Want lower noise? Bump the ISO!

It sounds like nonsense, but it is not.
What I am talking about is action shots in low-light conditions, where the subject must be in focus and low shutter speeds are just not an option. Wildlife photography is a good example.

We all know that the higher the ISO, the more noisy the picture. This is why bumping the ISO for no good reason is a mistake, as it will produce an image that could have been much cleaner if captured at lower ISO.

That being said, sometimes there are very good reasons to bump the ISO well above our comfort zone
Some photographers freak out at the idea of shooting at ISO 400. For many, shooting at ISO 800 strikes fear of noise into their hearts. Certainly, most photographers (though not all) avoid ISO 1600 or higher unless they are shooting the Milky Way.

As for me, in low-light conditions, I am very happy to push the ISO to whatever value it takes to avoid underexposing the shadows.

Look at the picture below:

Sunset on mid-Atlantic crossroad
1/1250s, F/4.5, ISO 1000

Fin whale heading offshore, while a Cory's shearwater flies back to its nest on Pico Island

I shot this scene in shutter speed priority (1/1250) with my Sony A77 Mark 2, an APS-C camera that features a translucent mirror (its full-frame sister is the Sony A99 Mark 2). The mirror is fixed and reflects some light up to a phase-detection autofocus sensor, thus reducing the amount the light reaching the camera sensor by about 1/2 stop.

To make things apparently more challenging, my lens was a Tamron 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 Di VC USD.
With a maximum variable aperture of 4.5-5.6, we can all agree it is not a fast lens.

(as an aside, if you fear that relatively inexpensive gear will never take you very far in photography, you may find it encouraging that I used exactly this kit to photograph my Portuguese Man o' War)

Now the key part: I decided to let my camera choose the ISO in the range 100-1600 and that resulted in a value of 1000. Do you find my image grainy? Do you see any significant loss of details due to noise reduction applied in post? Honestly, I don't.

Here is the trick: I knew that, in such light conditions and with the settings indicated above, my camera was going to expose to the right - i.e. it would expose the highlights correctly.
As you probably know (but just in case you did not), the highlights populate the right side of the histogram, hence the expression exposing to the right ;-)

I knew I was exposing to the right because I checked the histogram before the Fin whale surfaced next to the boat. From the histogram, I also knew in advance that no part of the image was going to be underexposed.
If your camera features an electronic viewfinder, like mine does, things are even easier because what you see through the viewfinder is basically what you get.

At lower ISO, the image would have been significantly darker. And you know what? If you drastically open the shadows of a dark picture in post, the amount of noise introduced will often exceed the noise produced by shooting the same scene at a higher ISO value.

Below is an image I took at ISO 1600 in Postojna Cave, Slovenia. There is no action going on here but, since tripods are not allowed in the cave, I handheld my camera and managed to get a pretty sharp image at 1/20s (Light Bless In-Camera Stabilisation!).

Faces everywhere (Postojna Cave, Slovenia)
1/20s, F/3.2, ISO 1600, handheld

 While the trick works in general very well, sometimes conditions are just too extreme and it becomes impossible to produce a usable shot (although how usable a shot is depends on what we want to do with it!). 

But you know what? When that happens to me, at least I know I would not have got a better exposure shooting at lower ISO.

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Top Photo Award on GuruShots

I am pleased one of my Lake Bled pictures was awarded Top Photo Winner in the Vacation Destination challenge on GuruShots!

Click the image or the link below to access GuruShots.com and learn more about my achievement:

Somewhat unexpectedly, rather than being a sunrise or sunset shot, my best performing image of Bled (Slovenia) was taken during the day.

I am going to publish a Behind the Shot post soon, but there is something I want to share with you right away: the use of neutral density filters in harsh light (or, in general, daylight) has taken my landscape photography to the next level.

In this case, I used a big stopper - i.e. a 10-stop ND filter
That allowed me to increase the shutter speed to 63 seconds and get a very nice, smooth reflection of Bled Island on super silky waters.
Try that out if you haven't yet ;-)

The image is available as wall art, print or digital download on my portfolio website.
My blog readers can get 20% off on all print products by using the coupon code enricophotoblog2017 at checkout.


Shooting Capelinhos Volcano

What you see above is a shot I thought I would never be able to take.
The subject is Capelinhos, a volcano located on Faial Island in the Azores.
I have been there quite a few times but, as my pictures were never really satisfactory, I ended up thinking there was no convincing composition possible for that spot.

Of course, that was a silly thought. You know how it goes... you search the web for images of the place you are planning to shoot and, usually, you quickly find a whole bunch of amazing ones.
Well, with all respect, that was not the case for me with Capelinhos, giving me a second reason to believe the volcano was way more dramatic than it is photogenic.

