the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

When Traveling, Embrace High ISOs

Sainte ChapelleMy recent trip to Europe confirmed something I already knew, travel photographers need to embrace high ISOs. Sure I took my tripod along on the trip, and I used it frequently. But mostly when outside buildings. Most museums and other indoor attractions prohibit tripods, often monopods, and even selfie-sticks (not that I have one – I use my tripod or monopod instead). There are a few exceptions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for one (see my previous blog about tripods in New York), but more and more it seems tripods are a no-no (and don’t even get me started on places that prohibit photography entirely, where people left and right are using their cell phones to take photos (often with flash), but if I get my DSLR out, I get a stern warning).

When planning a trip, I usually try to research whether tripods are allowed in various attractions I want to visit, but in this case, I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare and failed to do the research. Further, traveling with my mother-in-law, I didn’t figure I’d have a lot of photography time (and I was right). But even if you have time to do such research, it is often had to find rules related to tripods on the internet, and worse, sometimes the information is either wrong or incorrectly enforced at the attraction. For my recent trip, I just assumed tripods weren’t allowed in any indoor attraction I visited – an assumption that was usually confirmed by signs at the various attractions.

There is another consideration. I can’t even imagine trying to set up a tripod in Sainte Chapelle in Paris (which doesn’t allow tripods; the featured image above, by the way, is Sainte Chapelle taken at ISO 6400, f/5, 1/30 sec), there was barely room to stand. Even if tripods are allowed, due to the number of people visiting, it is often impractical to use them. For example, in Seattle, tripods are allowed at Pike Place Market and in the Seattle Aquarium, but due to crowds, can be hard to use.

Of course there is the final consideration about just carrying it around. There were places on my recent trip where I could have used a tripod, but didn’t have it with me because I didn’t want to lug it around with me. Sometimes it was because I was visiting another attraction in the same day that didn’t allow tripods; other times it was because I was too lazy (I know, my bad).

Yes, it is best to use low ISO with long exposures and a tripod to minimize digital noise, but often that is not an option. Luckily, the high ISO capabilities of today’s digital cameras are quite good, and getting better with each generation of camera. During my recent trip, I found myself shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400 quite often. I even got up to 25,600 several times; the digital noise was horrible, but it was that or not get the shot.  That’s what it came down to, getting a shot or not. You be the judge, was it worth using high ISO to get the shots accompanying this post?

Napolean's Tomb, Les Invalides, Paris, France; taken at ISO 6400, f/4, 1/20 sec (supporting camera on a railing)

Napoleon’s Tomb, Les Invalides, Paris, France; image shot at ISO 6400, f/4, 1/20 sec (camera supported on a railing)

Painting above Napolean's Tomb; ISO3200, f/5, 1/100 sec

Painting above Napoleon’s Tomb; shot at ISO 3200, f/5, 1/100 sec

Art installation in the Conciergerie; ISO 6400, f/5, 1/30 sec

Art installation in the Conciergerie, Paris, France; image shot at ISO 6400, f/5, 1/30 sec

Arches in the ceiling of the Conciergerie; ISO 6400, f/5, 1/40 sec

Arches in the ceiling of the Conciergerie; ISO 6400, f/5, 1/40 sec

Tomb of Saint Eulalia in the crypt of Barcelona Cathedral; ISO 3200, f/5, 1/50 sec

Tomb of Saint Eulalia in the crypt of Barcelona Cathedral; image shot at ISO 3200, f/5, 1/50 sec

TInell Hall (Saló del Tinell), Greater Royal Palace, Barcelona; ISO 12,800, f/5, 1/10 sec (camera supported by railing)

Tinell Hall (Saló del Tinell), Greater Royal Palace, Barcelona; shot at ISO 12,800, f/5, 1/10 sec (camera supported by railing)

Bones and skulls in the catacombs of Paris; ISO 12,800, f/4.5, 1/50 sec

Bones and skulls in the catacombs of Paris; shot at ISO 12,800, f/4.5, 1/50 sec

La Sagrada Familia at night; ISO 12,800, f/3.5, 1/30 sec. I could have used a tripod here, but didn't have it with me.

La Sagrada Familia at night; ISO 12,800, f/3.5, 1/30 sec. I could have used a tripod here, but didn’t have it with me.

Grave of Philippe Le Royer, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris; ISO 3200, f/5, 1/125 sec. Another outside shot where I could have used a tripod but wasn't carrying it with me.

