Monday, February 18, 2013

The ISO Race - Is there an Upper Limit?

It used to be the megapixel race. First people were told they needed 6. Then it became 10, 16, 24....Will it ever be enough? The truth is, it's already enough - read again my article on whether we have as many megapixels as we need. But companies and sellers (and a sad number of photographers) will attempt to convince you that, no, the more the better.

We've always had a fascination with numbers. Whether it's Hi-Fis and watts or sports cars and top speed, numbers are easy to sell and consumers eager to compare. Heck, nowadays cameras are compared not by things that matter (say, how well its ergonomics suit your individual needs), but by supposedly* scientific, measurable numbers.

* I don't claim the "Mark"ing of that specific number-measuring website doesn't use some consistent methodology to provide its numbers, but to assess the quality of a camera based by some numbers related to its sensor is entirely foreign to the concept of photography as art.

And so, inevitably, we now have the ISO race. For quite a long time, 1600 ISO was the limit nobody really dared to go over. Then came 3200, 6400 (now considered almost a standard), and we see cameras going well over 100.000.

So, will we be asking ourselves in the year 2020 (no more than 7 years away) "Should I go for the Nikon D9000 or the Canon 900D? Which has the best 1 million ISO?"

One million ISO...Ansel Adams would've been proud. Or, would he?

I've had several discussions about this issue, and many people argue that technology is always good. If there's something that allows you to shoot at 1/1250 in near-darkness, why not... That's their argument. And, indeed, it sounds a valid one. I have only two objections, one practical and one theoretical. Respectively:

If I consistently needed to shoot at 1/1250 at 1 or so million ISO, it would mean I'm doing something wrong. I don't care how you present it, if you can't get a shot at ISO 6400 (or even 3200), you're doing it wrong. And from the moment we (over)use technology to hide our lack of technique, things go down rapidly.

People were able to take sport photos at night even without crazy ISO numbers. It's about vision, technique, imagination, and discipline.

My second, theoretical objection, is this: Companies and consumers co-exist in a catch-22 kind of relationship; a self-feeding mechanism. Consumers want higher values (whether it's ISO or megapixels) because they think that's what they need, and companies supply them with increasingly higher values because that's what they have told them they need and now they must deliver it.

The problem is, when consumers and manufacturers are spending their energy on fluff (like one million ISO or 200 megapixels will be), they don't focus on true innovation. Do you think the first autofocus servo was invented by someone who would today worry over pixels? How about the first digital sensor? Or, how about the first VR lens? No, these were true innovations because they changed the way we take photos. Increasing a number is not technological advancement. And although we all have our opinions on the matter, the truth remains: photography is art; and art cannot be measured. More ISO and more megapixels? Good news for high-tech aficionados. Indifferent (if not outright bad news) for photographers

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