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An ode to noise

Weather-wise, the last couple of weeks seemed more like autumn than winter. Clouded, windy days with lots of rain, instead of cold, sunny days. To some extent, an overcast day can come in handy when watching birds. A thin layer of clouds diffuses the sunlight and gives you the opportunity to look in all directions, instead of having to look into the sun half of the time. This makes it easier to get a good look at certain birds, since you don’t have to fight the sunlight.

This also applies for photography, but photographing any animal in soft, weak light can be quite a challenge. Clouds take away contrast and shadows, that can contribute to a more dramatic image. Soft light will produce soft colors, and soft details. But the main problem with heavy overcast, is the lack of light altogether. There are ways to work around that problem, but in most circumstances, it will result in cranked ISO values.

And when it comes to high ISO’s, a lot of people seem to be reluctant to take pictures. As soon as a camera shows ISO 1600 or up, doubt comes creeping in. Is this picture going to be worth taking with that much noise? Should I even take a picture with such an high ISO value? I have been down that road multiple times; seeing something interesting happen in the viewfinder, but also noticing ISO 6400. Should I take this shot? Can I adjust my setting to reduce the ISO? Many moments went by unphotographed because of that; the bird had flown, literally. Every photographer has had a good amount of pictures of random pieces of sky, tree trunks, or branches, that had a beautiful bird on or in it, mere seconds ago. And then I realized, I would rather have a noisy picture of something interesting happening, than no picture at all. So here is an ode to ISO 6400, and some of the images I got with it!

On a cloudy day in december, I was out searching for roe deer and foxes. The weather forecast predicted heavy clouds in the morning, but progressively more sunshine throughout the day. The clouds, however, stayed. But I was out, it was dry, and there was no wind in the forest, so I just went with it. I found a group of songbirds actively singing and foraging. During the summer months, thick foliage can make it nearly impossible to see these critters, but with all the leaves gone, they are out in the open, ready to get their picture taken. I was surrounded by marsh tits, great tits, blue tits, nuthatches and goldcrests. In the middle of their songs, I shot a ton of pictures, with a shutterspeed of 1/320 to 1/400, f/6.3 and ISO 6400, And I loved it.

Some shots from previous blogs were also taken with similar ISO settings. The shot of the blue tit, featured here, was taken with ISO 6400, as was this shot of a migrating greylag goose, featured here.

Even sunny days demand high ISO’s sometimes. During spring and summer, foliage can get very thick, and prevent light from reaching your subject. Last spring I took this picture of a tawny owl. Finding this owl was a bit of a challenge by itself, finding a composition through all the leaves even more so. Even with hard sunlight hitting the tree, I needed ISO 6400 to get the owl properly exposed. It turned out to be one of my last shots of this owl that spring; a week later the foliage completely hid the owl from view.

Don’t let high ISO’s and noise prevent you from taking pictures. Some things only happen for a split second, but that split second might just be the thing you’ve waited hours for. And then a noisy picture is far better than no picture at all