Grave of Philippe Le Royer, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris; ISO 3200, f/5, 1/125 sec. Another outside shot where I could have used a tripod but wasn’t carrying it with me.

La Boqueria Market stall, Barcelona; ISO 3200, f/5, 1/200 sec

La Boqueria Market stall, Barcelona; image shot at ISO 3200, f/5, 1/200 sec. Tripods may be allowed  here, but in the busy market, they may not be such a good idea.

Gargoyle, Notre Dame; ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/30 sec. An outside shot on a cloudy day close to sunset. No tripods allowed, and even worse, shooting through a net.

Gargoyle, Notre Dame; image shot at ISO 3200, f/5.6, 1/30 sec. An outside shot on a cloudy day close to sunset. No tripods allowed. I should note that perhaps even worse than not allowing tripods, when visiting the Notre Dame tower, to shoot the gargoyles, you need to shoot through a net with openings much smaller than a DSLR lens.

98 responses

  1. Excellent post and set of images, Joe, confirming one shouldn’t be afraid of boosting the ISO. Great clarity in these.

    January 23, 2016 at 1:39 pm

  2. Great Images, Joe
    The cameras and software these days are incredible and I am finding myself shooting quite a bit at 3200 in tough lighting conditions.

    January 23, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    • So true about the cameras and software. I’m on my 3rd generation digital camera – the first was a Canon 20D and the noise at ISO 800 was objectionable. With my current camera, I don’t think twice about going to ISO 6400.

      January 24, 2016 at 8:58 am

      • My First camera was an Olympus C- 2500L 2.5Mp camera and anything above ISO 400 was terrible. But it worked great for product photos for websites.

        January 24, 2016 at 10:51 am

  3. Wonderful post! And how right you are about not being afraid to increase your ISO if the situation warrants it. Great advice!

    January 23, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    • Thanks Stacy. Maybe this isn’t so new to people how are newly into photography, but I still remember the days when film was winning the argument that it had better quality than digital largely because of the noise issue.

      January 24, 2016 at 9:01 am

  4. hmunro

    Isn’t it a pity that they’ve enclosed Notre Dame under a hairnet? In spite of the limitations, you got a stunning image. Beautiful work, Joe — and thanks for the reminder to not fear the high ISO.

    January 23, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    • I know! I was excited to go up, but so disappointed to find the net – not a problem if you are shooting with a smartphone, but definitely a problem with a DSLR. At least the net is only on the front of the church. I’m sure it is there for safety reasons, some idiot dropped something on the people below, and now we all suffer.

      January 24, 2016 at 9:04 am

      • hmunro

        That’s precisely why it’s there, and I know this for a fact because I inquired. In late August last year someone threw or dropped something and it fell onto the courtyard below, narrowly missing a visiting church official. Grrr. Now I feel more lucky than even to have visited long ago, when you could still walk right up to the gargoyles and touch them, if you so wished. You’ve inspired me to dig out those old photos and put up a post of my own, Joe. Thank you!

        January 24, 2016 at 10:16 am

      • So only last August; now I regret not going up when I was there about 6 or 7 years ago. I thought the line was too long at the time. Just goes to show that we should always assume we will be able to come back later and get the shot. BTW, I went to your blog, H, looking for your gargoyle post but instead found your composite images. The one of the Ely Cathedral is amazing!

        January 25, 2016 at 9:32 am

      • hmunro

        I have quite a few of those “wish I’d taken the opportunity when I had it” regrets myself, Joe. You’re right that they’re a good reminder to make the most of the moment / seize the day.

        And thank you for your kind words about that Ely Cathedral photo. I got a wee bit of vertigo looking down at the transept from my lofty perch inside the ceiling, but it was worth it.

        Speaking of perches, I’ll post a special gargoyle photo just for you in the next day or two — and I’ll try to remember to let you know when I finally get around to the rest of the post I have in mind. (Hint: It will be all about seeing Paris from a pigeon’s perspective.)

        Anyway … thank you for stopping by!

        January 25, 2016 at 1:55 pm

      • hmunro

        NOW you’ll find that gargoyle post, Joe. Thanks for the inspiration!

        January 26, 2016 at 2:47 pm

  5. I like the graceful lines of the church of Cornsiergerie, the wide arches of Tinell Hall, and the grave of thoughtful Philippe Le Royer. The undernourished Gargoyle on Notre Dame must have been a challenge. Great photographs, all 🙂

    January 23, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    • Thank you for your kind comments Sonia.

