Four Winds Photography's Blog

Can you say “High ISO””?

As always, with indoor shows, the lighting was absolutely horrible at this show. I will post a few images from the show but I am primarily going to use this experience as a learning tool to talk about shooting in these, for lack of a better word, crappy conditions. Hopefully, you will find this helpful. When we got to Brookings they only had half the lights on and at ISO 3200 and at F/2 I could only must a shutter speed of 1/60th! We talked to the show manager and even though it cost them more he agreed to turn the lights on full. What would I have done if they hadn’t have turned the lights on full? I would have either 1) only shot the classes where I could use flash or 2) packed up and gone home. At some point do you say can’t do it? Yes. Let’s be very clear about this. There are those shows you absolutely won’t be able to get enough light to shoot it. At least you won’t be able to get an acceptably clean image. So know that going into the show. This post is not going to show you how to get results from every indoor show. You just can’t. Or at least I haven’t been able to. Several of the images I am going to use here are from a cutting in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last year. Had I not gone to strobes I wouldn’t have been able to shoot it. BTW, my next post will discuss my lighting system for those classes that I use flash.

Let’s get started. There are several considerations when shooting low light indoors. I will discuss them categorically.

ISO: Obviously, one of the main issues we are dealing with here is high ISO’s and noise. I am going to make the assumption that all reading this understand the exposure “triangle” of ISO/shutter speed/aperture. The lower the light the higher ISO one needs to get the shot. But this is compounded by the fact that for horse shows we need a fast enough shutter speed to stop action. Shooting a birthday party indoors you may get by with 1/60, 1/30 or even slower, especially with an image stabilized lens. This won’t cut it at a horse show. What shutter speed you need depends on the event. More about that. But consider 1/500 a benchmark. I also know that most that read this understand there is a causal relationship between higher ISO and digital noise. But what level of noise is acceptable is highly subjective. At the risk of insulting you, here are a few different shots at increasing ISO’s to see the different noise levels. These are all with Canon 1DmkII, and 70-200 F/4. These actually came out a little better than expected, but the exposure on these is dead on. More about underexposure and noise below. But I think you will see this causal relationship. With each you will see the original image and a 100% crop.

ISO 400

And here is 100% crop

ISO 800

100% crop

ISO 1600

100% crop

ISO 3200

100% crop

I hope that you can see the progression of increasing noise in these, especially on the 100% crops.

Exposure index. I am going to delve into a subject I never hear mentioned anymore, the Exposure Index. Exposure index is just a term that allows us an indication of how much light there is. If you go to the link you will see descriptive examples of each exposure index from –6 to 23. Photographers today talk about lighting conditions and say “at ISO 1600 I could only get such and such shutter speed wide open”. Why don’t we use exposure index anymore? In the above paragraph talking about when I first arrived at the Brookings show that would have been an exposure index of 8. If I was shooting outdoors and using ISO 100, s.s. 1/1000 and an F stop of 8, that would be an exposure index of 16. Isn’t that easier? But I digress. This is an academic discussion and the use of exposure index is about as likely to come back into use as 8 track tapes.

Expose to the right: No description of ISO can be complete without a discussion of the concept of “exposing to the right”. This means changing your exposure, “opening up” if you will, to “shift” your histogram to the right. In other words, intentionally slightly over exposing. I look at it this way, if you are going to error, error on the side of overexposure rather than under exposure. As I am often want to do I will send you to a link that will explain this concept far better than I can. There are many other discussions about this that Google will turn up. However, suffice it to say this: exposing to the right produces far less noise than the comparable amount of exposing to the left. Let me say that another way: Underexposure causes noise. In normal day-to-day shooting at low ISO’s we can get by with slight underexposure and probably save the shot in postproduction. When shooting at high ISO’s correct exposure is absolutely critical! The slightest underexposure will increase noise exponentially. A couple examples. These are very unscientific admittedly. Different cameras, etc. But I think you will get the idea.
This first one is at a nearly correct exposure. This is with a Canon 50D and a 100 F/2 wide open at ISO 3200:

And here is the 100% crop of it.  Sure, there is some noise in it.  It is at ISO 3200.  But it is a usable image.  His grandma bought three 8×10’s of it!!!

