DSLR’s & High ISO’s

Cognac at 2500 ASA

A lot has been written in the photo press this year about the latest crop of DSLR cameras and their ability to shoot at high ISO’s in some instances to over 100,000 ASA with acceptable results.

With my change in cameras earlier this summer, here was a chance to try out these claims.

I spend quite a bit of time in various bonded warehouses in Islay ( for photographic reasons obviously ! ), these not being the brightest places to work should mean a good test for these new claims.

Today I was asked to shoot some images of  Eric Forget, cellar master at Hine Cognac, the only Cognac supplier with a royal warrant to the Queen.

Hine Cognac are maturing some Cognac at Bunnahabhain Distillery as both companies are owned by the same group.

Traditionally Cognac finishes it maturing in casks near water but not normally on Islay, so this is a sort of experiment to see what difference it makes.

Anyway back to the photography, I had decided against using flash as this would have had the effect of making the background like a cave and I wanted to show various casks in the background.

Whilst I could ( and did ) use a tripod, my exposure times were still limited in time because my model still had to remain as still as possible through the exposure.

So no chance of using ISO 100 here as a reasonable amount of depth of field was also needed.

I felt that I couldn’t go for exposures of longer than 1/2 second because of subject movement and because of the DOF requirement, I didn’t want to use the lens any wider than F7.1.

With the shots being taken around 24-30mm in focal length, I could at least rely on better DOF because of focal length.

So putting this info into the camera, it became apparent that my ISO was going to be 800, so be it !

Checking the preview screen after exposure and things looked OK but then thats only a small screen and not an A3 print.

As options were limited, the rest of the shoot carried on as that.

I decided to do some hand held close ups of some poured Cognac, because these shots weren’t so crucial it was an opportunity to hike the ISO and see what happened.

So for the glass shot the ISO went to 2500 with an exposure of 1/5th, about the lowest that I am comfortable hand holding even with IS lenses. The aperture used was F5 as shallow DOF I felt was going to add to the composition.

Back home and on the big screen and the shots looked fine, but that’s still only at screen resolution.

The real proof of the pudding was going to be an A3 print, so the file with the glass was printed with the final result looking like a ISO 400 colour negative print from ten years ago or so, in other words pretty good with practically no noise at all.

One point worth remembering is that just like using high speed neg films in low light, low light digital photography requires a pretty exact exposure.

If when you open up the file in Photoshop or Bridge and you need to adjust the exposure ( up or down ) then the chances are it won’t make a large print, so take care with exposure metering.

So the high ISO claims are  fairly accurate but why people need a camera that will effectively meter a situation in which you or the camera couldn’t focus is beyond me.

Sensor quality is more important than being able to expose at 100,000 ASA.

Eric Forget at 800 ASA

3 thoughts on “DSLR’s & High ISO’s

  1. Eva October 22, 2010 / 10:02 am

    Hi Mark,

    great review. I also enjoy the possibilities the high-ISO range of DSLRs offers. I can remember that shooting with film or even my first digital SLR everything above 400 was critical. As I have an image from a warehouse as you do – however not professionally taken like yours – I was also very impressed with the result.
    The 2000 ISO look really good (haven’t checked a large print however, but it is in a photobook at a size close to A4 and still looks really good). Especially in combination with a good lens (1,4 or 1.8 is ideal for me) the results with ISO up to 2000 are great. However I never thought of using the extended range that goes to somewhere around 25000 with my camera.
    Just one question – did you use extra lighting for the 800 ASA shot?

    greets from Austria

    • islaystudios October 22, 2010 / 6:33 pm

      Hi Eva,
      You have a nice shot there, taken at Bowmore, using F1.8 gives a very shallow DOF which really enhances your shot. Because of the lighting in these places everything comes out with a yellow cast which I like to tone down a bit. I do this by adjusting the white balance within the RAW converter to get a slightly more natural feel.
      The 800 ASA shot had exactly the same lighting as you had in Bowmore, just one florescent strip light just to the front of the (on my side) cask.
      Check back next week for a review on a fairly new & very high quality ink jet paper.
      When are you back on Islay next?

  2. Eva October 23, 2010 / 9:12 am

    Regarding that yellow-tinge: that was on purpose – I used some LR presets for that. The sligthly overblown whites in the center and flat colours appealed to me and made the image a bit grittier. The original doesn’t have that yellow-tinge (what it has however is a serious purple fringing along the Valinch). It looks quite natural – I guess that’s due to the 5D MII which tends to produce cooler tones, which I prefer anyway.
    My next trip to Islay is still far, far away – maybe sometime next year.
    Anyway – have a nice weekend!

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