It goes without saying that I was soon to change my mind. For my birthday this year, my wife Dania booked a 2-night stay very close to Capelinhos.
Guess what? Having two sunrises and two sunsets at my disposal made it a totally different ball game.
I know what you are wondering: - Why the hell did I keep shooting Capelinhos in harsh daylight before? -
Good question. The answer is that I always had to catch the last ferry to Pico after my shoots in Faial.

The important point here is not that the golden hour is a much better time for photography. We all know that.
What I am trying to say here is that light is absolutely everything for Capelinhos and I guess it has to do with its monotone colour in daylight.

Look at one of my previous shots there:

While the image above sells reasonably well locally as a postcard, I do not find the foreground nearly as interesting as the one I picked for my April 2017 shot. Yet, I had to include quite a lot of that foreground in the picture, since I needed to be far enough from the subject to keep both the volcano and the lighthouse in the frame.

As an alternative, I could have had the sky filling 2/3 of the frame from the top, leaving just 1/3 for the volcano and the lighthouse. But then again, the sky was not so interesting that day at 1pm.

Now, one year later, it is easy for me to criticise the composition above:

  1. I should have moved more to the left and include more water in the frame.
  2. I should have shot wider.
  3. I should have looked for a more interesting foreground, such as rocks and boulders (as in my best shot of Capelinhos).
  4. I should have shot lower (to make those rocks and boulders more interesting).

Easier said than done, right? But once again, light is absolutely everything for Capelinhos, no matter what composition you choose.

The place looks very dramatic and almost scary. You walk around and it does not take long until you realise that something apocalyptic happened there.
In 1957-1958 the volcano erupted for 13 months in a row. It all started with a submarine eruption and then involved lava bombs, pyroclastic clouds as well as lava streaming into the ocean.
A new island even emerged off the cape, which sank again in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after.
Although there were no casualties, thousands of people had to leave their homes.

In 1958, the United States of America helped through the so called Azorean Refugee Act, by authorising the emigration of 1500 people. Among the Congressmen sponsoring the act was a young Senator of Massachusetts named John Fitzgerald Kennedy

The first floor of the ruined lighthouse you see in my shot is still completely buried in ashes and sand.
Considering that Flores (the westernmost island of the Azorean archipelago)  lies within the North American plate, the volcano of Capelinhos can be considered the westernmost point of Europe.

Back to photography, apocalyptic landscapes and warm tones do not exactly go hand in hand.
Indeed, I do believe the best time to shoot Capelinhos is on the edge of the blue hour (for the non-photographers, it is the time after sunset when everything gets a blue colour cast).

The story behind this shot would not be complete if I did not mention that I actually had a big issue while I was there: I assumed that any of the long exposures I had taken would be long enough to have the dark foreground decently exposed. Well, I was mistaken!

After I exposed for the sky and bracketed two stops higher for the volcano and the rocks, I was ready to get my camera off the tripod and go home. Since I shoot raw, this is normally enough to have details in the darkest parts of my images.

What I did not consider is that I had never shot before as dark a subject as Capelinhos in twilight.
Luckily, I have the habit to double check the histogram of my shots before I wrap up a shoot and, sure enough, it was evident that I had constantly clipped the shadows to such an extent that I would not have been able to recover a clean, reasonably noise-free foreground from any of those exposures.

By that time the sunset was well over and it was getting very dark very quickly.
Drama! What to do? Give up?
Of course not. Landscape photography is all about surviving tonnes of frustration to rarely capture a milligram of magic.

In the end, it was not that bad and I managed to save my shot (and birthday!) with a 72-second exposure in increasing winds.
Although the picture did not look very promising on the back of my camera, I managed to pull off a nice foreground with just a couple of tweaks in Adobe Lightroom:

  1. Exposure: +0.70
  2. Shadows: +100 

Please see below the Before and After:


I am extremely happy I was able to get the best of both the golden and blue hour on the evening of the 16th April 2017. That made it indeed a very Happy Birthday!

Below is my final shot, which is a blend of two exposures followed by more post-processing (including setting the white balance, as it is completely off in the image above). 
The picture is available for sale as print, wall art or digital download. My very patient blog readers can get 20% off anything they buy in my portfolio website just by entering the coupon code enricophotoblog2017.

The volcano at the very end of Europe
Click the image to access it on my Portfolio Website.

What a birthday present Dania gave me. Once again, I must thank her for a shot I would not have taken otherwise.
Why 'once again'? Find it out here...


Capelinhos. (2017, April 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:02, April 25, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Capelinhos&oldid=774763529