High ISO (film speed) & Shooting in Low Light.

Shooting under low light can present a whole number of challenges, both for photo and video work.  In fact the ability to shoot under these conditions was one of the main determining factors for my choosing the Canon 5d Mark II as my camera.  At the time I picked it up, it was showing some phenomenal results being one of the best performers in its class for High ISO & Low Digital Noise, and it hasn’t let me down… yet… :)   After my recent shoot for JayRock 5, I’ve had quite a few questions from friends about how I got the results I did… Not to mention with a recent photo featured in Guitarist Magazine… I thought it appropriate to address low light shooting & High ISO… So, without further ado…  Let’s dive in.

Mike Sullivan from Russian Circles at the Riot Room (Lead photo from article in Guitarist Magazine) - ISO 1600, 50mm, f/1.8 & 1/20sec.

This photo is from the March 2010 issue of Guitarist Magazine, you can read the article here on Russian Circle’s blog.

So what the heck is High ISO… and why’s it necessary for low light?

ISO, or film speed, was developed as a rating system to judge the “sensitivity” of film.  Higher ISO meant higher sensitivity to light, faster film speed, but in turn had the risk of producing lower quality photos because of noise & artifacts, particularly in shadowy areas (fyi the wikipedia entry on Film Speed is a great resource on history and details).  So basically… it let you shoot in much darker conditions and in places you ordinarily couldn’t shoot, but at the risk of adding noise and reducing the quality of the final image.  I suppose something is better than nothing?

That being said… technology has now progressed to a point where ISO is becoming the newest selling point of digital cameras.  Originally we were seeing the megapixel battle… the more MPs the better.  It’s now shifted to High ISO settings and improved technology for reducing noise & grain; here’s an article from Gizmodo “Why ISO Is the New Megapixel“.  And let me say, I’m super stoked this is where things are headed.

Ted Joyner from The Generationals at Jay Rock 5 - Uptown Theater. Shot at ISO 3200, 100mm, f/2.8 & 1/125 sec.

As I had mentioned in a previous post, “Shooting with the Canon 5d Mark II + Gear Wish List + 2010“, clean performance with High ISO was an absolute MUST HAVE in my camera choice, mostly due to my subject matter.  So let’s break things down a bit…

How I utilize ISO when shooting…

First off… I have to give credit where credit is due…  Todd Owyoung’s website “I Shoot Shows” has been an invaluable resource for me, especially in the low-light/concert photography realm.  Todd posts VERY regularly, and will often leave notes in the captions of each of his shots, something I personally will begin doing as well.  He’s also got some great tutorials on “High ISO, Digital Noise & Noise Reduction“, “How to Request a Photo Pass“, DIY projects and more. Seriously… great stuff.  That said…

So here’s the trick… it’s a delicate balance of three key factors: ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture.  If you had ideal lighting conditions, these three areas become your tools for creative control… ISO gives you the flexibility to play with shutter speed and aperture, which in turn allow you to create different artistic effects.  A great reference on playing with this balance is “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson.  It covers the basics of these three elements, but also sheds light on creative techniques.  It’s a fairly “foundational” book, but there’s tons of great information in it.

So… When I’m shooting in a low-light scenario… I typically keep my ISO around 1600 – 3200, occasionally stretching up to 6400, and in a “MUST SHOOT” scenario push into the “H1″ or “H2″ setting on the camera of ISO 12,800 & 25,600 respectively.  These are seriously high ISO settings, and the newer cams that have been released (after I purchased the 5d Mk II), push even higher (Canon 1D Mark IV has a natural ISO range of 100 – 12,800 with an H3 setting of 102,400!).

Chet Kueffer from THIEVES at Jay Rock 5 - Uptown Theater. Shot at ISO 6400, 100mm, f/2.8 & 1/125 sec.

Beyond that, aperture and shutter speed then become my next determining factors.  If for instance the artist is moving very quickly, and I need to get a great “frozen” movement shot, I’ll kick my ISO up a level or two, crank the shutter speed to around 1/125 and throw my aperture wide open (typically to f/2.8, sometimes f/1.8 depending upon my lens).  This particular shot was at ISO 6400, 1/125, f/2.8 on the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens (yes, macro lenses can look great from far away too).

If on the other hand I don’t want super shallow depth of field, but I’ve got a fairly static shot, I could kick my aperture to f/8 or f/11, keeping the ISO higher, and drop my shutter speed to 1/30 or 1/60 (however I’ve not yet tested this… I’d imagine even with High ISO, in these lighting conditions that might get a bit rough).

In general though, I try to sit around ISO 1600, wide open f/2.8, with 1/60 for my shutter.  Varying settings as necessary to achieve different effects.

A few other tricks in the bag…

Now I have also tweaked my camera profile settings to assist with shooting in low-light.  I’ve dropped the sharpness to “2″ (from 3 originally), as well as dropped saturation to -1, and removed the in camera noise reduction.  I’ve found (thanks again to Todd Owyoung!) that the sharpening and noise reduction capabilities of post-software (Lightroom / Aperture / Photoshop / etc…) does a far better job than that of the in-camera settings.  Not to mention Noise Ninja does a great job tidying up on the super noisy shots (i.e. ISO 25,600).  Here’s an example of a photo shot at ISO 25,600 before and after processing.

Cameron Hawk of The Dead Girls at Jay Rock 5 - Uptown Theater. This was shot at ISO 25,600, 100mm, f/2.8 & 1/160 sec.

So I guess the end result is…  ISO can save your butt big time if you’re in a gotta get the shot scenario without ideal lighting… However be prepared to do some work in post to bring it to the finished level you want.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite shots from Jay Rock 5…  This was an awesome event, and I’m thrilled I got to participate!  Cheers! – B

Again, Mr. Cameron Hawk from The Dead Girls at Jay Rock 5 - Uptown Theater. Shot at ISO 1600, 21mm, f/2.8 & 1/30sec.

3 Responses to “High ISO (film speed) & Shooting in Low Light.”

  1. Framkallning says:

    Hello, that was definitely an awesome article. I had actually been searching for a photo printing related blog for a while now. Great! Do you offer a subscription service? because I can’t seem to locate the information anywhere.

    • brando5 says:


      Thanks! I have an RSS feed set up which you can subscribe to by clicking the subscribe button at the top, and choosing posts. You can then set the feed up to deliver content to you via whatever reader you prefer!

      - Brandon

  2. good post. love the site!

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