How prevalent is high-ISO photography?

Low light performance is one of the most important factors I consider when buying a camera. At one point I did an expensive switch from the Canon system to Nikon, when the D3 came out, for its amazing high-ISO performance (I returned to Canon when the 5DmkII came out).

On a popular forum for users of Micro Four Thirds cameras (which struggle beyond ISO 800), a poster recently questioned the rationale for high ISO performance, stating 99% of users will never shoot beyond ISO 800. I quickly looked at my statistics in Lightroom, and found over 54% of the photos I took in 2011 (to date) are at higher than ISO 800.

That begs the question: who is more representative, him or me? publishes statistics on popular camera models, but apparently not on other interesting EXIF metadata. I whipped up a quick and dirty Python script to sample recently uploaded photos from Flickr and collect the ISO speed from their EXIF tags, when available.

Of 3020 photos I sampled, fully 399 were shot at ISO higher than 800, or 13% (the 95% confidence interval is 12% to 14.4%). Thus significantly less than my proportion, but far higher than 1%.

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7 Responses to How prevalent is high-ISO photography?

  1. It’s worth considering the population under discussion, both when posting the question and inspecting data. The more “serious” a population, photography-wise, the more they’ll understand the concept of ISO and care about it. My uneducated guess is that folks who opt for micro-4/3 cameras are more advanced than point-n-shooters, but generally speaking not all that advanced compared to folks with high-end SLRs. Generally speaking.

    And I’d guess that the general population on Flickr is substantially low end on average, so the users and cameras both would tend to shy away from high-ISO stuff… it’s just not high enough quality. However, if you were to inspect a less-general population on Flickr (say, a D3 or 5DmkII group), the high-ISO stuff would be relied upon more, and of a better quality, to appear more. But (generally speaking) Flickr is not the first choice for higher-end photo display… it’s great for its community aspects, but it’s not an aesthetic place to view art.

    So, I think your sample perhaps underreports to a great deal; if folks (point-n-shooters and pros alike) could get great shots of a kid lit by the candles of a birthday cake, you’d see a lot of those kind of high-ISO shots, but since only high-end cameras can do it now, you see few.

    • majid says:

      Sure, the iPhone is the No. 1 most popular camera on Flickr, but No. 2 is the Nikon D90, and No. 3 is the 5DmkII. That does not suggest a completely low-end demographic. I didn’t try to filter out iPhone photos, it would be interesting to do so.

  2. FWIW, Fazal, I took the opportunity to update my data-plot plugin for Lightroom to add ISO (and shutter speed, aperture, and Ev). Thanks for the idea.

    • majid says:

      Thanks. I tend to run SQL queries directly against the SQLite database, but I’m just pathological that way…

  3. georg says:

    Maybe it is only 13%, because the cameras just don’t do it. My Leica M9 is a nightmare above 800 ISO. I would love to take more available light pictures. And I would bet, others would love as well.

    • majid says:

      Yes, that is quite possible.

      On the other hand, I used ISO 1250 and higher on the M9 only in the direst of extremities, but the RAW converter in Lightroom 3 made major improvements in noise reduction for the M9. I talked to Tom Hogarty, the PM for Lightroom at Adobe, and he mentioned he is a Leica shooter, as are many members of his team, and they made sure the RAW conversion routines for the M9 were the best they can. I went to a wedding earlier this year, shooting using both a Fuji X100 and a M9, at ISO 1600, and found I actually preferred the Leica shots in terms of noise, much to my surprise. Try it, you will be pleasantly surprised by the improvements.

      • georg says:

        Yes, you are right. I did lots of high ISO night shots in Istanbul, a few months ago. Here are some of them in the gallery … Some of them worked out fine, after editing in LR. But there is still a lot of noise. Sometimes the only way to save a night picture is converting to BW. Or give it a 1600 ASA Neopan feeling in Silver Efex. I would really like to try the M9 Monochrome for Nightshots. Maybe I will get me one for Christmas ….

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