About High ISO Shooting with Olympus

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. 


  1. Setting noise filter OFF, how about noise Reduction? Robin

    1. Noise reduction is Dark Frame Subtraction Method, used when shooting long exposure (slow shutter speed, eg 5sec, 20sec). For more info please read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark-frame_subtraction

    2. I just leave Noise reduction to Auto. At 1/2 second exposure of slower, the dark frame subtraction method will be automatically engaged.

  2. I set my ISO Auto limit at 1600 just to be safe.

    1. Go and push beyond 1600. Most people are OK with 3200 and many were OK with 6400 including myself.

  3. Replies
    1. Happy noticing. Typos are everywhere in this blog.

  4. I absolutely agree about OV3 being a key part of the equation. Whenever I have an image that is not coming out the way I want in DxO Optics Pro 10 or PS I will run it through OV3.

    That cat was a great model.

  5. I've never found high ISO shooting a problem during daylight. It's when there isn't enough light that noise is introduced, whether it's late evening or night or indoors.

    Both the Panasonic GH3 and Olympus E-M1 seem okay up to ISO 3200 indoors but beyond that, I really have to want to keep the photos. Still--135 Format film was never, ever that good.

    1. I think you misunderstood my explanation here. There are two conditions which I highlighted, low light and poor light. The photographs ive shown were NOT taken under sunlight. They were indoors. The cats were inside a very dim warehouse. The music live performance were at night and indoors too. All reference were indoors.

      Why would anyone shoot high ISO under sunlight?

    2. Sorry. I did. Most testing I see from most sites show studio lights and high ISO, which doesn't prove anything really.

      Why would people shoot that way? I'm not sure, but I've seen all manner of tricks, including the slow shutter water tricks to make people seem clever. I've found it necessary from time to time because of odd weather but usually I just give up.

      I wish that micro Four Thirds was more usable in low light, but my magic isn't as strong as yours.

  6. Did you really mean "low light does necessarily mean poor light" or should it read "doesn't"?
    You gave a good summary in your write-up.
    Shooting at high ISO might produce varying results. It all depends on the light and subject.
    High ISO tests in reviews only show half the truth. Pushing ISO to max in a scene with plenty of light by increasing shutter speed, like many testers do, does not tell you much.
    Real world examples do much better show what to expect.
    Same with noise. There are different kinds of noise and they are perceived differently. Some care more about chromatic, some about luminance noise. Some cameras produce a smeary kind of noise, others a more film like grainy one. To me, a picture of a live act and some grain go perfectly together. (hey, there are even grain effects available in some software) The M10 is more one the grainy side, which to me can better be post-processed and looks nicer.
    Next is image size and what you really want to do with it. Reduced to fit an HD screen, most noise is invisible, same applies to a letter size print. You should never look at 100%, and if you do or need to, get a high end full frame camera.
    I love available light photography and I recently got a M10. In can perfectly hold up against my previous APS-C DSLR even with JPGs out of the camera.
    OV3 does a better job, but is sloooowwww and I try to avoid for most.
    To me, everything the M10 produces up to ISO 4000 is usable straight forward.
    Note: if you take a picture in a street at night at ISO 4000, you camera already sees better than your eyes do. So why even bother about letters on a menu card of a restaurant in the right upper corner of you picture?
    And last, not least, the picture is not being taken by the camera, but by the guy behind it. And seemingly Robin knows pretty well how to compose a picture.

  7. If you didn't know you personally, I would say you're bluffing Robin. That first cat photo shows how some magical skill in establishing the physical shot before getting into post processing is so important..

    I use Olympus Viewer 3 sometimes, Corel Aftershot Pro 2 sometimes, Adobe Lightroom more and more often - all the software has improved in software noise reduction currently - but as you have shown, before you engage software, you should set up the conditions for the shot properly first

    With the raw, it doesn't matter about Noise Filter, right? That's an instruction to the JPEG engine. You can set the software to completely ignore that request.

    With the dark frame subtraction - that's a JPEG effect too? Does the raw benefit?

    1. Dark Frame Subtraction (do read up) benefits both JPEG and RAW. It is a physical mechanical solution (capturing the image twice) to remove hot pixels.

      Oh dear.. I hope no one else is saying I am bluffing! Kidding kidding. But you were right, getting the shot as good as it can be before post processing is very important!

    2. For some reason, I kept thinking that the double exposure was only for JPEG. But now that you mention it Robin, yes, you are right - it is two physical frames at the sensor, not in the pipeline later. I kept switching it off because I didn't want to wait for 2x the exposure time. Ok, time to let go of that misconception. Hope you are well. Hope your mum is well.

