I admit it. I am an ISO snob. Most nature photographers are, especially if they started with film. 19 years ago I got my start in wildlife photography with a Nikon camera and a few rolls of film. As an aspiring nature photographer, I read everything I could find on the subject and one piece of advice stood out above all others. Real nature photographers use low ISO film. Of course, I wanted to be a real nature photographer (even if my pictures were mostly blurry black blobs, it was the thought that counts), so I used low ISO film. This was a time when Fuji Velvia had just hit the market and at 50 ISO, Velvia certainly qualified as slow speed film. After a few years, I switch to Kodak 100VS, another saturated film that provided the lightning speed of 100 ISO. For years I was happy shooting at 100 ISO. On rare occasions I pushed the film to 200 ISO. I even admit to once pushing it to 400 ISO, but I was dehydrated that day and not responsible for my actions. The idea of using high ISO settings went against my very core as a nature photographer. I either got a noise free image, or I didn’t get the shot. It was that simple.
Then things began to change. In 2003 I purchased my first digital camera. No, I didn’t rush out and immediately start using high ISOs, though I think I might have accidentally taken a picture at 800 ISO once. The shift was gradual. With film my default ISO setting was 50 or 100, so that is where I started with digital. After a year or two, I learned that most digital cameras are optimized for 200 ISO, which contains less noise then the lower settings. OK, no more low ISO settings. From then on I started shooting fast on a regular basis. Like 200 ISO fast.
The erosion of my photographic principles continued over the next few years as newer and better cameras were created. Noise reduction was one of the key advantages of these new cameras, but it just felt wrong to use those settings. Then it happened. I purchased a Canon 1D mark 4. This camera was making headlines in the photographic world for the low noise at high ISO setting and the temptation was almost too much to ignore. One morning on safari in Tarangire National Park, I decided to push the camera and see what I could do. The morning was heavily overcast and dark. When we came across a small herd of elephants, I decided to put the camera to the test. The light was so low I could hardly even see the elephants, much less photograph them. With nothing to loose, I changes the ISO setting to a heart stopping 12,800 and began to take pictures. Fortunately the camera did not explode in my hands. Above is one of the resulting images. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed. Does the image contain noise? Of course it does. Is the noise a distraction? Not even close. Not only is this an acceptable photograph, but shooting with such a high ISO opens a world of opportunities that were not previously possible.
As photographers we often fall into the trap of doing the same thing we have always done. Taking risks is how we get better. It is how we push the boundaries of our craft and create new photographic opportunities. It took me 18 years to explore the limits of high ISO. Don’t wait that long. Find your limits and take a step past them. You might like the results.