It seems half the history of photography has been spent on trying to make pictures in low-light conditions. Starting out with wet plate cameras that took several minutes to make an exposure to ‘pushing’ film speed beyond its manufacturer’s rating. When digital entered the world the hunt continued, with the first electronic cameras having no greater sensitivity to light than standard films. Now it is quite common to have ISO ratings up to 6400, or even higher. But how good are they?

The first caveat of this experiment is: your actual results may vary.

To check out how good these upper ratings really are I grabbed my “go-to” camera (Nikon P610) on a dark night and shot an impossible scene using automatic exposure on all the “high” ISO indexes available: 400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 6400. All of the images were “too dark” on purpose, and the details brought up in post-processing to see what lay beneath. The results I got did not surprise me as earlier shoots had given a fair indication of what to expect. In short, they come up short.

We expect an increase in noise at higher ISO sensor settings just as we expect an increase in grain with higher ISO film speeds. Chromatic aberration gets exaggerated. Image quality degrades. No one should expect anything different. But just how bad is it? Consider:

The two lowest ‘speed’ images, 400 & 800, give the most well-defined results. This despite the fact they would have had larger aperture and/or longer exposure time. What’s more there isn’t a steady decline in quality as the ISO increases. Instead it drops off drastically with the one stop change from 800 to 1600.

You could argue about how better results could be obtained by controlling either aperture of shutter speed, but that isn’t the point. The point is when it comes right down to it there is an upper limit to how sensitive the sensor really is to light and no amount of technological trickery will get around that. On this particular camera the limit seems to be ISO 800.

Now to be fair I’ve shot some pictures at the same ISO ratings but during cloudy daylight so you can see how the ‘speeds’ compare under tolerable lighting conditions:

The first two, 400 & 800, are nearly identical – which is what we’d expect and want. When the ISO is shifted up to 1600 the exposure is still pretty good but there is a noticeable loss of detail in the image. 3200 & 6400 continue with the detail loss but also show clear signs of over-exposure, something that digital cameras don’t deal with well.

So for this camera, the Nikon P610, there is no point using an ISO above 800. Most of the time 400 is more than enough, and frankly since I tend to shoot still subjects in bright light even 200 is more than I need. I suspect my Canon handles high ISO better, and may be worth experimenting with it to find out. It does have specific noise cancellation settings for both high ISO and long exposure, but other than increasing processing time I haven’t noticed any particular improvement from using them in normal shooting so far.

Addendum: I did test the Cannon and found it does not suffer from the “sudden drop off” of quality in extreme low-light shooting as the Nikon does. I also note that you can tell a difference between having the noise reduction set to ‘High’ as opposed to ‘Normal’. However, under none of the setting does the camera produce an acceptable result; there is little difference in quality between ISO 400 and ISO 6400; a four stop difference with no real improvement. In other words the added ‘speed’ is negated by the deterioration in image quality even with noise reduction at maximum. Once again it looks like ISO 800 is the maximum viable setting.

Simple shooter

I had a brief conversation with an acquaintance yesterday about cameras, their complexity, and why we can’t have nice things. Let’s face it: the manufacturers have decided what we’ll get and insist we’ll like it even if we don’t. We must adapt, because they won’t and they are the source of the technology. It’s not like anyone is going to build their own digital camera. Okay, I might have decades ago but I no longer have the eyesight or dexterity to take apart a camera and put it back together the way I want.

So the future is ‘mirrorless cell phones’ (so to speak), like it or lump it. This is because none of the people designing the equipment are photographers. From what I’ve seen they don’t listen to input from the profession either. I mean, having the controls you use most right at your fingertips when in “shooting position”? Nah, bury it in some menu sub-directory nineteen button-pushes deep. Oh but make sure it has blue tooth, wifi, and digital ‘filters’ that will be used only once when trying out the camera and then never again.

What the fellow I was talking to wants is quite sensible, really. Leave out all the battery-wasting features and make a simple, carry-it-anywhere camera for getting those shots you might not get if you don’t have a camera with you. Or even if you do. If we’re going to be honest about it, cell phones are not the easiest things to shoot with. Too complex, too much to do to even get the camera active. He wanted a “one-touch-on” device, and it’s a great idea.

