ISO – Are we still making noise about this in 2016?

Andrew Beck Andrew 4 Comments

It’s cheesy I know but, a lot of noise has been made about shooting at High ISO’s. Even in 2016.

What is a high ISO though?

The issue of noise at high ISO’s is, in my opinion, a remnant of pioneering days of digital SLR’s when shooting at ISO1600 (the maximum ISO’s of some of the first DSLR’s) was considered to be a cardinal sin.

Back in 2003 when Canon launched their 300D with a maximum ISO of 1600 ISO 800 was a pretty high ISO value.

Is that still the case though?

We certainly treat high ISO values with the same sort of disdain as we did back then.

In 2016 the exponential growth and development of technology sees top end DSLR’s like the Canon 1DX MKII boasting a maximum ISO of 51 200 expandable to 409 600. This surely gives a new meaning to what we should consider as high ISO values?

On the flip side, certain cameras such as the Canon 5DS R are limited to a maximum of ISO 6 400 (expandable to 12 800). This relatively low ISO capability has been sighted as one of the faults in the 5DS R and I can’t quite understand why but more on that later.

On the one hand there is this seemingly never ending noise around never shooting at high ISO’s and then, in the same breath we express the joy of the capabilities of cameras to shoot at ISO 51 200 and dismiss cameras that can only “get it up” to ISO 6 400.

Perhaps its just me?

During our recent Wildlife Photography Seminar Marlon gave an excellent presentation on shooting at high ISO’s and our entire delegation of guests gained a profound understanding of how and when to shoot at high ISO’s. The vast majority of our guests were afraid to shoot at what they perceived to be High ISO’s.

Understanding Your Gear

This might seem obvious but, if I was still shooting on my very first DSLR, the Canon 3o0D, I would not feel too comfortable shooting at ISO values of higher than 800 and would rarely push up to ISO 1600. Back then the quality at ISO 1600 was regarded as being pretty decent…

However, its not 2003 anymore.

Technology has come a long way and even the most affordable entry-level DSLR’s can perform well at ISO values of 1600 and above. Whilst you can trawl the internet for various reviews and technical opinion pieces of high ISO performance tests viewed at pixel level, my suggestion is that you don’t get caught up in this technical jargon.What is important is to know how far you are able to push ISO on your camera body under specific light conditions.

Make a mental note of how far your able to push it and be cognisant of this value.

Is your initial thought when viewing this image “Ohhh, thats such a great shot but its a pity it was taken at ISO 6400…”


Canon 5DS, Canon 400mm F2.8 @F2.8, ISO 6400, 1/2500 and -1 1/3 EV

Hopefully not. You see, whilst its very easy to get so caught up in the technical elements of an image, there are times where the combination of composition and content will be so strong that they completely outweigh the technical side of things.

Understand the Power of Your Post-Processing Software

I’m not going to go into too much detail on this as there is a wealth of content on the blog, in this video tutorial, and in the series of Lightroom tutorials in general. Suffice to say that if you know what you’re doing, you can improve the image quality of an image captured at high ISO’s significantly in Lightroom. Understanding how to do this will help you establish the capabilities of your camera in conjunction with post-processing when it comes to handling noise at high ISO’s.

So now you know how far you can push your camera and how much image quality can be retained or restored through post-processing.

What do you do when you still cant get a fast enough shutter speed at your preferred maximum ISO?

Decide Whether you want to Fight The Light or Work with It

Low light is synonymous with slow shutter speeds and we invariably turn to ISO in an effort to get that shutter speed up and capture sharp images. The world doesn’t need more sharp images. Especially if it means shooting at ISO 409600.

Knowing what your camera is capable of and how much noise can be addressed in post-processing will help you decide when its time to give up fighting the light with ISO and just go with it.

This post will help you get a better idea of what I mean but essentially, rather than ending up with another sharp image at high ISO’s use the low light to your advantage and attempt to create something different.


Canon 5D MK III, Canon 70-200mm F2.8 @ 102mm & F5.0, ISO 250, 0.8 sec

High Risk.

High reward.

Do you Really Need anything More than ISO 6400

In a quick evaluation of metadata from over 25 thousand images in my Lightroom Catalog, 99.893630% were taken at ISO values of 6400 and below.

97% of these were taken at ISO 3200 or below.

Perhaps this is a result of me knowing how far I can push my camera bodies (and these figures are based on images captured on top-end Canon 1D MKIII, 1D MKIV, 1D X, 5D MKII, 5DS, 5DSR, 7D MKII) and when to fight the light rather than work with it.

Sometimes the sheer nature of the destination does not even require the sorts of ISO values that we consider to be high. I shared this breakdown of ISO values for 9 042 images captured in the Masai Mara between 2013 and 2015  in a post on lens choices for the Masai Mara.


Even on the recent Wildlife Photography Seminar at Sabi Sabi where we did a lot of shooting after dark, only 44% of 605 images were captured at ISO values greater than 1600, of which 26% were captured between ISO 3200 and ISO 5000.

Here’s one of the images captured at ISO 5000.


Canon 5DS R, Canon 70-200mm F2.8 @ 102mm & F2.8, ISO 5000, 1/320

I’m pretty happy with it if I do say so myself…

The Take Home Message

Technology has come a long way since the original DSLR’s were released, as as the ability of image sensors to perform well under low light and High ISO values.

What was considered a high ISO value in 2003 can not be viewed in the same light in 2016.

We need to stop perpetuating this phobia of high ISO’s which, in my mind, is an issue of the past, and start to gain a deeper understanding if what is possible with current technology.

Furthermore, this is just one of a number of technical aspects of photography which can easily be trumped by creativity and great content.

In summary…

  • Know what the high ISO capabilities and limitations of your camera body are
  • Understand how much noise can be “removed” in post-processing
  • Know when to fight the light and when to work with it (linked to your cameras ability to perform at high ISO’s)
  • Don’t be afraid of shooting at “High” ISO’s, you’ll only lose out on photographic opportunities
  • Great content trumps any deficiency of image quality and noise. Don’t miss out on great opportunities!
About the Author

Andrew Beck

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Very few people can tell you what their passion in life is. Even fewer will be able to tell you that what they do for a living is in fact their passion. My love for the bush and conservation took me on journey which would not only allow me to explore the continent which fascinates me so much, but to share my passion for photography and conservation with others. Be sure to check out my my website and instagram account.

Comments 4

  1. Martha Myers

    This was an excellent article, Andrew, especially the part about deciding whether to work with what light you have as opposed to fighting it. Many thanks.

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      Andrew Beck

      Hi Nik, a vitally important shift to make and one which will ensure you don’t loose out on some awesome photographic opportunities in the future.

      Thanks for the comment!

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