High ISO, Noise, and the Canon EOS 5D MK11

Baseline image shot at 100 ISO - this image was processed in Aperture using the same steps I normally use.

Sample Images Variable ISO

Expanded and high ISO settings are a very hot feature on the latest generation of top-o-the-line DSLRs. Everyone is competing for the cleanest image and the highest ISO settings. I just can't imagine what some of the old guys who used to "push" their ASA400 Tri-X must be thinking. Seriously... 25600 ISO?

Of course, as with anything, there is always a trade off. These high ISO numbers are no different. Yep... there's no doubt you can do it and you'll definitely get the shot... though it will probably look like a sleazy x-rated hidden camera security video tape (or at least what I'm told those look like).

Beside the technological improvements in the sensors, there's a lot going on with the firmware as well. Typically in the user settings of these new little speed freaks, the camera makers are applying their own brand of noise-reduction. While you have the option to dial up the strength... or even disable it, this method of reducing noise is very like noise reduction done in post processing using programs or plug-ins like Noise Ninja or NIK... just to name two.

Personally, I'm the type of user that likes to establish a baseline for my images at the point of capture. I prefer not to use camera style settings or bring in any other firmware tweaks. For me, I like the control of making my adjustments in post work. And as someone who prefers to work with JPEG files, I feel it's even more important to have consistency and know what you're starting with at import.

This image was also post processed in Aperture - shot at 400 ISOWith the Canon 5D MK11 in hand, I went out in the backyard after sun down and took the expanded ISO settings for a spin. As I've done before, these were just quick down and dirty shots just to have a look and what the camera is putting out and establish a point of reference. The lens used was the Canon L Series 500mm F/4. I

Shooting endurance racing, I have the opportunity several times a year to shoot in low-light and no-light situations. And, since my preference is to shoot without flash, the night races can be fairly challenging. While I don't think the expanded ISO settings will get us all the way home, the improvements will be a welcome addition.

The logic at the far end of the scale must be similar to that of a really fast lens. Sure, it may not be tack sharp at f/1.4 ... but at f/2 or f/2.8, it's a real motha-shut-your-mouth! Seriously, when is anything ever any great at the extreme ends of its limits? So, while ISO 25600 may not report back with fine grain results, ISO 1600 is going to rock your world.

Unprocessed at 400 ISOUnprocessed and shot at ISO 800Unprocessed and shot at ISO 1600 - a very clean useable file.I shot these images with the user setting of High ISO Noise Reduction on - "LOW." Your choices are Standard, Low, Medium and High. For this quick look, I chose "Low." I'll probably end up shooting at Standard... but I thought for now, I'd at least get an idea of what a little noise reduction looks like.

The sample images were shot at 100 ISO as reference, then 400, 800, 1600, 6400,  12800 and 25600.

Shot at 25600 ISO - unless I was faced with the dilemma of getting a shot of the second gunman behind the grassy knoll or not getting the shot, I might go beyond 3200Honestly, unless I was faced with the dilemma of getting a shot of the second gunman behind the grassy knoll or not getting the shot, I might go beyond 3200... maybe 6400. Beyond that, my work doesn't really call for it. And while I say that, I do have a mental note to pursue a couple of other informal tests down the road. One would be shooting these high ISO settings in black and white and the other would be shooting RAW. I know my Leica Digilux 2 is not real pretty at 400 IS0, yet black and white JPEGs are very nice at 400 and RAW color files are workable. So, I'll try to put the 5D MK11 to the same test one day.

At first blush, I'd have to say I'm truly impressed with 1600 ISO. These are very good files. I think combined with the Canon 70mm-200mm f/2.8, the camera is going to be great during the twilight sessions at this year's Petit Le Mans 10 hour race.

So, take a look at the samples, I think you'll agree... the really high stuff would require a fair amount of post work. The 1600 is good right out of the camera. While I didn't manage to grab anything at 3200, even the stuff at 6400 and 12800 could work in a pinch. Again, I'd prefer to manage the noise in post processing... but the files are surprisingly good. You're the one that will have to make up your mind.

You can be sure I'll follow through with a log of shooting and processing the images when I do get the opportunity to shoot in a real-world low-light situation.

JT