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Beautiful Music, High ISO

Jan 11

In Equipment, history, Thoughts at 9:04am

The recent D4 project was a terrific project for the studio, made more so by the company I shared shooting it. Bill Frakes did his usual wonderful sports stills, but also filmed a beautifully evocative video of Istanbul. Take a look at his site, Straw Hat Visuals. Corey Rich once again defies gravity in his adventure sports video work, seen hereMatthias Hangst shot amazing action, and Vincent Munier once again took on difficult and daunting landscapes. Humbled and honored to be in their company. Bill Frakes and I, especially, go back a long ways. He is one of the truly significant standard bearers in the history of sports photojournalism.

Charlie Gabriel, Preservation Hall Band. Nikon D4, 200mm, f2, 1/160th, ISO 12,800, Tungsten AWB.

Technology marches on. We now have cameras that perform well in the realm of ISO numbers previously only associated with highly complicated math problems. I took the prototype D4 into Preservation Hall, and made some portraits during the day, then lingered for the evening show, and shot available light. Below is Charlie that afternoon, under flash conditions. D4, ISO 200, 1/80th, f5.6, cloudy WB, lens at 26mm.

The Hall is tough to work. Wonderful ambiance, and almost zero usable light. I found this out years ago when I shot there for Sports Illustrated prior to a Super Bowl. I squeezed a few pictures because that night because they gave me a pass to put up a flash–a Norman 200B–in the ceiling. It amped up the light just enough for Kodachrome 200. But the stuff I tried with existing light was pretty much DOA.

So shooting the picture up top at 12,800 ISO was definitely a revelation. The quality of the light in that venerable music hall is still super warm and soupy, but…I could work. That’s the bottom line with new gear. Does it help? Does it make the job easier? Does it open the door to a picture?

Technology and me have always had a love/hate thing. I love that fact that it can help create pictures I want to make. I hate the fact that even relatively simple items come with a manual the size of War and Peace.  I’m still pretty much a Neanderthal on the computer, and of the fancy gadgets I own, like an Iphone, I probably use about 20% of its capacity. (I’m definitely not one of those folks who pitch a tent outside an Apple Store for days and days when a new gizmo is announced.) The younger guys at my studio either chuckle or turn away when I attempt post production, or the loading of new software on my computer. And certainly, my blog is not where you would come for a highly evolved technical discussion of the shape of the pixels. There will certainly be sites out there which will, eventually, take this camera apart, like a car in a body shop, and look at every gear, bell and whistle. Not here. I work at the technology stuff a bit, but, you know, life is short, and I’d rather shoot. Or dream up a picture I want to shoot. Or write. Or, best of all, be at home with Annie.

But I have to admit, despite my stumbling gait, my path as a shooter has fortuitously crossed over with new camera tech at some crucial times. When I made climbs up the mast on the Empire State Building, I was fretting as to what single lens to bring up with me. Didn’t want to do the fisheye. I was working for Geographic, and many editors there are not wildly enthusiastic about distortion. The available older versions of super wide rectilinear glass were problematic. I was chagrined. But–presto! Right about then the 14mm f2.8 rectilinear came out. Fast, sharp, and not flare prone like its predecessors. I immediately went in to rent it for my last climb. The guys at the counter, who knew me pretty well, casually asked me what I was shooting, and, excitedly, I told them I was climbing the antenna on ESB. They took the lens off the counter and said, “You know, dude, you really should just buy it.” Which is what I did. Later that week, on my fourth climb up there, I got lucky with the light, and the lens.

The above version is not the select Geographic ran. It’s later in the morning, as the sun got stronger. Here’s what I was worried about up there. It wasn’t falling. It was repeatedly loading new film cassettes into the camera. I was levered backwards at about a 45 degree angle, pushing off the mast with my feet, hanging onto the aerial with my left hand, and shooting with my right. Because even back then I couldn’t see anything up close, I also had a pair of granny reading glasses taped and tethered to my neck. Juggling a bunch of stuff, in a word. My panic time was those moments I reloaded. A dropped film canister from that height, if it finds the street, could kill someone. I would have loved a 32 gig card, but those were many moons in the future.

