Caffeine Priority: When ISO 25,600 is just what you do

by Dave Etchells

posted Sunday, October 18, 2015 at 7:00 AM EDT


Wake up with IR - Here's today's dose of Caffeine Priority!

I recently had an opportunity to realize just how far digital photography has gone beyond film in recent years. I was shooting with the Sony A7S II, their latest high-iso/low-light monster, in a venue with typical bar-with-music lighting. (It was a bar that frequently featured music, so no surprise in that respect :-) 

We've posted a pretty extensive Sony A7S II gallery from that event, concentrating on the camera's low-light chops. (Daytime shots and our standard lab images will follow as soon as we get a sample in-house for testing at IRHQ.)

I shot a fair bit with the camera that night, although most of the images in the gallery were captured by Mike Tomkins. (I tend to get caught up in conversations with industry folks at these sorts of things, and Mike frankly has a better eye than I do anyway.) 

This one was "only" shot at ISO 20,000, but the results are pretty amazing.
Sony A7S II, 1/100 sec, f/2.8, 90mm, ISO 20,000
(Click for from-camera original)

It was something of an ephiphany for me. At one point, I realized "Hey, wait a minute: This is ISO freakin' 25,600 I'm shooting at!" It's popular to say that it's the photographer, not the gear that makes the photos, but it doesn't matter how good a photographer you are; if your camera's struggling to handle ISO 3,200, it's going to really cramp your style in true low-light conditions like these. Even if you're pretty steady at hand-holding at long shutter speeds and have fantastic IS helping you, if your subject moves, you're still going to get blurry Images.

Amazingly crisp detail and well-controlled noise for 25,600.

The Sony A7S II really took all those concerns off the table. At ISO 25,600, the A7S II's image quality is such that for a lot of limited-light applications, you'll be able to just set ISO at that level and forget about it. That was essentially what I did. I certainly could have used the Auto ISO setting and ended up with more shots at lower ISOs (as Mike did), but I myself was most interested to see how the camera handled really high ISO, so just set it to that level manually. Looking at the shots afterwards was when I realized that wouldn't be a such bad plan, regardless, depending on how big I wanted to print or view the results.

Our colleague Chris Gampat from The Phoblographer, enjoying his time in high-ISO land as well.
Sony A7S II, 1/100s, f/2.8, 90mm, ISO 25,600
(Click here for from-camera original)

Relative to film, my old-codger memory dates back to when ISO 1,600 was really about the limit for routine shooting, although you could get to ISO 3,200 if you were willing to put up with golf-ball size grain. Nowadays, ISO 3,200 is pretty routine for a lot of interchangeable-lens cameras, even sub-frame ones. With the A7S II, ISO 25,600 is like shooting with ISO 200-400 film, from back in the day.

It's a great time to be a photographer, no? 

What do you think? Do you shoot a lot of low-light work? Are you satisfied with your camera's current level of high-ISO performance, or do you often find yourself looking for more? Any low-light tips for fellow readers? Chime in on the comment thread below!


I'll close with this pretty lady, international burlesque star Amber Ray, also featured in our initial news post announcing the A7S II gallery. I only very rarely get to work with professional models, but even among them, I was impressed by Ms. Ray's posing skills. A lot of us duffers came away with great shots that night, but it was all down to Ms. Ray's skill, and very little to our modest abilities :-) This was a case where I really didn't need ISO 25,600, given that the camera ended up at 1/400 sec, but the image quality shows why I felt like I just didn't have to worry about high ISO with the A7S II.
Sony A7S II, 1/400s, f/4.0, 70mm, ISO 25,600, Adobe RGB color space
(Click for from-camera original)


Caffeine Priority is a new series of short morning photo-tidbits, to ease you into your day and give us a chance to share a bit more of what life’s like here at IR. We're more like a group of friends testing and talking about cameras and lenses than the buttoned-down, big-corporation world that some of our photo-friends at other companies work in; hopefully these little snippets will share some of that. So... grab another cup of coffee and join in the conversation with us down below!