My 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?
Wind is often the bane of nature photographers. We are often photographing in fairly low light conditions at sunrise or sunset, and often want a wide depth of field, so end up using small f-stops. Most of us know that using high ISOs leads to objectionable digital noise. These conditions all combine to require a slow shutter speed. So what do you do if there is a breeze moving your foreground around. Not a problem with rocks as a foreground, but what about wildflowers?
The above photo of the Tatoosh Range was taken at Paradise on the Golden Gate trail last month shortly before sunset. To get both the flowers and the mountains in acceptable focus, I took one shot with the aperture at set f/16 and the ISO at 100. This resulted in a shutter speed of 4 seconds (I also used a split neutral density filter). There was a breeze and it was impossible to get a frame without some movement in the flowers.
I then shot another image with the aperture at f/11 and the ISO set to 1250. This allowed the shutter speed to be 1/8 seconds. This was enough to stop most of the flower movement; but as you might imagine, the noise was unacceptable.
To get the above image, I processed both photos in Lightroom and imported them into Photoshop. I used the low ISO image as the background layer, then added the high ISO image in a new layer and added a layer mask filled with black (making none of the high ISO image visible). Then, using a soft brush, I painted white on the mask wherever the flowers were soft due to movement from the breeze. The end result is the image above. Below are close two closeups that show the before and after effects of painting the high ISO image onto the low ISO one.
This technique to stop the wind doesn’t always work, but when it does, it can save a shot.