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.

Lion Cub With Bone: “I found these cubs late in the afternoon with the sun going down,” says Lepp, “and they were under a tree in the shade. The only possibility was to bring the ISO to 1600.” This is an excellent example of the kind of image that a natural-history photographer would be able to observe, but not photograph until recently. So many animals are much more active in the dark, and until now, we couldn’t get photographs of them in situations like these. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 100-400mm (275mm plus 1.3x), 1⁄60 sec., ƒ/5.6 and ISO 1600

 

George Lepp recently returned from an expedition to Africa, where he was using the Canon EOS 7D and EOS-1D Mark IV, and one of his traveling companions was using the Nikon D3 and D3S. These cameras are part of the wave of new DSLRs that are changing photography due to their ability to produce good images at ISO ratings we’d tend to think of as extreme. If you were a film shooter, you probably remember thinking of ASA 400 and 800 as “high-speed” emulsions. Using these films would get you highly grainy images with flat colors and a certain inherent loss of sharpness. Fast-forward to 2010: There are cameras that bump the ISO up to 102,400, and many of the current DSLRs can make excellent images with relatively little grain and plenty of color saturation at ISO ratings of 1600, 3200 and 6400. In fact, Lepp remarked that with some of these new cameras, he’s starting to think of 800 as the new ISO 100, 1600 as the new ISO 200 and 3200 as the new ISO 400.

It’s clear that the technology is advancing rapidly and photographers like Lepp are taking advantage of it to produce images that represent fundamental changes in photography. Says Lepp, “It has opened up possibilities we didn’t have before. I get much higher percentages of usable images, and I can do things I never thought of before.”

Little Bee-Eater: Describing how he got this image, Lepp says, “The attempt was to capture the little bee-eater in midair as it landed on a branch with a bug. Having 10 frames per second, ƒ/8 for a little depth of field and 1⁄6000 sec. made it happen. An ISO of 1600 was needed to get the desired numbers.” In the past, Lepp would have tried to time the bird’s flight to get this shot, and he would have had a lot of trial and error. How did Lepp capture the shot this time? “I set the ISO high to give me the depth of field and the action-stopping of a fast shutter speed. I prefocused and fired the series, and I got it! We planned it, and it worked.” Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 500mm (500mm plus 1.3x), 1⁄6000 sec., ƒ/8 and ISO 1600

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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.

24 Comments

    I WAS NOT SURE OF BOOSTING THE ISO TO HIGH. I REMEMBER WHEN I USED TO USE TRI X FILM.I HAVE A NIKOND3 AND D200. I JUST BOUGHT A NIKKOR 800MM F8 LENSE A 1986 ERRA. I SENT TO A REPAIR COMPANY TO GET IT CLEANED AND ADJUSTED IF NEEDED. I AMA GUN DOG PHOTOGRAPHER AND NEED THE XTRA POWER. I ALMOST ALWAYS SHOOT AT LEAST 100 TO 200 YARDS. THANKS FOR THE ISO LESSON I NOW CAN FEEL GOOD ON USING THE ISO 1600 AND 3200 I NEEDED,,ED LINDSEY

    Now I can make a normal comment.

    This was a great article. I have been preaching for years that if you have to boost the ISO to get a shot you may never have the chance to get again — do it! I love that the famous George Lepp is “agreeing” with me.

    Today’s cameras CAN handle the higher ISOs and the images are very good quality. Maybe not perfect, but still good.

    I agree with George Lepp. The new cameras are allowing us to capture images we only dreamed about a few years ago. I recently attended a presentation by Ken Conger on his summer as a ranger in Denali. He said he shot almost exclusively at ISO 400 and the shots were amazing. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself at http://www.kencongerphotography.com

    Yes and please have a moderator check for the sales junk every once in a while. Thanks for the great article.

    On the autofocus issue, the systems require a certain amount of light to analyze the image and identify the object of the focus. Just as your eyes find it hard to focus in low light, so does your camera. One day soon, we will see improvement but it will be difficult.

    Thanks to George Lepp for keeping us up to date on the latest techniques and features available with the new DSLR’s. It is true that cameras are letting us capture images we only dreamed of before. I recently attended a presentation by Ken Conger on his summer as a ranger at Denali and the amazing shots he took, almost exclusively at ISO 400. If you would like to see what 400 can do, go to kencongerphotography.com and see for yourself. It is inspiring.

    Isn?۪t it weird to read how people need to be encouraged to just go and TRY high ISO settings on the camera they already own? – It won?۪t cost you one cent. Instead of reading theoretical articles on noise levels just go out and take pictures instead! In any case, high ISO noise is less annoying than blurry shots through camera shake.

    Every generation of DSLR gets better in terms of picture quality, especially noise. The amateur D90 outperforms the older semi-pro D200. Sensor size brings in an extra advantage. It?۪s because of pixel SIZE, not pixel COUNT, plus better in-camera processing if you shoot jpg.

    One of the best “New Equipment” articles that I have read in a long time… Yeah! George Lepp and Dewitt Jones are two of my favorate writers for OP.

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