“Unacceptable” Noise is a Matter of Opinion

As I may have mentioned two or three hundred times, I shoot with a Nikon D300. When photographing events in available light, I typically set my shutter speed and aperture manually, while allowing the camera to automatically set the ISO (sensor sensitivity). When there is enough light, I get the best quality my camera can produce at its base ISO of 200. When there is less light, I accept some grain/noise and other compromises caused by higher ISO ratings. Auto-ISO just does what I would do – crank up the ISO when the light fades.

For a long time, I would not let Auto ISO exceed 1600, because I read online that images shot at ISO 1600 were barely acceptable, and anything shot at higher ISOs was a waste of time. But a while back, I was shooting a theater production lit so dimly that I faced a tough decision: shoot at ISO 3200 or go home empty-handed. I decided to give it a try, and I learned a valuable lesson – “unacceptable” is in the eye of the beholder. Below are some photos taken at ISO 3200. No, they are not brilliant, prizewinning works of art. But they are moments I would not have been able to capture at all with half the sensor sensitivity. The moral of the story: try it yourself before you accept the conventional wisdom about your camera’s capabilities.

Photographer Joseph Sohm addresses an audience at the Ojai Playhouse. You'd be surprised how little light a spotlight produces.

A scene from the Ojai Art Center Theater production of It's A Wonderful Life.

During the second half of The Glass Menagerie, the lights go out. I was still able to grab a couple of images. At reasonable sizes and proper viewing distances, this would not easily be pegged as an ISO 3200 image.

Sometimes, an image captured at ISO 3200 requires so much noise reduction that the picture takes on an artificial or strangely graphic look. Only you can decide if that makes it a bad picture.

When the combination of high ISO and gelled stage lights produce untenable colors, try converting to black and white. In these cases, sensor noise looks like film grain and often enhances the image.

Even at high ISOs, a well-exposed image won't be ruined by sensor noise. Moreover, many images that show noise on our computer monitors would not show the noise when printed.

How much grain is too much grain? I was determined to get a picture of Jimmy Calire at a recent theater fundraiser, but the spotlight never pointed in his direction. This image was underexposed, even at 3200, so lightening the frame revealed a lot of noise. This is not unlike push-processing film. The real trick is to remember to tell people you were going for this effect all along.


Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Post Processing

3 responses to ““Unacceptable” Noise is a Matter of Opinion

  1. myrna

    agreed … sometimes i have just my small digital with me on a hike … if i print some of the slightly noisy images in black and white and in a small, intimate size then the noise does not show at all … big is not always better … small images sell well too

  2. AB

    Nice photos. I also have a D300. Did you use a 70-200mm f/2.8? Thanks.

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