Other features would include dumping autofocus. GASP! How can you do that? Well you go back to the ol’ days of fixed-focus. It’s easier to do now with small sensors: semi-wide angle lens (about 35mm equivalent) with a fixed aperture that gives depth of field from a reasonable distance to infinity. No, you do not need to focus to 1mm. Nor do you really need that limited D-O-F (I will not use the ‘B’ word) provided by a large aperture. You need a quality ‘piece of glass’ that does the job under most circumstances.

Zoom? Zoom is a crutch. And that’s from someone who uses it consistently (because getting closer to subjects is not that easy for me and I need a crutch). There is something of a paradox in the insistence of an “XX” zoom included with the DSLR and then selling “prime” lenses because they are sharper. (Hey, Canon: I need a 32mm EF-S lens that doesn’t cost 5 times what the camera did, okay?) The fact is we can put a 20MP sensor in our theoretical camera design and have 4X digital zoom capacity right there because you do not need that super-high resolution. Saves on lens bulk and expense and battery consumption from yet more drive motors.

Okay so now we place some more limits on this camera like no ultra-high speed ISO ratings. Why are you trying to shoot in the dark anyway? It all gets too ‘noisy’ above 800 I find. But a selection of ‘normal’ speeds is okay, and with the permanent aperture (f8 probably) we just give a reasonable range of shutter speeds (remember we can have image stabilization here) and all is good. This would probably cover 90% of the shots taken by 90% of people. Really. Even more if they are better versed in photography.

While I’m at it, can I complain about SD cards that are only of huge capacity now and slow down noticeably the more content you have on them even if they are “class 10”? Seriously even the 16GB cards turn into unresponsive slugs before they are half full of photos. I’d hate to have to rely on any larger capacity one. But back to the camera.

Do we really need an LCD screen at all? On something so simple, surely an optical-only viewfinder would suffice. They used to make them like that. It would be nice if it could do waist-level/eye-level finding too. Okay, I suppose a basic screen for reviewing pictures wouldn’t be too much. But none of that touch-screen nonsense. We’re after simple and effective picture taking.

Most of us in fact probably do have some camera that gets assigned this take-along task. Some inexpensive point-and-shoot bought for a few dollars that does the grunt work when we’re out and about. Maybe spots things we want to go back to with the expensive equipment and reshoot in different ways. I know I do. And so far there are still some cameras like this available, although they are still more complex than what we’ve just described. The manufacturers will tell us “no one wants such a thing”. Well maybe they would if we could teach proper photography and not this technological kiddies’ art that is everywhere these days.

Or maybe I’m just a grumpy old ex-film photographer than no one should listen to.


This picture? This is what you see when the alien spaceship lands in the desert. If I hadn’t had my point-and-shoot we’d never get this evidence of visitors from outer space!

(Okay; it’s agriculture lights in the next valley being diffused and coloured by heavy mist, as seen through pine trees with the zoom on the Nikon P610. Just about the opposite of what I’ve been talking about here.)

Rods and Cones and Pixels! Oh my!

Third in the series on the megapixel myth.

I’m getting old; I actually had to look up some of this data for confirmation. Seems I just can’t remember everything anymore. As it is, I am not surprised at what I found; it was pretty much as expected.

We need to examine how our eyes see in order to understand how photographic technology relates to it. You probably all remember that there are two types of receptors in the retina; rods and cones. You probably also remember rods see light/shape and cones detect colour. What you probably don’t remember is that there are about 92 million rods and 6 or 7 million cones. Not everyone has the same amount or in the same ratio, of course. This is why some people are better at discerning different shades and others can’t tell blue from green. Another fact we need to know here is that on average humans can detect 10 million different colours. You’ve probably read that the JPEG format has 16 million different colours. Do you see where this is going?


