By Jim Richardson
While most of the discussion concerning digital noise centers around the comparison of one camera with another, I end up feeling that, from an historical perspective, we're missing the boat. I too am one of those geezers who remembers the new wonders of Kodachrome 64. And under Rich Clarkson's tutelage I even remember the era of developing Ektachrome 64 as a negative so we could shoot color at the unheard of speed of 320 (in a desperate pinch).
In a more recent era, shooting for the yellow border magazine, ISO 100 became the norm. All higher speed films were reserved for truly desperate circumstances, and a picture shot on that film was going to have to be really special to overcome the lack of color and snap the editors expected to see.
Which brings me to my point. During that era we pretty much edited reality. We restricted the subjects of photographic inquiries to the brighter parts of world. Essentially we edited out dark parts of the world, such as nighttime. Often it didn't matter what the actual journalistic value of the subject was, if we couldn't make a good transparency of it we just didn't shoot it. It was a form of self-censorship and in many ways it presented a distorted view of reality to our readers.
Add to that limitation the problem of color balance under the myriad of odd light sources present in the real world. This narrowed our vision in two possible ways. Either we simply didn't shoot under such conditions, like under the pukey green fluorescent lighting in most offices. Or we went ahead and shot the pukey green and made an editorial statement out of it, using the ugly green to imply the ugly office conditions where minions toiled away their meaningless lives. (I know you could throw on the Tiffen FLD filter but did it ever look really good?) Either way, in the end we simply left huge parts of the world out of our examinations. The ability to adjust white balance in a digital camera is, for photojournalism, a minor revolution.
Now comes digital. And let me just say this: Hallelujah! Forgive me for not entering the debate over various cameras and their noise levels more earnestly. (Although I do like my D700.) The point is, all these cameras are wonderful! With any one of the current cameras we can bring huge swathes of the world into focus that were hitherto off limits. We are seeing great picture stories emerge from the darkness. This is a real revolution. Finally we can go where people really live and work and bring back images of impact and beauty.
All this actually matters, and not just to us photographers examining our pixels (and our navels.) It matters to the general public because it changes the visual stamp of our era. It changes what we think our world looks like. It changes which parts of it we're able to see and share worldwide. It is as if we just discovered another continent or got our first view of the dark side of the moon. It's not that photographers haven't done great night images before, such as the beauties that Brassai extracted from the Paris nights. It's that for every Brassai we now have millions of photographers who can look into the dark corners of our world (and of our souls.)
I'm sure we'll see higher ISOs in the future and I'm sure we'll see less noise and that the camera debates will go on long into the night (and that the DxO Labs of the world won't run out of work any time soon). But I think, historically, that when we've gotten to the point of debating whether images shot at ISO 3200 were perfect or merely remarkable we are, essentially, over the hump.
Featured Comment by Paul De Zan: "Sanity! What a refreshing post. It's hard for me to understand how so many seem to be so jaded by what are, in fact, miracles. Glad I'm not alone."
Featured Comment by Bahi P: "The points you make apply all the more to those of us who are generally not at our best in the mornings. We get up late, stay up late and hang around with others who stay up late. Today, we finally get to document our own lives—at home, out with friends, out for an early walk around dusk :) —without strobes. It's seriously liberating. Soon, this freedom will be available to people using compacts, too. I still come across many commentators claiming to be baffled by the appeal of handheld photographs taken in low light. For them, a good photograph always has great sunlight in it and maybe a waterfall or some mountains and night photography is about tripods and flashguns. For the rest of us, our time has come."