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The penalty of raising ISO


Atlanta, US
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ericbowles Moderator Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level skills in various areas, especially Landscape and Wildlife Photoghraphy Writer Ribbon awarded for for his article contributions to the community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Nikonian since 25th Nov 2005
Sat 11-Jan-14 05:36 PM

We talk a lot about the great ISO performance of the D800, but its easy to ignore the tradeoffs.

The D800 is particularly good at not creating noise in the shadows when you raise ISO. I'm pretty comfortable at ISO 800-1600, and readily go beyond that level.

But as we increase ISO, we lose dynamic range. Based on Bill Claff's data, for every stop ISO is increased, we lose nearly 0.75 stops of dynamic range. So in essence, the EV is largely fixed based on shutter and aperture selection, and increasing ISO is simply adding amplification for all exposure values.


I find we are a bit too free to increase ISO at the expense of dynamic range.

This has some practical application. With a D800, if a scene has a difference of 8 stops between the brightest and darkest areas, we need to keep ISO at 1200 or lower to have 8 stops of dynamic range. Above ISO 1200, the dynamic range of the scene exceeds our ability to record the image. The results are about the same for a D4.

With a D7000, you would need to shoot at ISO 500 or lower to capture the 8 stops of dynamic range.

You might use spot metering to estimate the difference between brightest and darkest areas of a scene, but that probably will take some practice as most of the time bright and dark areas have some variation.

This suggests that expose to the right is a good strategy at base ISO, but less so if you have to increase ISO since it decreases dynamic range.

By the way - has anyone heard from Bill Claff? I sent him an email recently because he has not been active here. I got no response.

Eric Bowles
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