I have noticed several comments, here on my blog as well on forum discussions, mentioning how it was almost impossible (ok, impossible is a very strong word, or simply put as "unlikely") the shots I took with Olympus cameras (E-M5, E-M1, E-M10) exhibiting so little noise, looking so clean when I was shooting at high ISO settings (ISO3200-6400).
Before we step any further in this subject, I would like to clarify a few items. I never mentioned that you do not see noise in Olympus high ISO shots, and surely I also did not mention that the shots were "clean" and "noise-free". I always, always have been careful when it comes to touchy subjects like high ISO shooting, and I always mentioned my high ISO shots were "good enough" and noise was handled, or controlled well. Noise is present in image even at lower ISO settings, it is either the noise was smoothened out by in camera processing or too negligible to be detected with normal computer screen views. How tolerable the amount of visible noise in high ISO varies from person to person. I was perfectly fine with E-M1's ISO6400 ouput, but showing the exact same image to a friend, he cringed even at the sight of some luminance noise (which I was perfectly fine with since it did not add any destructive effect to the image, instead adding "structure" which looked nice, in my own opinion).
I do have to reiterate that Olympus cameras CAN shoot very good images, and I shall put a stop at ISO6400 here. Yes we can go higher and still get away with usable images, but we all know there are other "higher end" cameras that can do better. The problem here is, many people thought that I somehow miraculously managed to shoot "supposedly" clean ISO3200 and ISO6400 images.
ISO3200, Olympus OM-D E-M1 and M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 PRO lens
ISO6,400, OM-D E-M10 and M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8
John O from Paperplane Pursuit
ISO3,200 OM-D E-M10 and M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8
Here are some things to watch out for when shooting high ISO images:
1) Lighting Quality vs Lighting Sufficiency
There are two different factors to consider when it comes to lighting (some experts would name even more variables, but lets just stay with two here for simplicity sake): 1) Amount of Light and 2) Quality of Light.
Why do we use high ISO in our photography? When the amount of light is low, without any aid in additional source of light (eg, flash, strobes, etc) we do need to increase the image sensor sensitivity, allowing the sensor to be able to "capture" more light. However, one very, very crucial point to consider here, low light does necessarily mean poor light. The amount of light may be insufficient, yes, but the photographer must constantly be aware of the "quality of light". Quality of light here refers to the color, the direction, the dispersion and how the light envelopes the subject. Examples of poor quality light includes ugly green mixed fluorescent lights, casting very unflatteringly flat even distribution of light, without good shadow shaping, thus creating a dull, uninteresting and very ugly image. The main message here is, many times, bad images were not caused by shooting in low light using high ISO, but actually due to poor lighting conditions on the subject, and amplifed by the effect of ugly noise introduced by high ISO.
If you noticed the image of the cat as illustrated above, the image was taken at ISO3200, the light levels were low, but the source of light was good. It was taken in a "warehouse" environment, with sunlight being diffused through the translucent roof, and the light was directional. The color was well balanced. Therefore, the image came out good, though it was taken with high ISO.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to always fall back to photography basics, and lighting is very, very important.
2) Do not underexpose
Whenever shooting with Olympus cameras, never, ever underexpose when shooting at higher ISO settings. The shadow recovery would introduce plenty of unwanted noise. I understand there are some photographers who prefer to underexpose their images to obtain higher shutter speed, hence freezing motion. You must always properly expose the images for Olympus cameras, and your files will look good even at very high ISO settings.
3) Use Olympus Viewer 3
I have mentioned several times the benefits of using Olympus Viewer 3 to handle Olympus RAW files. Oh by the way, if you really do want to squeeze that every last bit of detail out of the high ISO files, do shoot in RAW, the benefits are multi-fold. Then using Olympus Viewer 3, the files are optimized, maintaining high level of good details in tact, while reducing significantly the unwanted noise.
I acknowledge the fact that the Olympus Viewer 3 is extremely not user friendly and it is sluggish, slowing down any photography workflow. If you are handling a large amount of files, surely it will be quite a pain to sit through with Olympus Viewer 3, I know, trust me because I went through the same thing, I also understand that in Lightroom and Photoshop, Olympus images can be processed and they do come out good (so many people use them, surely). Nonetheless, you need to know what you are doing with Lightroom and Photoshop to get that "optimized" look in Olympus files.
In Olympus Viewer 3, I rarely had to do anything much. Perhaps a simple tweak of exposure compensation, some minor white balance adjustment and toggling between Noise Filter Low and Off to get what I wanted. The above cat image was taken with Noise Filter Low. Hence you can see that the image is a little smoothened out, but the fine fur is still looking quite natural without being smudged. For my usual blog review purposes I always turned the noise filter off. Even at noise filter set to off, Olympus Viewer 3 handles high ISO images very well.
ISO5,000, Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Kit Lens 12-50mm F3.5-6.3
ISO6,400 PEN E-PL7 with M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8
There may be a few other factors affecting the high ISO image output, but the most important one is still my first point, pay attention to quality of light.
Serously, even if you shoot in abundant light, in a bright place, but the light is poor, having ugly colors and being too harsh or too flat, then your image will come out bad anyway, due to poor lighting though shooting in low ISO. So ask yourself this, if poor lighting condition, shooting at low ISO can give bad results, how can we expect the cameras to miraculously shoot good images in the same poor lighting condition, at a darker environment while the ISO is being ramped up?
Is it not the common problem when low light is normally the same place when the light condition is unfavourable?
Do you shoot with high ISO on your Olympus cameras? Do share some thoughts.