When digital dawned, I had no idea. I stuck with film as long as I felt I could, and then made a jump for survival to this fancy camera known as a D1X. First thing I shot with it was a Kentucky Derby, and my brothers Mike Corrado and Skip Dickstein had to show me what do with my cards after the race. I was hopeless, but I didn’t care. The digital camera felt like a film camera. There was a shutter, and a lens. I frankly didn’t care what was happening inside of it. Plunging on, and resolutely placing faith in the old adage that the Lord looks after a fool, I ended up shooting the first all digital coverage in history of National Geographic some months after this first outing.

Fast forward to a camera I was just tickled with, the D3. Thought, as I have mentioned, I would go to my grave with that camera. It simply suited all the needs I had in the field. Then, the D3S came out. I thought, nah, don’t need it. I’m cool with what I have. But then, Geographic assigned me to a story on the electrical grid of the United States, and I realized I was about to spend a ton of time in helicopters at night, observing the illuminated grids of various cities. The D3S promised better chip performance, and improved results at high ISO. So, I re-upped. Sold my D3 cameras and bought D3S models.

It was good that I did, I think, as the lead to the story was a night view from a chopper, with long glass. The technology I employed, at this point unthinkingly and reflexively–excellent high ISO, VR in the lens, bright viewfinder, accurate AF–the myriad of camera advances I often now just take for granted, helped me come back with pictures that night from that very expensive chopper ride.

D3S, 200-400mm lens, ISO1600, f4, 1/125th. Lucky shot. Goldman Sachs building, lower Manhattan, with virtually every room lit up.

D3S, ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/60th. Lucky with the sunset.

So I guess that’s one big question that drives all this. Our eternal responsibility as photographers is to deliver the best possible quality image we can manage back to the client. And that’s become a part of the digital equation every shooter has to work out as a personal and professional decision. What’s the best gear for me, relative to my work flow and my mission? Shooting night sports for the wires back in the day, when everybody on the sideline was pushing the hell out of tri-x, it didn’t really matter too much if you were still shooting an F2, and the guy next to you was shooting an F3. But now, shooting ones and zeroes, the machinery used to shoot that same game has an impact on the quality of the pictures produced, for sure.

That night in Preservation Hall, I got to test high ISO response at 12,800, which is an ISO territory that is completely alien to me. And the results, relative to that speed, were terrific. Now, if you’re always shooting in that realm, you’re probably working a tough gig, photographically. Being at that ISO a lot might mean you’ve got a badge and a gun, and you’re up very late at night. And you might be sitting in a non-descript car that’s filled with candy wrappers and crumpled fast food bags, sipping bad coffee, and trying to sight a lens through a rain pocked windshield as Tommy Two Toes passes yesterday’s New York Post with an envelope in it to Mikey Gaga on a street corner somewhere in the Bronx. I mean, maybe.

Or you could be shooting sports at night under bad light. Or you might be a music shooter, or perhaps theater and dance is a specialty. Or, you’re a news shooter whose job it is to observe and record, despite the adversity of the conditions. The mission at hand is, at least partially, the driver for the choice of gear.

For me, I’m looking down the pipe of a six week job, starting pretty soon, and, given the parameters of that job, this tech evolution known as D4, is, I feel, another one of those fortuitous bends on this long road, and it arrives just in time for a task at hand. High ISO capability is yet another one of gifts placed on our doorstep as shooters. I honestly hope to not have to use it too much, but it sure is nice to know it’s there.

More tk….

Jonathan Lopez says:

on January 11, 2012 at 9:14 am

Every technology has it’s limits, but you’re not kidding about how amazing the new digital sensors are at capturing in low light. Just truly astounding what you can do with a full frame at 12,800 ISO…

Wish I could afford a D3S, but it will be years before I need one. Of course, it would be twice as much work making my sculptures smooth as EVERYTHING would be in sharp detail. Kind of glad my D7000 doesn’t capture absolutely everything.

