Crank it Up-iso 800 and beyond
Those of you with newer cameras might find this post a little silly but I am betting that there are more than one or two people out there that still shoot with gear that is older than a few years. Many of us with older DSLR’s just cringe at the subject of sensitivity also known as iso. In its simpliest terms, the iso setting is an adjustment to your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. Good stuff except that the higher the sensitivity the higher the instance of digital noise. Noise is the presence of grain or color speckles where there should not be any and is easiest to see in sky or dark shadow areas of an image. Newer digital cameras deal with the noise issue much better than older ones and in some cases it is really not an issue at all anymore.
For me personally, I use primarily a Nikon D2x which is about a 6-year-old design. I love that camera and I doubt I would trade it for anything other than a new Nikon D3s for many reasons but the iso performance is not one of them. In a low light situation I really don’t like to go beyond an iso setting of 400, it is that bad to me. I try to overcome that limitation by investing in fast lenses and a good tripod. Avian photography is kind of a different animal. In that realm low light is not nearly an issue as is shutter speed. We normally shoot during daylight so making a proper exposure it not the problem, the biggest problem is maintaining a fast shutter speed to make sharp images at long focal lengths or capturing birds in flight. When you already have a good daylight exposure using the iso setting to simply bump up shutter speed will yield different results. Shooting beyond iso 800 is possible as long as you are not capturing a lot of shadows in the image. I understand that this may not make much sense but just try it and you might see that those high iso images become perfectly useable and you will have enough shutter speed to overcome those slight twitches and movements that can cause blurring.
There are also ways to deal with any noise you do have in your image. The newest version of Adobe Lightroom (3) has a really good noise reduction tool built-in, but my prefered method of removing noise is to use the Photoshop plug-in “Noise Ninja”. With that utility I can selectively de-noise the areas that I think need it and still leave my main subject nice and sharp. I guess I should point out that all noise reduction software will hurt the sharpness of the image and over doing it can and will ruin a photo. In the image above of the Sparrow, I set an iso of 800 and used the Noise Ninja to clean up the sky and the dark area below its feet only. Even at this heavy crop (about 70%) you can see that the image looks pretty clean. So if you are in a situation where you need to get a little extra shutter speed to really freeze the action don’t be afraid to give that iso setting a bump up, you just might be really pleased with the results.
You can view more of my photos at www.ronboyddesign.com