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Most people don’t use ultra-high ISOs like 25600 on their Fujifilm cameras. But maybe it’s underutilized? Perhaps it’s not appreciated nearly as much as it should be. While I have utilized ISO 25600 and higher on purpose in the past, a couple of recent accidental uses of this ultra-high ISO has made me pause and reconsider if I should be using it more often than I do.
So let’s take a look at some ultra-high ISOs!
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I remember when ISO 400 used to be consider high ISO. In fact, the “H” in Fujicolor Pro 400H means high ISO. When I shot film, I usually didn’t go higher than ISO 400, although on a rare occasion I did go wild and use an ISO 800, 1600, or (gasp!) 3200 emulsion (those were ultra-high-ISOs back then), when the expected light was dim and a tripod wasn’t practical. When I started shooting digital almost 15 years ago, I remember that ISO 1600 on my first DSLR was barely usable in a pinch, and it was best to stay at or below ISO 800. Nowadays those limitations are long gone.
Thanks to the X-Trans color array, Fujifilm is better able to differentiate color noise from color information (than with a Bayer array), allowing more control over how noise is rendered. Because of this, the APS-C sensor on Fujifilm X cameras does pretty darn well at high-ISO photography. Yes, it can get noisy, but the noise is more organic-looking and less color-splotchy (perhaps even a little film-grain-like) than non-X-Trans cameras typically produce.
Still, a lot of photographers are hesitant to try high-ISO photography. I’ve had someone tell me that they never go beyond ISO 800 on their Fujifilm cameras. Someone else said that they don’t use Film Simulation Recipes with DR400 because it requires an ISO that they’re not comfortable using. Everyone has their own preferred upper ISO limit—mine might be higher than yours, and that’s ok. What I’d like to do, though, is encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone, and try some ISOs that you would not normally—or perhaps ever—use.
You might want to use ultra-high-ISOs—which I consider to be ISO 12800 and higher, but your definition might be different—in dim light situations, such as at night or in a poorly lit room. That’s probably the most common reason. I will sometimes use really high ISOs in daylight when it’s not even necessary just for the aesthetic of it. Crazy, right?! I think sometimes digital can appear too clean, and an ultra-high-ISO can give the picture a grittier look, more similar to some film emulsions.
Of course, using ultra-high-ISOs in daylight can be problematic because the light is strong. My Fujifilm X100V has a built-in ND filter, which makes it more practical. Otherwise, screwing an ND filter onto the end of the lens will help. If you don’t have one, be sure to use your camera’s electronic shutter (instead of the mechanical one) because it is capable of faster shutter speeds. You might also have to use small apertures like f/11 or f/16 to reduce the light entering the camera.
If you want to give it a try, below are seven Film Simulation Recipes that use ultra-high-ISOs. Many of them go “up to” an ultra-high-ISO, so in that case you’d want to purposefully choose a high ISO instead of a low one. Give one or more of these Recipes a try today! Leave a comment to let me know which one (or ones) you like. My personal top favorites are GAF 500 for color and Kodak Tri-X 400 for B&W.
Up to ISO 12800
Up to ISO 25600
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A lot of people have asked me if the Fujifilm X-T5, with the new 40-megapixel X-Trans V sensor and processor, is better or worse than the 26-megapixel X-Trans IV cameras when it comes to high-ISO noise. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the lower-resolution sensor would be superior. Is it? Or did Fujifilm pull a rabbit out of a magic hat and somehow make X-Trans V better at high-ISO despite more megapixels?
I’ve spent some time pixel-peeping, comparing X-Trans V to X-Trans IV. Right off the bat I can tell you that both are pretty similar to each other. You’ll have a very hard time noticing the differences without pixel-peeping, and with pixel-peeping, they’re still quite similar. Below I’ve included a massive crop from an X-Trans V camera and an X-Trans IV camera. If these crops were sections of the whole pictures printed, I don’t know how large the prints would be, but they would be very large, so keep that in mind. The picture on the left (revealed by moving the bar to the right) is X-Trans IV, and the picture on the right (revealed by moving the bar to the left) is X-Trans V. Take a look at these two images.
