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Monday, 01 December 2008


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I'm sure the IS vs high-ISO debate is more complex than a simple dichotomy, but for me, the issue really is a simple one. For shooting "a static scenic in extremely low light" I have a simple option to replace IS: support the camera with a fixed support. But for shooting fast-moving objects in low light, only high-ISO performance will do. It's a matter of "can I get the shot." With a high-ISO, non-IS system I can get the shot in both cases -- albeit less conveniently in the static-subject case. With a not-so-high-ISO camera, IS does nothing to help in the moving-subject case -- I can't get the shot.

Factor in the ability of the high-ISO body to get, using support, shots at lower light levels than the IS body and it's clear that the high-ISO body is more versatile.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't like both high-ISO capability AND image stabilization in the same body!

Mike, I think you should stop pixel peeping :-)

This is ISO1600 F2.5 Any darker... well, like you said, *I* can't see the scene too well myself :-0 so no point of photographing!!


Mike, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, IS or VR etc is not much use at stabilising the world. Hence, if you want reasonably fast shutter speeds and good image quality in dim light for moving objects (which means high ISO) then you need a sensor which has D3/D700 characteristics. I assume this is why (amongst other things) this camera/sensor is so popular with pros. I'm sure the Pentax is a fine camera, but being disappointed that the D700 "didn't do better here" at 6400 seems to me a bit like saying you're disappointed that your dog doesn't speak english very well.

I'll take both, thanks!

Sometimes, a high ISO is needed - moving subjects, for example. Even clouds can move too quickly for VR to be useful.

Then again, maybe you want blurred clouds in the sky? Who am I to restrict your creative choices?

Give me both, and I'll decide which one I want to use for each shot...

To some extent, this is more or less the same comparison as the one between IS/VR and fast lenses, that frequently come up on many forums.

Agree with Jon Bloom, whether you prefer IS over high ISO is very much depending on your type of photography. For landscape photography it is indeed up to personal preference (though nothing beats a tripod then...). But when making pics of my toddlers in low light, there's no doubt whatsoever. IS (of VR for that matter) will indeed compensate for camera shake, but the subject will still be blurred. High ISO (and/or a faster lens) is the only option in those cases.

By the way, I'd also like to react to your PS on Part I. In-camera IS indeed works with all lenses including fast primes, which you like most. The downside of in-camera IS is that it works better with wide-angle lenses than with tele lenses; with tele-lenses the camera shake is amplified by the lens, so the camera has quite a challenge to compensate for it. Like you, I've owned a KM 7D and actually made pictures with a 17mm lens at 1/2 second that were, well, quite sharp. With the Nikon D80 and a 70-300VR lens at 300mm and VR on, I can go down to 1/5 second to get acceptable pictures - no way I could do that with the KM 7D at 200mm (in fact, at 200mm pictures were blurrier with AS on than they were with AS OFF)!

I shot a small, informal wedding Saturday night. Flash not allowed, as normal. Damn near in the dark...low light and candles. I used my Canon 5d at ISO 3200, AND IS. Surely, lots of throwaway shots because of subject movement. But I got enough that are fine. I could not have done it without both. I will go after the images with Noise Ninja. The bride will not mind being just a little soft. Just a comment on Mike's tests...it can't be an IS vs. high ISO comparison unless you use the same camera in both cases. And Jon, Richard, and Richard stated all the tradeoffs very well. It should be called photographer stabilization, not image stabilization.

Part I should be replaced by Part II! It was pretty obvious Part I was flawed, I'm was very glad to see an attempt at parity in Part II. It looks like the the K20Ds resolution advantage comes into play in some of the crops, no?

It's true that the pictures in this post would ordinarily have been prime candidates for a tripod.

And I wouldn't mind "both," it's just that "both" isn't available right now. Except perhaps for those who find the current Canikon IS/VR lens offerings (i.e., slow zooms, long teles) to be ideal for them. We know they're out there.

Finally, my "jury of one" is still out on this whole question. I plan to keep an open mind and continue to be responsive to what I learn about the D700 as I go along.

Mike J.

You can take out most of the variables by using the same camera. Take a high ISO picture with the K20D and SR turned off. Then take the comparisons at a low ISO with SR turned on. You have then taken out all camera and lens differences.

Hi Mike,

While you made very persuasive arguments, as many have pointed out, in camera IS (or any form of IS / VR) is of no use if the tree you are photographing decides to stand up and take a walk :)

Let me try to change ur mind :) Here are 2 cases with my D700 where IS / VR / OIS / SR will be of no use. This first picture is taken using a 50 f1.8 Nikkor at f2.8, 1/125 at ISO 6400:


I chose ISO 6400 so that I can get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze her motion. Granted, I could have used f2 at 1/60 and be at ISO 1600, but that might not freeze her, and decides, the 50 is better stopped down to 2.8.

