ISO 1600 was my friend

Two Saturdays ago my wife and I had the opportunity to attend a voice recital that had been put together by our friend and neighbor Jerome Kopmar. He has been the Cantor Emeritus at a local synagogue and has performed around the globe. He is also a voice instructor and one of his better/best students also performed this particular evening. Last year’s recital (which I saw without my wife due to her being out of town) was just as nice, but a little smaller in scope and held at a different location. I did not bring my camera to that performance, but did ask if I could bring my 40D with me to this one and Jerry agreed.

The one caveat I was given was that I could not use a flash. This seemed quite reasonable considering how the flash popping on would no doubt have blinded him, if only momentarily, making it rather difficult to read his sheet music.


Once my wife and I arrived at the synagogue (this was his former synagogue, if I understood matters correctly, and they had asked if he would put on this year’s performance at the synagogue) I took some preliminary shots within the room the performance would be done. Poor results. The lighting was chaotic in that there were both compact florescent lights as well as incandescent sprinkled about the recesses of the ceiling. But to add real insult to injury was the fact the room was fairly dark. Well, dark as far as cameras are concerned.

It’s amazing how much more light is needed for a camera to capture an image at a lower ISO. Lighting conditions that seem quite fine and reasonable to our eyes can be total shit for the camera and it’s sensor. I knew this fact, but really hadn’t been exposed to it until this particular evening. I had brought along my trusty Canon 70-200mm f/4 zoom (constant f/4) and even it had one helluva time gathering enough light to make the sensor happy. During my pre-performance practice shots I kept bumping up the ISO in an attempt to obtain at least a 1/60 shutter speed, which I felt was necessary considering tonight’s performers would not be static forms upon the stage. About the best I could ever achieve was 1/30 when using my highest standard ISO setting: 1600.


First: thank the heavens for Image Stabilization. A tripod was unreasonable for this endeavor and I do not own a monopod. Image stabilization saved my ass (and photos) on more than one occasion and I am so glad I spent the extra dough to get this feature in my lenses.

Second: ISO 1600 on the Canon 40D is usable, but just. Noise was a common problem throughout the range of pictures, but it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. Yet it was bad enough.

I also became acutely aware of how loud is my camera. I’m not saying it’s louder than any other dSLR, but when all eyes and ears are focused upon a performer onstage, the sudden sound of a dSLR mirror flipping up, shutter curtain opening then closing, and the mirror flipping back down sounds like…..well… a cannon going off. I don’t think it disturbed anyone and I did check with Jerry during the intermission, asking if either my movement about the room or the sound of my camera irritated him. He quickly dismissed such notions and thanked me for not only attending, but for taking pictures (which I have, of course, shared with him and his wife).

Without having yet done any research on the issue of shooting under such circumstances, I have a hard time imagining what sort of thing I could do to obtain better results that wouldn’t involve adding lighting, which is out of the question. Shooting wide open with a pretty decent f/4 lens…..other than bumping up the ISO what is one to do?

I mean, other than purchase a Canon 5D Mark II which can shoot at even higher ISOs with less noise!



8 thoughts on “ISO 1600 was my friend

  1. oh, ok, just go by the 5d!
    but seriously, i think the pix are great. they look like you’re standing right there with a flash and diffuser.
    this post was very timely, as i’ve been wondering about this. one of the photographers in my office does ballet and symphony shots and can’t use the flash. i’ve been trying to figure out how to get her to explain it without sounding even more stupid than i usually do.

    beautiful, clear shots. did you have to photoshop them at all?

  2. You do a great job capturing skin color. The last shot evokes the White Rabbit in Alice–earnest and a little nervous. You captured the seriousness of the occasion and let a little personality creep in too!

  3. @ Chris: Thank you. Half bad is better than I had hoped!

    @ goodbear: Ok. I’ll buy the 5D, but I’ll be coming to live with you (along with my cats (watch out CB!)) when my wife boots my useless ass to the curb! During the editing process I performed some cropping here and there and adjusted the exposure as necessary. The white balance was pretty much spot on (much to my surprise), but other than that….nope.

    @ Kym: thanks Kym. Very kind of you to say such.

  4. The noise isn’t very noticable. When I bump up to that ISO speed I usually get a notcable amount of noise. Do you manually adjust the white balance??

    I clearly understand the frustration with the lighting, our eyes seems to adjust themselves to lighting better then our cameras. That just gives photographers more trouble, but when we pull it off it’s great. And you pulled it off

  5. @ usebagon: Like I said, I was surprised how relatively noise free were the pictures at ISO 1600. I originally processed the photos with no noise reduction, but then reprocessed the entire set with noise reduction implemented. Until I started pixel peeking I can’t say I noticed much difference when viewed at 1024×683 on the computer.

    As for the white balance, I used my camera’s florescent preset and that worked very well. The white shirts looked white and what more could one ask for?!

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