12,800 ISO! Really? High quality images? Can’t be!

When I first started as a pro 25 years ago I used ISO 50 film for most of my photography, ISO 25 for serious, very fine detailed work and ISO 100 for wildlife. ISO 100 was my high speed film and if I really feeling crazy wild I would shoot ISO 200 film!!!!

Well, things have changed and are still changing. When I started my book on the farm I was using a Nikon D2x and shooting in a lot of really dark situations. My highest ISO I could use and still get sale-worthy and book-worthy images was ISO 800. I then got a Nikon D300 and my highest ISO I could use jumped a stop to ISO 1600. I was really happy with this. In fact I was actually giddy to be able to shoot at such a preposterously high ISO.  I’d say that 25% of the pictures in that book were taken at ISO 800 or 1600. And don’t talk to me about quality- if it is good enough to be published in a book at 300 dpi it is probably good enough for what you are going to be doing with it.

_dsc1978Now I have just finished a book on the men and women who lobster in the Gulf of Maine. I have a new Nikon D3s and I am shooting regularly at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400. No, really! And when I am pressed I will happily go to ISO 12,800! That is 8 stops faster than my old ISO 50 film days!

Okay so you don’t believe me. The  teaching photo included here I took at ISO 12,800. The following images are blow-ups of the same image. Notice the fine details. Notice how little degradation there is. There is very little noise and what noise there is could be easily washed out during processing. Now I wouldn’t make large prints of an image taken at ISO 12,800 but I rarely make large prints. I would submit them for publication in calendars or for a magazine story and I certainly would use them for any program I might do.

Now I am not saying that all cameras should be able to shoot at ISO 12800. In fact most can not. But you should know what is your highest acceptable ISO that your  camera can shoot. Acceptable means good enough for what you need it for. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t shoot at a certain ISO. Test it yourself and see if it works for you but you should know how high you can go. There will come a time when you will want to shoot at a very high ISO and you will need to know what that number is.