Thanks for the share, my friend :)

Ben Yew says:

on January 11, 2012 at 9:15 am

quite tempting, ISO 12,800’s quality!!

Nick Kirk says:

on January 11, 2012 at 9:18 am

“What’s the best gear for me, relative to my work flow and my mission?” Had the same conversation with the guy at Calumet this morning, to upgrade my D3’s to D4’s or replace with the D3s. Wedding photography in Scotland, I could really do with the best quality picture possible (not much light here in the winter) but may have to settle for the D3s this time around.
Great Pictures by the way.

JL Williams says:

on January 11, 2012 at 9:19 am

If you’re shooting high school sports at night, or theater and dance, the odds are pretty good that a $6,000 camera body is not in your budget! (Ask me how I know this.) I’m looking forward to this sensor technology filtering down to the D7000-class cameras.

Martin Hambleton says:

on January 11, 2012 at 9:26 am

Damn! Here I am shooting weddings on a D3S thinking “nah, it’s doing the job just fine. I don’t need to change a thing.” Then you make the completely valid point about giving our clients the very best image we can. Damn!

I’ve only been shooting professionally for 9 years and it’s scary how things have changed in that short time. Comparing my early digital images to what I can produce today, and conditions I can work in, the advance is astonishing. And now it seems even more is possible. Wow.

Great post. Thought provoking. Thanks.

Roger de la Harpe says:

on January 11, 2012 at 9:39 am

Mmmmm. Looks like the D3x has to go. Brilliant camera as it is, the D4 looks as though its has some serious advantages…

Thanks for the insight.

al ESCAMILLA says:

on January 11, 2012 at 9:44 am

Great blog. I’ve recently purchased 3 of your books and can’t put them down. Thanks for sharing your experience.


Midland, Texas

David Johnston says:

on January 11, 2012 at 9:55 am

Awesome shots!!!

scott says:

on January 11, 2012 at 10:39 am

great prose and images as usual. Love the books. From your post i get the impression (but not explicitly stated) that you believe the D4 is another step in the progression of improved handling of noise at high ISO. Should i take from your text that you believe the D4 is an improvement in noise handling compared to D3s?

Great stuff and thanks for your comments

Skipow says:

on January 11, 2012 at 10:48 am

Yes! I am glad you are a Neanderthal on the computer and don’t like to take cameras apart! Whatever saves you more time so you can write us more great words! Your words are as fun as your pics! Thanks!

Derek says:

on January 11, 2012 at 10:58 am

Beautiful work Joe, love that first shot of Charlie.

RobyFabro says:

on January 11, 2012 at 10:59 am

God… I used my F2-F3s for years and years, without feeling the need to upgrade and now with digital cameras that pressure is there any time a new model is out! When you don’t know any better you’re happy with what you have…now a days is not the case any more!!
Certainly the D4 sounds good…, better get out there getting more work then!
Must say…I do much prefer your field reviews to the highly tech ones!!
Have a good one!

Josh SIegel says:

on January 11, 2012 at 11:04 am

What level of Noise Reduction are you doing on those high ISO images? Using photoshop or CaptureNX2? Could you share the settings you used for that first image?


Kurt Wall says:

on January 11, 2012 at 11:11 am

Fascinating. I read over on Hobby’s blog yesterday that he’s skipping the D4 as part of his evolution into MF and his new (to hime) PhaseOne P25. I read here that you’re all in on the D4. You and the Strobist, two of my favorite photographers, continue to be on opposite sides of the technology fence.

Hristo Dzhendov says:

on January 11, 2012 at 11:40 am

All the links in the article are broken. There is http:// followed by http//. :)

Joe McNally says:

on January 11, 2012 at 11:56 am

thank you…sorry!

David G. says:

on January 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Great images comming out of the D4! Can’t wait to see some video!

Thanks for sharing Joe!

