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ISO, under used and misunderstood

Cape Town at night
Hand-held Panoramic of Cape Town at night
Little to no noise at ISO12800 with the Canon EOS 5D MarkIII and a little stitching.

Photography is about compromises and ISO is no different, however the last camera generations have improved the odds in our favour dramatically.

Firstly, what is ISO? In short and without going into the technical details, it is the measurement related to the sensitivity of the sensor to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light the sensor becomes and that is good. However, there is a price, as we raise the ISO, the image gets noisier or, in film terms, grainier and that is not good.

In the film day’s, the baseline ISO is 100 and is generally the accepted best quality image standard, as of ISO 800 many older generation cameras get noisy and rarely usable beyond ISO 1600. This caused people to avoid it, even ignore it as a tool, however the last few years saw leaps and bounces in this department, ISO 12800 is now commonplace and has become usable. This allows us to shoot in darker places with fewer worries about image quality.

The most efficient way to use this is to find out what the maximum acceptable ISO setting is for your camera is, to do that I suggest that you shoot a few photos in a relatively dark place and decide for yourself what is acceptable to you. Once that has been done, as light vanishes you can raise your ISO until you reach your maximum or simply set it to your maximum when you know that you will be in dark places. This will allow you to shoot at faster shutter speed in darker situations, this is important to get sharper images.

Additionally, your camera may have an automatic ISO setting, I set mine to automatic with the maximum limit set to my maximum acceptable ISO, this allows me to focus on the other more important elements of photography such as depth of field, shutter speed and composition. It is also very handy in conditions where the light changes often and without warning, like tracking wildlife in changing ground condition, shade to light and back. It ensures that the photograph is as intended as opposed to photos that are too dark or too light and cannot be corrected.

In tandem with image stabilization, a higher ISO setting may allow you to shot a scene at night without the need of a tripod or a low light shot without the need of a flash. Noise at high ISO is inevitable, however modern software may come to the rescue. Software such as Abobe Camera RAW (ACR), Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and even Canon’s own software will help to reduce the noise without sacrificing image quality.

ISO is no longer something to fear but rather a tool to use and sometimes abuse.

Antique phone
Antique phone
pushing the limits of ISO at 6400 with the Caonn EOS 7D


Chandellier, Canon Powershot N
Chandellier, Canon Powershot N.
You can clearly see the noise at ISO1600 on this photograph.

Beginning photography with the Lensbaby system

Lensbaby Composer

I am often asked “What new lens should I buy?” and more often than not I recommend a nifty fifty, an f/1.8 or better. There is another I forget about, a fun and creative lens system that changes the way you see. I am speaking of the Lensbaby system, for beginners I highly recommend the Composer Pro with the Sweet 35 Optic and if the R4200 price is a bit steep, the Composer with the Double Glass Optic is cheaper at about R2300 but a bit harder to use with it’s aperture disks.

Lensbaby Fisheye Optic (f/4)
Lensbaby Fisheye Optic (Canon EOS 5D Mark III)

Why would I recommend a lens system that I dubbed “the purposeful degradation of photographs system”? Simply put it is 100% manual and fits all major camera manufacturers and there is more than one optic – “lens“ – that will fit the “housing”, it is also light and versatile from 12mm Fisheye to 80mm the is something for everyone. Additionally, the Double Glass optic is capable of f/2 and is as sharp as any entry-level 50mm lens when not bent – in fact I find it puzzling that Lensbaby does not supply the Scout with a Double Glass or a Sweet 35 as an option rather than the Composer or Composer Pro which would make it ideal for beginners.

Peaches – Double Glass Optic
Peaches – Lensbaby Double Glass Optic (Canon EOS 7D)

The advantage of the Lensbaby is that it forces you to think about the choices you make and shows you through the lens the outcome of your choices. The aperture disk system will show you the depth of field immediately through the viewfinder showing you exactly how aperture works. Through time, the appropriate speed for the given light and aperture will come to you without thought making you a better photographer. It also creates an environment where experimentation is not an option but rather essential.

