Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fun with High ISO

I do find it strange that when one camera outperforms another in one or two specific area suddenly the camera with lower specification is considered inferior. This case is particularly true for high ISO comparisons between cameras, and one of the most popularly discussed weakness of Micro Four Thirds system in general. 

It is no secret that Micro Four Thirds has not matched or even surpassed what the current offerings of Full Frame cameras can do in terms of high ISO shooting. On the other hand, it has been proven again and again not just by me but also by many well-respected photographers and camera reviewers that the Micro Four Thirds system has come a long way, surpassing most APS-C cameras and matching even the best APS-C DSLR/Mirrorless cameras. The mentality that "more is better" has a strong grip on consumers, and sadly these days, "good enough is no longer good enough". Sufficiency has become outdated: camera and lens purchase decisions are now not based on what works and what is needed, but more biased toward what is bigger, better and faster. The Micro Four Thirds system suddenly seems so inadequate. 

I am happy to hear the news that a newly developed sensor is being fitted into the just launched Panasonic Lumix GX8, and I am extremely excited because every single time there is a significant new sensor being introduced, you will notice a huge jump in image quality (high ISO especially). Think about the OM-D E-M5, using the first 16MP image sensor for Micro Four Thirds, versus the older 12MP sensor on PEN E-P3. It was a huge step upward and finally with that new E-M5 sensor, the gap between Micro Four Thirds and APS-C cameras are coming close to diminishing. Early reports and hands-on previews on the current Panasonic GX8 looks promising, and I wish it will bring about the same jump as seen previously in E-M5. 

Unfortunately I do not have a GX8, and not even sure when this camera will arrive here in KL. 

In this blog entry I shall be showing a few photographs taken with high ISO on the E-M5 Mark II

I have written lengthily about how to handle high ISO images with Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, if you have not read my guide please do so here (click). 

All images were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II and M.Zuiko lenses

ISO3200, 25mm F1.8 lens
I can confidently shoot ISO3200 with the E-M5 Mark II. For the sake of having a cleaner image, I have applied Noise Filter "LOW" for this image instead of "OFF". For those of you being overly sensitive to seeing even that tiny bit of grain in the image, you can opt for Noise Filter "Standard or High", with compromise of useful fine details in the image. I find Noise Filter "LOW" to provide the best balance between suppressing noise and maintaining good overall sharpness when shooting high ISO. 

Crop from the prevous image. 
Honestly, this looks even cleaner than ISO200 image that I have shot with my compact camera in 2005, a Kodak CX7430, and about the same as ISO400 (definitely much cleaner than ISO800) on my Olympus E-520 in 2009!

ISO6400, 25mm F1.8 lens
I normally would not intentionally push the high ISO beyond 3200, but if the need arises, I do not hesitate to do so. I think this is the limit and anything above ISO6400 should be avoided. 

Crop from the previous image
Olympus Truepic 7 engine is doing an efficient job in getting rid of Chroma Noise (color noise) in the high ISO image, yet still maintaining a highly detailed shot. Yes, you can see some luminance noise but that is not destructive to the image, and adds an overall pleasing look. 

ISO1600, 75mm F1.8 lens 
ISO1600 was the limit for most entry level DSLR cameras about 6-7 years ago (think Canon 400D and Nikon D40x). Even so, at ISO1600, you get really horrible and unusable image. However, we are so spoilt these days with technological advances that I have witnessed many new comers to photographers shooting ISO1600 like it was ISO200 back then.  

Crop from previous image
In low light conditions, using ISO1600 in combination with fast prime lenses, such as Olympus 45mm F1.8, 75mm 1.8 or even better then Panasonic Nocticron 42.5mm F1.2, is definitely more than sufficient for most cases. The image is practically noise free (to my eyes) with plenty of good sharpness to work with. 

ISO12800, 75mm F1.8 lens
Oh dear. Dangerous, dangerous territories for Olympus OM-D users. Honestly, the image did not turn out half as bad as I had imagined. The noise is software controlled of course by the mighty Truepic 7 engine, but the problem with shooting with high ISO is not just noise, you get soft images with pretty much lesser useful details in the image. 

Crop from previous image
No, this is not an image I would be happy about, unless it is only for web display and for small prints. You can get rid of noise by processing the image further but you cannot resurrect the dead or non-existent details. This image was taken at ISO12,800 at 1/15sec handheld. I was using the 75mm F1.8 lens. 

And then I remembered, E-M5 Mark II has that incredible built in 5-Axis Image Stabilization system, and those objects on the shelves were not moving. So I braved myself and dialled the ISO back to 3200, and the shutter speed reads 1/4sec. I took a shot. And another. I checked both images, they were perfectly sharp and free of shake. Using a 75mm lens, hand-holding it at 1/4sec, that is about 5 EV Stops of stabilization. 