      January 24, 2016 at 9:04 am

  6. Lovely shots. 🙂 Funny that you posted this because today I just went out to take some theater shots at ISO 6400! Of course it helps to have a good camera and a great lens and topaz Denoise! 😉

    January 23, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    • Yes, I didn’t mention software, but that definitely does help. I don’t personally use Topaz, but I’ve heard good things about it. I normally use the de-noise sliders in Lightroom, and if they don’t work well enough, I use Nik’s Dfine. Hope you came home from the theater with some great shots!

      January 24, 2016 at 9:07 am

      • I love talking software lol. I use Nik also but Denoise really is a beast in this way. I have a color photo ready to go. I’m eager to post but maybe I’ll schedule for tomorrow since I just posted this. 🙂 Thank you!!

        January 24, 2016 at 10:41 am

      • Speaking of software, what do you use for your black and whiter conversions? I use Silver Efex in the Nik suite, as you could probably guess. I just went to your blog to see your theater images. I like the color one, but love the black and white one!

        January 25, 2016 at 9:24 am

      • I use different things for different purposes. I have the entire Nik suite as well and love it. SEP2 is my favorite black and white program. I do some conversions in Photoshop though and that’s what I used for the theater black and white. It’s easier for me to isolate parts of the image with layers even though I know you can use the Nik for it. Thanks for checking out the photos! I love to talk software so you can always email me at if you want to chat about it. 🙂

        January 25, 2016 at 10:53 am

  7. Pingback: Feeding the Photography Habit when Traveling with Family | joebeckerphoto

  8. Images are increadibly good considering hight ISO values. Do you use any filters to fight with the noise? or any specific post processing pipeline?

    March 31, 2016 at 6:31 am

    • For web or digital presentation, I only use the noise sliders in Lightroom. If I want to print an image, I also use Dfine (part of the Nik collection, which is now available for free from Google, btw). I typically do my noise reduction early in my processing workflow.

      March 31, 2016 at 9:00 am

  9. Wow, excellent photo shots! Loved it 🙂

    March 31, 2016 at 7:00 am

  10. Wow, I didn’t even know ISO can get so high (I am completely new to photography; still trying to sort out ISO and f values and apertures in my head)! Your photos look amazing on a computer monitor, but how would they fare if you printed them? Would you notice the digital noise?

    March 31, 2016 at 7:25 am

    • It’s amazing how high ISO can go on new cameras. I haven’t printed any of these shots yet, but I have printed other images with ISOs up to 6400 up to about 16×20 inches. When processing an image for printing, I will first use the noise sliders in Lightroom, and then Dfine (part of the Nik collection) in Photoshop. The digital noise is visible, but I don’t think it is too objectionable. I’ve found you can’t get totally rid of it otherwise you lose too much detail.

      March 31, 2016 at 9:07 am

      • I see. I didn’t know Lightroom existed! I still have /so/ much to learn!

        Thanks for the response!

        March 31, 2016 at 10:03 am

  11. Thanks. Nice photos.
    I find that if you get the exposure right, modern good DSLRs will give you a useable photo. You might not want make a large format print of it, but it will be fine for the web. And if it is still too noisy you can always make it a black and white and call it grain 🙂

    March 31, 2016 at 7:36 am

    • So true, for web/digital presentation, noise at these high ISO is not a problem. Printing can be a bit tricky, but as long as the print isn’t too big, it can be done with good results.

      March 31, 2016 at 9:08 am

  12. Lovely Shots! I should visit more churches and cathedrals with my camera as well 😉

    March 31, 2016 at 8:25 am

  13. Gorgeous images. I have a tripod, but I never use it, for various reasons. Instead, I use my own body as a tripod. Sounds weird, but it works 🙂

    March 31, 2016 at 9:24 am

    • Good for you! I wish I could hold my camera stiller than I can.

      March 31, 2016 at 1:52 pm

      • It’s never as good as a tripod, but pretty darn close. Sort of a weird stance from when I used to do martial arts. Your images are really lovely.

        March 31, 2016 at 2:11 pm

  14. Do you also use auto iso?

    March 31, 2016 at 10:28 am

    • I occasionally use auto ISO, but not on these images.

      March 31, 2016 at 1:47 pm

      • What was the reason please? Was it because the auto iso may not be so accurate?


        March 31, 2016 at 9:34 pm

      • It’s not that auto is so inaccurate; it does provide for an acceptable exposure. I like to use aperture priority, and when I combine that with auto ISO, for my camera at least, I’ve noticed that the camera picks an shutter speed that I consider too slow. By adjusting the ISO myself, I have more control.

