High ISO noise - how long until m4/3 is 'good enough'

Discussion in 'Open Discussion' started by dhazeghi, Nov 2, 2013.

  1. dhazeghi

    dhazeghi Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 6, 2010
    San Jose, CA
    I've been looking back at a lot of photos from the past few years today (one of the perks of being sick with a cold is that's about all I'm good for right now). The thing that struck me was that while the quality of my 'good light' photos has basically remained constant since I got my first 10MP DSLR, the quality of the 'low light' photos has tended to vary dramatically.

    The biggest gain I saw was switching to full frame from an 4/3 DSLR in 2008. I went from having barely acceptable ISO 800, to generally acceptable ISO 6400, and that, combined with an f/2.8 zoom and f/1.8 prime, really made the difference when photographing indoors.

    Of course, now that the E-M5 is my main camera, I make a big effort to limit high ISO to 1600, which can be challenging in low light, and is downright impossible unless I'm using prime lenses. Usable ISO 6400 or even 3200 would make a big difference.

    There aren't that many sites that give good high ISO tests (far too many rely on in-camera JPEGs and other nonsense), so for all its flaws, I've tended to rely on DxO for my high ISO metrics. Indeed, it confirms my current experience - that there's about a 1 1/2 stop gap in noise between the E-M5 and my old D700.

    Now 1.5EV is quite a gap - bigger indeed than the gap between Olympus's top-of-the-line in 2007 (the E-3) and their current top-of-the-line (the E-M1).

    So the question is - when will m4/3 reach the point of sufficiency for you on high ISO? And do you think it likely that we will see a 1+ stop improvement in the next generation?
  2. rparmar

    rparmar Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Jun 14, 2011
    Limerick, Ireland
    I have no idea why people judge cameras by their high ISO performance. Long ago these surpassed what one could easily get with film. Gone are the days where the noise had a horrible digital look, though still there are distinct variations.

    What I want instead is a camera with ISO100, ISO50, ISO25... and better performance in these regimes. I suppose that means a larger sensor.
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  3. Biro

    Biro Mu-43 All-Pro

    May 8, 2011
    Jersey Shore
    Dara, for me, we're already there. The latest micro four-thirds cameras and sensors already provide an acceptable ISO 3200 with 6400 useable in a pinch (but only a pinch). This is a very personal thing. I started in photography with film in the 1970s. Some grain or noise does not upset me, I'm not shooting images for posters and I rarely venture above ISO 1600.

    But there are clearly many photographers who won't be satisfied until they see no noise or grain at all at any ISO setting. Your post indicates that you do not regard ISO 3200 low-light images from your E-M5 as acceptable. I can't argue with you on that point because only you know what you want. But I suspect you'll get there in one or two more generations of sensors.
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  4. powderbanks

    powderbanks Mu-43 Regular

    Dec 7, 2012
    north carolina
    For stills I try not to go higher than ISO 3200 on my GH2, 6400 is okay, especially if you slightly overexpose. But video, I've shot at 12800 in B&W and it's quite surprising
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  5. kevinparis

    kevinparis Cantankerous Scotsman Subscribing Member

    Feb 12, 2010
    Gent, Belgium
    Got to agree with Biro,

    for me the noise at 6400 is acceptable for the kinds of photos I wish to take. Of course I will happily accept improvements over time, but noise is not something that limits my photography.

    • Like Like x 5
  6. mister_roboto

    mister_roboto Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Jun 14, 2011
    Seattle, WA, USA
    E-M5 Sony sensor did it for me, huge leap of quality over the old Panasonic 12mp sensor. I mean I guess it can improve- but it's to the point where I it's about 90% of everything I wanted in a camera body.

    I can understand why people want high iso's... but anything over 6400 to me seems a little crazy. Film wise with 3200 I thought I was doing awesome in low light- I never really needed to take photos in the dark.

    I found the 6400 isn't bad on the E-M5 and routinely use it on auto iso., 3200 is good enough, but really for me it depends on how well it's exposed at those iso's, so it's always more about having better lenses for me- which is something I think photo enthusiasts miss in regards to camera bodies- high iso performance is fine but using that crap kit lens on your full frame DSLR is kind of pointless (I've seen a lot of people do this when I'm out and about). I'm was very tempted by the Sony R7, but not tempted enough because of lousy lens selections (and other reasons).
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  7. dougjgreen

    dougjgreen Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jun 5, 2013
    San Diego
    Doug Green
    I'd say by 2012 it will be good enough
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  8. Kiwi Paul

    Kiwi Paul Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Aug 15, 2011
    Aberdeen Scotland
    I find the 3200 - 6400 ISO performance of the EM5 and GH3 to be fine for my use. If shooting RAW then a bit of noise reduction in LR tidies them up nicely if required.
    Overall I'm totally contented with m4/3 in all respects, I'm happy with what I have and not looking to change or expand any of my kit.

