RIP ISO?

Digital cameras have become ubiquitous, to the point where it is almost impossible to be somewhere out of reach of someone’s camera. It has reached the point where Panasonic has announced a cellular phone with a 1″ sensor camera (actually, a camera with a GSM chipset), replete with Zeiss optics. Whether that appeals to you or not it is a sign of the widespread commodification of technology that was only available in specialized camera gear just a few years ago.

With that backdrop it has become truly rare to see an advance that changes your mind about where the technology will be in two years from now. For me, that happened when I watched this video:

Nice video, yes. But it was shot on a Sony A7s mirrorless camera, with a full moon as its only light source. Yes, f/1.4 optics and dizzying ISO numbers are employed. The author states that the bulk of the video, apart from the opening two scenes were shot at 1/30th, f/1.4, ISO 12,800 (I’m assuming that 1/30th is based on 30fps video). That is “bonkers” as we say in my neck of the woods.

Sony release their own video showing a dawn campfire scene, with similar dropping of jaws:

“Bonkers” aside, it points to a benchmark for the next generation of sensors that will be in cameras like my Oly E-M10, and not just in a $2500 USD Sony body. Not that $2500 is astronomical money. You would spend much more on the pro offerings from Nikon or Canon, and the good folks at Leica will gladly take 8,000 Tricky Dick Fun Bucks in exchange for a bare M8 body. None of those cameras will do what the A7s does in this video. The implications of this kind of high-ISO performance: Setting Auto ISO with an upper limit of 12,800 and actually using it, not paying a brutal price in terms of noise and digital “grain”, and not needing a shutter speed that would make Edward Weston weak in the knees… That is where this video points.

And as nerdly as that idea is, it has real implications for those of us who shoot primarily in available light. I might shoot with flash once a year. Maybe not even once a year. So rarely, in fact, that I started practicing with a flash for no reason other than I didn’t want to completely forget how to use one. It has implications for me personally as I shake down my E-M10 and compare images to both the geyser of images on the internet taken with similar mirrorless systems, and my archive of images taken with my Nikon D300.

Every camera system is a web of trade-offs. Your parameters are physical size, resolution, focus speed, max shutter speed, low light performance and other dynamic range considerations, firmware/processing/raw specs, and overall ergonomics. I’m sure there are more but those are the big ones that come to mind. Accessory issues like lens selection, flash system, compatibility with legacy lenses… those also play a part. But if you shoot in low light and want to be able to use normal shutter speeds without suffering with noisy images, then you really care about dynamic range and noise, and as long as you get a few good lenses you can call it a day.

So there it is. Sony, the company known for horrible user interfaces, worse software, and even worse tech choices (minidisc, beta-max…) kicks sand in the face of the cool kids over at Nikon, Canon, and Leica. Sure, those guys all use some of Sony’s sensors. But they don’t have this kind of performance. I give them  a huge amount of credit, maybe enough to put their camera on my wish list (I still have PTSD from some earlier Sony purchases).

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