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08-09-2011, 07:52 PM   #1
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ISO - The New Digital Camera Marketing Tool?

I like shooting film and I have been sorting through my film stocks today, moving some stuff from the freezer to the refrigerator, and some to my day bag. As I was doing this I was thinking that I should look into picking up some more as you can never have enough film.

So, this evening I went on-line and bounced through my usual film purchasing sites looking for deals. When I had checked out the usual suspects and found nothing I couldn't live without, I did my normal Google search just to see what, if anything, popped up. One of the things that came up was this:

• 100 ISO. If you are mostly shooting non-moving outdoor subjects in daylight, such as landscapes and scenery, 100-speed film is your best bet. This speed also works well for indoor shots with a flash.
• 200 ISO. For occasional photographers and general-purpose use, 200-speed film is a good default choice. This film produces good outdoor photos in both sunny and cloudy daytime conditions, as well as indoor flash shots. 200-speed film, like 100-speed film, is best for subjects that don't move around much. You'll need a faster ISO if you want to capture moving subjects.
• 400 ISO. Faster speeds like 400 and 800 ISO are best for moving subjects, like wildlife and sports. With the faster speed comes less definition. Faster film-speeds also produce better low-light photos.
• Other speeds. You can find film up to 1600-speed, but unless the subject is a 200-mph Nascar race, most people won't need a film this fast.

Now obviously, this is nothing new. Anyone who has been shooting film for any time at all has seen similar charts that provide generic recommendations regarding how to use the various film speeds. But this evening I suddenly read this with different eyes. Under "Other Speeds" the recommendation is very clear. You can find ISO 1600 films, but it is quite rare that you will really need that fast of a film unless you have very specific needs, such as stopping a race car or other fast moving object. I re-read the entire chart and then I gave it some thought. Over the years I have used many different film types and used films with various ISO ratings. But I could find nothing in these recommendations that I disagreed with.

So, if all this is true, then why has it suddenly become so imperative that all of us buy a new digital camera with greatly improved high ISO performance? Everyone is doing it, Canon, Nikon, even Pentax. Most of the older ones were decent up to ISO 800 or 1600, but suddenly those old standards are no longer good enough. My newish Pentax K-7 can be used up to ISO 6400, although most people will agree that ISO 800 or 1600 is still a more reasonable choice. But all the reviewers have run down the K-7 because it did not have adequate high-ISO performance. I have even read some reviews that have actually said that you would be further ahead to buy the K-X for the much improved ISO performance. What??? Buy an entry level camera just because it can capture images at one or two stops higher ISO? Are you serious?

With that in mind I glanced back at the chart above and thought to myself. If ISO 800 was considered pretty fast for film days, and anything faster was considered very specialized, why is it suddenly imperative that everyone own a camera capable of taking pictures at ISO 6400, or higher? Suddenly I am confused! I must be missing something! I went back to my own film logs for the past 2 years and looked them over. I found that I personally used ISO 800 or 1600 film less than 11% of the time, and everyone of those were used during family holiday celebrations or birthdays. Eighty-four percent of the time I am using ISO 100 through 400 film. Now, I thought. In all that time have I felt disadvantaged? I don't think so?

So I thought some more. I still have to be missing something! Maybe there is something about digital SLR cameras that is inherently different than film cameras. Maybe the shutters are different or something? Maybe you have to use higher ISOs than you would expect to use with film because the sensors aren't as good? I didn't think that was so but I figured I would check. I went back to my own digital photographs. Yes, I do use digital once in awhile. I found that most of my digital shots have never been touched after downloading them to the computer (this is a strange phenomenon that I have noticed with digital photos, many get taken but few get used.) As a result the EXIF data is still available since my ham-fisted photo editing techniques has not yet destroyed it. I randomly picked 256 digital photos taken over the past couple of years (same basic time period I used for my film research.) I reviewed the EXIF data and pulled the ISO information. Now most of my digital photos from this time period have been taken with either my *ist DL2 or my K2000. A few of my most recent ones have come from the K-7 but this camera is still fairly new to me. However, both the *ist DL2 and the K2000 were capable of using ISO rating up through 3200 so I figured they would provide reliable data. Of course the *ist DL2 did not allow ISOs below 200 to be used so I didn't see any ISO 100 or lower speeds represented from that data. However, even with those limitations, what I found was that 225 of the 256 photos reviewed were taken at ISO 400 or lower. Almost all the rest were taken at ISO 800 (16) or ISO 1600 (8). A very few (7 of them) were taken at ISO 3200, I expect just to prove to myself that it could be done if I ever needed to.

Now I am really confused. None of this makes any sense. Based on the importance placed on ISO performance by all these on-line reviewers there have obviously been millions of people all over the world that have been desperately trying to take photographs at high ISOs, and failing miserably. Their frustration has moved the manufacturers to finally build cameras that could provide this much needed performance. That is the only thing that makes any sense. I must not be representative of most people who use cameras so my experience really doesn't provide any guidance. Since January 1, 2010 I have shot a few digital photos and a few more film photos. In all those pictures I have used high ISOs (ISO 800 or above) a very small percentage of the time (less than 15%). And for those few circumstances when I needed low light performance I have almost always been more than happy using ISO 800. If anything else was needed I used a flash.