Second example:


This was taken at ISO 6400, f3.5 at 18mm, 1/15 (I had no choice - I can't open up this particular lens any further). Here, there's some subject movement which I feel adds to the mood of the picture, but it's the high ISO of 6400 which allows me to shoot at 1/15. With IS / VR, I may shoot at a slower speed, but there would have been too much subject movement.

Having said that, however, I certainly wouldn't mind a 35mm f1.4 lens with VR / IS built in! :)

My D300 is a really fine camera, but I'm contemplating moving up to the D700. Why, since there's little change except for the improved ISO?

Well, I'm working on a long-term project that sees me shooting with typical settings of ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/30 sec at 70mm with VR turned on (Nikon's 70-200mm VR lens). Since these are blown up to 30x40" prints, I need low ISO and very sharp results.

From everything I've read here and elsewhere, it looks like the D700 will give me very similar results -- only I'll be shooting at probably 1/80 rather than 1/30. That will mean I'll no longer throw away four out of every five shots for motion blur -- either hand shake or subject movement.

That will be a huge improvement for me.

Mike, DxoMark confirms your conclusions for the comparison between the Pentax K20D at ISO1600 with the Nikon D700 at ISO6400 :

I get 3 to 4 stops exposure advantage with sensor stabilisation on my Pentax K10D, so I'm interrested in comparing the Pentax K10D at ISO100 with AS with the Nikon D700 at ISO1250 without VR, that is a 3.5 stops difference in sensitivity.

At these settings, according to Dxo Mark, the K10D will have around 2 stops advantage for noise, 1 stop advantage in dynamic range, 1 bit advantage in tonal range, and 3 bits advantage in color sensitivity :

Tonal range and color sensitivity are the most important sensor specifications for my photography, so at ISO100 the K10D with fast primes suits me particularly well.


I love AS/SSS (KM 7D/Sony A700). But I've realized something as I've been shopping for a digicam for my wife, looking at high ISO performance, lens speeds and IS/OIS/VR/SR/whatever. I don't do much photography of static subjects in lousy light - some, enough to value AS (where I want some DOF and want to keep ISO as low as possible) - but mostly I'm shooting people and am concerned about keeping shutter speeds faster enough to prevent motion blur. I don't mind some motion blur in some shots. But at 1/30s I get a lot of throwaways; at 1/15s keepers are rare, while at 1/60s I'm not tossing many due to motion blur (these aren't action shots). AS on a DSLR helps some at these speeds, but I seem to have little trouble holding my Canon A610 still enough to get sharp results. So a fast lens and the best high ISO performance I can get are important, IS is secondary, but ubiquitous enough that I wouldn't live without it.

hey Mike- your perspective comment appreciated. Can't remember the names of those magic additives (factor 8?) I used to buy to try and shoot triX at 3200/6400. And then came financial sacrifice of spending big $'s for fast glass. In the present. Have all that glass and no way to put it in front of this new media. Arg.

I always knew you were a pixel peeper MIke ;-)

Anyway, the future is in organic IS called CHT. I hear it was designed by a VooDoo photographer in New Orleans La.

Reduces your carbon footprint and is 100% recyclable.


Mike, if you are on a budget and you shoot subjects in low light that don't move sufficiently to cause blur at stabilized speeds, then you really ought to take a look at the Sony A700 (or the 16MP replacement rumored to be coming out in January/February).

Why? Because tests from several reputable online test-websites find Sony's stabilization technology to be superior to Pentax's (by one-to-three stops, depending on circumstances), and because the autofocus is substantially better and faster in low light. Having handed the A900 should give you a good idea of how the APS-sensor Sonys work compared to the Pentax.

Stop it!

I am happy with my K100D.

I don't need a K20D

I am happy with my K100D

I don't need a K20D

I...(ad infinitum)

Hi Mike,

This year in digital history, there are myriad combos of resolution, sensitivity, and IS, and it continues to be an interesting issue.

I shoot with a Pentax K100D and always enjoy planning my next gear purchase, and it usually centers around either better sensitivity or faster lenses. A 31mm/1.8 Limited costs similar to a K20D, for example :)

Every time the specs get better, people start to get new ideas, and the more flexibility we have, the more we will use, I think.

