High ISO Today. A Reality Check.

NIKON D2H (24mm, f/8, 1/1500 sec, ISO6400)

It seems that today everybody is obsessed with high ISO. If you look at the forums you got the impression that no images are taken below 3200 ASA. But is it real? Did we all return into the caves we came from “some years” ago? Or have we become vampires and leave our houses or travel only when it’s dark outside? I think it’s time for a reality check.

Btw: The image above is over 8 years old. I tested the 6400 ASA setting on a Nikon D2H ( a 4MP APS-C Pro DSLR ) just outside the shop in good daylight. You might be able to spot some noise if you take a closer look. ;-)

With Lightroom it is very easy to get an overview over shooting behavior regarding most used cameras, favorite lenses or apertures and of course also over ISO. Today I have over 80.000 images in my library. I got my first digital camera at the end of 1999 and switched fully to digital in January 2002 with a second hand Nikon D1 I bought from a dealer. More than 75% of the images I took with either my DSLRs or with APS-C sized sensor compacts like the Sony NEX 5 and the Fuji X100. Here is the camera overview:

First I took a look at the ISO usage on all images in my library and this is what I got:

Almost 90% of my images were shot at or below 400ASA! I have to admit that this was a big surprise to me.

Of course there are a lot of early compact cameras in there where everything above base ISO was a total mess. For most of these compact cameras base ISO was 80 ASA. Still 1 stop better than the famous Fuji Velvia, my most used film beside the Kodak Ektachrome 100VS. Of course going DSLR with a base ISO of 200 ASA was a great thing but on my first DSLRs it was still not a good idea to go past 400 ASA. That changed when I went full frame in 2007. All my Nikon gear got stolen so I tried out the Canon 5D and switched as there was no way going back to APS-C after I saw the 5D files on my computer screen. From 2007 I used higher ISOs if necessary but still tried to shoot at the lowest ISO possible. I also used fast lenses most of the time and maybe this is the main reason why so many shots are still close or around base ISO.

To get a better picture of my high ISO usage today I took the data of the best high ISO camera that I own: the Fuji X100. Here is the result. I shoot AUTO-ISO almost all of the time so a lot of values fall in between full stops.

But even with my best high ISO camera almost 50% of my shots are done at it’s base ISO and 75% of all images are shot with an ISO setting of 800ASA or below.

Why is that?

  1. It’s obvious that I’m neither returned into my cave nor have I become a vampire
  2. I’m getting older and come home early.
  3. I still prefer to shoot in daylight when on vacation.
  4. And finally I still prefer to use the lowest ISO setting possible.

What does it mean? Of course it is great to have a camera that does a good job at high ISO settings but it is not the most important criteria unless you are shooting indoor sports or concerts. I’m still more interested in the quality a camera gives me at base ISO. But of course as long as base ISO IQ is not compromised I like to have very good high ISO quality too.

I think today we reached a point where high ISO is very, very good on most new cameras even if there sensor is smaller than APS-C like in the new M43 cameras or the 1″ sensor in the Sony RX100. Like resolution high ISO is good enough for almost everybody and camera makers can start to concentrate on other areas like dynamic range, color reproduction and auto white balance .

I’m curious if you have ever checked this data for yourself and how your results look like.