You likely notice that the X-Trans V image is a little more detailed with noticeably finer digital noise, while the X-Trans IV picture is a tad fuzzier with chunkier digital noise. This is a result of the higher resolution sensor of the 40mp X-Trans V camera. What might be less obvious is that there seems to be just a bit more color blotchiness in the X-Trans V image. Perhaps even less obvious, I believe the X-Trans V camera is applying a slightly heavier-handed noise reduction to the picture than X-Trans IV, despite both set to -4 High ISO NR. However, please take all of this with a grain of salt, because we’re seriously pixel-peeping here. In real world photography, both cameras are pretty darn good at high-ISO, and neither are significantly better or worse than the other, and there’s no practical variance between the two. Unless you print posters or crop deeply, you’re not going to even notice a difference—even if you did print large or crop massively, the differences are pretty minor, but I guess you can feel confident that ultra-high ISO pictures will look slightly better (for the most part) on X-Trans V than X-Trans IV. That’s the takeaway, I think: high-ISO on X-Trans V cameras are just a hair better than X-Trans IV, but not enough to make a practical difference for most people. What I will add, though, is that it’s pretty amazing that they could do this while also increasing the resolution. I do wonder, though, if Fujifilm could make—say—a 20mp X-Trans camera with significantly increased dynamic range and high-ISO performance—that’s something I would be highly interested in.
Below are a few more high-ISO examples from my Fujifilm X-T5 camera.
This post contains affiliate links, and if you make a purchase using my links I’ll be compensated a small amount for it.
Pal2Tech posted a video today discussing the noise performance of various film simulations when using high-ISO photography on Fujifilm cameras. I like the videos from this channel, as they’re always entertaining and educational. I’ve learned several things myself, so I definitely recommend following him if you don’t already.
I wanted to mention this particular video (which you’ll find above) specifically because I think it misses the point on high-ISO photography. Or several points, really. I do still recommend watching it—I found it interesting, personally—and I appreciate the effort put into it. But I want to add my own commentary, so here we go!
The first point that’s missed is that Fujifilm’s digital noise doesn’t look like typical noise from digital cameras. Fujifilm’s programming makes it appear more organic, a little more film-grain-like, and much less hideous than that from other brands. So having some noise in an image isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Digital noise can actually be more than just “not bad” but can actually be a positive thing, and you might be missing out by avoiding it.
Which brings me to point two: in the digital age we’re too often striving for “perfect” images with its squeaky-clean aesthetics. In my article No Edit Photography: 7 Tips To Get The Film Look From Your Digital Photos, I stated, “Perfect pictures can be perfectly boring.” And, “Creativity is rarely born out of perfectionism.” Avoiding digital noise is ok, I suppose, but never at the expense of things that are more important.
Point number three (for those keeping track) is that digital noise (from Fujifilm cameras) can actually make your digital pictures appear less digital and more film-like (that’s tip six in that article I linked to in the last paragraph). In fact, my Ilford HP5 Plus Push Process film simulation recipe purposefully uses a minimum ISO of 25600, and it looks shockingly good when printed! If you’re striving for “perfection” and you are pixel-peeping at 300% magnification, noise might bother you a little. Otherwise, the “imperfection” of it can be incorporated beautifully into your art.
The simple takeaway is this: don’t be afraid to get a little noisy. Don’t worry so much about squeaky-clean pictures, but embrace the messiness of photography, and worry about the things that actually matter (like storytelling). Don’t be afraid to shoot at high-ISOs. Certainly if you are limiting yourself to below ISO 3200 for Acros, Classic Negative, and Eterna Bleach Bypass, you are missing out on some lovely pictures (you’ll find an example of each below). It’s ok to pixel-peep, but just know that nobody outside of some photographers care what an image looks like when inspected so closely, and most people who view your pictures won’t be impressed or unimpressed by how an image looks at that magnification, because they only care if the picture as a whole speaks to them in some way.
When it comes to ISO, how high can you go? On your Fujifilm camera, how high is too high? 3200? 6400? 12800? 25600?
This article will explore the topic of high-ISO photography on Fujifilm X cameras. Can you bump it more than you think? Will it look good printed? How does it compare to film? Those are the questions that this post intends to answer.
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Modern cameras have amazing high-ISO capabilities. Back in the days of film, ISO 400 was considered high-ISO by many (including Fujifilm, who designated all their ISO 400 films with the letter “H” for high-speed), and ISO 1600 was ultra-high-ISO, used only out of absolute necessity or by the brave who wanted a certain gritty look. Nowadays some photographers don’t even think of ISO 1600 as a high-ISO setting, and don’t think twice about using it. For many, high-ISO doesn’t really begin until ISO 3200, and ultra-high-ISO doesn’t begin until you go above ISO 6400. It’s really unbelievable!