Bill Bogle, Jr. says:

on January 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm


Do you still use your D3x or is the D4 taking that spot as well? For concerts, wedding photographers, sports photographers, and others like this, the D4 is a no brainer. A friend noted that it is as expensive as a car, but I countered that a car can’t take video or low light shots.

I guess we have to wait until the D800, rumored at 26mp, to see if that is the answer for landscapes.

As to the help for Photoshop and Lightroom, I thought that was what you romanced Wilma for. Give the post production off to her.

All the best. Thanks for the shots of NOLA. A favorite spot.

Bill Bogle, Jr.

Mark Pappalardo says:

on January 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm

It’s somewhat bizarre that your photo taken from the helicopter is from a slightly lower altitude than your photo taken from the very top of the building that’s in the photo taken from the helicopter.

Ollie says:

on January 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm

When I saw the title I though: Wow, Joe does concert now!

Saw the first pic and wow, nice!! Very very very nice!

Could help in concert photography. But I have my doubts about something:

Will you not blow the picture when going to hight in the iso’s?

As you know, the lights are changing every then and now!

Also, and I don’t don’t know how to express my feelings without hurting other people (sorry, english is not my mother language): What about the picture itself? It’s great to get a camera that can take good clear/neat/sharp/no grainy pictures in low-light but what about the picture contains :-)

Nowaday, I miss that touch, the grainy picture, the essence of a live act itself.

I am curious how the camera would react in a concert :-)

Valentino says:

on January 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Very nice insights of the evolutionary process of photography technology from the perspective of a professional photographer and why it can help and be useful for the job/work, to upgrade the tools on an urgent work demand.

Thanks for the always interesting postings and great images!

Richard Davis says:

on January 11, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I think cameras are like software – everyone has the basics nailed down so the incremental improvement is going to continue to be in things like higher ISO, better noise control, etc. – fine tuning for more specialist markets, by which I mean the job at hand. Most won’t need these capabilities but every now and then, having them available will enable an otherwise impossible shot.

But having read Trey Ratcliff’s opinion which came out just before the D4 announcement, the real question is whether a different form factor of camera will create a disruptive change in the industry that outweighs incremental improvements?

Perhaps one of the crazy things about the industry today is that the means of reproduction are incapable of displaying the full range and tonality of the capture. We all have millions of bits of image data that we saw and captured but are unable to present for viewing, our viewers only getting some algorithmic approximation. And if our viewers are looking at screens and those screens are not calibrated, then what the viewer sees may be even further from what the tog captured.

It is indeed a strange and subjective art form.

Michael says:

on January 11, 2012 at 3:07 pm

cool blog Joe, but I’d like to see the ISO go the other way 50, 25 or even 12, ok so I’m a landscape and travel photographer yes I can use ND’s, I loved sitting with my F2 and later FM2n loaded up with ssslllloooooowww b&W film, maybe on day who knows but until then the fM2n sits right along side the 3Dx and the D7000. 😀

Joe McNally says:

on January 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Hey Bill…still using the X. It’s my go to camera in the studio, but as you say, in the field this new entry is a pretty cool deal…joe

Scott Gant says:

on January 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Interesting that you’re digging the D4, Joe. I’m hearing conflicting viewpoints and dissapointments from other photograpers about it. Trey Ratcliff saying that he’s not upgrading from his D3x, and even saying it will be the last SLR he will buy, that he wants to go “mirrorless” (though he calls them “3rd gen” cameras). He wasn’t impressed by the D4. It’s all on his website.

Then we have David Hobby on his Strobist blog saying he’s going the opposite way and is investing in the medium format Phase-One system. He too wasn’t that impressed by the D4, in fact even titling his post “Bailing on the Nikon D4”.

Personally, I think the D4 is awesome, but I’m wondering if you’ve read these posts from David and Trey and what your thoughts are on all of this.

Hristo Dzhendov says:

on January 12, 2012 at 2:08 am

I’m sure the D4 is amazing camera. But every camera has a purpose . The D4 is not in my range of vision.
@Scott Grant
I read the David Hobby’s blog post. I think the problem is not in the D4. We can’t compare medium and full format cameras like we can’t compare full format and crop format. All they has different purpose.

