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Common Misconceptions: High ISO Noise


The Misconception:

Digital noise caused by a high ISO setting will ruin the image.

Why This is Wrong:
Alright here’s the deal, high ISO noise is not nearly as big a problem as people make it out to be. True, higher ISO settings result in more digital noise. No doubt about that. But it is very unlikely to ruin your shots. The final presentation size must be taken in to account when determining whether or not digital noise is something to be worried about. Sure, the maximum ISO on your camera will exhibit quite a bit of noise when you look at the image magnified 100% on the computer. But that’s not an accurate representation of the image. How often do you print that big? And even if you do print that big, how often will you view that print from just inches away like you do on your computer?

It’s tempting to judge photos at full magnification on the computer, but resist the urge. Everything looks bad that big. Don’t believe me? Take a headshot of yourself then see how you like critiquing the image at that high of a magnification (look at those pores!).

This is why when I analyze film negatives on a light table, I don’t use a 10x magnification loupe even though they do exist. I use 4x for most viewing and an 8x only if I want to really critique a negative. If the loupe magnifies the image too much, the negatives just start to look soft and grainy. And it wouldn’t be a realistic critique of the image because it’s not like I’ll be blowing up the image to those magnifications, and even if I do, people won’t view it from inches away.

High ISO Noise

Below are 100% magnification crops from the original 12-megapixel image (above)
On the left is ISO 100 on my first-generation Canon EOS 5D,
on the right is ISO 3200 (the max ISO).

The noise is, of course, noticeable in these magnified views, but how big is the image
really going to be viewed? This noise won't be noticeable except for at very large
print sizes. Plus, newer cameras will have much better high ISO performance
than my out-dated 5D.

High ISO Noise

The Truth:
Unless you print really big, high ISO noise ain’t going to ruin your shot. And if you do print big, it still won’t be as big of an issue as you think. The bigger the print, the further away you view it from. And besides, most people’s pictures end up on Facebook barely bigger than a greeting card. Noise won’t show up on an image that small. You may see it because you know it's there when it's blown up, but others won’t see it.

Yes, you should use the lowest ISO you can in any given situation just so you don’t have needless image noise, but sometimes you need an ultra-high ISO to get the shot. If you do, don’t worry about the noise. Know that it’ll be there, but don’t let it prevent you from taking the shot. Like I tell my students, “better to have the image with some noise than no image at all.”

My Thoughts and Rants:
As far as I’m concerned, high ISO noise is basically a non-issue today. Every new generation of camera is getting better and better at reducing digital noise. Today’s cameras are so good at high ISOs that it’s practically not even worth talking about. Plus, no one prints anymore (which is a tragedy in its own right). It’s all Facebook, Flickr, email, slideshows, photo books, iPhones...all great ways to share photos, but they simply don’t show the images blown up very big. So why are we even talking about noise?

And remember that no one else will ever notice the digital noise in your images. Your family, friends, clients - they won’t see it. Other photographers will, but who wants to impress them anyway? Other photographers are un-impress-able.

There are a thousand things that will ruin your photos. Digital noise is number 999. Good technique, good light, good composition, good subjects...Focus on that.

UV Filter Use: Does It Degrade Image Quality?

UV Filter Use: Do You Need One?Ah, to UV or not to UV, that is the question. This can be a heated topic amongst photographers. Some argue that UV filter use will degrade image quality, others argue that it’s the best insurance you can get for your expensive lenses. There are merits to each argument and we’ll get to that debate in just a second, but first things first - let’s talk about the purpose of a UV filter.

The best UV filter on the market will do nothing for your photos. That’s the whole point. UV filters are used simply to protect the front of your lens. It’s nothing more than a clear piece of glass that you screw on to the front of your lens and then forget about. You leave it on all the time as insurance. Drop your lens or smack it against a wall when it’s hanging around your neck, the filter will break instead of your lens.

If you get a good quality UV filter, it will protect the front of your lens without affecting the image one bit. If you get a bad one, it might degrade image quality or create more lens flare. And why are they called UV filters? Well, it sounds better than “clear piece of glass to protect the front of your lens.” True, they are supposed to block UV light - and most of them probably do - but it doesn’t matter because UV light doesn’t have any noticeable effect on your photos anyway.

