This month, we’re going to shoot images at ISO 3200 or higher. If your camera doesn’t go up to ISO 3200, then shoot at the highest ISO available. If your camera happens to handle high ISO remarkably well (I’m talking to you, fellow D4 owners), embrace the spirit of the exercise and push yourself outside of the comfort zone with ISO 6400, 12800, and beyond. And remember – high ISO doesn’t have to be confined to low light work; set a high ISO in standard lighting, then incorporate extreme depth of field or a very high shutter speed. You might find that it opens up some new creative opportunities!
Seems like a pretty simple challenge, right? I know what you’re thinking – and you’re planning to convert to black and white, aren’t you? Monochrome is a popular choice for high ISO processing, partly because the inherent artiness of black and white seems more forgiving, and partly because black and white conversion tends to unify and minimize noise. For the purposes of this month’s exercise, however, not only are you to shoot at high ISO settings, but you are prohibited from converting your images to monochrome.
With that in mind, consider these tips when shooting high ISO color images:
1. Expose to the right
The richest digital image data is captured in the right side of the histogram, which is why (as long as you don’t blow any channels) you can always deepen your exposure in post processing without sacrificing image quality, but once you have to increase your exposure in post processing, the quality degrades. You might be surprised how clean high ISO images can actually be if you pull down – rather than lifting – the luminance of the photo. If you’re not familiar with ETTR, a quick search on Clickin Moms or Google will yield a host of tutorials and discussions.
2. Nail your white balance
Nailing your white balance in camera is always helpful for consistently beautiful color photography, but even photographers who do fine with color in daylight often have a hard time with artificial light at night. If you are planning to work in after-hours low light, odds are that your light source consists of artificial light bulbs, which commonly produce light at a color temperature of about 3000K. Set accurate white balance in camera accordingly before you begin shooting.
3. Remove color noise only
Applied skillfully, noise reduction can be very helpful in polishing the appearance of a high-ISO image, but overaggressive noise reduction can yield a muddy, painterly effect. Instead of general NR, try removing the color noise only; this will greatly improve the photo’s appearance without significantly smudging the details. In Lightroom, color and luminance noise are controlled by two different sliders and can easily be applied separately; in Photoshop, there are number of methods, but my favorite (and perhaps the simplest) is this: duplicate your photo on a new layer, run a Gaussian Blur just strong enough to blur out the noise, and change the layer’s blend mode to Color.
4. Add grain in post processing
As mentioned previously, film grain is regarded as vastly more appealing than is digital noise. Film grain can, of course, be applied during post processing to any photo, but I find it particularly helpful in masking and improving the appearance of digital noise in high-ISO photographs. Both Lightroom and Photoshop have grain filters that emulate the appearance of film grain.
5. Consider the mood
High ISO images often seem grittier, moodier, or more raw than their low-ISO counterparts. How can you use that to your advantage? Would certain subjects, emotions, or stories be captured more effectively if presented in this way?
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.