Good light is good (…and high ISO is often overrated).

Inspiration, Q&A, Teaching point

Good Light is Good (…and High ISO is overrated)

A number of years ago, Nikon introduced the flagship D3 and changed the face of photography by allowing us to capture images in near darkness.   I remember taking an image indoors late one evening in 2007 and marveling at how clean the image looked at ISO 6400.

Yet, these days when I photograph, I preferentially seek good light, and my ISO requirements with an f/1.4 aperture lens rarely exceed 1600.  Anything more than this, and I’m basically turning nighttime into daytime — which is often undesirable, as it destroys the ambiance of nighttime scenes.

I’ve learned the obvious: good light is good, and no amount of ISO boosting overcomes the disadvantages of poor light or poor lighting.

Good light reveals nuances in colours and textures, and generally confers depth to those flat representations of the world we call photographs.

That same ISO 6400 image from six years ago, when viewed now with a more critical eye, falls a little short on an aesthetic level, not because the lighting was dim, but because the lighting was poor.

Poor light is not necessarily the same as weak light.  For example, the scant light available after a sunset is “good light”, if one harnesses it properly (with the aid of a tripod and slow shutter speed).  The same thing may be said of incandescent lighting, if it is arranged on your subject in a pleasing way. 

Good light is not necessarily the same as bright or plentiful light.  For example, midday sunlight is often too stark to be desirable for portraiture, but may be perfect if the goal is to capture the interplay of light and shadow. 

Admittedly, high ISO capabilities are desirable for specific applications — for example, astrophotography, where the goal is to “see” the faint light emitted by distant stars but the exposure time is kept to a minimum to “freeze” the stars’ movement (so that stars remain “points” of light in the final photograph).  Or, if the goal is to capture action in dim light, or to record a memory for posterity and lighting considerations are secondary or beyond one’s control, then yes, a high-ISO-capable camera is vital.

If the goal, however, is to create an aesthetically pleasing photograph — even at night — then seek good light.



28 thoughts on “Good light is good (…and high ISO is often overrated).

  1. Excellent commentary, Peter. This is why I have come to so love the M9. Its limitations on ISO are really not limitations but choices. Lately, I’ve been trying to keep my ISO to 640 or below. One finds that the opportunities for shooting in the “good light,” as you say, are there more than you think if you just look, particularly when you look at it as you’ve described and I hadn’t thought of. I’ve said that the only reason I would consider replacing the M9 is because of its ISO limitations, but I’m not feeling that way anymore. And your commentary is such a wonderful perspective on ISO. We always think more pixels and more ISO, when what we really need more of is perspective.

    1. 95% of the time, my ISO is also at 640 or below. My ISO 1600 cap covers the remaining 5%.

      And although high ISO performance is always welcomed, I wouldn’t compromise performance at low ISO to have it. Every camera represents a combination of trade-offs and, like you, I’ve chosen to stay with the M9 (even after owning the Sony RX1R and Leica M240).

      1. Peter, I just want to let you know that there are plenty of photography sites that inform me and are appreciated. However, your site not only informs me but inspires me. Thanks.

      1. Thank you very much Peter! Enjoy your family too during this special time! However, I will be away flying for work. On my way to Savannah now then to Florida and then who knows where this week will take me.

  2. Hello Peter, Totally agreed with you. I was thinking similar topics these days when all these new cameras buzzing in the market & I asked myself if I need one. I finally come to the conclusion that I do not need them despite their ability to shoot in darkness. I noticed that even a camera can go up to ISO 6400 or even ISO12800; the quality of the image even though is clean; but the IQ is not too nice at all. In other words, we can take that photo at near darkness, it does not mean it is a nice image if there isn’t good lighting. I appreciate your thought in this!! Perhaps money is well spent in lens like Summilux.

  3. 110% agree…….great you have put these thoughts down as words Peter. ISO and pixels (“resolution to nth degree”) are two subjects I grow weary of hearing about with new technology.

    It’s all about the image. Hundreds of thousands (even millions) of images have been created during and before our time with “good light”, with no need to rely on current technology.

