The ISO 6400 Project (part one)

The ISO 6400 Project (part one)

The ISO 6400 project came about by accident. I had a dirty sensor that only showed spots at high ISOs. Several cleanings took care of the dust, but being paranoid, I had to intentionally shoot at ISO 6400 to see if any spots other than normal noise had still appeared. So, if I am going to shoot, I might as well make it something worth shooting right? I might as well see what I can realistically expect out of my camera when pushing it to its limits. For that reason alone, this is an exercise that I highly recommend everyone tries!

The project was born at 3am in the studio on a whim. There was literally zero planning or prep. Good thing there were some tea lights laying around!

For this series I chose the 5DmII because it is affordable, readily available, and performs fantastic at ISO 6400 in comparison to even many newer cameras. It also happens to be my main camera at this point in time.

below: The first setup with IG @xmissevee... not much light


I chose to break it down into two shoots: The first one with low light. This is significant because I was absolutely pushing the camera's limits with very little to no-help available. The main light was provided by 15 tea light candles. I also had a 150w Fresnel that was bounced, off black, (look closely, its black, the BTS image is just blown out) ... to cheat about 1/3 to 2/3 stops in the highlights, about 1/3 stop in the mids, and nothing in the shadows. I did NOT want to do this, but it was absolutely necessary to be able to pull an exposure worth looking at. Lastly, since I was shooting a model, I did not want to give up hand holding my camera so a tripod was out of the question.

below: Second setup with IG @xmissevee a paint drop and a modeling light, thats it.


The second setup was 'High ISO High Light'. This is significant because it was an active choice to use high ISO to add noise to purposefully affect the camera's performance. The ISO was unnecessarily cranked so the conditions could be (or more likely, needed to be) greatly modified. Because this shoot was in a dark studio at night, no ND filter was needed, but a daylight shoot would have certainly required at least 3 stops.

I should also add that I did not test, nor care to test, technical things like buffer times, battery performance and all that tech stuff. This is strictly on sensor performance; and more specifically, creating a look. So here is part one:

High ISO Low Light

Insert (left) ISO 3200 | @ f2.8 | 1/50 (handheld) | Canon 200mm 2.8L II on 5D mII

(right) ISO 6400 | @ f2.8 | 1/125 | Canon 200mm 2.8L II on 5D mII

When looking at the image to the left in comparison to the one on the right, try and ignore the noise for a second and remember this: I was about 25' away, laying on my back on a couch in the other room. THEN, I changed my angle of view, which created the massive bloom of bokeh that you see in the background of the image to the right. They are completely different locations without anything outside the window. The feel goes from isolated and private, to voyeuristic and, dare I say, metropolitan? Two COMPLETELY different images, changed by simply sitting up!

My 200mm prime lens had zero trouble with focus. The USM on this particular lens is top notch. Hands down one of the best focusing lenses I have EVER owned. And that’s in ALL conditions: tracking motion for sports, it handles compressed landscapes brilliantly, and of course extreme low light conditions such as this one.

below: Only candles and a 150w kicker illuminate this Barry Lyndon like- scene with IG @xmissevee

alt ISO 6400 | @ f2.8 | 1/125 | Canon 200mm 2.8L II on 5D mII

In the following image, I pushed the shadows as far as I could just to get an image. This was a part of the studio that was unlit, intentionally. Again, this was just a test.... but in hindsight, I would have got the EXACT same results from the underexposed shadows of an image shot at ISO 100, so this part of the test was kinda pointless... more on pushing shadows in part two. I still like this pic

alt ISO 6400 | @ f2.8 | 1/125 | Canon 200mm 2.8L II on 5D mII

And now, for reference; here is what a bump down to ISO 3200 looked like. The difference in light was enough to keep the shadows from going to complete black, which as you can see, kept TONS of noise at bay.
alt ISO 3200 | @ f2.8 | 1/50 (handheld) | Canon 200mm 2.8L II on 5D mII

In summary, I was quite surprised of the overwhelmingly popular reaction that these images got on social media, despite the seemingly constant craving for expensive gear that produces clean, flawless photographs.

The rest was just as expected. A little bit of light makes a massive difference. If you are expecting the noise, and you were because I titled the post "The ISO 6400 Project" then these images are quite nicely stylized. But had I titled the post "Low Light Photography" Then some folks would have been severely disappointed by the amount of noise that shows up in these images.

A professor in film school once said to me in regards to stylized imagery: (and I'm paraphrasing) "Do something once, or twice and it looks like an accident. Do it three or more times and it becomes clear you are doing it on purpose" That is the dumbed down version of a very good point. Consistency is key with all series!

In part two we will go over the results of the High ISO High Light tests.

Atomic Joshua image
Post by Atomic Joshua

Photographer + Filmmaker turned studio owner.