Emanuele says:

on January 12, 2012 at 2:37 am

thank you for the information Joe. I have a D3s and I would leap to D4 only if the Af was really faster. Have you had the possibility to assess any better D4 AF performance in C mode when tracking a subject vs. D3s? What about S mode autofocusing in low light, where D3s sometimes struggles?
Thanks a lot for yoour help and time.

Frank Algermissen says:

on January 12, 2012 at 2:40 am

Guys, stop reading or being influenced what others say. Doesn’t it depend on what is right for YOU ??? What are YOU shooting and what are YOUR needs for that? There is no only one right cam I think. I personally would (and also will at 16.Feb.) take a D4 as the perfect allrounder.

School Ball Photographer says:

on January 12, 2012 at 3:26 am

The more I read… the more I want one. Joe, my wife is going to start banning me from reading your blog!

ray says:

on January 12, 2012 at 4:01 am

I s the d4 equal, lesser, or better than the d3s at 4000iso and up?

Marvin says:

on January 12, 2012 at 6:17 am


I just have a pet-peeve, I hope you’re reading this. Seeing that you already took it upon yourself to capitalize a letter on the word “Iphone”, at least make it the letter “P” next time, not the letter “I”. Trust me, it’ll make you sound like a Cro Magnon not a Neanderthal. :)

Nice post, anyhow.


Linnea says:

on January 12, 2012 at 6:55 am

What I really like about this blog is the story of enjoyment of work. It is something I partly have lost, and have tried to regain by starting med school (lucky me!) and trying to take/sometimes maybe make photographs.

It is so good to see it in others. It reminds me of what is important – especially in the middle of last preparations for stressful exams.

Volker says:

on January 12, 2012 at 9:07 am

I really would like to see a 100 crop of the 12.800 ISO image.

Shane Kelley says:

on January 12, 2012 at 10:08 am

Enjoyed the stories and images Joe – having been one of the first two female photojournalists working at large daily newspapers – in Canada, I too clung to my Nikon F4 warhorses – not to mention manual for everything including sports – ‘only those that couldn’t focus used auto focus’ I said stubbornly. As an editor reminded me (as I whined about the slow extinction of newspapers – and photojournalism jobs) ‘we’ve been in the business in the best of times’. We used to have it (photography and journalism) all to ourselves, before everyone had a camera and a blog – but we’ve also stepped into an exciting time where we don’t have to worry about killing anyone with dropped film from the sky – and can shoot in ‘bad light’ situations that previously were beautiful to the eye, but out of bounds for our cameras. So thanks for the inspiration as I reinvent myself as a freelance shooter instead of hanging up the gear (well i thought about it for a moment or two but i’ll likely die clutching a Nikon D?

Joe McNally says:

on January 12, 2012 at 10:18 am

Way to go Shane…hang in, keep shooting. It’s the best solution we’ve got….best, Joe

Andrea says:

on January 12, 2012 at 11:07 am

Thank you very much for those warm and non-techy words. Great story – thats what I like about your HSDiaries-book – real life stuff never gets old.

Bob says:

on January 12, 2012 at 11:12 am

pretty soon this digital techno stuff will be as good as film…can’t wait…

Greg Lepera says:

on January 12, 2012 at 11:29 am

I can vouch for the difficulty shooting inside Preservation Hall, it’s one of my favorite places in one of my favorite cities. I have some pics of Charlie that are among my all time favs, he is such wonderful a performer, a world class clarinetist and a damned fine and soulful singer, too.

Ray says:

on January 12, 2012 at 12:36 pm

I just ran across this video from 1992.

Nice ‘stach!!! :)

Love ya!


Ray says:

on January 12, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Whoops, this video was on your blog a couple weeks ago… How did I miss that?

