Adventures on the Dark
(and Noisy) Side
In late March I traveled to Miami Beach to shoot a multi-hour instructional video with famous stock photographer and educator, Seth Resnick. It will be titled Where The %@# Are My Pictures, and will be an in-depth look at image management, archiving, key-wording, and backup, by the creator of D-65 Workshops. It should be available on this site by mid-year.
Why Miami Beach? Simple – it's where Seth lives, and we availed ourselves of his hospitality as well as his wife Jamie's tolerance as we turned his living room into a studio during our three days of videotaping.
Since it had been a very long time since I'd been to the Miami Beach area, and I was curious about the scene at South Beach, we booked a hotel right in the heart of it all. What a mistake!
On any weekend it's crowded and noisy, with all the beautiful people partying at the hotels, clubs and bars through to 5am when they finally close. But on the particular weekend that we arrived there was also a funk music festival taking place, and the ultra-loud music and hyperactivity quotient were in overdrive.
Not sleeping a wink that first night we quickly beat a retreat to a hotel in North Beach where 120db funk music isn't blasted in the hotel lobbies till dawn. (Instead you get bad Musac at a slightly lower SPL.)
But, not being a total old fart, I spent a couple of evenings checking out the scene in South Beach, which is really quite something (as long as you don't have to sleep in one of the local hotels that night).
A Shot in The Dark
A lot of photographers put their cameras away after sundown. This can be a mistake, because especially in busy urban environments there are a lot of fascinating photographic opportunities, especially if you're into doing documentary and street photography. (My first career was as a photojournalist, so it's in my blood).
South Beach is a party scene – big time. This means that people are on parade, clothes (and usually the almost total lack thereof) being a big deal. Bikinis on Collins Avenue at 2am are almost the norm. This means that most people are there to be seen, there are lots of gapers and gawkers, and many folks are taking pictures with point-and-shoots.
But, not with DSLRs and long lenses. This is a sure formula for getting punched-out by some inebriated or coked-up irate boyfriend.
Here's the photography problem in a nut shell. The smaller the sensor the higher the noise. This is a general rule, and though there are exceptions it's true pretty much all the time.
For shooting in really low light you want something like a Nikon D3, D700, or Canon 1Ds MKII. ISO 1600 with these cameras is nice and clean, and even 3200 and 6400 produce publishable images. But, these are not small cameras, and they are anything but discrete for nighttime urban use.
Then there's the lens issue. Of course an f/1.4 lens is ideal for this type of shooting, but these are in the 35-80mm range and once you get longer, fast lenses because really fat, and obvious, and heavy. Longer lenses, in the 200-400mm range, regardless of aperture, are just plain long, and long means obvious, and obvious can mean pain.
The small super-zoom digicams have lenses out to about 500mm and are small and fairly discrete to use, but they are pretty poor at anything above ISO 400. By ISO 1600 most are producing impressionist paintings rather than photographs. Of course the reason that they can have such long lenses in a small form factor is first that they do not have reflex mirror designs, and secondly because their sensors are really tiny, much smaller than the 1.5X or 1.6X reduction factor of common APS-C sized DSLRs.
These super-zooms also have small apertures, usually in the f/5.6 to f/8 range. Combine this with high noise above ISO 400 and the picture isn't pretty, so to speak.
There is a Goldilocks in this equation and that's the recently introduced Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format, with the Panasonic G1 and upcoming GH1 as initial examples. This is the same sensor size as regular Four Thirds, at a 2X reduction factor over full-frame 35mm. But, because MFT cameras are not DSLRs they do not have mirror reflex housings, and therefore can use much small lenses. (A very high quality electronic viewfinder is used).
Panasonic's 45-200mm f/4~5.6 lens is a case in point re the advantage of this system for discrete photography. It is equivalent in focal length to a 90-400mm in full-frame terms, yet it is light, and together with a G1 body can be held in the palm of one's hand. Not quite as small as one of the superzoom digicams, but small and light enough to be an appropriate tool for this type of work.
The trade-off though is that at f/ 4 to f/5.6 (at the long end) is that it's slow. Not quite as slow as some of the super-zoom digicams, but with a much larger sensor and therefore a two to three stop advantage in noise at higher ISOs, like 1600, which are beyond almost every digicam when it comes to maintaining even moderate image quality.
One can also fit fast lenses to the G1, such as Leica M glass, but because these are designed for a bigger format they tend to be larger than they need to be, and heavier. A 90mm f/2 Summicron is a very nice solution, though with its brass housing it is heavy, and of course is manual focus only. Panasonic and eventually Olympus really need to bring out one or two fast primes for the G1 and its ilk to make it a modern-day M Leica substitute.
Nevertheless, shooting in Miami Beach that evening with the Panasonic 45-200mm on a G1 body I was able to take all of the photographs that appear on this page. Are the noisy? Yes, they are, because they were all shot at either ISO 1600 or 3200. As discussed in my G1 review the camera becomes noisy about about ISO 1200, and 3200 is pretty much beyond the pale for most people.
Fear of Noise
If you spend time reading discussion forums on web photography sites you'll find that anxiety over noise at high ISO is a bit of an issue for some people. This needn't necessarily be the case.
If you have a camera that isn't in the Nikon D700 league, or can't use it beyond a given ISO without what you feel is excessive noise, go out and shoot with it anyway. Noise is highly overrated as a problem. A bit of digital noise is easily cleaned up, and even some nasty looking noise can be addressed with just a bit of work.
The trick is to shoot raw rather than jpg. Beyond the ability to cleanly adjust white balance after the fact, have a file with more than 8 bits (at least 12 or even 14), and not have to put up with JPG artifacting, which some cameras impose, a raw file usually doesn't have any noise reduction applied to it in-camera. There is also no inappropriate sharpening, which most cameras apply to JPGs with too heavy a hand.
Why is the presence of in-camera noise reduction an issue, when what you wants is noise reduction? Simply, because most cameras are again far too heavy-handed when it comes to NR, and being able to season to taste on ones computer is almost always a better way to go.
Adobe's Lightroom and Camera Raw can both achieve at least a one stop noise reduction through the judicious use of the Luminance NR slider, with hardly any detail loss. If more is still needed a stand-alone or Photoshop noise reduction plug-in like Noise Ninja is called for, and again produces far superior results to anything that a camera can do, not to mention being fully adjustable.
And finally, if a picture is noisy regardless of what camera, tool or technique you use, just don't worry about it. If the image is strong, and of interest and appeal to the viewer, the fact that it's noisy becomes quite secondary.
Most places in the world, a photograph of a person in a public place is quite legal without a release, especially if that image is not used in commerce or to hold that person up to ridicule. It's probably best though, if you intended to show your work publicly or to publish it, not to have recognizable faces. As it turns out, the images shown on this page, the most interesting ones resulting from of a couple of hours strolling the main streets of Miami Beach, do not contain anyone recognizable. I do have a few really good ones that are a bit compromising for the people in them – and though probably still completely legal to publish here, why tempt fate?