I’ve owned a few cameras now. Most of them in the last few months. You might have noticed I’ve been going through cameras like a baby through nappies. And they’ve all had the capability of taking high quality images with no noticeable noise. Providing that it’s an outdoor shot in good light at a low ISO. When you move indoors, or dusk falls, and your camera needs a higher ISO, then the image quality quickly and drastically deteriorates. There’s a pretty simple reason for this if you have a compact camera. You have a teeny weeny sensor inside your camera that just can’t get the job done.
Ken Rockwell has a few good tips and pieces of advice on his website. Firstly, that megapixels are nothing more than a marketing game. He’s right, and I’ve been telling people this for years. Check out this photo I took of the Sphinx in Egypt, nearly 10 years ago. Snapped on a 3.3 megapixel Nikon Coolpix. There’s nothing massively wrong with the image, and what is off isn’t so much to do with megapixels anyway.
I disagree with him a little as far as ISO goes, although I do understand his point. High ISO capability has become something of a gimmick, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t be interested in the numbers. It’s just you really need to be checking out how the camera handles those high ISOs. Back to the size of the sensor. Click here and you’ll see a chart showing the different sensor sizes you’ll find in cameras. Click here for another chart and a more in depth explanation.
If you have a point and shoot compact camera, chances are that you’ve got the 1/2.5″ (or perhaps the only slightly bigger 1/2.33″) sensor. The new Canon S95 and the about to be replaced G11 have the 1/1.7″ sensor. Bigger, and it makes a noticeable difference. The Panasonic LX5 has a bigger still 1/1.63″ sensor. Which is why both of these models are so popular with keen photographers. But they are still small sensors. They are still going to produce images showing plenty of noise in low light.
The Olypus Pens have the substantially bigger Four Thirds System sensor, which, in a nutshell, is why I’ve craved this camera. A compactish body with a sensor from a DSLR camera. And now I can use higher ISO’s and get photos with massively better image quality in low light situations. It also means I have more control over the depth of field of shots.
The proof is in the pudding. This shot of a man painting a new Bicentenario header for the model unit of Tenochtitlan in Metro Zocalo was shot at an ISO of 640. You have to enlarge it to see any noise, and what there is, is well controlled. This photo of a building was shot at dusk at an ISO of 800, and even at the large setting on Flickr, noise isn’t visible. With any of my old cameras, the image quality would have been visibly poor.
In fact, I would probably not have published either photo on Flickr, and put them in the recycle bin. To say I would have ‘probably’ put the below image in the recycle bin is an understatement, taken at an ISO of 1600 on the metro. I’m not sure I’ve ever published a photo at such a high ISO before. Noise is visible, even at the size below. But it’s not photo-ruining visible. It’s perfectly usable. And with a little work in post production, I could have reduced the flaws a good deal further, had I wished.
And this is important to my photography. Whilst a lot of my shots are taken in good light, or I can use a flash in indoor situations, I can’t always use flash. Many museums forbid them, and outdoors at night a flash can be quite limited in what it can illuminate.