Monday, April 02, 2012

HIGH ISO Nirvana!!! Shooting at 25,400 ISO and Beyond!!!

Good Afternoon Everybody,

Canon 5D Mark IIIWOW!  What a fabulous wedding weekend! When the dust settled 11 hours later we had over 5500 images in the cameras! This weekend's wedding was one of the biggest in the city and I was happy and honored to be the photographer hired to photograph this wonderful and beautiful event.

Also at my side was Eric Cameron, an excellent photographer from Dover, Ohio who came down and help on a big wedding a few weeks ago. My ace number one assistant for this weekend was Jason Lykins who also writes for Terry White's BestAppSite.  Jason did a terrific job and was on hand to help with all the lighting chores. It was a great team. Everything went extremely smooth and we captured some great images for our clients.  I've spent most of the morning pouring over all the images preparing for today's blog post. So, let's get right to it.

Shooting With The My New Canon 5D Mark III

Of course, the big news for this weekends wedding event, was the fact that I was shooting with my brand-new Canon 5D Mark III.  As a matter of fact, it was the only camera I used  for the entire event.

Custom SettingsYou may be asking, "How was I able to shoot with just one camera for the entire event considering how many exposures were made with flash and so many other exposures would be captured with only available light?” The Canon 5D Mark III has the ability to set three custom settings. I have used this feature before on the other Canon cameras but this time I decided to think it through a bit more and just see if I could make the new Mark III an all-in-one wedding camera.

My settings were as follows:

C1 – 12800 ISO  medium RAW,  3200 K, Aperture Priority

C2 – 12800, medium JPEG, 3200 K, Aperture Priority

C3 - 25600 ISO, medium JPEG, 3200 K, Aperture Priority

The nice things about the new custom settings is that they will update on-the-fly for you, meaning that if you originally set the color balance for tungsten but then change it to daylight, the daylight setting will persist in the custom setting.  That feature alone turned out to be quite handy as our lighting situations were changing throughout the day and evening. I may have started with the original settings set at something different than what I have listed above, when I just checked the camera this is where I ended up for the majority of the day and at the end of the evening. 

Going Back To JPEGS - What!?

Girl on phoneYou'll notice that C2 & C3 were set to JPEG settings. I've come to the conclusion that shooting everything in RAW is really kind of crazy particularly when it comes to wedding photography. Burning through 1000's of 22 MP files for a lot of lower priority shooting sequences or fun shots just seems to me to be a waste of hard drive space. Don't get me wrong. I'm still shooting  RAW for all the important photographs of the day. But, when I'm trying to grab just a few quick candids I think the medium JPEG setting works just fine. 

As it turned out, I made slightly over half of my 3000 exposures in JPEG mode. Needless to say I still burned through 32 gigs of data for my part of the shoot.  By comparison, Eric burned through 43 gigs of data for his 2500 RAW images. We'll have to make this a topic for discussion in a future post. Let me just say that I'm considering shooting many more lower priority images in JPEG mode.


So What About Those High ISOs - How Did That Work?

You know, this is a big question a lot of wedding photographers have on their minds.  All the new cameras are purporting to be able to shoot at significantly higher ISOs than were ever available in the past. For wedding photographers, this is particularly important. There are many times when I really want my coverage to me much less obtrusive and choose to capture my exposures without any flash. With my Canon 5D Mark III shooting in silent mode, with very minor mirror noise, I was able to capture some wonderful images.

102,400 ISO?

Okay, let's cut right to the chase. Just how good is the Canon 5D Mark III at 102,400 ISO? The quick answer – lousy! In all honesty, I found shooting the camera over hundred thousand ISO to yield results that were simply unusable. Take a look at the first image below. It is peppered quite heavily with lots of noise. Also notice the shutter speed on this image - 1/1600 second - unbelievable. Now if I could just have that shutter speed at that high ISO, with a clear image I’d be in great shape.


Okay, we know Lightroom 4 has some great noise reduction capabilities built into the software. So what happens if I apply noise reduction to the image? Check out the next image.  


In the second image I really cranked the luminosity and color noise reduction nearly to their limits. The result was an image with reduced noise but with a very plastic look to it as well. The verdict for me is that 102,400 ISO is really not a usable setting for at least photographing people. I’ll experiment on other subject matter in the next few days and report back to you later with my thoughts.

51,200 ISO?

Now let's cut the camera sensitivity by half and check out some images captured at 51,200 ISO. The first image of the couple dancing just in the dark ambient light of the reception shows that the noise is at significantly cleaner than it was at 102,400 ISO.