    So for my week away over Christmas I’m taking a few rolls of film and the Ikon and my MM (even though they call this an ISO demon I also don’t like to shoot this beyond 2000 and I think you have summed it up well as to why!).

    Co-incidentally I received a phone call yesterday from the dealer where I purchased my MM asking if I’d like to buy the M240 as he has 2 sitting on his shelf ready to sell. So good news to those looking as it may be that supply is catching up.

    Also he mentioned his biggest waiting list for any camera from all of them (a7, Df, M240, etc) was for the used M9!!

    1. Sorry I should clarify my final point above a little more…..It just might go to show more and more people, whether it be film, old digital technologies (M9 as an example) are now valuing the very aspect you are mentioning here Peter. It’s about the basics and light sources. That last point was not about M240 v M9 at all.

  4. Peter, that’s a very good summation of years of learning! I had found that truth over time but somehow from time to time I obstinately attempt to push the limits. Latest adventures are with a Sony A7r and Leica Noctilux f/0.95. The short of it, is that I have yet to make any images in low and bad light that I can be satisfied with. And I am finding it hard each time I have to put down my M9P to use another camera.

    Happy explorations to all, and Best Wishes for the Season.

  5. i can live nicely with the limit of the Limit of the M9. my best photos have been done in daylight, and when i was doing some concert photography, i put it on iso 640 with worked out nicely with the 75 lux.

  6. Happy Holidays my friend, and to all.

    I’ll give your thoughts an ‘A’ and your stick drawing illustration an ‘A+’


    All the best.

  7. Excellent article. I find my need for pushing ISO is more in snapshot situations such as instances where I’m not really considering IQ but more just preserving the moment (e.g., birthday party in low light, etc).

  8. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I predicted you would re-purchase an M9 soon after you had gotten the M240. There’s only a few occasions where better ISO capabilities really make a difference I find.

  9. Well, I hope you realize that being able to look for the right light is a luxury a lot of pro’s can’t afford. For example, with my documentary wedding approach, I can’t ask the couple to move to the good light, for the sake of photography. And that’s why my M9 has become my second camera and the M240 my main body. And it works beautifully. During my 4-month trip around the world with my M9, I think I never used any higher than 640 ISO. But on that trip, I wasn’t working for clients and I didn’t have to deliver. That, my dear rangefinder friends, is a huge difference.

  10. A great post, and one which has helped reign-in my amateurish pursuit of the latest camera with the ‘best’ low-light performance!

    I wonder, and maybe this is a moot point, but is there a technical ‘sweet-spot’ that replicates the low-light abilities of the human eye? My own desire is often just to be able to take a photo in situations such as around a candle-lit dinner table, or a birthday cake, and capture the low-light ambiance of what my eyes are seeing at that time, rather than boost the light and turn night in to day as suggested. I suspect I can almost do this with my cheap old SLR and lenses, and I suppose what I’m saying is, is there a point at which a certain ISO will give me the cleanest possible image, but any ‘more’ ISO will simply add light that was never there?

    1. Ultimately, you are asking about “exposure”, and that’s a function of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The camera can decide this for you, but it often gets it wrong. If you control these things yourself, you will be more successful at communicating your “vision”.

  11. Looking froward to your return. I’m an avid follower. Just found a print I made 35 years ago of my son, age 6 at the time, and my wife sitting by a campfire. Their faces illuminated by the flames. Captured on TriX at ASA (ISO) 400. Had I exposed this at a higher ISO I no doubt would have lost the moment. I use Leica M9p and MM but seldom go above ISO of 800 on either. I always am to expose for that part of the scene which is most important —– the shadows can go where ever they fall.

  12. A counter-point for the sake of devil’s advocacy: fast lenses may be a better trade-off than CMOS sensors. OTOH, if you actually want something in focus, apart from maybe an eyeball, you might prefer to go no wider than f/2.8. But in that case, your sensor choices are limited to CMOS (though there is no physical reason why CCDs can’t compete on ISO).

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