I recently spent two weeks in Haines, Alaska teaching eagle photography workshops. This is my favorite place to photograph eagles, 3000 birds along the Chilkat River feeding on a late season salmon run. And the backdrop snowy peaks are stunning, I honestly could just shoot landscapes along the Haines river with or without eagles, beautiful country.
Being November in Alaska, sun and light are at a premium. Overcast days result in high ISO photography to capture sharp eagle images. And with the amazing noise reduction software, why not just shoot all the time at ISO 6400 or 12,800?
Let’s start with a good guideline. It is always better to get a sharp, noisy image at high ISO and than a blurry, low ISO shot. If you need high ISO to get your image, then use it. But that is the catch. Do you need to use high ISO to photograph a perched bird sitting on a log? Wouldn’t it be better to shoot at ISO 400 instead of ISO 6400 for that perched bird?
This is what variable ISO is all about. Instead of using high ISOs all day long, which I certainly have done on many shoots, why not lower the ISO for those birds and subjects that are static? With just a simple camera adjustment you can quickly go from ISO 6400 to ISO 400 (or any value). Get a few low ISO frames, and then go right back up to high ISO. For bird photography I didn’t want to miss a bird taking off, so I quickly did my low ISO images and went right back to high ISO.
Is it really necessary to use low ISO with all this amazing noise reduction software? I think the answer depends on what end use you have for your image. If you are going to post on social media, or make small prints, then you should be fine with high ISO images. But if you are going to make large prints (2 feet or larger), or going to heavily crop your image, then you will want to shoot at low ISO for some frames if the subject allows it.
I did a test in Alaska. I photographed a perched eagle at ISO 6400 and ISO 320 (using a slower shutter speed). In Photoshop I did noise reduction on both of them, and enlarged them to 100 percent. Without a doubt the ISO 320 looked better..sharper, better contrast, details…For comparison I also used Topaz Denoise on the ISO 6400 image…small result. While the noise reduced images (ISO 6400) looked fine at lower resolutions and smaller sizes, blowing them up showed the fine details. If I am going to make a large metal print of my eagle, I would use the ISO 320 version. And when I started cropping the ISO 6400 image, noise really became apparent.
Keep shooting at high ISOs when you need it. I’d guess 80 percent of my eagle images from Alaska were taken at ISOs higher than ISO1000. Noise reduction software is amazing, and is getting better all the time. But I keep in mind that lower ISO images are always better quality because there is less amplification of signal. So if you get an opportunity with your wildlife photography to use lower ISOs, consider taking a few frames, you will like the files your camera produces.