        April 1, 2016 at 8:40 am

  15. Great post. Im having a hard time figuring out the right IOS setting but this sure helps.

    March 31, 2016 at 10:38 am

  16. Fascinating. I see no noise in your images on my iPad – they’re great! Even my humble Canon compact can go up to 3200, although it’s pretty grainy. Worth remembering.

    March 31, 2016 at 11:57 am

    • The amount of noise depends on the technology used when the camera was built and the sensor size. I’m using a full-frame camera, much less noise than the small sensor in a compact camera.

      March 31, 2016 at 1:49 pm

  17. Als

    Reblogged this on lovefortyblog and commented:
    Beautiful images – and great tips just in time for my holiday!

    March 31, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    • Hope the tips come in handy!

      March 31, 2016 at 1:49 pm

  18. The photos were great. Did you use Lightroom or another editing program for the post-processing?

    March 31, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    • I always use Lightroom for post processing. If I intend to print an image, I’ll do some additional processing in Photoshop. All the images in this post were only processed in Lightroom.

      March 31, 2016 at 1:50 pm

  19. I just found myself in the sand situation a few weeks ago. I try to limit ISO to 250, but it’s totally impractical indoors, even with my f/2.8! And yes, tripods are so not welcome in many busy places. Thanks for sharing!

    March 31, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    • Thanks for commenting Ed. I’m afraid there are more and more places where tripods, and even monopods, are not welcome.

      April 1, 2016 at 8:42 am

  20. Great insight about the pictures. Glad to see such artistic work and patience photography !! Keep Going

    March 31, 2016 at 9:38 pm

  21. Admirable work, stunning photos for a ‘consumer’ who is clueless about the technical process! Thank you!

    March 31, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    • Thank you! Hopefully I’ve given you a bit of technical insight into the process.

      April 1, 2016 at 8:44 am

  22. splendid photography..

    March 31, 2016 at 11:54 pm

  23. alittlehopeforall

    Amazing pictures

    April 1, 2016 at 1:14 am

  24. photos are amazing !!

    April 1, 2016 at 1:25 am

  25. Great captures. Art be it in any form depicts is a language of communication by itself.

    April 1, 2016 at 3:38 am

  26. Tania Han

    Great photos. Until recently, I have been never used ISO higher than 800 but since getting a new camera and having higher ISO capabilities I have only tentatively tried going higher so thanks for the inspiration.

    April 1, 2016 at 6:10 am

    • Yes, I don’t think I would have tried many of these images with my old camera, at least not with good results.

      April 1, 2016 at 8:47 am

  27. Nice and fantastic image. I like it and I like photography

    April 1, 2016 at 6:48 am

  28. thank you for sharing this

    April 1, 2016 at 11:38 am

  29. Iriz Chan

    I’m new in photography and yes there are so many things to learn. Thanks for these great tips! Noted! 🙂

    April 2, 2016 at 12:56 am

  30. Absolutely worth it, to the question you ask. Great tip, I had a hunch about higher ISO too and reading this and seeing your pictures has reconfirmed it.


    April 2, 2016 at 1:46 am

  31. Good work, Great insight! Maybe you want to read our Article about Vienna?

    April 2, 2016 at 6:07 am

  32. cruiseplannersctwv

    Excellent information! Thanks for the great tips. Stunning photos.

    April 2, 2016 at 10:08 am

  33. Great article and excellent accompanying photos to demonstrate the message. I learned something today. Thank you.

    April 2, 2016 at 12:12 pm

  34. Great post and photos! I accidentally discovered this very thing on my trip to Europe!

    April 2, 2016 at 2:14 pm

  35. Congrats on being freshly pressed! Sorry… ‘discovered’ 😉
    Beautiful shots, and I found your post particularly interesting as my pet peeve at the moment is shooting in low light. I have a Nikon D40x that’s nearly 10 years old and it’s fantastic in daylight and all, but not so good in low light. ISO only goes up to 6400 then ‘HI1’, and is extremely noisy and grainy, and still so dark. I don’t want to insult you by implying it’s the equipment that takes such great shots – I know it’s the skill of the photographer!!! – but if you had any recommendations as to brands/models/general features for when I upgrade I would be supremely grateful 🙂 🙂

    April 3, 2016 at 5:18 am

    • Any newer model will likely be an upgrade for you as far as ISO capabilities. You probably should stick with Nikon so you don’t have to buy new lenses.