HS Chuang says:

on January 12, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Thanks for sharing a D4 picture at the highest standard ISO. I was curious about that since D4 can also boost up 4 stops more to ISO 204,800. Although images quality usually is questionable when useing the “boost” settings or the highest ISO, I’m surprised to see the decent image quality out of the D4 at ISO 12,800 here. Dito to that great tools makes your job easier and photographers should try their best to delivery the best images to their clients. For a stay-at-home mom, I’m trying to get the best images out of my ancient Nikon D80 & newer gear Sony HX100V 😉 Looking forward to seeing more D4 pictures.

jess says:

on January 13, 2012 at 4:48 am

looking at the picture of you hanging near the light gives me height sickness!

gregory peel says:

on January 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm

“Lucky” hmmm,Joe, you seem to “lucky” a high percentage of the time.

Marshal Ray says:

on January 13, 2012 at 4:10 pm

“When I made climbs up the mast of the Empire State Building, I was fretting over what single lens to take with me.”

I would be fretting over my very survival.

Many years later, I’m still a bit freaked out over the thought of even making the climb and being perched precariously a thousand feet in the air. Joe, you have some serious sized balls for doing that! But those light changing guys who do that apparently so often even more so. I still say Yikes!! That is one assignment out of all you’ve done where I say “Glad it was you instead of me.”

Peter Kelly says:

on January 14, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Seen the Video on the changing of bulb on the Empire State Building, and thought what a Great vantage point to shoot the City from, would have loved to have been able to shoot from such a location

Jkb says:

on January 15, 2012 at 7:14 am

What a great read! Its so true, we better make picture as talking ’bout gear and new features.

“A camera is just a tool, like hammer & nails we use to build a house. Don’t get too emotional about that fancy stuff”. The couple inches behind the camera is important, still.

André says:

on January 15, 2012 at 10:26 am

Two years ago y read your book. Hot shoe diares. I was, a purist NO flases! Yes, for me Henry Cartier Bresson and Mccurry is always my big masters. But, you change my way of shot. And today i really use my Sbs. Thanks Joe. I do a great Job and i like the way you put the light in the right place. Like Storaro, John Toll, John Swartzman and many other cinemathohraphers. Thank you! Good luck with the D4, for me is a great camera.

HF Chuang says:

on January 15, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Sorry! Just found out lots of typos in my last comment as well as typing my initials wrong. Forgot to say if you had dropped a D4 when you were taking pictures of that light up there, you would have knocked down a building, ha.

Zach says:

on January 16, 2012 at 12:13 am

I shoot with a D3s, and looking at that 12,800 shot, i don’t see a lot of difference between the two in terms of image quality at high ISO. I know that statement lacks some value, as there’s no side by side comparison of the same subject in the same conditions, but I have shot a lot at elevated ISOs with my camera, and I have a good feel for how it works in that sort of light. The D4 may outshine the D3s in some other areas, but I’m not seeing a lot of difference at 12,800. Thoughts?

Joe McNally says:

on January 16, 2012 at 10:20 am

can’t say, Zach, really. The D4 has an improved chip performance for sure, but I always hesitate to dip my toe in these waters because there are so many people out there who know more than I, in the technical sense, about chips and the like. There’s no doubt, though, from what I recall from the rare times I pushed my D3S to hi iso that this is an improvement. I don’t have a side by side, as you say, though. But the D4 really does raise the bar all around, esp. for certain things that I’ll attempt this year. all the best, Joe

Aberdeen Wedding Photographer Rubislaw Studio says:

on January 16, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the daytime portrait images of Charlie Gabriel. I just got my copy of “Sketching the Light” and it is really making me rethink my lighting technique. I think it is time to get that flash off the camera!
Thanks for the inspiration.

Zach says:

on January 17, 2012 at 3:36 am

Thanks so much for taking time to respond to my comment! I feel honored, and it really made my day! I hope we get to see that sort of side-by-side for high ISO shots sometime. Take care,

Rotstein says:

on May 26, 2012 at 6:32 am

This camera has done that simply. It is possible to a lot of features I haven’t accessed yet, yet it’s so easy to use and easy to find out.

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