Red-lining the ISO
Earlier this summer, I got a paradigm-altering email from my techno-savvy birding buddy Tom Wilberding. (I know- what a cool name for a birder!) Here's what he had to say:
I enjoyed your post on feeding buzzards. Glad you wear rubber gloves for that!
Re camera tips and tricks, I sometimes miss shots going from bright light to dark shadows using Aperture Priority. The dark shots are blurry due to slow shutter speed. Lately I use Manual: speed set to 1/800 sec and aperture to f/5.6 or f/6.3. ISO? I set that on A for automatic. The result is that on the dark shots I end up with noise from the high ISO, but I use Lightroom noise reduction for that. Arthur Morris recommends this technique when on a boat shooting birds next to a dark cliff, then against the water, then against the sky—no time to adjust the camera. But I thought why not do this most all the time, as birds move so fast from ground to sky, dark to light?
Here are some examples of my new point and shoot set up—most taken at 1/800 sec, f/5.6 or f/6.3. Automatic ISO jumps all over the place. It’s lazy and a no-brainer, which I like. Goshawk Trail near Eldorado Canyon: http://twilberding.zenfolio.com/p176924841/slideshow
When I wrapped my head around what he was saying I realized that using the Auto ISO in tough lighting conditions could really let me concentrate on the bird and not the camera. I looked back on Arthur Morris's Birds as Art blog to see what he said about the technique and found a few entries including this one: http://www.birdsasart-blog.com/2009/07/24/more-from-the-pangas/
A few weeks later I had the chance to test the technique, when I found a Hermit Thrush nest with two attending parents and a hungry brood of three chicks. Conveniently, the nest was visible from a busy hiking trail and there was a clear lane to view it from across a creek without disturbing the nest. I had never seen a Hermit Thrush nest before so that was cool, but the birds were foraging streamside in and out of sunlight and the nest itself was in deep shade about twenty feet up a spruce tree at Zapata Falls (Alamosa County, Colorado.) I set my Nikon D3200 to shutter priority and chose 1/500 second to keep the 750mm-equivalent hand-held zoom (Sigma 50-500mm f/6.3, 1.5x crop factor) steady. The camera sometimes pushed to ISO 4500, 5600 or even 6400(!!) to keep up in the shade but the results were pretty sweet. My pics were certainly a lot better than I would have got just sticking to a "traditional" ISO like 400, cranking the aperture open, and trying to deal with the bad combination of slow shutter speeds and active birds.
Two take-aways for me:
1) Auto ISO combined with shutter priority or manual mode can be great in tough lighting conditions.
2) Don't fear high ISO values (maybe even crazy-high!) to keep your shutter speed in comfortable ranges, especially on newer-generation camera sensors that have much higher quality results at high ISO.
Next episode: What if my high-ISO pics look noisy?
Enjoy- Bill Schmoker
Adult Hermit Thrush (note body molt), Alamosa County, Colorado, August 2012. Photo taken at ISO 4500 (selected in Auto ISO mode), 1/500 second (selected in Shutter Priority), Nikon D3200 + Sigma 50-500mm f/6.3
Adult Hermit Thrush gathering food ala Ouzel along Zapata Creek, Alamosa County, Colorado, August 2012. Photo taken at ISO 5600 (selected in Auto ISO mode), 1/500 second (selected in Shutter Priority), Nikon D3200 + Sigma 50-500mm f/6.3
Adult Hermit Thrush feeding chicks at Zapata Falls, Alamosa County, Colorado, August 2012. Photo taken at ISO 5600 (selected in Auto ISO mode), 1/500 second (selected in Shutter Priority), Nikon D3200 + Sigma 50-500mm f/6.3.
Adult Hermit Thrush and nestlings, Alamosa County, Colorado, August 2012. Photo taken at ISO 6400(!) (selected in Auto ISO mode), 1/500 second (selected in Shutter Priority), Nikon D3200 + Sigma 50-500mm f/6.3