Now here is a high ISO underexposed one. This one is with a Canon 5D, which is a full frame so presumably better noise handling than a 50D crop sensor, although the 50D may have a little bit newer sensor technology. This one is about 3 stops underexposed. This is with a 70-200 F/4 wide open at ISO 3200. The highest “native” ISO of a 5D is 1600 so right there you lose a stop. Beyond that this shot was underexposed two stops. Here is the ugly original:

And here it is with what saving I can do in LR3:

And here is the 100% crop, which you probably don’t even need to see how noisy (and ugly) this is:

So how do we get that critically perfect exposure? As I have posted before many times before I never push a shutter button with out getting an incident light reading with my handheld meter. I use a Minolta IV-F. Failing that there are methods that you can use:
1) Use the spot meter mode of your camera and meter off a rider’s face.
2) Use the same gray card that you can use for white balance and spot meter off it.
3) Good old chimping. Set the exposure that you want which probably means 1/500th second and wide open. Take a shot and look at your histogram. Keep doing this, upping your exposure, which probably means upping ISO, until you see the “blinkies”, overexposed areas of your image. Should you be lucky enough to have enough light to get the blinkies.

With any of these methods, at the highest ISO your camera supports you may not get an acceptable exposure. That is when we deal with underexposed images in post processing and try and save them. More about that below.

One last comment about noise.  We are all hypersensitive about noise since so many of our images are posted on the web and viewed on-line.  Noise is much more visible on screen especially, as you see here, if you are viewing crops.  Noise is far less visible in prints.  Keep this in mind if you are printing and relax a little bit about it.

Shutter speed The whole point of shooting at a high ISO is to get fast enough shutter speed to stop action. Too slow of a shutter speed and you are going to get motion blur. How fast of shutter speed do you need? It depends, of course, on the event. But my rule is absolute minimum of 1/500th second. I have broken that in desperation situations and gone to 1/400th. But depending on the speed of the event you can probably get away with a slower shutter speed and possibly knock the ISO down a bit and get cleaner images.
Here are my rules:

  • “Slow” events (trail, showmanship): 1/160th or higher.
  • Rail classes (English/Western Pleasure, Dressage): 1/250th or higher.
  • Any high-speed event (Reining, barrels, roping, cutting, jumping) 1/500th or higher.

White Balance: One of the most frustrating aspects of shooting indoors, behind noise, is white balance. If you aren’t familiar with the concept suffice it to say that every source of light has a color balance or temperature. This is why your camera has different white balance settings: daylight, tungsten, cloudy, fluorescent, etc. The reason that we need to adjust this is because if we don’t the photo will have a distinct color cast. When we go into an arena that is lit by fluorescent or gas lamps our eyes and brain automatically adjust the white balance for us without us thinking about it. A camera can’t do that. You may be familiar with this concept if you have ever done an available light shot with incandescent lighting. Here is such a shot with my camera on AWB (Auto White Balance) of the most perfect subject in the world, Malene:

Don’t criticize the composition and I know there is motion blur. It was a “grab” shot and just pulled it out of Lightroom for an example. Canon 5D, Canon F/2, ISO 400, 1/40th, f/2.0
Then here it is white balance corrected in Lightroom:

Shooting an indoor arena under gas lamps without WB adjustment and here is what you get:

And here it is color corrected.  All I did was use the “eye dropper” in LR and clicked on the white wall.  The color balance could have been fine tuned even more.  Maybe it is a little on the green side.

This photo is still underexposed and grainy.  We will use this below when we talk about post processing.

So you have two choices when dealing with white balance: 1) Set the white balance ahead of time which means setting a custom white balance, or 2) correct in post processing. I used to always use the former method when I started shooting digital. This was unquestionably a holdover from my old film days when we had to put a filter on the front of the lens to color balance. I would have my wife hold a gray card and then I would shoot it and set a custom white balance. Refer to your camera manual for exactly how to do this. If you shoot in jpg (instead of RAW, see below) or don’t have software for post processing this is certainly an acceptable means of dealing with the white balance issue. But for the last several years I have adjusted the white balance during post processing. This reflects the fact that I know find it very easy to “batch” process a selection of images. I just find it easier.

You know it can’t just be as easy as I describe above. There has to be one more complicating issue, doesn’t there? Many of the horse show arenas today use what are known as gas lamps. I don’t know the technically correct term for them. You know those lights that they turn on and they take a long time, maybe an hour, to get to full power? They actually change their white balance cyclically. They designed these lamps with the sole intention of frustrating equine photographers. Here is a sequence shot at a high frame rate (10 FPS) with my 1DMkII: These had no post processing and you can see in a time period of 1/3 second how the color balance changed.  In that span of time we went from dark reddish sand, to reddish yellowish, to yellow sand.

If you use a custom white balance all you can do is hope that it comes close knowing some are going to be slightly off. If correcting in post processing what I do is sort of group select them and correct.