  8. This is exactly the type of "imaginary world delusion" many people falls squarely into. They start from "widely known facts" (as in "everybody knows that..."), then apply it to the real world despite factual proofs of the contrary. So, because "everybody knows only full-frames or apc-s sensors are good in low light", it is clear that your shots were not taken in low light. Because M4/3 is a small sensor. :P

  9. hi Robin, which one is wiser/better to do? To do underexposed image with lower ISO then fix it in PP, or set higher ISO and take the correct exposure? I'm talking RAW, of course. Is there any difference in those two methods?

  10. Judging from some responses Robin you must have a lot of readers who shoot pro layouts for magazines or are wedding photographers. I carry the EM1 OR EM10 I own places a FF 5D would never go so getting the best possible shots' s better than not getting it at all... bob for cathy

  11. After trying out Aperture, Lightroom, Olympus Viewer and Capture One, I found that the latter gives the same results as Oplympus Viewer, but with a much quicker workflow. Lightroom really isn't a good raw conversion tool.

    1. Funny to read that, because i found Capture One being "Spot on !" with Olympus rendering too. Set "Vivid", and you get Olympus Viewer "Vivd" setting.
      It never happened with ANY other raw converter.
      Lightroom is flat with Panasonic and Olympus cameras ( and i didn't bought "Olympus colors" to get flat pictures :D ).

      PhotoNinja is another amazing raw converter. But totally different rendering than OV/C1.

  12. Hey Robin, nice post and nice cats! I've been shooting with an EM-5 for a couple of years, and I agree with your comments. When shooting in extreme conditions, i.e. the quality of light is poor, particularly when there is a very large contrast between the highlights and the shadows, I tend to avoid 6400 and set my uppoer limit at 4000 - otherwise you risk getting some nasty-looking banding in the shadows, especially when you pull them up, which is then difficult to fix. But this is extremes we're talking about - like shooting a spot-lit band in an otherwise dim, but not necessarily fully dark, environment. If you take your time and pick your subject normally, results improve considerably. I've never shot a double-frame (not even sure I can on my creaky old obsolete work-horse) and use Lightroom to process as fast as possible. Because I don't get involved with strobes (they tend to mess up lighting effects) that does sometimes mean I bump up against that limit and my images lack some sharpness, but hey a lot of the arguing about high ISO camera capabilities almost comes down to a 'who can shoot the blackest cat in the darkest coal-shed' genital waving. I've been more than happy with the amount of grain I get at high ISO since I picked up my E-M5, in fact I had to teach myself to stop shoving in loads of NR in post because I no longer needed it!

  13. I believe the word "pixel masturbation" (sorry for language) fits to this category again. Everyone can find noise in photography taken by ANY camera with ANY ISO.
    The question seems to be, what "camp" does the "pixel masturbator" belong.

    Personally I don't care about "grain looking noise" as it doesn't ruin the photo by my opinion, like the noise (RGB colors splattered all around) does. And as Olympus OM-D cameras basically doesn't have the noise, I am very pleased to shoot with it even at highest ISO level.

    Few weeks ago my friend wanted to borrow my E-M1 for 3 weeks trip. I don't know in what kind mentality state I have been when I agreed to it as I didn't like to be stick to backup camera (Olympus) for that period or use any Canon/Nikon camera on that time as I admire the grip in E-M1.
    My friend has went basic photography classes years back (film era still...) and didn't want to know any fancy tech things, just basic ISO, Aperture etc. So I few times went trough all the three settings how to adjust and remind what they meant.

    After the holiday, my friend came to return my camera and had made few prints of the dozen or so photos taken on the trip. The photos were on two size like 10x13cm and 20x13cm sizes (seem to be about so). I liked colors, but I wondered why did my friend had so much everything about sharp and didn't my friend like the separating subjects?
    It was not later than on that evening when I reviewed camera card content with photos of my friend that I noticed almost all photos were taken with f18-22 and ISO 12800-25600. Yes, even the photos taken in bright sunlight.

    I couldn't do more than laugh, slap my hand on my forehead and shake my head. Next day I called my friend and told been wondering how to get aperture smaller, as the aperture didn't "rotate around" the setting like ISO and white balance does.
    And it was only then, reviewing some of the photos on 4k display that I noticed that the noise elimination algorithm (default level) was basically killed all small details and circle of confusion limit was made own small "mark" as well.
    The large prints looked great, just odd because everything was sharp from foreground to background (f/18-22 reason). The EVF made its magic, as my friend didn't have a single photo that would have been underexposed or overexposed. The exposure range in E-M1 sensor is awesome while it is almost 13 EV, there were only few photos that had some clippin in very minor areas, where direct sunlight shined and deepest shadow where sun doesn't reach at all (wells, caves etc), covering only about 1% of the photo surface in very minor areas.