People often praise lack of flexibility, for example, "A fixed-focal lens is better because it forces you to ...". In any field of art, forcing one parameter helps, but I always say, one shouldn't need the help of an inflexible tool for that - set your zoom lens to one focal length and pretend it's fixed, simple as that.

All of which is to say, have fun while all these perceived nuisances like noise still exist, which will be a long time, given our endless capacity for change of perspective :)

I agree with Richard (who's dog doesn't speak English well) that the D3/D700 seem to be expected to measure up to impossible performance standards. They do have superlative low-light capability but that doesn't mean they have no-light capability. They can also pull detail out of seemingly blown-out highlights better than any of their Nikon predecessors, similar to what Mike found earlier with the A900. I think the leg up they have is a wider dynamic range which translates into excellent low-light and high-light performance.

Hopefully it won't be long until the in camera IS people, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, can match the high ISO sensors that the Canikons are putting out. Hopefully, the 14 megapixel plateau will last just long enough for that to happen. Put one of those in my stocking and I would be real happy. ch

This test shows a little landscape photography bias, dontcha think? Try shooting kids in a darkened living room. With SR, only the background will be blur-free. Instead of only using SR, I'll also just crank that sucker to 3200 and convert to B&W, so at least the noise is less distracting.

The only problem I see with the test is that you should be able to get the Nikon picture you shot at 1/60 at 1/30 and a stop lower ISO. I know I can reliably get sharp results at 1/30 at 30mm-e with a DSLR(I don't currently have a 24mm lens to match the 35mm-e range)

I do a fair bit of this sort of low-light shooting and what I found is that I can relaibly handhold most DSLR's with a wide-ish lens down to 1/30 and sometimes lower. With IS, I can get maybe an extra stop when shooting wide, with 1/15 being the reliable limit and a stop lower being the 50% mark where I'm as likely to not get anything as to get anything.

IS comes into its own with longer lenses where the difference can be 2-3 stops by 100mm-e.

I've owned a couple in-body IS setups (K100D and K10D) and now shoot with a D300, which has about the same stop and a half advantage over the K10D as the D700 has over the K20D. The thing is that I get a stop and a half more performance but I'm only really losing a stop of handholdability at the wide end by giving up in-body IS.

I don't miss in-body IS really until I've got my 58 or 85 on the D300. Then I'm losing enough handholdability to make the equation change.

It seems to me that different DSLRs are different tools, best suited to different jobs. From Mike's comments, it seems that the D700 / D3 are currently the best cameras for low light moving subject work, e.g. photojournalism and reportage. The K20D (and if I understood a column last week correctly, the Sony A900 (at 3 times the price!)) are very good for reproducing fine detail of static subjects in fair light (with the right lens). (I'd be very interested in hearing Mike's comments on the relative merits of the K20D & A900.)

But why should we expect a single camera to be perfect for every situation? We don't expect to use the same film emulsion for portraits, evening landscapes, product shots, and reportage, so why expect to use the same digital sensor?

I currently have a Fuji S3, which I use for high contrast, high dynamic range (but not HDR) work, because that's what the Fuji SuperCCD SR sensor is designed for. I'm about to get a K20D for high detail landscapes. If I did much low light work, I'd be looking at the D700 very seriously. Horses for courses.

And, as with all tools, it's how you use them that really counts.

Mike --STOP! These kind of comparisons can easily go on and on until you're blind or growing hair on your palms.

That's all well and good Mike, until your subjects start wandering about and then IS doesn't help much.

Here's why: on Saturday I was in Windsor shooting a wedding in an 11th century church on a grey November day. Dark enough anyway. The vicar was more than happy for me to shoot the ceremony with 2 caveats:

1. No flash
2. The ceremony was in candlelight

Without my D3 I'd have shut up shop right there. Here's what I ended up with


1/125s, f1.6 and I needed ISO 10,000 to get there. And it's more than good enough for album use. IS wouldn't have helped me here at all.

And it's giving me this sort of quality at ISO1600


That's all well and good Mike, until your subjects start wandering about and then IS doesn't help much.

Here's why: on Saturday I was in Windsor shooting a wedding in an 11th century church on a grey November day. Dark enough anyway. The vicar was more than happy for me to shoot the ceremony with 2 caveats:

1. No flash
2. The ceremony was in candlelight

Without my D3 I'd have shut up shop right there. Here's what I ended up with


1/125s, f1.6 and I needed ISO 10,000 to get there. And it's more than good enough for album use.

And it's giving me this sort of quality at ISO1600


Mike, you took multiple shots and chose the best from each camera. Was there a significant difference in the percentage of usable sharp shots from each? I suspect that the higher shutter speed of the Nikon would result in a higher success rate than stabilization. If so, this would be a factor in favor of high ISO, as sometimes you have only one chance.