Nuts – Single Glass Optics
Nuts – Lensbaby Single Glass Optics (Canon EOS 7D)

What the basic Lensbaby kit does is improve vision through mistakes and the same mistakes will improve your photographic vision through a fun process. I certainly found it beneficial to my photography as I learned how a lens works from the inside out.

Lensbaby Sweet 35 with 8 & 16mm Macro Convertor
Lensbaby Sweet 35 with 8 & 16mm Macro Convertor (Canon EOS 5D Mark III)

The system also has a few other tricks up it sleeves, there is a very efficient macro convertor kit, these are basically extension tubes, once you have the basic kit and extra R700 and the macro world is yours.

One of my favorite is the Sweet 35 Optic simply because there is not need for those pesky aperture disks and the effects are great.

Lensbaby Soft Focus Optic
Lensbaby Soft Focus (Canon EOS 5D Mark III)

The possibilities are endless and the system is growing every year, the Edge 80 being one of the more recent additions allows for pronounced tilt-shift effects and has a macro mode to boot.

The Lensbaby system is a good addition to any photographer’s bag.

Recommended prices (South Africa):

More of my Lensbaby photos here

Lensbaby on television and in the cinema here.
Lensbaby Edge 80 Optic & Macro Converters where kindly supplied by MPhoto.

Shutter Speed

Choosing the right Shutter Speed can be a complicated issue but it should not. Shutter speed refers to the amount of time that the shutter is open and letting in light to the film or sensor but what does it mean in practice?

The faster the shutter speed the more frozen in time your subject will be at a cost of less light, the slower the more light will fall on the sensor but at the cost of more motion blur.

The example bellow demonstrates freezing motion, you can see how sharp the whale and the water droplets are, generally speeds over  1/500s will start freezing motion. Freezing motion is applicable to most photography, however there are exceptions where freezing motion is not a good idea, where showing motion is part of the subject or where it is part of an artistic thought.

Jumping whales, shot with a Canon 5D MkIII paired with a Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 285mm, f/5.6, 1/640s and ISO100
Jumping whales, shot with a Canon 5D MkIII paired with a Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at
285mm, f/5.6, 1/640s and ISO100

To show motion a lower speed is advisable, as represented bellow. The shutter speed will then be relative to the subject’s motion. For example showing the wheels of a car in motion or the propeller of a plane may require the shutter to be at 1/500s but showing headlight streaks across a photo 10 to 20 seconds.

Paasing headlights, shot with a SONY ALPHA NEX 5 paired with a SONY E 50mm f/1.8 OSS lens at 50mm (75mm equiv), f/22, 6s and ISO200
Passing headlights, shot with a SONY ALPHA NEX 5 paired with a SONY E 50mm f/1.8 OSS lens at
50mm (75mm equiv), f/22, 6s and ISO200

Slow shutter speeds can also be used to photograph still objects in dark situations or painting with lights. The possibilities are endless, the importance is to understand the trade offs. For slower shutter speeds you will also need a tripod to stabilize the camera.

Recommended gear

Neutral Density Filters
Neutral Density Filters

To achieve the silky water effect of to make daylight appear to be low light to your camera there is a tool, Neutral Density filters. They are the equivalent to putting on sunglasses, I regularly use mine when I want a speed which is not achievable in daylight at a specified f-stop or situations where there is too much light. The budget version is made of square pieces of tainted plastic or glass and can be stacked. The more expensive but more practical route as well as generally better quality is a variable neutral density filter (or Vari-ND for short), these can be adjusted as the situation needs, be warned about Vari-ND filters they have some issues.

Finding the light

Lately I have been asked where I shot this or that photo and when I reply I get a surprised look.

There is an art to finding the light as much as there is an art to framing, exposure, depth of field and all the other photographic skills. The first step to finding the light is to have no preconceptions about the space you are in, stop focusing on the obvious; in fact stop focusing on the photograph. Do not look through the lens, it will impair you ability to visualize.

When you walk around with your camera, let it dangle on your side, it’s there for the moment you want to catch.

Just feel where you are, get the vibe. Now that you can separate obvious to the trivial, turn around, look left, look right, look up, look down, go 2 steps back, forth, left, right, knell down, lay down. The idea is to get a full view of what surrounds you, often the fountain in front of you is not the best part of where you are; often it is behind you or elsewhere.

