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Is high ISO useful for photography?

My camera can apparently extend to really high ISO's, however I see serious noise over 2,000 ISO at any shutter/apeture combination.

In what situations can these mega-high (8,000+) ISO's actually be used to produce results that don't look like they have been taken with an early 90's camera phone in moon light?

Examples would be great :-)

  • \$\begingroup\$ ISO 2000 might not be good on your camera, but that certainly is not the upper limit of current high end gear. See examples here: dpreview.com/reviews/canon-eos-5d-mark-iii/27 \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 20:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well its a Nikon D800.... and honestly 2000+ is crap. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 20:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you believe that ISO 3200 is poor quality on the D800, I believe you have very high standards. Are you sure that you don't have high ISO noise reduction on in the camera? I wouldn't expect it to look poor until 12,800 or so by my standards. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 21:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @dpollitt - sorry didnt spot that one, interesting stuff, however i have NEVER seen noise get lower at a higher iso. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 21:02
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ For a little perspective, try shooting some ISO 800 or 1600 film. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if ISO 400 film looks worse than the "bad" ISO 2000 you see with the D800. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 0:36

2 Answers 2


Noise isn't determined exclusively by ISO. In fact ISO has only an indirect effect on noise. Noise is principally the result of there not being enough light. Therefore it may be the case that your ISO 2000 are genuinely too noisy to be of value. But someone else's ISO 2000 might look a lot better.

Personally I've used ISO 6000 and 8000 in the past, when working in very low light where flash, wider apertures or longer exposures were not available (I was shooting 1/50s at f/1.2 with an 85mm lens).

In fact I would never put a limit on the ISO used, I would capture as much light as possible and then set the ISO as high as possible without clipping highlights. This guarantees you the lowest noise level possible. If the images didn't look acceptable to me I wouldn't use them. But I would never say "ooh I shouldn't set the camera to ISO 10000 as there'll be to much noise", you never know until you try.

The following were all shot at ISO 6400:

  • \$\begingroup\$ @Matt Grum, so basically as long as you're filling up but not maxing out your histogram by bumping ISO you're doing it right? \$\endgroup\$
    – Drew
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 22:12
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Andrew exactly - you do absolutely no good (quite the opposite) by lowering the ISO setting unless you compensate by letting more light into the camera. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt Grum
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 22:39

Here are some examples shot at ISO 3200 on a Canon 1D4. I needed that ISO so I could wallhold. Well, it wasn't exactly handholding. I was pressing my camera against the wall of the canyon. :) I was shooting at shutter speeds around 1/25.

I'm not going to claim that these are better than if I had been using a tripod and shooting timed exposures, but actually I am. The problem with shooting time exposures in this situation was the number of people going through the slot canyon. It was problematic. I wanted to travel light without a tripod, so my option was shoot high ISO or get blurry shots. With proper exposure, and the right amount of post-work for noise reduction, I think 3200 is extremely usable on my camera.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Very nice shots Eric! you mention post work, what exactly? I love the dynamic range in the top shot :-) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 22:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @eric, where was this taken? rat location and an adventure! \$\endgroup\$
    – kacalapy
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 19:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I use Noiseware as my noise reduction software. Some of these are blended exposures to increase the dynamic range...that's the other reason for pressing as hard as I could against the wall so my camera would move as little as possible between exposures. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 23:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ These were taken in Upper Antelope Canyon around the first of April this year. It was an absolute zoo there in terms of number of visitors. While I'm glad that I went, and I came away with some nice shots, it's not on my list of places to revisit. It's too touristy, and the operators try to fit as many people through as possible to maximize their hourly profit. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 23:19

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