Thanks for the K20d v D700 low light comparison. I use an "ancient" Pentax ist* DS which you once featured in Sunday Morning Photographer. (Honestly, I didn't get the camera because you liked it, though I felt warm and fuzzy for having done so, and I still agree with your comments.) The DS is a relatively light DSLR with simple and straightforward layout and features (K1000-ish), with good build quality and a great viewfinder for an APS sensor (a bright pentaprism with almost 1x magnification). If one shoots raw as I do the camera's image quality is as good as any for its time.

But, like you, I like to shoot in low light so two things tempt me to upgrade: to get image stabilization for the 1/15 sec shots I'm fond of, and to get a few more megapixels. The DS's 6 mp is enough for me when the composition fills the image, but I like to walk around with a 35mm equivalent lens and cropping the picture often helps.

The K20d for all its merits and good ergonomics is a bigger, heavier camera, so I'm loathe to give up the relatively small size and weight of the DS. But at least I'm not pressed to switch platforms. Your examples include the type of lighting I run afoul of - yet you were able to make the shots with legacy lenses similar to mine. And if I really need to tripod a shot, then I'll shoot with low iso anyway so the D700's high iso ability doesn't help.

For me it is pretty simple. I like taking pictures of people at night, using ambient light.


IS doesn't do much to help with that. Higher ISO really does help. Otherwise I'll get sharp backgrounds and blurry people.

This is great stuff, taking it in the spirit it was offered. As an ex film person, I'm stunned at the ISOs you and others are reporting. Also, I'm most interested in your 'final thoughts on the K20D', as I'm looking very closely at that.

Ray Hudson

I like primes, and Pentax has plenty good ones, together with SR bodies, so that's the route I went down.

While it's true that you need high ISO to stop action, the term "action" has a broad meaning. For example, if you're talking about sports, then sure, you need 1/300s (or maybe more, I don't know), but if you're talking about people at a party, then 1/50s, sometimes even 1/30s is fast enough to get a candid portrait.

I've shot 135mm primes at f/2.8 and 1/30s for sharp pics with SR. I'd like to think I have a steady hand, but there's no way I could get those shots without SR. If the D700 does give me 2 stops of ISO advantage, then I really gain nothing by using a Pentax body and could have taken those same shots at ISO 3200 instead of ISO 800 and using 1/125s instead of 1/30s...except I paid less than $700 for my K10D while the D700 would cost me around $3,000. I think that's something we should bear in mind as most of us are amateurs who have a difficult time justifying such an expense. (Note: The K20D is now priced under $800 at many retailers.)

"Why? Because tests from several reputable online test-websites find Sony's stabilization technology to be superior to Pentax's (by one-to-three stops, depending on circumstances)..."

Yup, it is. The 7D's IS is better than the K20D's, and both are better than the VR in the Nikon 24-120mm I tried. (I didn't use the A900 for long enough to get a solid sense of how well the IS works in that.)

"...and because the autofocus is substantially better and faster in low light."

Right. Another (relative) weakness of the K20D. It's not terrible, just not the best.

Mike J.

I prefer to think of image stabilization as a way to reduce "micro camera shake" for hand held shots, even at high ISO. For me it isn't a replacement for a high shutter speed when it's needed. I agree with what Jon said - if it's a static subject in low light then IS offers no real benefit to using a tripod or even a bean bag.

Perhaps Mike you are referring to low-light hand-held candid photography with a moderately short and fast lens, such as the 35mm or 50mm. This is where the in-body IS on the K20D could potentially be an advantage in comparison to the D700. I don't believe this to be true. Maybe you are thinking of situations where you are forced to shoot, for example. 1/15th at f/2 or f/1.4 at ISO800, probably the highest I would go with the average APS-C SLR if I was concerned about noise. Even with the IS on there's a risk of blurring from a combination of subject movement and focus error due to limited depth of field. Cameras like the D3 and D700 simply solve the problem by allowing one to shoot at 1/60 or higher at exactly the same noise level.

You are also losing the option of having compact wide fixed-focal length lenses for APS-C SLR bodies - they simply don't exist. If you want anything wider than 28mm you'll have to go for a bulkier (and probably slower) wide zoom, eg 11-18 or whatever. Mike, you're not going to find the equivalent of your beloved 35mm f/2 for your K20D in an identically priced and sized package.

I recently had to make the decision to go with the Pentax K20D or the D700 and consider the pros and cons, given my type of photography (performance & event photography). I decided to go with the Nikon because I could have my cake as well as eat it - both high ISO image performance and IS where it really counts, in telephoto focal lengths.

