ISO 800

In the ’70s and ’80s I used Kodachrome 25/64 because of its fine grain (Panatomic-X, at ASA 32, was my choice when black & white took a turn in the camera). Slow was the gospel if you wanted sharp—above ASA 200 color films were panned for their grainy (artistic?) looks. Sometimes, that was the effect you wanted, but when I signed with a stock agency in the late 1980s the finer-is-better truism held fast—those films were mandated preferred by editors, especially for commercial work.

As 35mm films evolved ASA 400 became indistinguishable from 100. The minimum quality lid was still on at the agency, but it had been loosened. That history has been rewound by digital SLRs, with sensors replacing film in the lead role. Along the way ASAs became ISOs (you’re an old-timer if you remember DINs), and you won’t read a new camera review without noise being a hot topic. It’s like endless comparisons of film grain all over again, and the latest models are pushing high ISO numbers off the charts for now.

When you’re an old film dog like me, trying even ISO 800 seriously can be a stretch, but that’s what I did last weekend at a controlled house fire. The day was overcast and more light was blocked by a thick forest adjoining the small house, but at ISO 800 I could keep the shutter speed above 1/250 while using a minimum aperture of 5.6. At ISO 200/400 those speeds weren’t sufficient to freeze the firefighters’ (and my) movements (I checked). The photo above was one of my higher-ISO takeaways—I can’t see appreciable differences between it and similar shots I’ve made at lower ISOs in the past. Here’s a small pixel peeper at 100%, taken from the original at 12×18 inches without any sharpening applied:

I continue to submit to that stock agency so I’ll keep the ISO as low as possible (old habits do die hard), but 800 is now acceptable to them if you have no other choice, and the high-ISO performance of a handful of the newest cameras is so good that 1600/3200 will eventually be considered for stock as well (if they aren’t now). These speeds are already old hat to journalists, sports and wedding photographers.

You’ll note that I haven’t made any comments about what’s acceptable grain/noise in a photo. That’s your call, based on your prejudices and preferences (and, perhaps, your client’s). I do find it interesting that software is now available to digitally recreate the look and feel of films past and present, including the grain.

While I won’t forget what it was like to focus negatives on paper in a darkroom, watching the grain snap into sharp relief, I also won’t forget how fortunate we are to have new tools that let us approach subjects we once might have shied away from.


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