For the past few years, I’ve spent part of Christmas eve shooting the holiday lights in Santa Maria, CA. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I love night photography. And I love shooting these wonderful lights best of all. Santa Maria goes all out.
Spoiler alert: I’m about to get a little technical here. If you find the following to be just so much blah, blah, blah, feel free to skip down to the pics. I won’t be offended. Promise.
Here goes: This year, working with a new-ish camera (a Nikon D800), I went out shooting without the aid of a tripod. Which I almost never do at night. I just didn’t feel like lugging the 25 extra pounds up to Santa Maria and I knew that this camera could shoot at VERY high ISO (6400–where normal is around 200). ISO (named for the International Standards Organization, the group that developed the, uhh, standards) is the setting that adjusts the light sensitivity of the your camera’s sensor plate (where the image is captured and recorded). For most modern cameras, the default ISO is around 100 to 200, depending on camera and manufacturer. For many cameras, especially DSLRs, higher-end “point-and-shoots” and even for some newer SmartPhone cameras, ISO is an adjustable setting.
Just a few years ago, really funny things would begin to happen when the ISO was elevated. Not ha-ha funny. Strange funny. Specifically, grain (for us old guys) or visual “noise” (in the digital realm) would increase dramatically at higher ISO settings (anything over, say 640) with the phenomenon getting more and more obvious as the ISO setting was increased.
Here’s the best example I can think of to describe this…
You may have noticed when watching late night TV talk shows (Letterman, Fallon, Kimmel, Conan, etc.) that when the camera is on the brightly lit stage, everything is quite sharp. But when the camera turns to the darkened audience, the image gets very “grainy” or “noisy.” This is, I’m sure, due at least in part to the increased ISO required to shoot the much darker area of the theater.
Today, increased ISO still increases visual noise, but not nearly as dramatically as in the past. And, quite frankly, I’ve always considered this noise as part of the look of night photography.
So out I went to shoot on a crescent-moon lit evening with a hand-held camera, shooting primarily at between 3200 and 6400 ISO. Yikes! I was, however, delighted to find that the noise, while still apparent, is indeed substantially reduced.
Here are the results…
And Happy New Year!