Shoogle compensation ( VR, IS, etc) appears to be either a forced optical decentring of the lens, or a forced displacement of the sensor relative to the lens mount, in either case effected by a complex set of electro-mechanical devices. According to Murphy’s Law, at some time the mechanism will go wrong. If it breaks down catastrophically so that it is clearly not working, or has stuck in an operational position causing an obvious fault in the images produced, then it is simply an irritation requiring a trip to the repair shop. Possibly it might be more of an irritation in the case where the mechanism is located in the body. On the other hand, is it possible that the mechanism might imperceptibly at first, but slowly and progressively go out of adjustment, so that eventually you realise that for some time you have been making increasingly degraded images? I’m just wondering how reliable this technology really is.

"I’m just wondering how reliable this technology really is."

Really? Sounds to me like you might be worrying about something you don't know you have to worry about. ;-)

(That isn't meant to sound harsh. I'm just sayin'.)

Mike J.

P.S. On my 7D the electronics have gone wonky (the camera resets itself spontaneously at odd intervals and won't hold certain settings at all), the lensmount is hinky (sometimes the camera thinks there is no lens mounted when there is)--but the IS still works a charm.

Those two Guy Collier shots really define the debate, don't they? Pretty incredible. Anybody care to guess when this kind of high-ISO quality might be available in smaller and lighter forms, and at prices affordable to most of us?

Not soon enough. Until then, we will make due with ISO 1600 and IS (of some flavor). But tripods?



Looking at this another way, Part One of the trial compared a $1250 Pentax kit to a $3300 Nikon kit. Part Two made the Pentax kit even more attractive compared to the Nikon in terms of overall price. I guess I see this as a blow-out. Perhaps the big issue for me is still that my old Pentax lenses work very well on my K200D whereas my D40x will allow me to use older Nikkors only if I meter after the fact. Which is still cool I guess.

My personal experience with VR (at least with Nikon 18-200 VR lens) is that it is not consistent. You never know if the shot is going to come out sharp or not. No, it's not motion blur or focus error. It's a peculiar softness which only VR can produce. This is just how VR/IS/SR works.

High ISO and hence high shutter speed, on the other hand, is more consistent. If it's going to be blurry, it's going to be consistently blurry and vice-versa.

Of course, for the price of the Nikon D700, you could buy *three* Pentax K20Ds and still have enough money left over for a very nice lens. Maybe two.

"You are also losing the option of having compact wide fixed-focal length lenses for APS-C SLR bodies - they simply don't exist. If you want anything wider than 28mm you'll have to go for a bulkier (and probably slower) wide zoom, eg 11-18 or whatever. Mike, you're not going to find the equivalent of your beloved 35mm f/2 for your K20D in an identically priced and sized package."

Not completely accurate, I must say. Pentax does some weird choices -apparently-, but they suit very many options. In that regard, the spectacular [after trying it] 14mm 2.8 DA lens.* Not compact, but not big either. Well into wide angle territory. Heavy, though.

About the 35mm lens, you´ve got the 31mm lens from pentax, and the Cosina-Zeiss 18 mm lenses for it.

* by the way, problem solved ; ). The lens I was recently looking for is the DA 14mm 2.8, which has a focusing distance of 14cm, or a 2.5cm from the front element of it [which is a very remarkable performance from a non macro lens]. The problem was solved after two hours of talking and "being way too friendly" with the camera shop staff, and letting them try the lens on my own camera [something they are usually not very prone to].

Cosina does as well some weird lenses in K mount. The closest equivalent to the 35 is the 2.8/25 mm [which has a 37.5mm result].

I was never a fan of "pictorialism" during my film days.
But I like the two pictures, exspecially the second one (of the trees and the lamp). If that image were mine, I would reduce the Chroma noise a tad etc., or convert it to a B&W, and try a print.

This summer I started doing some "nightscapes" at higher ISO settings, trying to "use" the noise, so to speak. Its fun.

I want:

But there is another angle to IS. Hand held low speed photography. Sometimes I want to go as low as 1/8th or even 1/4th of a second without using tripod. Sometimes it works, too.
I've been using Olympus 4/3 cameras since I got digital. They are definitely not the cameras to use when it comes to high-iso photography. 1200 is about the max I'll go.
But the IS system is fantastic. 1/8 of a second with ultra-wide. Olympus top DSLR are doomed if Nikon/Canon ever produce a FF camera with built-in IS. Oh, and I'll never buy a Sony product out of principle (yet).

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