Cape Town Water Feature by Pascal Parent (PascalParent)) on
Cape Town Water Feature
End of day discussions by Pascal Parent (PascalParent)) on
End of day discussions

Recommended gear

A good camera strap will allow you to move comfortably and be less worried about it taking a walk without you.

There are a few around. I recommend the R-Strap by BlackRapid but the cheaper Quick Strap works as well and starts at an affordable 30USD (R300).
See Andrew Stevenson’s review on the Q-Strap

Understanding Image Stabilization

Image stabilization is one of the most misunderstood technologies in the camera industry and yet it is one of the most useful. In short, it allows the photographer to take photographs without “camera shake” with lower shutter speeds.

Before I begin to explain the effects of image stabilization there are 2 important subjects I need to touch on.

One, as a rule of thumb your shutter speed should never drop below the length of the lens and never below 60/s when handheld. For example, on a full frame sensor and assuming your lens is at 100mm, your shutter speed should never fall below 100/s. On most modern cameras this is not true though, you will need to add in the crop factor. For example, at 100mm and you have a Nikon or SONY it would be 150/s (x1.5), a Canon 160/s (x 1.6) and so on. Check your camera’s manual for your crop factor.

Camera shake
Camera shake, shot with a Canon PowerShot A570 IS at 6mm, f/2.6, 0.6s and ISO100

Two, there are different image stabilization technologies. Canon has IS (image stabilization) and Nikon’s is VR (vibration reduction) they both use in lens technology, however it can be done in camera as well such as SONY’s SteadyShot. There are advantages of having it in camera, all your lenses will be image stabilized. In recent years we have seen more lenses being stabilized because of in camera video, even fixed (or prime) lenses are now developed with this function in mind.

What is “camera shake”? Have you ever taken a photograph at night and all you see is streaks and waves?

This is caused by not using a tripod when doing long exposures or being below 60/s, let me elaborate, as we take photos we move, breathing, muscle movement, wind… That causes the camera to move along with us, the results are camera shakes this results in blurred photographs, this is where image stabilization becomes useful. Image stabilization compensates for your movements, allowing us to shoot at lower stutter speeds and in lower light. How far lower depends on the image stabilization technology of the lens or camera but it is fair to assume that a gain of 2 to 3 stops is common on modern lenses and cameras. Please check your lens or camera manual for details.

There are some limitations to image stabilization, as shown below the leopard’s paws are blurred, this is called motion blur. An image stabilizer will not compensate for subject movement; only higher shutter speed will help with that.

The most elusive cat in Africa, the mighty leopard
The most elusive cat in Africa, the mighty leopard, shot with a Canon 400D paired with a Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 105mm, f/4.5, 1/100s and ISO100

Another recommendation would be to switch of image stabilization if the camera is mounted on a tripod, though modern image stabilization technology will detect when mounted on a tripod, this is to avoid stabilizer hunting and creating artificial shake or vibration.

Lastly,  the image stabilizer become useless above about twice the speed/lens length, so in bright light or outdoors with good light it can be switched off to save battery, I will admit I never do it because I forget to put it back on.

Recommended gear

Nikon 55-200mm f4-5.6 AF-S ED VR DX Zoom Lens
Nikon 55-200mm f4-5.6 AF-S ED VR DX Zoom Lens

Today I will simply recommend that you buy your lenses with optical stabilization built-in.
My favourites are a 24-105mm and 70-200mm lenses but both these are generally expensive, particularly those with fixed apertures (f/2.8 or f/4). Most camera kits come with an 18-55mm, and sometimes with a tele-zoom lens, with image stabilization. So my real pick would be a 55-200mm or above tele-zoom lens with stabilization, these are relatively affordable starting at about $120 (R1000) depending on manufacturer and give a good zoom range on cropped sensors of 82-300mm and above full frame equivalent. For the Canon owners I would recommend the relatively affordable Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4.5-5.6 IS MK II (88-400 full frame equivalent) at about $300 (R3000) on budget however I came to appreciate the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 IS USM (112-480 full frame equivalent) even if it’s nearly twice the price.