Dealing with High ISO Shooting on Olympus OM-D Cameras

One of the most frustrating things to see at online forums or any other photography discussions is how poor the high ISO performance is for Micro Four Thirds system. I do not challenge the physics that larger image sensor size will yield cleaner and better results when it comes to high ISO scenario, but I have never encountered a situation in both my professional and personal shooting environment where the low light capability of my OM-D camera is insufficient. Therefore, I thought it would be great to share some of the tips on dealing with high ISO shooting, some dos and don'ts when using the Olympus OM-D camera system. 


Before we dive too deep, let me remind you that we should not obsess with high ISO shooting, especially when it comes to personal shooting.  I can totally understand if you shoot commercially and you have to deliver shots to clients. For personal projects, don't let high ISO noise get in the way of your photography process. Noise or no noise, a great image is still a great image. Good photography has no correlation to high ISO noise. Focus more on the idea or emotion you are expressing in your photographs, the visual story-telling component. 

With that out of the way, let's begin!


DO NOT USE SILENT SHUTTER

When shooting at high ISO, silent shutter will amplify the visible noise in the images. I am not entirely sure why this is the case, but when silent shutter, or electronic shutter is engaged, the resulting image suffers more  degradation, with higher amount of noise grains and artifacts in comparison to normal mechanical shutter use. Furthermore,  in the shadow area of the image, there are ugly green color cast that appear as patches and blotches which are very difficult to correct or remove in post-processing. These ugly green blotches are not present when normal mechanical shutter is being used. I'd only advice to use the silent shutter when absolutely necessary - shooting a piano recital for example. In other cases when shutter sound is not a concern, using the normal mechanical  shutter will ensure you better high ISO results. 

ISO6400 image, intentionally underexposed to exaggerate noise bahaviour

Crops from previous image.
Left: Normal Shutter, Right: Silent Shutter

ISO6400, intentionally underexposed to exaggerate noise pattern

Crops from previous image.
Left: Normal Shutter, Right:Silent Shutter. Notice the ugly green cast/patches in the shadow area.

HAND-HELD STARLIGHT SCENE  MODE

For JPEG shooters, there is an interesting multi-shot noise reduction mode built into the camera that can be used to help reduce high ISO noise significantly. You can find this feature "Hand-Held Starlight" under scene mode.Unfortunately, E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II do not have scene modes, Olympus decided to exclude them in these cameras. For all other OM-D cameras, such as E-M10 Mark III, E-M1, E-M5 Mark II, you can make use of this mode to get much cleaner results. Once engaged, the hand-held starlight mode will capture 8 separate images consecutively and then merge them all into one composite image to significantly reduce the noise in the image. This works because high ISO noise pattern is random,  and same noise grain does not exist in the same pixel location in every image captured. Sampling 8 different images, there is a high chance to selectively merge areas with clean pixels, hence resulting in a better image. Do take note that this method, like any other in camera composite modes, only works with static subjects. 

ISO3200, underexposed 

ISO3200,normal shot

ISO3200 crop, Hand-Held Starlight mode


DO NOT UNDEREXPOSE

This is a general rule of thumb when it comes  to low light shooting, not just for Olympus cameras, but also applicable for all cameras. Underexposure leads to less information captured in the shadow region, lifting the shadows in post-processing will amplify the noise in the image. It is very crucial to get the exposure right during shooting especially when shooting high ISO.  It is also recommended to slightly overexpose the image to get cleaner shadows, but do be careful not to clip the highlights, as highlights may be difficult to recover at high ISO shooting as well. Shooting discipline is crucial. 

SHOOT IN RAW

If you do not shoot RAW, you should definitely start considering RAW if you have to deal with a lot of low light situations. Shooting in RAW allows the camera to capture as much information as possible in a single image, and these data can be stretched and recovered in post-processing. JPEG information is limited, and camera does internal noise reduction process which does a good job at minimizing noise, but at the expense of useful detail as well, resulting in often painterly, mushy look. Another important aspect of shooting in RAW is the ability to correct the white balance with no consequence to the image noise. Shooting JPEG with the wrong white balance setting will be disastrous when correcting the colors, introducing ugly noise in the mage.  Shooting RAW and doing effective post-processing will almost guarantee better high ISO images. 

GRADATION NORMAL

I generally recommend setting the camera's gradation setting to normal, because the "auto" setting will lift shadow areas, and this is not really helpful when our goal is to minimize noise in the image. I did suggest using "Auto" gradation in my optimizing dynamic range article/video lately, and that is strictly applicable when shooting at ISO200 and for the sole reason of boosting dynamic range shooting in JPEG only. When shooting at higher ISO numbers, 800 or beyond, using gradation auto will severely affect the noise in the image. 

I hope you have found these tips useful! If you have more to share, leave them in the comments below, sharing is caring!


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2 comments:

  1. Another pragmatic, well written and useful article, Robin. Thanks!

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  2. Thanks Robin, I had not connected noise at high ISO with e-shutter but have taken note of this and will switch back to mechanical shutter in these instances.. Also, as an older OMD EM1 Mk1 user, I have the Hand Held Starlight Scene mode, which had completely escaped my attention - I don't particularly use the scene modes but this could be really useful ( e.g. badly lit indoor museum photos).
    Thanks for these tips and all the various reviews - they are my most useful source of m43 info and also very entertaining.

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