Left ISO12800 and Right ISO3200
If your subject is not moving and if you have the time, you can always take a safe shot by increasing the ISO for faster shutter speed, and then, lower down the ISO and hope that the 5-Axis IS can do some magic. The difference in terms of image quality between the ISO12800 and ISO3200 is HUGE. That 5-Axis Image Stabilization has become an integral part of final image quality output in this particular case. If you have it, put it to good use, lives can be saved. 

ISO6,400, 7-14mm F2.8 PRO lens
One of the problems with shooting high ISO is experiencing color shifts, or color desaturation. I strongly believe, after many, many encounters with high ISO on Olympus OM-D system, this is not an issue to be worried about. 

Crop from previous image
Colors remained vivid and punchy, as seen with naked eyes. 


Crop from previous image

I wanted to further push the ISO limits at an acoustic live performance show last night. I remembered the venue which I have shot last time, to have extremely dim lighting, as well as poor, horrible color casts. That could be the ultimate test I had in mind. 

Much to my horror (since I could not achieve my objective) the lighting on stage has been improved and shooting with F1.8 lenses I did not even need to go further than ISO1600 to get very fast shutter speed! Looking on the bright side the lighting is now very easy to work with and I decided to just forget about high ISO shooting and enjoyed the music performance through the evening. It was a much needed coffee/music session to relax my mind. Sometimes, it is good to put the camera away. I did snap just a couple of shots. And a video. Ok ok, I put the camera away 80% of the time, which is a big deal. 

The featured act for the night was Hameer Zawawi. Do check out his Facebook Page and Youtube Channel. 

I have recorded the following video just by using the "P" mode and forget about everything else. I was getting lazy, it was getting late. 

No, Olympus OM-D and generally Micro Four Thirds system are not the champions when it comes to high ISO shooting, that is a known fact, and perhaps has been over-emphasized. However, it is also a fact that for my own shooting needs, and I am very sure this also applies for most people, you rarely do need to go above ISO6400. With all the available F1.8, F1.4 and even F1.2 lenses (loooooong list of prime lenses from Olympus and Panasonic), which are readily sharp wide open, I think the overall system is more than capable to brave the extreme low light conditions. 

I have shot the night sky at ISO3200 (you cannot get much worse than this, seriously, black sky with high ISO) and I was perfectly happy with the image output. 

I acknowledge that my "good enough" may not be good enough for you. We all have our own expectations and what we want to do with the camera also varies. If you shoot in a dark theatre, you have an F1.8 lens in hand, yet you find shooting at ISO6400 you can only get about 1/20sec shutter speed which is not fast enough to freeze motion, then you know that the Micro Four Thirds is not for you. 

Instead of aiming for the best camera with the best specifications, I always recommend the cameras (not limited to Olympus, I have recommended friends to buy all sorts of cameras from other manufacturers, if you know me in person you will know this truth) that works best for what you intend to do with the camera. Get the tool that gets the job done. 

If you are a photography hobbyist/enthusiast, instead of asking yourself "will I be happy with the high ISO performance of this camera?", I believe this question is more relevant "will I enjoy using this camera?"

What is the point of having the best camera out there (high ISO and whatever specifications you want to shout out) if you cannot enjoy shooting with it?

And this goes full circle: if you do enjoy using the camera, the high ISO limitation will not be the first thing you worry about in your images. 

Do you agree, or disagree with what I have just mentioned? Do not worry to voice out, I want to hear your say. 


  1. I've used the OMD EM5 Mk2 in a concert setting in grim lighting conditions and have been very pleased with what it produced - more than a match for my Canon 7D and not far off my 5D Mk2 at 6400 ISO.

    1. Thanks Elvis! It is not fair to compare to the older 7D but when you mentioned it is close to 5D Mark II, that is a pleasant surprise!

  2. An additional great thing with the Olympus OM-D cameras is the stabilization. The other day I took some low light snapshots with the camera on the automatic pilot. Sharp results on with ISO 1600 and 1/15 second!

    1. Exactly. With other cameras you need higher shutter speed hence increasing ISO.

  3. Very nice and relevant blog posts. I have come from Canon full frame to MFT, and now EM-1 and EM-5 MkII. I do not see at high ISO as a problem. With the superb image stabilization and faster lenses, so I rarely need to go higher than ISO 1600 now. But I'm a little worried about noise at lower ISO. I've considered starting with landscape photography , and evaluating the new 7-14mm f2.8. My 12-40mm f2.8 be sometimes not wide enough. But I remember from my 7D that blue skies and dark skies were often grainy, even at ISO 100-400. This was improved by when I bought the 5D Mark III. Now I'm a little anxious about how this will be with EM-1 and EM-5 MkII, if I bet on a 7-14mm f2.8. I also considering another option for this photography, Canon 6D and EF16-35mm f4 L IS. However this is a more expensive solution. How do you experience grains Baa skies and dark clouds? I had wanted to see you do a test :-)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, appreciate them.
      About low ISO, I am not sure if I have seen or encountered similar issues as described. Normally my skies and clouds appear clean. Then again we may have different skies. Malaysian skies, on a clear, non hazy, sunny day would have pale, light blue shade, and our skies are always with clouds. So far the skies look clean and noise-free to me.