Looking at resolution first, we have to recognize that there is not an exact correlation between the number of receptors in the retina and the pixels on a camera sensor because the two don’t function the same, and neither do the receptor types. On the one hand you could say “92 million rods plus 7 million cones equals 99 million pixels” but the eye doesn’t work like that. Most of the cones are centered in the macula, where they do the most good, whereas the peripheral vision is detected mainly by rods (to alert us to any motion on the edges of our vision which may be a danger). So you could also say the cones correlate to the pixels and our eyes are basically the equivalent of <10 MP sensors. This is also inaccurate as there are rods in the center as well.

In short, you could argue how to correlate the two until the cows come home. But you don’t need to in order to understand that Samsung’s 100+ MP sensors are technically beyond human visual capability, and in terms of center-weighted vision even a typical DSLR is a serious competitor for the human eye (think 7 million cones plus an equal number of rods in the same “area” coming out to a resolution of about 14 MP).

So it’s true: we have actually created technology capable of producing pictures which are sharper and have more colours than we can see. Brilliant. Never mind arguing there are reasons for it; we’re talking about how the technology relates to everyday photos, not specific and specialized applications.

Where our eyes win is in their superior low-light ability. Our pupils may only open to about f2.0, but in terms of light sensitivity we have a range around 46 worth of ‘stops’. Think of it as being able to use ISO 1.75 x 10^15 instead of ISO 25. Okay that number is just absurd and indicates I probably screwed up the math, so let’s just say we can see in really dim light that would leave a camera totally in the dark.

Some similarities between eyes and cameras occur in extreme lighting conditions. For one thing, both go white when the light is too bright; neither handles overexposure well. When the light goes down, both get grainy (or noisy if you prefer) and lose colour definition. You may have noticed this in a dark room. (If you’ve ever been in a colour dark room you’ve noticed how you see nothing, no matter how long you wait for your eyes to adjust, because there is no light to see by.)


Another similarity is in the ability to handle contrast. This is the one where the ultra-processed images start moving away from reality. When we look at a scene with a wide dynamic range our eyes adjust for the part we’re directly looking at (like using center-weighted metering). If we don’t look into the shadows, the shadows go black. If we don’t look into the highlights, the highlights go white. Eyes have a pretty good dynamic range (about 6 stops) but obviously can’t handle too much range. Neither can cameras. Not all in one shot anyway.

So there’s the first problem: High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging can look fake because it can produce results outside the range our eyes can actually see. Some digital cameras can do better than the human eye right off the bat. Then if you take one frame perfectly exposed for shadows, another perfectly exposed for mid-tones, and a third perfectly exposed for highlights you can create a picture with twice (or even greater) the range we’d normally see. What’s more it is presented to the eye all at once, which is not the way we’re used to looking at things. The scene before our eyes constantly changes because our eyes constantly adjust to give us the best view of what we’re directly looking at, whereas the flat view from the camera is always the same from edge to center to edge.

If you add the extreme sharpness and greater colour definition of high resolution sensors to this high dynamic range as well, you get those stunning images that captivate us on ultra high definition monitors – and which don’t look real.

A certain amount of psychology comes into play at this point. We look at a lot of manipulated photos and instantly accept them as art, but with these ultra images … something grates across the psyche. They are reality made too real; the opposite of most ‘adjusted’ photos, which are reality made somewhat unreal. When we look away to the actual world around us our minds rebel because they’ve adjusted to this ‘new reality’: now everything else looks dull and fuzzy. We begin to question our own eyesight, rather than the image we just saw. After all, how can anything be more real than reality? It is a conundrum our minds struggle with, and consistently come up with the wrong solution to.

For the average person, the end result needs to look as much like reality as possible without going beyond it. Artistic shots are generally a reduction of this reality, not an enhancement of it. Buying the top-end equipment that can produce pictures with qualities we can’t actually see makes no sense for most people. Don’t fall for the numbers game: go for the camera that gives you the results you want at a price you can afford. That’s advice that applies to everyone.

The stupidity of smart phones

Note: this posting is only vaguely related to photography, in that you can use smart phones to take pictures. Mostly it is about using them as phones, so if you’re looking for another photography article … well this isn’t it.