    People don't usually look the photograp, the seek errors or marks of the camera technology.
    Like in Robin samples, when viewer focus to what photographer has chosen to be the element to what draw the attention, I don't see problems at all with ISO 3200-6400 as the sharp and detailed areas just pops even more, and out of focus areas are good looking out of focus areas.

    For some people the "noise" is just a show stopper, as they go and seek it from others photos and they whine about it, instead that they would see the photograph itself. The photographs for such people could be test charts or photos of landing UFO and they still wouldn't see the difference in content.

  14. I have no problem shooting using higher ISOs with my EM1 or EM5. The images do have noise, but I know if printed, the noise is easily 'forgiven' (I showed someone a photo I took at a nocturnal house at ISO 6400. Digital image has a lot of visible noise, but the print in the photobook, no noise.) I photograph birds, so keep the ISO up high, so I can get the fastest shutter speed at F/8 to f/11 (depending on environment) to capture a freeze frame, even in flight.

    I do like how you point out it's not just the level of light, but the quality of ot.

  15. pssstttt...convenient fact: all images here scaled from SIXTEEN megapixels to ONE megapixel. i.e., noise is averaged out during downsizing.

    1. pssssst, important fact. ALL these images were taken from my previous review entries, with many 100% crop as well as FULL SIZE RESOLUTION for downloads. If you do not even know that, you really should not be here.

    2. kingsmeadow - go ahead and download my image from http://wolfgang.lonien.de/2014/11/two-cups-at-iso-6400/ (original full size is on Flickr). It was taken with ISO 6400 and not much post processing like Robin described, using OV3 and applying a "Low" noise reduction during raw conversion.

      I don't know about you, but our biggest prints on the wall are 30x40cm, which is about A3 size. And these images would make *great* A3 prints, much better than I ever did with 24x36mm film.

      Oh, on 100% you'll see noise, or grain, or whatever you want to call it. But who would inspect photos with a loupe instead of looking at the whole image?

      Thanks Robin - your photos are way better than my quick example.

  16. "ALL these images were taken from my previous review entries, with many 100% crop as well as FULL SIZE RESOLUTION for downloads. If you do not even know that, you really should not be here."

    THIS is your article on high ISO performance. THIS article contains only ~ONE megapixel images. THIS article mentions nothing about original-size images or 100% crops.

    Do you demand on the audience knowing YOUR full publishing history to understand THIS article? Do you intend for THIS article to appeal only to YOUR long term readers? [if so, what is the point]

    Sure, that is your right. But it also makes absolutely zero sense.

    Leave the "important fact" buried deep in the comments section. Good going.

    It is a disingenuous way to make your claim on the ISO discussion. But again, it is your right.

  17. Robin,

    I appreciate this post (and your blog). But I'm curious what the shutter speeds and aperatures on these pics are. Meaning, are these lighting situations where you don't actually need high ISOs?

    Of course, in good light, you'll get less noise, regardless of high or low iso. But the reality is that most photographers only need to push ISO in less optimal circumstances where they're already at F1.4 and 1/60th of a second and are out of options. It's in those situations that we start to ask ourselves, will other APS-C or full frame sensors handle skin tones and noise in a way that works better.



  18. Hi Robin.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful articles on Olympus. I switched earlier this year and haven't looked back having gone from E-P1 to E-P3 to E-M10 and recently E-M5. Sold the E-P1 to a friend which he loves, amazing camera and my daughter has the E-P3. Also purchased a E-PL1 for my sister as a gift for a holiday.

    One thing I wanted to ask is something I was told for Canon and that was never to use in between ISO's. Hence ISO6400 would be better than ISO5000 which is in between ISO3200 to ISO6400. Similarly better to shoot ISO3200 than say ISO2500 as the in-between ISO's were software generated.

    1. Never heard of this on Olympus. Remember m43 sensors (16MP and 20MP) are made by Sony. So this thing may be related to Canon only (making their own sensors...for now).
      I just avoid extended range (LOW and 5000+ ISO on E-M10 mark I).
      Auto ISO rules on Olympus ;) I shot at 2500 ISO, Gradation Normal in a church (no flash allowed, of course), with the "over expose a little" Robin Wong trick.
      OOC JPEG was like an outdoor one :D

  19. Olympus is one of the best digital camera preferred by professional photographers. It comes with increase in rear screen resolution. It makes normal picture like if it is created by professional. But inspite of so awesomeness sometimes pictures gets deleted. I too have encountered image loss but thanks to solution i got here:- http://www.recoverysoftw.com/olympus-photo-video-recovery-software

  20. Could you please post the shutter speed of the "John O from Paperplane Pursuit" Image? I often have a hard time deciding between fast shutter speed and ISO...