    2. Yes, that with different clouds may be the cause. I have just not thought about it :-)
      I look at your great review of Zuiko 7-14mm f2.8, and I can not see traces of such grains in your photo with sky.
      I think I have to press the button and buy this lens, I love det dramatic looks in those wide pictures. Thanks again for great reviews with great pictures. I like much better reviews with many pictures than graphs and stuff that does not give me as much input. It is the images that we want, not DXO graphs :-)

  4. very interesting, thank you. I already did know the limitations and options to improve the NR settings, but it is always reassuring to see very good quality images taken above ISO 3200. I have the 45mm 1.8 prime and your post confirms my decision to buy the 25mm 1.8. It would be interesting to see your views on a general use zoom (to use with the EM5 II). I'm debating between the 12-50 plus 40-150 or the 14-150 II. I lean towards the longer zoom for it's practical aspect in travel & street photos, having to stop to switch lenses is annoying and often I lose the moment. But I'm also concerned with image quality. I know the 12-40 is best but the cost is too steep for me.

    1. I have written lengthily on M.Zuiko 12.50mm lens (check out my review section) and also recently the 14-150mm II lens. I have not had the time try out the 40-150mm R lens yet, maybe not anytime soon. Both lenses I have tried are excellent. Both can produce excellent quality. Go for 12-50mm if you want wide and macro. Go for 14-150mm if you need far reach and versatility.

  5. Compare these images to the same high ISOs images on film and all complaining, griping and nit-picking will stop immediately.

  6. I use a Pen as a point and shoot alongside my Canon gear, and for everything I use the Pen for, the high ISO performance is perfectly fine. The images don't enlarge as well as a larger format, but the difference is definitely less than you would expect.

    The only issue I have is that I dislike shooting with the Pen enough that I keep it in full auto mode, I find the control dial to be way too sensitive. The em10, on the other hand, is extremely enjoyable to use. s long as you can keep out of the menu system, it is a pure joy to shoot.

  7. " has been proven again and again not just by me but also by many well-respected photographers and camera reviewers that the Micro Four Thirds system has come a long way, surpassing most APS-C cameras and matching even the best APS-C DSLR/Mirrorless cameras."

    Oh how I wish that were true. Unfortunately, it's really not. All things being equal (e.g. assuming same generation of cameras/sensors) it boils down to quantity, quality, and direction of light. The less of those you have, the more the larger sensor makes a difference. Trust me on this.

    1. Dear Robert,
      tell that to so many photography experts, reviewers and professional photographers. they all think differently.

    2. Well, I qualify for two out of the three of those. [I am not a reviewer.]

      I'm a professional motion picture stills photographer, who also shoots portraiture and travel work. I am also a Fujifilm X-Photographer. Due to the nature of my work, I shoot with Nikon pro-DLRs, Fuji X-Series cameras (X-T1 offers full silence on set) … and also an OM-D E-M1 with the 12-40mm and the 75mm lenses.

      When you use these systems professionally side-by-side every day under the very challenging lighting conditions present on a film or television set, let me tell you, the online hyperbole from "co-called" experts and reviewers gets separated from reality very, very quickly.

      I love the OM-D cameras. In reasonable to good light, they perform brilliantly well, have some wonderful specific technology [including IBIS], come with their own distinct advantages [extra DOF when shooting fast outdoors is a plus] and the Olympus lenses are magnificent.

      But when you're forced to shoot at ISO 1600 and beyond in difficult or ugly light, the Fuji X-T1 sensor pulls ahead.

      The Nikon D3s sensor pulls ahead further still.

      It just is what it is.

  8. Even though we get our panties in a twist on 12500 or 25000, it still doesn't print bad. I was looking at print just recently in art stores as I was on vacation. The pictures were not that good and had a jpg and over-processed artifact look. and I am amazed at how much better the cameras of the last 3-4 years have improved in dynamic range. The camera and/or the processing of those pictures must have been from several years ago with older cameras. Everybody complains about noise, but dynamic range is what makes the images look much better across the picture and doesn't have the strange contrast halo look.
    People also think that m4/3 doesn't have dynamic range. It most certainly does and can be expanded quite well in the settings. It used to be I wouldn't even think of using "auto" at 1600 or above but now I almost always keep it there because the pixels are under control so well.

    1. Hello Bryce,
      It is true and you have mentioned that the cameras have improved so much over the years! I think we can hardly find any bad camera these days. Surely in very difficult situations I would use higher ISO, the kind of case when you would rather have a photo than nothing at all!