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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Friday, February 7, 2014

I hate noise!

Yes I do. The most terrible thing about digital photography is noise. It ruins so many photos it's just not funny any more.

And how does it ruin photos? Because people are so afraid of it they just don't take the photo. They rationalise that because the picture will be noisy, the quality will be diminished and it's not worth it.

I spent half of my photographic career shooting on 50 and 100 ISO slide film. I know too well the pain of having to miss out on shots because you couldn't get a fast enough shutter speed when you're not allowed to use a tripod.

Now that I'm shooting digitally I am pushing those limits as far as they go - and revelling in it.

Take this shot at left. Taken just a few weeks ago in the monastery at Mont San Michel on the Normandy coast of France.

I've been quite quiet on the blog here because I was a way for a month and this was one of the places we visited. Absolutely spectacular. And dark. Very dark. So dark I could hardly see. And my camera goes up to ISO 2 million or so, but all the magazines tell me that I don't want to go past 1600 because after that it gets really noisy. ISO 1600 would have meant a shutter speed in the realm of 1/2 second. Even after a couple of Scotches my hand isn't that steady. But all the magazines tell me I can't go past ISO 1600.

Really? Let's try it out. This was shot at ISO 12,800. Seriously, that is insanely high but the only way I could get a shot. And does it have noise? You betcha. Can I get rid of some of it in Photoshop? That would be a yes too. But doesn't it soften the details? And a yes again.

So if it's noisy, and getting rid of the noise softens the details wouldn't I have been better just to not take the shot? Are you kidding me? I may never visit this beautiful place again. The noise (after Photoshop work) is about the level of an ISO 400 from one of my older crop cameras. In other words it might not be a poster any time soon but it should be pretty good for even an A4 at a stretch.

Don't be scared of noise. Don't ever miss a shot because you're worried about the lack of quality. Not every shot is meant to be a 30 x 40 inch poster on your wall. Being able to shoot up to ISO 12,800 (I still can't believe I'm typing that!) afforded me the ability to shoot in so many marginal situations that I could never have got an image in that I am truly thankful for it, noise and all.

Travel photography is mostly about capturing a moment and an experience. Yes it would be wonderful if we could set up our tripod wherever we wanted and shoot at our lowest ISO setting with a cable release and mirror lock. But reality dictates that that ain't gonna happen. So before you put your camera away in dread of the horrible noise, give it a go. Push your camera to its limits. The shots will most likely be noisier than you would like. Reducing the noise in post-production might make them softer than you would like. Photography has always been about compromises and this is just one more you need to embrace in pursuit of your art. So go make art and leave the noise worrying to the pixel peepers.

3 comments:

nathanoj said...

Good point Paul. We went to Portugal and Spain mid last year. Cathedrals up the wazoo, and I have heaps of soft shots because I wasn't bold enough to push the ISO. I did have a little Gorilla Pod with me which saved some shots when gripped on to the back of a pew!

Paul Dymond said...

Yeah I think if there's a choice between a soft shot or a noisy, sharp shot the noisy one should win out every time. You can reduce noise, you can't reduce camera shake!

Frank Harrison said...

As always, an engaging article Paul.

Many folks are unaware that the more whistles & bells they have turned on in their camera menus, the more noise is created.

One of the worst offenders in many cameras is the ISO advance. Setting to 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments is a noise booster par excellance.

So I always keep mine on full stop setting which uses a totally different algorhythm resulting in a smoother end image.

Sometimes noise can indeed be your friend. If you have an image that is not to badly blurred or out of focus but will still not sharpen enough, turn it to black & white & introduce noise/grain in the computer.

As a qualified photographic scientist, to my eternal discredit, I haven't the faintest idea how it works. However its always worth trying to save some heartache.

Once again, thank you for a relishing read Paul, keep 'em coming!