Wait a minute! This couldn't be some type of advertising ploy…could it? Those camera manufacturers wouldn't be using ISO performance to sell more cameras to the gullible public? Nahh, why would I ever think that was possible?

08-09-2011, 08:04 PM   #2
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Look at this else are the camera companies going to justify bringing out a new a camera every year. There are only so many pixels that people want/can use and there has to be an upper limit to continuous shooting rate.
08-09-2011, 08:16 PM   #3
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ISO performance is the one thing which can be improved easily for better performance. Aperture is lens based so not so useful in selling a camera and costs significantly more money for only marginal gains. Shutter speed is already up to 1/8000th of a second and probably doesn't need to get much faster for the majority of shooters and is difficult to achieve even with fast lenses in good light. so this leave ISO. Reduce the high ISO noise and you will make higher shutter speeds and/or slower apertures more useable.

There are other factors, but I believe this is the main reason they are pushing ISO performance
08-09-2011, 08:23 PM   #4
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Good responses above. "New and improved!" has been the marketing mantra for decades. And sensors are semiconductor arrays and thus subject to Moore's Law. We can expect to see denser, faster sensors as long as fabs keep churning them out. Within a decade: 1Gpx ISO-1G (giga-pixel giga-ISO) sensors in your wearable computer-cams. Bet on it.

08-09-2011, 08:48 PM   #5
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I would be in a world of hurt limited to iso800 at times. Shooting diving Ospreys for example, TAv mode, shutter at 1/1000-1/1600, f/6.3 and the iso at 250 pointed at the sky, then the dive takes you below the dark tree line for a background and the iso jumps to 1600-3200 to keep up the pace. No idea how it was done in the old days.
08-09-2011, 09:25 PM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by imtheguy Quote
No idea how it was done in the old days.
Pushed film, high-speed cameras, many wasted frames, that's all.
08-09-2011, 09:51 PM   #7
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I’ve shot film for about 40 years now and don’t ever remember using a film faster than 400 ISO. Forty years ago 100 ISO and above was considered a fast film and 64 ISO medium speed. (A lot of film was still 25 ISO.)

08-09-2011, 10:03 PM   #8

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Well, if you're shooting in studio, landscapes and other stuff in broad daylight, high ISO is not important to you at all.

However if you shoot indoor sports, weddings (in old churches) and similar things, then clean high ISO is a God's gift.

08-09-2011, 10:15 PM   #9
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High ISO has opened up a world of opportunities not possible in film days.
Hasn't changed the fundamentals of photography, but it has vastly increased a photographer's flexibility in getting the results he/she wants.
So why shouldn't high ISO be a marketing ploy, seeing as though that's what customers/clients want, both amateur and professional?...
08-09-2011, 10:22 PM   #10
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...because when I mention using an external flash people are shocked... OH NO! You MUST always use NATURAL LIGHT...
08-09-2011, 10:41 PM   #11
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High iso capabilities drove me to buy a dslr as my point and shoot didn't handle it.
Good iso rating and my old Pentax lens led me to buy a K-X
08-10-2011, 12:16 AM   #12
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High ISO are nothing new; just less noisy and do not forget that higher low light sensitivity allows for a world of possibilities

When my daughters were born I used Ilford Delta3200 as 3200 to take pictures without flash in the dim lit hospital room.
Even then ISO 12800 is/was doable with Ilford D3200 developed in DDX which was extremely useful for concerts or ballet where flash is not allowed.
08-10-2011, 01:39 AM   #13
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Well I used a film SLR for a few years and I think this argument is a bit backward...

I think with film, we would have used faster ISO, IF we could have had good quality shots as well. It is the better performance at higher ISO that is allowing it to be used more.
Prior to this you had to have the faster glass to capture a lower light and / or higher speed shot (without using a very grainy film that is). However now people can use cheaper kit zooms quite effectively in low light when they need to.

I also suspect the higher ISO will open up new options / situations to be captured that were not previously thought of (or at least seemed ridiculous to attempt).

Just my thought.
08-10-2011, 01:50 AM   #14
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since this year i shoot film, and i knew that film have a bigger dynamic range (i.e.: it can capture scene with more contrast than any digityal sensor can do.).

But until i tried shooting film in bad condition (in the street at 4 pm, almost no light, and two of my friends tempting each other for a kiss (and maybe more ).

i used a 400 iso film that i underexposed for 1.5 speed, with a 50mm f1.7 @1.7, 1/40.

the film was developped at 400 iso, and it seems that it wasn't underexpose at all !

Sensor can't do that, that's why we use highier iso more often, just to be able to get those shoots, in some very exceptional sitaution, once in a month
08-10-2011, 02:12 AM   #15
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High ISO is the main reason why I take the DSLR over film camera at some situations.

I am talking about really low light scenarios, where I dial ISO 3200, 4000 or even 6400 and still have slow shutter speed!
Obviously, the image quality is reflecting the limitation of camera sensor and software, but better to have fully usable although compromised quality than nothing.
In fact, the even more improved high ISO performance will be the main reason to further upgrade my current DSLR (Canon 5D II), because it is doing just fine in every other department I need.

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