Equipment for shooting indoors or “I feel the need for speed.” Photography equipment is obscenely expensive. If you are reading this you undoubtedly already know that. But attempting to shoot indoors makes it even more so. The reason for this is two fold. First, to shoot indoors you must have fast lenses. Fast lenses are expensive. An f/4 lens will not cut it. The fastest zoom lens available is F/2.8 and those are expensive.  Unquestionably one of the most popular zoom lens for indoor sports is the 70-200 F/2.8L (IS or non IS version).   Sometimes even an F/2.8 is not fast enough. This means primes. The majority of my shooting indoors is done with a 100mm F/2. If you have read any of my blog earlier about equipment you know how I feel about this lens.  This lens is not horribly expensive. But many fast primes are especially so if you go with an “L” lens.   One of the most popular primes for indoor sports is the 135 F/2L.  An ideal budget lens for getting started, especially on a cropped sensor, is the affectionately named “nifty fifty” or the 50 mm F/1.8.  Nikon has to have a similar lens.  It is cheap, less than $100 US, fast and reasonably sharp.  On a cropped sensor it is going to give a field of view of 80mm on a cropped sensor.  If you are on a budget, and who isn’t?, it is a perfect prime lens for indoors.  Everybody should have one of these in the camera bag.

Secondly, the newest generation camera sensors have much better low light handling capabilities than previously. That is to say they are cleaner than previous cameras at a comparable ISO. Thusly, if you want the cleanest images shooting indoors you are looking at a new body.  In the Canon line this is the T21 in the Rebel line, the 7D in the “prosumer” line and the 5DMkII and 1DMkIV in pro cameras. Nikon will have directly competitive products. I just don’t know their product names. These newer cameras probably provide a full stop (or more) better noise handling. This doesn’t sound like much but that one stop can make the difference between being able to get that shot or not. I still shoot with 2nd generation bodies. I can assure you that a 1DMkIV is on my radar and will unquestionably make my life easier. It’s just a question of cost justifying.

IS or no? IS is absolutely irrelevant for shooting sports. You don’t need it. Does this mean you don’t need an IS lens? Of course not. I have a couple IS lenses. You are probably not going to use your lenses for just shooting horse shows. Go back to my post of March 17, 2010, to see this discussion about lenses. But to summarize, for shooting horse shows you need a fast enough shutter speed to stop action. As I said earlier this is ideally 1/500th or faster. At this fast of shutter speed camera motion blur is not an issue therefore obviating the need for IS.

RAW or JPG: I suppose an argument can be made for shooting in JPG.  If you set a custom white balance and  I know one equine photographer that does so and puts his shots immediately on his site for sale.  But his work is all done with strobes  If you shoot in low light I see absolutely no way around shooting in RAW. The white balance issue alone demands that you shoot in RAW.  I am not going to say much more about the RAW vs JPG decision.  There are books written about RAW processing.  If you aren’t shooting in RAW I encourage you to consider it.   You’ve got the winter to learn it!

Post processing. You gotta do it and post processing is a subject all it’s own. After you get that crappy, underexposed image in your computer you gotta try and save it. OK, that’s a little negative. But indoor shots require more post processing than “normal” ones. Which software you use is largely a matter of preference and pocketbook. I don’t know the software that comes with Nikons but I am sure it is comparable to Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP), which does a very acceptable job.  It does better than acceptable.  It is a very powerful piece of software.  And it is free! Here is a tutorial on DPP on Canon’s website. It is very comprehensive and if you go all the way through it you will be a DPP expert.

My workflow prior to version 3 of Lightroom was something like this: Import from card into LR2. Initial white balance adjustment in Capture Noise Reduction and sharpening in DPP. Curves adjustment, White Balance adjustment, etc. in Photoshop CS4 and Final Noise reduction with Imagenomic Noiseware Pro Plug-in, Final (Output) sharpening in CS4. Then to Lightroom 2 for output to the web. It was hugely time consuming. This was my workflow for hundreds of images from a show to get photos to my website for showcasing and customer’s ordering. After a customer ordered, all the final processing and printing was done in CS4. For noise reduction I mentioned Imagenomic Noiseware only because that is what I happen to use.  There are others such as Noise Ninja and Neat Image that users on forums swear by. All of them I would guess have 30-day trials.  If you are new to noise reduction or the concept of digital noise Imagenomic has a very good non-product specific free tutorial, “Noise Reduction Workflow Tutorial” on the subject that I think is excellent.

Previously to LR3 (LR2), the one element sorely lacking was its noise handling ability. Now the noise module in LR3 is nothing short of spectacular. I now do 90% (guessing) of my post processing in LR3. It has dramatically shortened my PP time. Here is the very little I am going to “lecture” about noise reduction methodology. For a more detailed discussion download the Imagenomic tutorial linked above or just search the voluminous material on the web. Just bear in mind there are two types of noise that require separate treatment: Luminance and Chroma.