      April 3, 2016 at 9:53 pm

      • Yeah I figured… I drool over Canons sometimes – EOS especially – but Nikon is a great brand too. I need to upgrade ASAP! Thanks, Joe.

        April 4, 2016 at 2:49 am

  36. Oh, and did your camera/s have image stabilisation for those low light shots at all?

    April 3, 2016 at 5:21 am

    • No. Only my 70 -200 mm zoom has image stabilization and I don’t thick I used it for any of these shots.

      April 3, 2016 at 9:57 pm

  37. Amazing pictures !

    April 3, 2016 at 6:22 am

  38. Wow! Would love to visit this place and took photos like that. So great!

    April 3, 2016 at 10:09 pm

  39. Captivating photos. Thanks for sharing.

    April 4, 2016 at 7:45 am

  40. Beautiful pictures thank you for sharing your advice!

    April 4, 2016 at 7:25 pm

  41. Pingback: This was very revealing | Start with One Blank Page

  42. Great photos and advice. I can never understand why camera photography is prohibited while everyone easily uses their phone to take pictures anyways.

    April 6, 2016 at 6:57 am

    • Thanks for commenting, but please don’t get me started on that pet peeve of mine 🙂

      April 6, 2016 at 9:18 am

  43. great images!

    April 6, 2016 at 11:57 am

  44. Nice shots.
    There is something in the minds of the misguided managers of sites who seam to think that everyone with a DSLR is a professional taking photo’s to earn money.
    I have seen this a few times but what they fail to realise is that most phones can now match or beat most solo camera’s when it come to taking pictures.
    That and the fact that anyone owning a DSLR tend to take more time and care when taking they’re pictures.

    April 7, 2016 at 10:54 pm

  45. Amazing images and post. Have you tried a longer shutter speed 5secs etc with a higher ISO to see if that wud work too?

    April 10, 2016 at 5:43 am

    • No, I would need a tripod for such a longer shutter speed and not being able to use one is why I was using the high ISO.

      April 10, 2016 at 10:01 pm

      • Ohh ok i thought i read something about a tripod it was a long read i may have mixed it up. But ok thanks

        April 10, 2016 at 10:10 pm

      • But do you think it could work?

        April 10, 2016 at 10:10 pm

  46. I totally agree with you. when i go in a weekend Ryanair trip around Europe I’d rather avoid bringing the tripod and most of the times I don’t regret as it would have been not practical anyway. I’ve got a fuji x100s and it’s amazing at high iso. Look at my pictures in Cracovia mines if you’d like too see how it shots with very little light without tripod

    April 10, 2016 at 5:58 am

  47. I must admit that I rarely will go that high in ISO when shooting. I use a Nikon D80 which may be a wee bit old when dealing with noise. Lately I’ve just been using a prime lens and opening it up to 1.8 to make up for poor light. It works great provided you’re after a nice bokeh. Perhaps I’ll revisit the uber fast ISO as a happy medium…

    What are you shooting with by the way?

    April 11, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    • I currently shoot with a Canon 6D and the shots for this post i used a 2.8 24 – 70 zoom.

      April 12, 2016 at 1:44 pm

      • Ah, a Canon man. Now we must meet upon the field of battle. For it is written that Nikon shall nary mingle in the dark canyons of Canons…

        April 12, 2016 at 1:50 pm

      • LOL, spoken like a true Nikon man

        April 12, 2016 at 2:12 pm

  48. Thanks for sharing!

    April 11, 2016 at 7:04 pm

  49. Great article! Your images are nice and sharp – especially considering high ISO and no tripod.

    April 12, 2016 at 9:42 am

  50. Stunning Images

    April 13, 2016 at 8:14 am

  51. Beautiful images!

    April 22, 2016 at 6:55 am

  52. Wow

    April 22, 2016 at 8:24 am

  53. I’ve found myself embracing higher ISOs more often, even in broad daylight with fast action. Well done!

    June 13, 2016 at 11:38 am

    • Good point. Thanks for commenting.

      June 13, 2016 at 12:12 pm

  54. Great post. Heading to St Chapelle and was wondering about tripod.

    November 26, 2016 at 11:45 am

    • I don’t recall for certain, but 99% sure they are not allowed. Besides, it was so crowded when I was there, it would be impossible to use.

      November 26, 2016 at 8:55 pm

  55. Excellent images! So sharp!

    January 19, 2018 at 1:02 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.