Before the rush

Before the rush
by evan-pak

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When you see something to be desired in your photo, it can be as much your technique as the limitation in your gear. But I'm pretty confident that I've hit the limitation of my gear for low available light photography.

The shots I take with micro four thirds, hand-held with optically stabilized slow zoom, are just pushing it at ISO 1600. These were taken at wide open, with shutter speeds like 1/30 to allow sufficient light, at the risk of subject's motion blur. In other words, the last photon that can be registered to the sensor has been registered.

Where do I go from here? I think I can upgrade the body to the latest iteration, which will give me a stop with usable 1600 and emergency 3200. I can buy a fast zoom, which will also give me a stop or stop and a half, depending on the focal length. (Although there are faster primes, I need a standard zoom for my kind of photography.) Or I can use the flash instead, which will result in different kind of photography, as it will no longer capture the feel of the ambience.

What's the logical step from here?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by mattdm, MikeW, Itai, Michael Clark, jrista Dec 16 '13 at 13:38

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Tripod, additional lighting, a larger aperture, or move to a larger sensor. The "logical" choices are many but only you know the best one for yourself. It sounds like you have the knowledge to make the best decision already. – dpollitt Dec 1 '13 at 5:45
I think there might be a good question in here somewhere, but mostly it sounds like an interesting discussion (which means it doesn't really make for good Q&A) — probably more appropriate for Photography Chat. – mattdm Dec 1 '13 at 14:15
As part of that discussion, though, I'd add that you really should reconsider whether zoom is really required for your style. – mattdm Dec 1 '13 at 14:18

You've got it. But, some thoughts:

A full frame DSLR will give you maybe 2 to 3 stops over micro four thirds - not a path you are likely to take if new - but see comments on D700 below.

It would be useful if you cited actual apertures and focal lengths as these are probably specific to your case.
Presumably "standard zoom" is ~+ constant f/2.8.
Presumably faster prime is ~= f/1.8 or 1.7 or just maybe 1.4 or 1.2

At the low light limit optical stabilisation makes an immense difference. Even 2 stops can take you from 1/15s to 1/60th - with the former liable to blur almost anything at typical focal lengths and the latter often being usable.

As well as the game changing flash you might consider a 'video light' / LED bank / ... extra illumination source which does not provide the immense gains of xenon flash but which may eg give you 2 to 3 stops with relative ease and OK cost, and you can tailor light colour temperature to suit yourself.

You say "slow zoom" so probably say f/3.5 - 5/5.6 range?
Even an f/1.8prime gives you 2 stops over a f/3.5 nd is worth playing with to see if the gains persuade you to reevaluate "your kind of photography".
The 2 stops from a f/1.8 prime is a very useful gain. The downside is the immensely small depth of field in most cases at f/1.8. While this is often why such a lens is chosen, you can get too much of a good thing :-). At medium to shortish distance a 50mm f/1.8 on and APSC body (crop factor of 1.5:1) makes it hard to get all of a face in focus if other than straight on.

Get a better body: Consider using your existing equipment as now and adding a separate camera and well suited lens that meets your low light needs. Compare the price of doing this with that for buying better lenses for your existing system - the difference my be low. The Nikon D700 can be bought at very good prices if in well used condition. Value for money needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. I use a Sony A77 for as much as possible due to its superb abilities as a picture making system and in-body stabilisation. When it comes to taking low light photos a Nikon D700 utterly trounces the A77. In situations where ultra-low light 'may happen' but is not the overwhelming need (stage show, dancers, ...) I tend to carry the A77 plus a D700 with a f/1.8 50 mm lens (the cheapest lens Nikon sell). The D700 lens is unstabilised - while stabilisation would be mice, I usually find that ISO 3200 and f/1.8 produce results that are acceptable in many cases. The D700 can be used at ISO 6400 but is getting decidedly noisy. FWIW the D700 has a per pixel noise level better than any more recent DSLR except the D3S.

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"FWIW the D700 has a per pixel noise level better than any more recent DSLR except the D3S." - A fairly useless measure in many ways... Low per pixel noise gains you nothing if you cannot get the resolution to resolve the detail you want. Instead you should look at total image noise instead. The "per pixel noise" makes the D700 sound a lot better than it is - in addition, many newer cameras have significantly better high ISO capabilities which are very evident in "per image noise". (I'm thinking 1Dx, 1D MK IV - I have a 5D MK II which is pretty much equivalent to the D700 in per image noise) – DetlevCM Dec 1 '13 at 14:08
@DetlevCM The "FWIW" was there for a reason. In many cases "per image noise" is what counts, but not always. AND you have to believe the suspect magic of the transformations used to show that the eg D800 is superior. The DxO transformation is to scale the picture down to 12 megapixels and multiply actual ISO figure from their low light test by SQRT(Megapixels/12) so an eg 36 megapixel D800 result is boosted by sqrt(3) ~+ 1.7. As the D700 ACTUAL per image figures is hardly lower than the D800 per image figure this means the D700 is significantly better than D800 per pixel. – Russell McMahon Dec 1 '13 at 23:51
D800 and D700 DXO low light / sports sensor comparison table results are ISO 2853 and 2303 respectively. In stops that's log_2(2853/2303) or 0.3 stops PER IMAGE. That's AFTER you scale the D800 image to 12 MP if you want to compare them visually directly. As you can with care and some luck buy a (usually well worn but fully functional) D700 for about $US1000 and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens for under $US200 you get about D800 image results for rather less than an D800. Obviously a D800 will give much more in other areas. – Russell McMahon Dec 1 '13 at 23:59
Why would scale an image DOWN? Scale the 12MP up to 36MP to compare a D700 to a D800. (or scale it up to 21MP for a 5D MK II) – DetlevCM Dec 2 '13 at 10:00
As always it depends on the intended usage of the image. DxO's 12MP standard falls somewhere between the less than 2MP that the vast majority of images are displayed at via the internet and the much higher resolution one would want for a fine art print displayed in a gallery at large size. For every one time a gallery print is viewed by an individual, there are literally millions of individual views of web based images. – Michael Clark Dec 2 '13 at 11:33

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