Now the argument in favor of UV filter use is clear (ha! puns...). Put a UV filter on the front of your lens and you got yourself a $40 insurance policy. Replacing a shattered UV filter is much more affordable than replacing a shattered front lens element. And believe it or not, they actually do protect the lens. When I first heard about the purpose of UV filters, I thought, “Come on...like a single piece of glass is really going to do anything to protect the lens.” But they do. Of course it ain’t going to protect against a 5-story drop from a hotel balcony, but it’ll protect against those really frustrating “it just barely slipped out of my hands” kind of mistakes.

B&W UV MRC Filter

My UV Filter of Choice is the B&W UV MRC
Click Here to Purchase Yours from B&H

The argument against UV filters is, shall we say, untenable. Anti-UVers say, “Why would you put a $40 piece of glass in front of your $1,000 lens? A lens is only as good as the glass in front of it. You want to turn your $1,000 lens into a $40 lens? Huh? Do ya, punk?” Alright, maybe they’re not that hostile.

This argument is based in theory, not practice. Sure, it makes sense in theory that another piece of glass is just another chance for image degradation. But I’m betting the people spewing this logic have never actually done a side-by-side shot with and without the UV. This also sounds like the logic of someone who has never damaged a lens before. It’s easy to say “don’t get car insurance” if you’re never had a fender bender.

And by the way, I did do a side-by-side comparison with and without a UV filter. Can you tell which one had the UV filter and which one didn’t? Neither can I...

UV Filter Use: Do You Need One?

Below is a 100% magnification of the above image.
One of the samples below was taken with a UV, the other without a UV.
Can you tell which is which?

UV Filter Use: Do You Need One?

The bottom line is this: If you get a really poor quality UV filter, like the $10 Sunpak ones, then yeah, it might degrade the image a tiny, tiny bit when examined at 100% magnification on your computer screen (but still, I’m betting you won’t see a difference). Buy a good quality UV filter, like those made by B&W, and there is basically no chance of it degrading your photos.

So I generally recommend the use of UV filters to my students. If you want the protection, use one. I do.

New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 3

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My third and final day in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area was my last chance to create the composition I'd originally set out to make. When I pre-visualize a composition like I did for this trip, it can be anything from a definite, perfect imagination of what I want, to a vague concept with only the major components laid out - a "rough draft" of sorts composed in my head. I was somewhere in between for this trip. 

I knew I wanted a wide shot with the reddish-pink glow of early sunrise painting the mountains in the background with an interesting arrangement of boulders in the foreground. I envisioned what I would call an "organized mess" of boulders for the foreground. Something that communicated the disorder of this aeolian landscape but without over-complicating the composition with too much clutter. I wanted to bring attention to the interesting juxtaposition of smooth, rounded off granite in the Alabama Hills with the sharp, jagged granite of the Sierras.

Sunrise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Sunrise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

When viewing this terrain, you can almost imagine that big chunks of granite broke off the Sierras as they rose higher and higher from the force of tectonic plates. With a deafening crash, these chunks tumbled to the desert below, their edges rounding off in the commotion, before settling at the foot of these majestic peaks. Of course, that's not really how this landscape was formed. The boulders are smoothed out by wind, and although these boulders undoubtedly originate from the same gigantic slab of granite that is the Sierra Nevadas, they didn't come "tumbling" off them like the epic scene in my head. But regardless, that's the story I wanted to paint with my images.

Although a couple of my compositions up until this point on the trip were pretty close to what I wanted, they still weren't quite "there". But on the final morning, I found a perfect location with just the vantage point and arrangement of rocks I wanted.

I started with an exposure in the very first minutes of sunrise (image shown above) with the light in that deep reddish-pink hue I envisioned. Using a couple of Lee split ND filters, I held back the exposure in the mountains and sky to capture detail throughout the scene.

Since my large-format field camera is so slow to set up and change compositions, I decided to remain in my current spot with my current composition, but try it with the morning light hitting the entire landscape. The light was much more golden than red at this late in the sunrise, but I think it brought out some great details and textures in the rocks. I like both compositions in their own right, but I have a special place in my heart for the first one (shown above). The way Fuji Velvia 50 film renders reds, magentas, and blues is just gorgeous.

Please click any of the images in this post for a larger view.

Sierra Nevada Mountains over the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Morning on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Alabama Hills
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

So that concludes my recent trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. I hope you've enjoyed the videos, photos, and descriptions. I plan to do many more of these on-location video series, so stay tuned and be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!