I learned photography using 50 ISO Fuji Velvia slide film, rated at 40 in the camera. If you really needed some extra shutter speed, you could push it to ISO 80. Or you could switch to Provia or Kodak VS and sometimes and get to ISO 200. Faster slide films were just incredibly grainy and flat. This was expensive, too. It cost about $.25 per photo, as I recall (film cost plus developing). Yikes! Taking chances was expensive!
These are good reasons to love digital. These sensors just keep getting better and better, opening up whole new worlds of photo possibilities for those willing to crank up the ISO. I have upgraded to the new Canon 1DX II, and it is a high ISO monster. I am having to force myself to push it higher and higher and explore how much I can get away with.
Here are a couple of high ISO images I took this month in Yellowstone National Park. I was out in West Thumb Geyser Basin near Lake Yellowstone trying to get a night shot with stars of the famous “Fishing Cone” or “Fishing Pot”. I used a 30 second exposure at ISO 2500 to get the stars and warmed up the foreground with a small flashlight. That image turned out ok, but it really needed more steam from the Fishing Cone itself. To quote the Rolling Stones, you don’t always get what you want . . .
As I walked back out on the boardwalk, I glanced over to see two elk bedded down in amidst the geysers and hot spots. I am sure they had a nice warm little spot of ground where they could sleep. In film days, I would have just smiled and kept moving, saving money.
But these are not the old film days! I cranked up the ISO to 6400 and a fast aperture and hoped for the best. Low and behold, it worked! An 8 second night-time wildlife portrait. Who woulda thunk-it?