ISO 3200—Not So Bad After All

The one constant about indoor events is the poor lighting. It’s not usually bad lighting. The people that set up the stage want the event to look good. There’s usually plenty of light from the audience’s perspective. What the camera sees is a different story.

When Hillary Clinton campaigned in Phoenix the event was held in a high school gym. I’ll wait while you finish shaking your head. So you can imagine the base lighting. Overhead lighting was the basic fluorescent tubes. The event lights were two towers holding a couple of lights each which faced the stage.

Since none of my lenses are stabilized, I also have to keep the shutter speed up to get sharp photos. Usually 1/320 is the minimum speed to keep the 70-200mm sharp. So between the low light and need for shutter speed, I was looking at ISO 3200 for decent exposure. Starting off I used ISO 1600, knowing that I’d have to bump up the exposure in Lightroom. About halfway through the event I figured I had enough safety shots. Then I decided to try out ISO 3200 to see if the images would be salvageable.

For my “official” pictures, the ones that I submitted to Alamy, I used the ISO 1600 frames. Exposure correction isn’t a big deal and they pulled up nicely. This morning I was sorting through the others from the event. With only 48 submitted from 641 I took, there were a few to go through. I thought it was also a good time to check on some the “crap ISO” ones and see what they looked like in Lightroom.

You might be thinking, “Weren’t they in Lightroom already?” Well, no. Because I to my initial ingest and rating in Photo Mechanic. It lets me get the files off the card and into the computer, and has better renaming, metadata, and sorting tools than Lightroom. After an event I only bring the top picks into Lightroom and then do any needed toning and color grading before exporting to a size for upload.

That left almost 600 photos on my hard drive that needed looking at. I’m not one to keep every raw file. Blurry shots and poor compositions are a waste of space. But there were sharp ones that didn’t make the cut for Alamy, and quite a few of these were at ISO 3200. I bought all these into Lightroom because the reject flag (something that Photo Mechanic doesn’t have) makes taking out the trash easy.

To save time, I imported them with no develop settings. When I started looking at thumbnails I did a double take. The ISO3200 shots looked pretty clean. I know Lightroom does some magic behind the scenes even if there’s not develop preset specified. But the result was much cleaner than I expected.

Below you can see my Lightroom screen with the photo zoomed to 100%, and the camera settings shown. Click through and see it at full size. It’s a head-and-shoulders shot, but this is what fits on my screen when zoomed.

Lightroom screenshot, picture at 100%. Click for full size (1440px).
Lightroom screenshot, default settings, picture at 100%. Click for full size (1440px).

This is from what’s considered a low-end camera, my Canon SL1. The background isn’t smooth, you can see the noise pattern. That’s also something that can be fixed. But the goal here is to show what comes out of the camera.

While writing this I also got curious about what this would look like at a print size. Using Lightroom’s print module I created a 11×17 inch, 300 DPI, 90% JPEG file. The pixel size is 5100×3300, which is just slightly smaller than the camera’s native resolution of 5184×3456. Here’s the file (9 Mb), click for full size.

Test file for a 11x17” print.
Test file for a 11×17” print.

Yep, you can count the eyelashes. Not bad for a cheap little camera with an L lens and default Lightroom settings.

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3 thoughts on “ISO 3200—Not So Bad After All

  1. Most newer cameras — one manufactured in the last 5 years — have excellent high ISO performance. I am not surprised by your results. However, older cameras such as my Nikon D5100 max out at 6400 ISO meaning shooting at ISO 3200 is terrible. But since I shoot mostly landscapes I don’t often shoot in low-light conditions or without a tripod. I don’t need high ISO.

    “Using Lightroom’s print module I created a 11×17 inch, 300 DPI, 90% JPEG file.”

    1 image pixel = 1 pixel on screen. So a 5100×3300 pixel image is ALWAYS uses 5100×3300 pixels on a computer screen.

    Dots Per Inch (DPI) differences can’t be seen on a computer monitor. You have to actually make a physical print to compare. Image resolution affects only one thing – the size of the image when it’s printed. By setting the resolution in Photoshop or Lightroom, you tell the printer, not the screen, how many of the pixels in the image to squeeze into an inch of paper. DPI doesn’t equate to digital it’s a print measure.


    1. Don’t forget about Retina screens. I have to deal with the 2x thing in various apps. Also, I was using the 11×17/300dpi setting so that LR would compute the proper pixel sizing for me. I’d rather have my computers do the math for me. 🙂


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