ISO 51200

So, once again it was over to Lightroom 4 to add some noise reduction to this image. The second image shows a photograph that I think is at least acceptable if we keep the image to a smaller size in the wedding album design.

ISO 51200 - w-NR

I even went so far as to improve the color on this image just a bit. Please keep in mind that the lighting on the dance floor had a heavy overall magenta cast to it. I really wasn't trying to filter out that heavy cast but simply wanted to just improve upon the skin tones.

I didn't go crazy and add an inordinate amount of luminosity and color noise reduction to this image. I just took both sliders halfway to the right which I thought gave me a decent result. Take a look at the third image which is a close-up of the second image you see above. Upon closer inspection we can see the noise pattern in the image. As I said, I think it looks acceptable for a candid image.

 ISO 51200 - w-NR Close

Now check out the fourth image below. I pushed the noise reduction sliders completely to the right to see what would happen.

ISO 51200 - w-100NR Close

Once again I got the plastic looking skin but, more than that I got some artifacting that I thought looked pretty darn bad.  I guess we could go in and correct a lot of the artifacting with Photoshop but, to me  I really don't think it's worth the effort. I think the second image shown above represents an adequate result for an image with over 50,000 ISO setting. In a tough situation I think shooting at 51,200 ISO certainly gives us the option if we need to take it.

25,600 ISO?

A 25,600 ISO things start looking really, really good.  Take a look at the next two images – one with a standard crop and one at the close crop.  

ISO 51200 - w-noNR

ISO 25600 no NR Close

Yes, you can easily see the noise in this image especially in the closer view.

But, with the noise reduction sliders at +50 for luminosity and color we can make all that noise disappear and still get a pleasing image. Take a look at the next two images and you'll see what I'm talking about.

ISO 25600 wNR Reg

ISO 25600 wNR Close

This image of the couple being announced onto the dance floor was photographed completely in the available light of the reception.  Granted, I had the videographer’s lights available for these images but, I think the result is really quite remarkable.

Now let's move onto our next photograph of the bride and groom with a close friend. I was just shooting around the room trying find and capture some great expressions of the guests around the room reacting to the toasts being presented.

ISO 25600 Direct Import

The bride and groom spotted me with the camera and pointed their glaze directly at me. I knew they wanted me to take the photograph the both of them with her friend and I gladly obliged. Even though I knew the ISO was set to 25,600 I’m happy with the final result With the noise reduction sliders slightly to the right, I think we got a great candid moment for the bride and groom on their wedding day.

12,800 ISO?

At 12,800 ISO I think the Canon 5D Mark III really shines. I shot nearly 900 of my images, almost 1/3 of them, at this higher-than-usual ISO. As I said, I've been reviewing the images all morning, and am simply blown away at the quality I'm getting at this five digit ISO. Let's take a look at some of the images. The first image below was taken moments after the wedding ceremony.  

ISO12800 DI

The bride and groom, wedding party, moms and dads, and special friends were all poured a glass of champagne and toasted the bride and groom. I was using my Sigma 12–24mm lens at the 12mm setting to grab several quick candids of everyone cheering the bride and groom. Once again – total available light.

The next image was made as dad was toasting his daughter on her wedding day.  At the end of the toast the bride's dad asked everyone to raise their glasses and I caught this very spontaneous moment of the bride accepting her father's toast.  

ISO12800 DI2

Notice the smoothness of the give skin tones and the total lack of noise in this photograph made totally by the available light in the room. I should also add that the videographers were also recording this moment and were adding some nice side lighting to some of these images.

After the bride's sister completed her toast the bride came up preparing to give her a big hug. I love the expression on the sisters face.  You can simply see and feel the love she has for her sister in this image below.

ISO12800 DI3

From a technical standpoint let's go in even closer, as it might appear in their album, on the image to check for the noise. In the image below you can see that the noise is pretty much nonexistent. You can see that we have great skin tones, beautiful color, a wonderful expression, and a terrific moment captured for our clients.

ISO12800 DI3 - Close

Let me just add one more image for the road. It's a photograph of the couple enjoying their very first dance – 10,000 ISO. This image was taken with the combination of the ambient light in the room and the two videographers lights also recording this moment.


Once again with my wide-angle Sigma lens on the camera, I shot away and captured another great moment of the bride and groom, with many wedding party attendants and guests easily identified, sharing this special moment in their day.

In Conclusion - WOW!

