Brooks Jensen, highly respected editor of LensWork and master at making small to medium-size fine art prints, just posted a thought provoking PodCast on the subject of High-ISO and how it affects the Art Work.
The main point he’s making is that High-ISO, just like using a tripod, affects how you take images. The tripod allows you to slow down, take your time composing and allows you to use slower shutter speeds. High-ISO does the reverse: it allows you to speed up, use higher shutter speeds and work in a faster way. But how does High-ISO impact image quality and more importantly how does it affect the actual Art Work?
Note: Brooks Jensen works mostly with B&W images, which are less sensitive to noise than colour images are.
Brooks, who learned photography with view cameras working at 10 ASA, says that he found out that his Lumix G85 camera in good light produces images at ISO 800 that are basically indistinguishable to ISO 200 when viewed at 100% on screen. He also discovered that with some noise removal, images at up to ISO 3200 were just fine, with a small loss of detail. So he wondered how that small loss of detail at 100% on the screen would translate to a fine 8×10 or 11×14 print, his favourite print sizes.
He was stunned to find out that his prints, whether he used ISO 200 or ISO 6,400 (again, in good light), were nearly indistinguishable from each other. Even ISO 12,800 were perfectly usable.
His point though isn’t that there isn’t any difference in quality, but that for some types of images and some light conditions, the impact of High-ISO on the final Art Work quality is minimal, while the ability to use High-ISO can have a big impact on the creative process itself, allowing you to do things that you couldn’t do before.
What’s interesting though is that he did all this on an M4/3 camera, which many people consider unacceptable in terms of High-ISO performance. Having learned photography with 25 ASA and 64 ASA film myself, I always thought this focus on super High-ISO image quality is bogus, unless you specialize in low-light photography. This is especially true with our small primes that are perfectly usable wide-open, depth-of-field that is sufficient at wider apertures and last but not least, the awesome Olympus In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS). When looking at all those factors, I find the low-light performance of my E-M1 system more than acceptable for my needs.