Consider the following scenario: I’m in the big city, going to the airport to pick up my returning wife after an absence of nearly three months. I’m waiting in a parking lot for her to ring my cell phone and say she’s arrived so I can nip to the pick-up zone and whisk her away. Romantic, eh?

My phone doesn’t ring. It’s way past time for the plane to arrive. I try calling in the other direction, and am told that my “plan” doesn’t have the ability or credit to do that. What? I’m sure I’ve called her before, even from the city to our little town. Now it doesn’t work when we’re both out of town but still in the same city? The one day in three months I need the phone to work, and it doesn’t!

Herein the background: I don’t use my phone much. About once a week when I’m in town doing shopping I check in at home to see if there’s anything that’s been forgotten. This possibly makes me unique in all the world. Certainly it is within my family, as they (like so many others) all seem to have had their phones surgically grafted to their hands. Oh and my phone is an old Samsung Rugby; rugged and dependable but not ‘smart’. I hardly use the thing, and when I do it is only as a phone. As such, my “plan” is pay-as-you-go with automatic monthly top-up. Frankly for the amount I use it I’m getting ripped off anyway, and I’m sure they count the minutes faster than any clock does.


What I have is more than I need and costs more than it’s worth. Especially when it doesn’t work.

Suspecting the problem was the “plan”, I went looking for an alternative plan. One that specifically mentions ‘long distance’ usage, for example. I looked at different carriers, different plans, and different phones. It came down to the basic Canadian problem of “up yours, consumer!” which we experience in so many things. All the carriers offer the same poor choices of bloated, expensive plans fluffed up with “services” that in reality cost them nothing more to provide. Services I don’t need and don’t want, such as text and data. Like E.T., I just need to be able to phone home when I’m away. Even the so-called “emergency” phone plans were crap – no different than what I’ve got and no cheaper either. Quite the racket they’ve got going, eh?

When you see the phones offered, you understand why. The only non-smart phone is an awful quality Alcatel thing that has nothing but bad reviews everywhere. The companies all but demand you buy a smart phone, because that’s what they make the most profit on.

Well I won’t, because I’ve seen too many of them and the results of their use. They are poor quality, cumbersome to use, and fragile as a thin-shelled egg. Almost everyone I know has one, and they all have tales of broken screens, dead batteries, and failed functions. In the meantime, as they go through phone after phone with repeated expensive upgrades to the ‘latest and greatest’ model, my Samsung keeps working (except when the service provider decides to not allow it). It’s got dents in it, people. Dents that would be instant death for a smartphone. That’s the kind of conditions it has to endure if it’s going to be my phone. (Related: the contractor I worked with last year had a cracked screen on his; said he has to get it replace three or four times every year when it finally gets to the point of not working.)

As with the plans where they minimally hike service and maximally hike prices, so are smart phones and endless road of meaningless “upgrades” dedicated to emptying your bank account faster than you can refill it. They have made the technology addictive to the simple human mind, convincing people that smart phones are a necessity to life. So much so that people forgo food and rent rather than do without the latest improvement. It’s the electronic equivalent of crack cocaine, and when you challenge the phone addicts they become defensive and angry in just the same way. Try it and see. They’ll trot out all the good aspects of having a cell phone, insisting those justify their expense, and ignore how over-blown the contribution to society really is.

That slab of silicon silliness you laid out hundreds of dollars for (or got ‘for free’ when you signed the deal with the digital devil – think about that) is worth a fraction of the price in terms of both what it actually contains in equipment value and what good it does. There’s nothing to it like as insidious in some sci-fi story about purposefully programming the way into the human mind; there doesn’t have to be. The marketing heroes of technology have just pushed the usual brain buttons and got the results the shareholders want: millions of addicts willing to spend any amount of money to be “up-to-date” by the artificial social standards set by the companies selling the drug.

And they don’t take good pictures either. 😉

Addendum: got a message saying they’d whipped more money from me and ‘refilled’ my minutes. Number of minutes used last two months: ZERO. I’m so glad I’m paying for that.