Almost daily, there is a cutting-edge technology introduced to help us to make better pictures. And each introduction brings a set of new possibilities—some insanely valuable, some with questionable merit. What really matters to me is, “What will the technology allow me to do that I can’t already do?” If something is just marginally better than what I already have, I’ll likely stick with what I’ve got. But if it will allow me to make pictures that I couldn’t make any other way—or nearly as easily—then the line forms behind me to get my hands on it.
After some thorough and controlled testing, I’m convinced that the latest addition to my bag is not only a better camera, but a transformative camera. Why? Because it will allow me to make pictures that I couldn’t make without it.
As an example, when shooting artificially lighted portraiture, two rules have almost always been true:
- a) Lots of light energy is required.
- b) The default choice of light is flash.
Rethinking Light Volume
Years ago, great portrait photographers like George Hurrell, Yousuf Karsh, and many others worked with massive volumes of continuous light in order to shoot at a reasonable f/stop. In order to reduce camera movement and minimize film grain, a large format camera (sometimes as large as 8×10) mounted on a tripod was also employed. This produced images that were almost creamy in appearance and nearly grainless when enlarged.
But as smaller cameras became more popular, continuous light sort of fell out of favor and everyone seemed to switch to high-powered strobe light. The units were lighter, they were cooler for the subject to sit under, they could be mixed with daylight, they froze action easily, and some were even battery-powered. But for all of the strengths of strobe—and there are many strengths—continuous light has different qualities than strobe. It’s not as crisp, yet it’s still sharp. And, while shooting, you can see the exact light that will make the exposure rather than an approximation from the modeling light just before the strobe fires.
Up until now, using continuous light for digital portraiture has been a challenge. In order to make a reasonable exposure, you needed very large and bright lights in order to make the capture at an ISO that would produce a noise-free image. High sensor noise has been the limiting factor for me because transporting large fluorescent fixtures, HMI lights, or powerful fresnel sources just hasn’t been practical for the type of work I do.
But the extremely low noise in the Nikon D5 has turned conventional lighting wisdom on it’s head.
In order to really test the sensor, I opted to skip the gratuitous bikini-clad model that you sometimes see in camera articles and instead make repeatable, controlled, and truly revealing images using LED lights and a fully exposed Kodak test chart.
“To my eye, I don’t see a change in noise until ISO 25,600, and even then, the change is almost imperceptible.”
Each image was made using an ever-higher ISO while adjusting the exposure accordingly. All noise reduction was set to the Normal setting and no noise reduction was applied in post. Each image was processed identically in Capture One Pro 9. To my eye, I don’t see a change in noise until ISO 25,600, and even then, the change is almost imperceptible. In the deep black areas of the test where color noise and luminance noise is usually most apparent, the results are astonishing. (To view and download the complete range of ISO tests, click here)
Less Light, Less Weight, More Options
What this means is that I can shoot confidently up to ISO 25,600 and beyond. Put another way, the D5 completely changes the possibilities for both the types of light I can use, and the range of practical ISO settings at my fingertips.
For example, a typical studio strobe exposure for me might be ISO 200 1/250 @ f/8. This exposure allows me to work within the sync range of the camera, yet still maintain a flexible f/stop. But what if I could raise the ISO to 25,600 without concern for noise? In that case, I would need seven times less light than I typically work with and still get the same level of quality. So, using either continuous light or high-speed sync and lower powered strobes, I could now shoot at ISO 25,600 with an exposure of 1/2000th or 1/4000th of a second and not need much light at all to maintain the f/8 lens opening.
This means that much smaller sources including Speedlights, portable strobes, or even small LED lights are now a very real option for nearly any situation. With some of the new Speedlights being introduced for continuous shooting without the risk of overheating, the lighting options are really beginning to open up.
A really good example of what a significant change this is was a recent portrait. Rather than use the standard softbox lighting setup, I instead wanted to use almost all small-source lighting for a more dramatic image. The four main lights were all very small and controllable and placed to add “pools” of light throughout the image. I also added a single, large LED source to provide just a bit of value to the shadow areas of the image. A critical part of the lighting was the very narrow light striking the only the subject’s face. This specificity would be almost impossible to achieve with a larger source. The Dedolights I used were very small with only a 4” face and an output of only 40 watts! They provided more than enough light for the D5 to render a very clean exposure at a comfortable f/stop and shutter speed combination.
For me, this is game-changing. Because of the ability of the D5 to work with such a small amount of light, I now have the option of using many different kinds of illumination in situations where, in the past, I might have only had one. My Speedlights will also now play a larger role because combining high ISO with radio triggering capability gives me many more options for using them in soft boxes. In the past, the light loss from the Speedlight passing through the soft box might have been a challenge when a higher f/stop was needed. But this sensor makes that a non-issue.
Each fixture used for this portrait was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, yet produced enough light for the D5 camera sensor. In fact, everything needed for the shoot was smaller—smaller lights, smaller stands, smaller sand bags, smaller boom arms, and a smaller footprint for the gear on location. The high ISO capabilities makes Speedlights and small sources more versatile than ever and usable in many more situations.
And my aching back is overjoyed about the possibilities as well, believe me.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.