    • Like Like x 2
  9. byegad

    byegad Mu-43 Rookie

    May 10, 2013
    I'm learning to photograph wild birds, so high shutter speed is kind of must have. To get this on a dull day, using 3 different zoom lenses with a top end from 150-300mm means I have to bump up the ISO a fair bit. So far, and remember I'm new to this game, my A4 prints seem pretty good to me. But yes I can see why people want to get good (Or should that be better?) imaging at high is ISO. However for other photography I really would like an ISO lower than 200. Given the choice of a slightly more usable 1250 (Yes all my cameras go way higher than that.) or a chance to select ISO100 for landscape and indoor portraits I think I'd plump for the lower value.
    • Like Like x 1
  10. demiro

    demiro Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Nov 7, 2010
    The E-M5 got me to "good enough". Better would be good, but at this point I would not be shelling out for an upgrade in ISO capabilities.
  11. dhazeghi

    dhazeghi Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 6, 2010
    San Jose, CA
    This is by no means a great photo, but it's an example of the sort of thing I used to take (on occasion). There's a bit of noise reduction needed, but there's still enough detail to make it interesting, in my view. With the E-M5, I've never had those sorts of results at ISO 3200, let alone 6400.


  12. jloden

    jloden Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 15, 2012
    Hunterdon County, NJ
    A lot depends on how and what you shoot... I see people all the time saying that no one needs high ISO, it's pointless, etc. But conversely for me, I think even if we get clean results at what seem like stratospherically high ISO values today, I'd find a way to use it :biggrin:

    Right now I'm willing to shoot my (current generation) FF cameras at ISO 3200 when quality is important, or 6400 in a pinch. For m4/3 I try to keep it to ISO 1600 and below, so it's roughly a 2 stop differential. If it's just for personal FB posting or something like that, I'll go to ISO 6400 on m4/3 and just live with it being noisier. I'd love to see a couple stops more clean high ISO on m4/3 (and I'm sure we will in another 2 generations or so). However, I have no doubt that at the same time that happens FF sensors will improve by a similar amount and we'll see photos at ISO 12,800 or 25,600 regularly being used.

    I know lots of people took lots of great photos on film when the high ISO performance we already have now wasn't even possible - but as each era of improved tech comes along it just opens more possibilities. More available light options, more DoF or simply faster shutter speeds... the more range the better IMO. I think the whole "no one needs high ISO" commentary is simply short-sighted. After all there are wildlife or sports photographers shooting long slow lenses, astrophotographers shooting high ISO to keep shutter speeds down, and wedding & event photographers who end up booked in venues more poorly lit than most cavern tours :wink:

    Just this past week I was shooting an event where no flash was possible and I was at ISO 3200 and 1/15s shutter speed, for people photos. Trust me, I'd have been more than happy that night to have a camera that could do a clean ISO 25,600 so I could have used a more reasonable shutter speed and not had to rely on luck and good stabilization!

    EDIT: here's an example of what I'm talking about:

    Godbox Worship Night by jloden, on Flickr

    Godbox Worship Night by jloden, on Flickr
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  13. dhazeghi

    dhazeghi Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 6, 2010
    San Jose, CA
    Well, you're certainly entitled to your opinion. That said, unless on is doing truly massive post-processing (3+ stops pulling back the shadows), I'm struggling to see how ISO LO (100) on the current 16MP Sony sensors could be improved upon.

    I guess I'm of the school of thought that grain improves some photos and doesn't improve others. I like having the choice. I hope you're right about the progress of new sensors, but I actually am wondering if we are going to see real improvement going forward. Just like micro-processors are basically stalled, I expect we'll reach a similar point with sensors.

    For all the talk of jumps in image quality, I look at DxO and some of the old RAWs, and it doesn't look to me that we're noticeably better off than the first generation full-frames (the Canon 1Ds and 5D) from 8 or 9 years ago.
  14. silver92b

    silver92b Mu-43 All-Pro

    Feb 7, 2013
    Atlanta, GA
    Granted, my technique can use improvement, but I too would like to see "better" results at higher ISO. Even with my 25mm f1.4 I find that shooting in low light results in blurry/out of focus pictures or very noisy with high ISO. Also, it would be nice to have lower ISO at least like the 100 of my old Nikon D60.... BTW, I shoot with the OM-D E-M5
  15. Amin Sabet

    Amin Sabet Administrator

    Apr 10, 2009
    Boston, MA (USA)
    Right now my MFT camera (E-PM2) gets better high ISO results than my 35mm full frame camera (Leica M9), and both of them are "good enough" for me. The GH1 and GH2 were also "good enough" for me in terms of high ISO noise, but I appreciate the dynamic and tonal range gains of the newer 4/3 sensors.