I guess in closing I want to say that I'm truly amazed by the high ISOs now available on the new cameras. I'm planning on shifting my normal ISO for my everyday and/or wedding photography to 1600 ISO.  I would have no qualms at shooting at 1600, 3200 or 6400 ISO either. For my available light images I plan to shoot nearly all of those at 12,800 ISO. For my early tests which I shared with you in today's post I see no reason at all to fear the stratospheric high ISOs.

ISO Speeds UsedIn this weekend's wedding I shot at sixteen different ISO settings.  Here is a listing of the ISOs and the number of images made at each of the differing ISOs. As I look at the list myself I'm, questioning where the 640 ISO came from. In the heat of the shoot I must accidently knocked something off because that is not a typical ISO I would've chosen.  In any event, you can see that I like hanging out in the high ISO range. And, as I look through all 3065 of my images I made this weekend they look great regardless of the ISO I was shooting. I can't wait to go out and shoot my next session or event.

What's the bottom line for all of this? The bottom line, is this; With today's latest cameras we have the ability to shoot in 1/128th or less than 1% of the light in which we needed back in the film days. This estimation is based on shooting a Hasselblad with a 80mm lens maximum aperture lens F2.8 shooting Kodak Vericolor 400 ISO color film.

Now shooting at maximum apertures of F2, F1.4, or even larger f-stops coupled with five figure ISOs we are able to capture a brand-new series of images that could never have been captured back in the film days.  Folks, I hope you'll think about this for a few moments.  Technology today is the most exciting it's ever been for photographers, particularly wedding photographers whose job it is to capture those special moments in sometimes the least desirable lighting conditions, throughout the entire day. The gear today lets us do just that quietly, efficiently, and as unobtrusively as possible!

Don't be afraid of these high ISOs. Embrace the technology. And, be more excited than ever before about being a photographer!


Hey folks, that's it for me today. The more I look over all those images from Saturday’s shoot the more ideas I have future topics I want to cover here Tomorrow, for instance, I want to discuss just how far you can push a JPEG.

Because of the Canon 5D Mark III’s capability of shooting a SDHC card at the same time as a CF card I programed the camera to shoot JPEG copies of everything I captured Saturday over to a 32 gig SDHC card I also had loaded in the camera.

Over the entire day’s shoot I did a few images that were a bit overexposed and a couple that were a bit underexposed.  So, how about in tomorrow's post I'll show you just how far you can push a JPEG with a few of those images. I think you be quite surprised by the results.

On that note… I'm out here.  Have a great rest of the day and I'll see you tomorrow.

– David


  1. David,

    I really enjoyed your pre-con Wedding Shoot at PSW a few days make it look so easy! Can't wait to get my hands on my 5D Mark should be delivered today!

    David W.

  2. David,

    I have been reading your blog for about the last year. I am a wedding photographer in Dayton and have been shooting with a 5DMII and a 7D. I enjoy you posts and have attended your Captured by the Light seminar in Columbus.

    This post is great news. Looks like I have a MII for sale now!

    Keep up the great work.

    JP Parmley

  3. Love the post and all of the examples! I just got my 5D Mark III today and have a wedding coming up on May 26. I've been playing with ISO today around the house and can't wait to use it during a wedding ceremony!! Thanks for always having such a great and informative blog!

  4. Thanks for sharing all the great examples David! In comparison to the list where you showed the various ISO's you had used what would your 5D MKII ISO preferences have been? Thanks again.

  5. A very informative post. I'm curious, if you remember whether your camera meter was reading 0 most of the time? I tend to meter on a face or something, exposing a stop high on a white face. Wondering if that's normal or not. I tend to get pretty good results that way, given the face is usually the most important part of the image, but I'm always wondering how others do that, in event photography.

  6. Thanks everybody,
    Mark - Mk2 ISOs - Typically about 1200 but I'd push it to 6400 - no higher.
    Matt - I was on ) most of the time with a very occasional +1 when shooting the "before images of the bride.

  7. Thanks David. I just recently got a Mk2 so I am still learning it. My low light shoots are more in the summer time when doing outdoors events and I could not use the 5D at all (used my 7D). Thanks.

  8. Man- I feel like I am really missing out! I want high ISO performance ::sits in corner and pouts::

    But really- this is a fundamental change in the way that we approach making an image- no longer the constraints from the absence of light- we're now shooting in available-darkness.

    I'll need to upgrade my almost 10 y/o digital equipment if want the awesome nirvana that is high ISO.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. nice idea.. thanks for posting.

  10. It is always nice to see Canon finally giving us what we need. Good wedding pictures at 12,800 ISO