Outrageous ISO: Digital Concert Photography at the Upper Limits of Low Light

Outrageous ISO: Digital Concert Photography at the Upper Limits of Low Light

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I dislike editing photos. Raw files are large and cumbersome. The process is tedious and time consuming. I have negative tendencies towards obsessive perfectionism. Thankfully, my love for photography was sparked by a Fujifilm camera.

I received a little-used Fuji X20 in near perfect condition for Christmas about six years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since. Especially given its tiny sensor, the results from that camera were stunning and brought me tremendous joy straight out of the camera. After a few years and a brief brush with the X-Pro 1 (a saga which could be an article in itself), I found myself with an X-E3 that I bought brand new for just $500 in the perilously narrow window of time when Fuji was selling remaining stock of the discontinued camera after the release of the X-E4. Like the little X20 and comparatively hulking X-Pro1, the diminutive X-E3 continued to give wonderful JPEG images– both color and black-and-white –mitigating the need for all but the simplest of edits.

But the X-E3 provided something new; an outsized ability to shoot very high ISOs.

With the previous cameras, I was topping out at 3200 or 6400, respectively. But the X-E3 reaches an astounding ISO 51200, and as I gained confidence with the X-E3, I wanted to see just how high I could take it.

I’m here to report that you, too, can shoot at ridiculously high ISOs and get extremely pleasing results, especially with black-and-white JPEGs. In fact, I’d argue that one can achieve the most filmic look this way, rather than with the faux-grain options Fuji introduced to their in-camera processors a while back. There is something wonderful about the digital grain (aka “noise”) that Fujifilm cameras generate at stratospheric ISOs: 12800, 25600, even 51200. Using the latter two even requires the camera to do a bit of extra on-the-spot processing to render the image. Perhaps this is where the magic slips in…

I made this discovery when I started shooting concerts.

I grew up in the emo, punk, hardcore scene and never really grew out of it. Even though I’ve got a mortgage to pay and three kids to put to bed, I still make it out to a show or two every few months.

The X-E3 is the perfect camera for concerts. It’s borderline minuscule, plays nicely with adapted lenses, and renders beautifully. Because I prefer my photos as JPEGs straight out of the camera, I have two film simulation settings stored on my camera that I use for concerts. One is my color concert setting and I’ve found it plays very well with the wild, saturated lighting that accompanies most of the shows I photograph. But when shooting color I rarely range beyond ISO 6400, because when I do I’m often dissatisfied with the results.

Not so with black-and-white.

My second concert got-to is an approximation of my favorite film stock of all time, Kodak TMax P3200. A black-and-white push film rated at ISO 800, I’ve gotten wonderful results at shows with the film in both a Canonet QL17 and an AE-1 Program [see our reviews of these legendary cameras here – Canon Canonet | Canon AE-1 Program]. It is striking to me how closely the black-and-white photos I take with the X-E3 at stratospheric ISOs resemble those taken on P3200. In this simulation setting, I default to the auto ISO feature maxed out at up to 12800. This allows me to shoot at higher shutter speeds and fine tune with the exposure compensation dial. But sometimes, given the sporadic, even spastic lighting, the processor gets duped and I need to set a consistent ISO. Doing so also opens up the highest levels possible with 25600 and 51200. I remember there was a time when I thought the mere presence of these options was silly and frivolous. But no more. The proof is in the pudding.

I’ll begin with my favorite concert photo I’ve ever taken, of my favorite band, Philadelphia’s mewithoutYou (RIP). This image was shot with a 7artisans 25mm f1.8 manual lens (which retails for a whopping $73) and my P3200 setting at ISO 25600.

Notice the level of detail throughout, and the fine high-ISO noise. Grain is good. I find this “digital grain” surprisingly organic and dynamic. I have a 12 x 18 print of this image hanging on my office wall and it is really striking. To my eye, even from a short distance, it looks like film. And more importantly, it beautifully captures a moment from their farewell tour that I never want to forget.

To compare, here is a photo I took of the same band in the same venue a few years prior with the Canonet and P3200 at ISO 800. The digital photo has a bit more clarity– likely due to a slightly higher shutter speed– and a bit less contrast, but they really are birds of a feather.

Here are a couple other shots on P3200 film of the bands High Vis and Touché Amoré. Because I was working without a flash, the grain is particularly pronounced. Now consider them compared with a shot of Fading Signal on the X-E3. Is the comparison perfect? No, but I find the digital film simulation provides an outstanding approximation of the film stock, oozing with that organic dynamism I really love.

This image was made with the super-wide Samyang 12mm f/2 manual lens. An 18mm equivalent on the Fuji’s APS-C sensor, this is an excellent concert lens, provided you’re willing and able to get in close and mix it up. (Incidentally, it’s also a superb lens for amateur astro-photography.)

Although wide swathes of the internet would have you believe you should never shoot over ISO 3200 (or maybe 6400), this image surely gives a counterpoint to this conservative philosophy. This is ISO 51200, for crying out loud!

Admittedly, the digital image is a bit busy, but I highlight it to challenge another popular myth: namely that you can’t crop a crop sensor. Nonsense. Because I shoot JPEGs, cropping is really about the only editing that I do to images. Consider two crops of this particular image. The first simply makes for a much better image, in terms of framing. The second highlights just how much detail is available at such high ISO on a crop sensor. This image blows both of the previous assumptions out of the water. It’s punk rock to push the limits, and I am happy to say this image does it in all the right ways.

In the end, it really comes down to taste. All of the remaining photos were taken at ISO 12800 or higher with my P3200 film simulation. You may not like the results that I’ve been getting with these settings. They might still be too noisy for your visual taste. To each his own. But I am happy making images that I love.

I hope this write-up and gallery will encourage folk to continue to push the boundaries of the extraordinary capabilities of the photographic tools available today. Hopefully, it will give some Fujifilm lovers a new film sim to try out.

And I am curious still. Have others of you similarly pushed the limits with sky-high ISOs? How does this work with different cameras? Could my newly acquired full-frame Canon 6D go even farther? Or is this capacity unique to Fuji, or even just the particular qualities of the older X-Trans III sensor? Curious minds want to know.

Eric‘s Kodak P3200 Film Simulation

  • ISO: Auto 1600-12800 (Can be set to 25600 or 51200)
  • Dynamic Range: 400
  • Film Simulation: Acros G
  • Grain Effect: Off
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Highlight Tone: +2
  • Shadow Tone: +3
  • Sharpness: -2
  • Noise Reduction: -4

Image Samples

We are happy to occasionally publish the words and images of photographers and writers all over the world. Today’s guest author is…

Eric Meckley is a father of three, a husband, high school teacher, and photography enthusiast from North Carolina. He shoots both film and digital whenever he has the chance.

See more of his work on Instagram here!

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Guest Author

In addition to our staff writers, we accept articles from passionate and knowledgeable photo people. If you have an article idea that you'd like to publish on Casual Photophile, please submit it to our email address for articles - Casualphotophilearticles@gmail.com

All stories by:Guest Author