    A couple of my low light, ISO 6400 MFT shots that you can click through for full res or EXIF (processed from RAW in Lightroom without any extra noise reduction):

    Isabella - Day 12 by Amin Sabet, on Flickr

    P1110067 by Amin Sabet, on Flickr

    Another more recent ISO 6400 E-PM2 shot, intentionally processed dark but with pushed shadows to replicate the actual lighting in that room:

    PA290013 by Amin Sabet, on Flickr
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  16. Chrisnmn

    Chrisnmn Mu-43 All-Pro

    Apr 26, 2012
    Auckland, New Zealand
    'Noise' is a funny thing isn't it. It looks like a lot of people want ISO 12600 to perform/look like iso200 but when it comes to post process their images most of those people use plugins such as nik or vsco or alien which all of those add noise to get a 'classic' look.

    And I'm no one to say how a camera should perform but I hardly ever found myself going beyond 3200 in the first place. In fact my limit is 1600 with some exception to 3200 when on my Ricoh gr in order to get a faster shutter speed to compensate for the lack of ibis.

    And I'm curious, what do you guys shoot that you need such clean files at and over 6400? Or you guys use only slow lenses starting at f4 or something?

    No irony or sarcasm in my post, but honestly curious cause I hardly find myself in most situations stated in this thread
  17. jloden

    jloden Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 15, 2012
    Hunterdon County, NJ
    With regards to plugins and post-processing the difference there is you have the choice/control over the grain. If it's sensor noise you're pretty much stuck with it :) I don't add grain to my photos any more (though I did at one time in my B&Ws) but if I were going to I'd much rather have a clean file and add noise to suit than the other way around.

    As far as what people shoot that high ISO matters, it's not as exotic as some people think. I run into dark environments all the time: outdoor camping, parties, events, etc. Shooting longer wildlife photos it's very easy to end up in high ISO territory as well. I've been shooting at two separate events in the past week alone where ISO 800 or 1600 was the lowest I shot with, even using f/1.4-2.0 apertures. In the example I posted above I was shooting with an f/2.8 zoom; I could have used a prime lens and gained a stop or two but 1) I don't have a faster than f/2.8 200mm prime lens and 2) I'd have been stuck with a fixed focal length (not always a problem, but less flexible obviously). If you're trying to get consistently sharp people photos without motion blur that means 1/125 or higher and even with a fast lens at f/2 or faster you're going to be pushing ISO for many indoor venues.

    Of course there are other options, like shooting slow shutter speeds, adding flash where applicable, noise reduction or creative post-processing. All I'm saying is if the flexibility is there, so much the better. If I can shoot at f/2.8 or f/4.0 indoors at ISO 25,600 cleanly, I'll be happy to take advantage of it.
  18. Biro

    Biro Mu-43 All-Pro

    May 8, 2011
    Jersey Shore
    Your point about noise/grain enhancing some images but not others certainly is valid. But, for some of us, the general threshold of what is an acceptable noise floor is higher. Lengthy experience in film does contribute to that, but it's a personal thing. For me, once digital beat the performance of film in this area, it became "good enough."

    I suspect you feel sensor progress is stalling because the camera makers keep demanding higher-resolution sensors. Sensor technology has progressed by leaps and bounds - but we're often squeezing 20-36mp from the same-size sesnsors that used to give us 6-10mp. And, of course, that trade off is more obvious with smaller sensors than larger ones. I still think we'll get to where you want go before very long. But, in the meantime, micro four thirds is still good enough for me.
  19. Promit

    Promit Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jun 6, 2011
    Baltimore, MD
    Promit Roy
    If I could get at 6400 what I get at 1600, I think I'd be set for good. But that's a two stop gain and that won't come quickly on the same format... maybe a five year timeline.
  20. Reflector

    Reflector Mu-43 All-Pro

    Aug 31, 2013
    This is purely a demo shot, but take note of the texture on the microfiber:

    100% shot below, because I have no problems with noise and I will display my shots at true, 1:1 scaling instead of shying away with a 30-50% resize.

    Guess the ISO

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