I will go through the little girl on the jumping pony above and show you quickly my work-flow in LR3 with some screen shots.  Again, here is the image we are starting with:  badly underexposed, horrible white balance, a lot of digital noise.  Let’s see how much we can salvage this.  This was shot with Canon 5D and a 100 F/2.  ISO 3200, 1/400th second, F/2.

So I am starting with the cr2 (Canon Raw) file in Lightroom.  I will be working with screenshots from here.  What we see below is the “Library” module of Lightroom. Everything that I am going to do here in Lightroom can be done in DPP and probably the comparable Nikon version.

Looking at the histogram we can see this image is underexposed.  I can adjust it here but lets go to the develop module to do everything.  Let’s start with the exposure.  LR3 uses sliders to adjust everything.  As you can see below I increased the exposure 1 stop.

Next let’s start on the White Balance:  Before looking below look at the above screen-shot.   Above the “Exposure” slider is an area for the “WB:”  Notice the eyedropper.  What I did was click on that and move it to a neutral area.   I used the wall.  Unfortunately when I moved the eyedropper over the wall the screen-capture would not show it.

The eyedropper is a great place to start but it always need touching up a little bit.  Below you can see where I have done just that with the sliders.  I now think the white balance is pretty close to right on.

Now I have touched up a few things having to do with more the exposure.  I could have just as easily done this earlier but I find it easier after adjusting the WB.  I added some fill ligh, increased the fill light a little and upped the Clarity some.

Now let’s get to the noise.  Predictably at ISO 3200 and underexposed this image is horribly noisy.  I have scrolled down to the noise module.  It also best to work at 100% zoom when cleaning up noise.  I have also found that is best to work on an area of similar color like a wall.  LR3 does provide that zoom in the preview window but I just zoom.  I mentioned earlier there is two types of noise.  Here you can clearly, hopefully see the greenish color, also called “Chroma” noise.  There is also the “speckled” luminance noise.

Let’s clean up the color noise first:  As you can see I have moved the Color noise slide until that noise is gone.  One can be fairly aggressive with this as it does not affect sharpness.

Now let’s deal with the Luminance Noise.  Again, I have adjusted that slider to remove that.  Unfortunately, removing luminance noise does negatively effect image sharpness. I have, unfortunately, clearly demonstrated that here.  I have removed all luminance noise but look what has happened to this cute little girl’s face.  I have now successfully made her look plastic.  

If you will notice, I backed off on the luminance from 70 to 50.  I have to live with a little bit of noise to not give up some sharpness.

Finally, a little sharpening and we are finished!

From here I would put it on my website to hopefully order!  If someone did order I would likely do some final “touch up” in Photoshop.  Here is the original vs the final product:

In Photoshop I applied a slight curves adjustment for a little more contrast yet, I cloned out the “Exit” sign and, of course, put my logo on it.  Can you find something else that I did?

This was long, I know. Hopefully you found it helpful.

Next: Strobing horse shows.


  1. OMG, THANK YOU for writing all of that. Can I send my clients here to read this? They often ask me about shooting in the dark arenas and why don’t their pictures look like mine (even though they are sitting in the stands with who knows what lens and no flash, but we both have a Nikon, they say!) I never have the patience to write blog entries with examples like this (mine are usually about my horses or some rant LOL). Thanks again, great post.

    Comment by Jaime Foutty — September 18, 2011 @ 1:23 AM

    • Sure you can. Send them here to read it. LOL Although do you think they will appreciate or comprehend?

      Comment by Four Winds Photography — September 18, 2011 @ 3:51 PM

  2. Comprehend? Probably not. I had a girl ask me right on FB how to fix the problem of her blurry shots inside an arena. I know it was likely hopeless but I asked her what her current camera settings were, especially for ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. She had no idea what any of those were. Then I was stuck trying to answer her question without seeming like a smart-alec or a b!tch. Hard for me to do. So glad to read your article…nice to know somebody relates 🙂

    Comment by Jaime Foutty — September 18, 2011 @ 3:58 PM

  3. This is the best explanation I’ve found online. You covered everything in a nut shell but not a small nut, THANK YOU SO MUCH! I just wish I had found your site sooner.

    Comment by Cindy — February 12, 2013 @ 3:23 AM

  4. Cindy, you’re very welcome! Glad you found it helpful! The only problem is that your post reminded me how long it has been since I updated my blog!!! 😦

    Comment by Four Winds Photography — February 13, 2013 @ 6:33 PM

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