular.

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