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There are three pillars of photography exposure: shutter speed, aperture and lastly sensitivity, expressed as ISO. I recently shot a crystal sharp image at ISO 1000, and was asked “but doesn't that make the image pixilated”? Knowing your camera, its functions and following the steps below, you can achieve images with no noticeable noise...like this butterfly (a Paris peacock shot in Hong Kong) in flight below.
TECH TALK - ISO settings
Understanding ISO will help you make smart decisions that will lead to better wildlife pictures.
ISO Explained: ISO determines the amount of light needed for a good exposure. The lower the number, the more light required and the more light required, the more likely a slow shutter speed will have to be used. Low ISOs, like 100, are most often used in bright situations (sunlight), when your subject is not moving fast, and the camera is mounted on a tripod. If you don't have a lot of light, or need a fast shutter speed, you then raise the ISO. Each time you double the ISO (for example, from 200 to 400), the camera needs only half as much light for the same exposure. So if you had a shutter speed of 1/250 at 200 ISO, going to 400 ISO would let you get the same exposure at 1/500 second (providing the aperture remains unchanged). This is why high ISOs are so often used indoors, at sporting events, or for fast moving flying or jumping wildlife that need 1/500-1,000s as a minimum.
ARE SLRS BETTER AT HIGHER ISOs? A major factor affecting the amount of digital noise in an image is the size of the pixels used on the sensor. Large pixels result in less noise than small ones. That's why digital SLRs perform much better at high ISOs than compact cameras. The SLRs have larger sensors and larger pixels. In any case, try not to allow your camera to use Auto ISO, as choosing the ISO is a critical decision you should be able to take.
WHAT ISO SHOULD I CHOOSE? Most sports, action, wildlife and even macro photographers regularly push their ISO to 800-1600 or above, because they have to: Firstly, it is the only way to freeze fast motion. Secondly, you will need a high shutter speed if you are handholding a telephoto or macro lens.
WHAT’S THE TRADE OFF? Raising the ISO means a similar decrease in quality, with an increase in what's called "noise" in the image. In digital cameras, It gives a grainy look to the image, and since most people dislike this visible grain, we photographers work to avoid it. So it becomes a balancing act, where you want a low ISO for image quality, but fast enough shutter speeds. If you are undecided, remember that a (slightly) noisy shot is always better than a blurred shot!
A 7 STEPS TO REDUCE OR ERADICATE NOISE.
1. Shoot in RAW format. The RAW processor can apply a first instance of noise-reduction with results that are not as destructive as a noise reduction applied to a JPEG..Shooting in RAW you have considerably more options to amend the amount of noise in post production including fixing the exposure when “exposing to the right” - see step 5 below.
2. NR (Noise reduction) can be done two ways.
i) In camera: After the image has been shot, the camera will analyse the image and “fix” any pixels that are incorrectly rendered. From late 2015 most DSLRs offer adjustable settings for the degree of in-camera, high ISO noise reduction applied to images. For help, see the canon site example/link: http://www.learn.usa.canon.com/resources/articles/2011/high_iso_noise_reduction_article.shtml
ii) Post production. Most image processing software has noise reduction now. An excellent, cheap and simple option is Adobe Lightroom, available online at c.US$10 a month with free tutorials to get you started. First zoom in on the preview image to at least 100% to see the noise reduction previewed.The Noise Reduction tab controls ways to reduce image noise, which includes luminance (grayscale) noise, which makes an image look grainy, and chroma (color) noise, which is visible as colored artifacts in the image. Play with the sliders till you achieve the image you want, balancing noise reduction against lost detail, and sharpness, and remember, some loss of detail is inevitable. There are separate editing programs that focus only on noise reduction. Some people swear by programs such as Noise Ninja and others. I have not used these programs and so I cannot comment on how well they work.
3.Be aware that the more you crop your image, the more noticeable any noise will become, so try and shoot full frame.
4. The darker the image, the more noise. Digital noise tends to be most noticeable in plain, solid areas of a subject, especially if they’re mid-tone or dark areas.A photographer shooting birds on a snowy pond, for instance, may see much less overall noise in his or her files than a photographer taking available-light pictures in a dense forest.
5. At high ISOs “expose to the right”: ie tweak your histogram balance to the right, by deliberately “overexposing” the shot by 1/2-1 stop. This maximises the signal that the camera gets, and improves the signal to noise ratio.
6. Look at your subject: Images with lots of small details can handle some noise without looking too noticeable, and remember post production NR usually destroys the details.
7. High ISOs grain is most noticeable on large prints, much less so on computers, and even less on mobile devices. So if you are shooting for Instagram, then no-one will probably even notice.
Example of Noise Reduction and Grain: In the photos below we can see the increased grain and noise from ISO to ISO 4000. however, after a noise reduction filter is applied in Lightroom the gain disappears, leaving a uniform black, with only a slight loss of sharpness and image definition.