High ISO? Forgetaboutit!

One of the biggest innovations in today’s cameras doesn’t get nearly enough praise. I’m talking about about the amazingly crazy ISO settings that are now available without sacrificing image quality. I know I’m dating myself a bit here but I cut my teeth on things like Kodak Tri-X 400 film, which when pushed to 800, could look a bit like a snowstorm. Seriously, there was a time when press photographers would carry their Ilford Delta 3200 just so they could keep shooting into the twilight hours or indoors in an arena. The quality was crap but the options were few so you did what you could do get the shot.


Things didn’t get much better with the arrival of digital cameras. In fact the early DSLR cameras were actually more limiting than film in some ways. My first good DSLR was a Kodak DCS420 and it boasted an ISO range from 100 to 400 and you didn’t go near 400 unless it was an emergency. Now, 20 years later, even inexpensive digital cameras can shoot long after the sun goes down and still produce a nice image.

Now, it’s not unusual to kick that ISO up to 3200 and expect to get a high quality image. Just the other night I had some deer wandering around the yard so I grabbed my T5i and started clicking. Even though it was already 8:45 in the evening and the deer was on the shady side of the hedge, I was still able to grab a few nice shots (be sure to click on the images to see them large).

ISO 3200 Deer

But why stop at 3200? With the technology in today’s camera’s you can push the ISO well beyond the 3200 mark without even thinking. Of course there is a lot of noise reduction going on inside the camera whenever you raise the ISO but one of the coolest technological advances I have seen lately is noise averaging. I started playing with this on the T5i and I have to say that it is pretty darned impressive.

T5i 6400iso

What you are looking at in the image above is a handheld shot that was taken at ISO 6400, but here’s the kicker. The shot wasn’t actually one exposure but a combination of four shots. Of course you couldn’t do this with a moving subject but with one press of the button the camera will take 4 separate shots and then align them and measure the noise in each image and eliminate it from the final image.

T5i Noise

If you look at the image above, what you will see is a single image at ISO 6400 on the left with standard noise reduction. The image on the right is an enlargement of the image that was taken with the Multi Shot Noise Reduction function. The normal shot on the left is decent but if you look closely at the image on the right, you will see that the noise in the shadows is almost non-existent and the details are greatly improved.

If you have yet to experience the shooting freedom of using a wide ISO range, you don’t know what you’re missing. If your camera can’t shoot at high ISO ranges, maybe it’s time you upped your game. Trust me when I tell you that it will open up a new world of photographic possibilities.


  1. It’s very nice to see those techniques arriving to photography. We have been using stacking in astronomy since the invention of the CCD and works great (we call it “combining” :-) ).

    Is in the nature of the digital signal. The signal is coherent and the noise is random …

  2. In my humble opinion, the next revolution could come when cameras arrive at being able to better approach the dynamic tonal range of human vision, without the need of taking multiple exposures. Now, that would be awesome. Fuji once started a first attempt with two types of pixels, but I don´t think it went anywhere. I am sure we´ll get there one day.

  3. I’ve been interested in whether the Canon Digic 6 processor will improve in camera noise reduction, but wasn’t aware of the multi-shot technique for it. Generally, I don’t like in-camera NR finger-painting, though it can work if the subject matter in the frame is conducive to it. There are noise reduced images at the same ISO that look like Mondrian paintings and those that look like mayflies in a snowstorm.

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