The real question is this: when does ISO matter? Since modern cameras make such good-looking images at incredibly high sensitivities, when should you start considering image quality degradation? When is a certain ISO setting too high? That’s what I want to answer.
Of course, since this is the Fuji X Weekly blog, I’m discussing Fujifilm X cameras, specifically X-Trans III. This won’t apply 100% to other cameras, but it’s still relevant to some degree no matter the camera make and model. If you are reading this with another camera in mind, take everything said here with a small grain of salt.
I did a little experiment just to better understand all of this ISO stuff. I already knew the answer from experience even before beginning the experiment, but I wanted to see if my instincts matched reality. I captured a few sets of identical pictures, all straight-out-of-camera JPEGs from a Fujifilm X-T20, using ISO 400 and ISO 6400. I made sure that all of the settings were the same between the identical pictures except for ISO and shutter speed. This isn’t 100% scientific, but it’s a controlled-enough test to draw some conclusions about ISO capabilities.
Here are the original pictures:
There’s not a lot that can be learned by looking at the above images, other than when viewing images on the web the ISO doesn’t matter whatsoever because it’s incredibly difficult to spot the differences even when comparing side-by-side. In real life nobody does side-by-side comparisons, that’s pretty much an internet-only thing, so it would be impossible to tell if a picture was captured using a low-ISO or high-ISO just by looking at it on your screen. We need to look much closer to really gain anything from this test. Below are some crops from the above images.
If you study the color crops carefully, you’ll notice that the ISO 400 images are cleaner, sharper and have just a hair more dynamic range, but the differences are quite small and subtle. You really have to look carefully to find them. With the black-and-white image, the differences are even less obvious, and I actually prefer the ISO 6400 version, as it seems to have a more film-like quality. Looking at the crops clarifies things a little, but what kind of conclusions can we really draw?
My opinion with regards to color photography and ISO is this: if I’m printing smaller than 16″ x 24″ or displaying the pictures on the web, I don’t find any practical difference between base ISO and ISO 6400. Even ISO 12800 can be acceptable, especially if I’m not going to print the picture. If I’m going to print 16″ x 24″ or larger, a lower ISO is better, preferably less than ISO 3200, but it’s not a big deal to use up to ISO 6400. The ISO that I select does not make a huge difference to the outcome of the image, so I don’t worry a whole lot about it. Put more simply, if I print large, it’s preferable but not critical that I use a lower ISO, and if I don’t print large it doesn’t matter at all.
My opinion with regards to black-and-white photography and ISO is this: the ISO doesn’t matter much at all no matter how large I’m printing, and I often prefer (just by a little) high-ISO over low-ISO because it looks more analog. I freely use without hesitation any ISO up to 12800. Thanks to the Acros film simulation, Fujifilm X cameras are some of the best monochrome cameras on the market, and with that film simulation, often times the higher the ISO the better.
These are, of course, my opinions, and not everyone is going to agree with them, and that’s perfectly alright. Find what works for you. Use a higher ISO or lower ISO if that’s what you need for your pictures, because, after all, they’re your pictures. I’m not here to judge your camera setting choices, only to offer mine, which I’m hoping is helpful to some of you. I hope that this article makes sense and clarifies some things regarding high-ISO on Fujifilm X cameras.
Below is a video that I made on this topic:
The noise reduction that Fujifilm applies to their JPEGs increases in strength as the ISO increases. The idea is to get pleasing results at ridiculously high ISOs. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, and I think it is true of all camera brands. I call it the noise reduction high-ISO curve.
Even if you set Noise Reduction to the lowest setting (-4 on my X100F and -2 on my X-A3), the camera is still applying some noise reduction. There’s no way to turn it completely off. I believe even in RAW there is a small amount of noise reduction that’s automatically being applied. As ISO increases, the noise reduction is applied more aggressively.
Digital noise is the modern equivalent of film grain, except that film grain is aesthetically far superior to noise. Fujifilm has programmed their cameras in such a way that the digital noise looks less digital and more analog-esque, and so it is more visually pleasant than what you find with other camera brands. Still, you don’t see very many people purposefully including noise in their photographs because they like the look of it (which you might see with film grain). Instead, most people try to eliminate it as much as practical.
