When it comes to high-ISO performance, digital camera technology has taken photography to a place that was impossible or nearly impossible not very many years ago. What used to be a fast film-speed is now just another ISO that looks like all the others.
I started photography in the age of film, and I studied film photography in college. It makes me sound old, but I remember when my high-ISO option was ISO 400 film! And if I was feeling daring, I might push-process that film to ISO 800 or (gasp!) ISO 1600 on a rare occasion. Only a couple of times did I dare try ISO 3200, and the results were super grainy.
Nowadays ISO 400 seems closer to base-ISO than what most would consider high-ISO. Even ISO 1600 doesn’t seem all that high. Photographers routinely use ISO 3200 and higher. If you told me 20 years ago that this was going to be the case in the future, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.
All of this is truly amazing, and I wanted to lay out this context, because it’s easy to forget just how far this has come. Any camera that is capable of great results at ISO 1600 and higher is something that we should marvel at! And pretty much all cameras available today are capable of this.
The Fujifilm X100F, which has a 24-megapixel APS-C X-Trans III sensor, is capable of producing excellent high-ISO results well above ISO 1600. One reason for this is that there are more green sensor elements than a traditional Bayer sensor (55% vs. 50%). Luminosity information comes from green (while red and blue are for color information), so X-Trans cameras have a little more high-ISO headroom.
I have found that there is no practical discernible difference between ISO 200 (which is the base ISO) and ISO 800 on the X100F. There is a small increase in digital noise with each ISO stop increase above ISO 800; however, ISO 3200 is difficult to distinguish from ISO 800 (or ISO 200 for that matter) without a side-by-side comparison. ISO 6400 still appears great, but by this point the noise has become a little more obvious. ISO 12800 is a bit on the noisy side and noticeably softer, but it still looks good and I have no hesitation using it when I need to.
Interestingly enough, ISO 12800 on the X100F reminds me a lot of ISO 1600 on my first DSLR from a decade ago. One of the biggest improvements in digital camera technology over the last ten years has been high-ISO performance.
There are cameras that go well beyond the ISO 12800 practical high-ISO limit of the X100F. But the high-ISO performance of this Fujifilm camera is truly amazing, all things considered. Ten years ago it would have seemed impractical and twenty years ago it would have seemed impossible. Yet here we are today, with good looking ISO 12800 right at our fingertips!
I’m sure camera makers will continue to improve high-ISO performance throughout the coming years and decades. People will scoff that you could “only” get good results through ISO 12800 on the X100F. So what? You use what you have to the best of your ability and don’t worry about the rest. Do you think it really matters in the long run if you can’t shoot at ISO 25600 or ISO 51200? I’m personally happy to get good results above ISO 400, which wasn’t always an easy task in the days of film photography.
The photographs in this article were captured using the Fujifilm X100F. All are out-of-camera JPEGs using Acros or Classic Chrome. The camera can add faux film grain (Acros does this automatically, while Classic Chrome is either toggled on or off), and all of these have grain in additional to the digital noise.