|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.”
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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.
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.
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.