The problem with noise reduction, whether on the camera or via software on a computer, is that it softens the image as a whole. You lose a little crispness. Applying noise reduction becomes a balancing act. Too much noise reduction and the image will look clean but soft, too little and it will look very noisy but crisp.
I don’t mind some digital noise, especially if it’s from a Fujifilm camera because it looks a little more like film grain. I tend to lean more towards sharpness over cleanness. I’ll put up with more digital noise in a black-and-white image than a color image. For monochrome, I typically don’t mind going a stop higher in ISO.
The issue is that pesky noise reduction, which becomes stronger at higher ISOs, and it makes images softer, sometimes too soft. But I’ve found a simple workaround. The picture at the top, Snowfall, was purposefully underexposed by two-stops. I did this so that I could keep the ISO down to where noise reduction isn’t applied so heavily (in this case, ISO 3200). I used the camera’s built-in RAW editor to increase the exposure by two stops, and the results were superior to using the correct ISO (it would have been ISO 12800, which doesn’t look very good on the X-A3).
This isn’t a new idea. I used to do this same technique occasionally on my X-E1. Even on the X100F, it’s better to use ISO 6400 and underexpose one stop, converting the RAW file in-camera and increasing the exposure, than to use ISO 12800 and expose correctly. The difference isn’t dramatic, but there is a difference, as one image will be slightly softer than the other.
Understanding the noise reduction high-ISO curve allows you to make decisions to better achieve desired results when pushing the ISO envelope. It might be better to underexpose and then correct the exposure when converting the RAW file in-camera than to rely on the JPEG with the correct exposure. Perhaps you prefer the way the camera handles noise reduction. It’s all situation specific, and everyone has different tastes. Just know that you have options for handling noise reduction at high-ISO, including underexposure, so as to benefit from a less aggressive noise reduction algorithm.
I talked about how the Digital Teleconverter on the Fujifilm X100F adds versatility, and I talked about how great the camera does at high-ISO photography, but I never talked about how these two things do together. I’ve noticed some things about using the Digital Teleconverter at high-ISOs that I’d like to discuss.
Does the Digital Teleconverter limit how high you can go on your ISO settings? The answer is simple: yes. But it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that, so let me dig a little deeper.
I’ve already discussed exactly what the Digital Teleconverter is, and I don’t want to spend much time rehashing that, but basically it’s a digital zoom (zoom-by-cropping) that receives some smart upscaling and sharpening to make the file appear to have more resolution than it actually does. It’s a software trick that allows you to print larger than you might otherwise be able to. You can do this yourself with software on your computer, or you can let the X100F do it for you (which is the Digital Teleconverter).
I’ve also discussed that the practical high-ISO limit on the Fujifilm X100F is 12800, which is very high. Yes, some cameras with larger sensors can go a stop or so higher, but ISO 12800 is way up there, much higher than I ever imagined ISOs going even just 10 years ago.
When using the 50mm Digital Teleconverter (16 megapixel crop) setting, ISO 12800 doesn’t look all that usable. If you want soft and grainy looking black-and-white images, you can get away with ISO 12800 using Acros and the 50mm option. I’ve produced acceptable results this way. However, for the most part, ISO 6400 seems like a more practical high-ISO limit for this situation.
When using the 75mm Digital Teleconverter (12 megapixel crop) setting, anything above ISO 6400 doesn’t look all that usable. ISO 6400 looks alright for soft and grainy looking black-and-white images using Acros. For the most part, ISO 3200 seems like a more practical high-ISO limit for the 75mm Digital Teleconverter.
You might have noticed a trend, and that’s a one stop loss for the 50mm option and a two stop loss for the 75mm option. It’s not that the camera is performing worse, it’s that you are looking much more closely at the exposure (because of the crop). You can more clearly see the degradation in image quality that happens at the higher ISOs. It’s kind of like pixel-peeping–you don’t notice certain things when viewing normally, but they become obvious when you zoom in.
If you use the Digital Teleconverter along with auto-ISO, pay careful attention to the ISO that the camera is selecting. You may need to set it yourself (very quickly and easily done via the knob on top of the camera). My recommendation is to go no higher than ISO 6400 with the 50mm setting and no more than ISO 3200 with the 75mm setting. You can get away with higher sometimes (especially if it’s only for web use), but for best results keep the ISO a little lower than you otherwise would.