Embrace the noise

I’ve written before about what seems to be a never-ending quest for sharpness in images. This time around, I thought I’d write about noise. 

Whenever someone is looking for a new DSLR or some other type of enthusiast camera, one of the questions is always: What is the noise performance like? I wonder again if perhaps buyers/photographers are caring too much about a visual aspect that most people simply ignore, especially one that isn’t as noticeable if the work is primarily going to be viewed on a screen rather than a print. 

In the interest of full disclosure, this was one of my prime concerns when switching from my crop sensor to a 35mm sensor. Why? I wanted to get a camera from the current generation that was more than enough and would remain enough for some time to come. I’m also printing my images more and more to hang in my house, so they should look as good as I can get them. 

That being said, when I was using my crop sensor camera (Nikon D5100), I was often shooting in low light and at ISO levels that others might be afraid of but then I always asked myself why. Isn’t the image the end goal? Sure, you should strive for quality but if you don’t even make the image then what’s the point of further discussion? Whenever I found myself at an extremely high ISO (3200 to 6400), though, the simplest way to make the noise acceptable is to convert to monochrome. 

This is a funny thing because when people look at film they actually admire the grain. Sometimes people don’t know that’s why they often prefer film to digital (sometimes it’s the colors) but grain is an inherent characteristic of film. In addition, it’s something that people in the know also concern themselves with but not in a way of avoiding it. Instead, people prefer specific grain structures to others. This is especially true when you start talking about the different black and white film emulsions and ways of developing – you’ll always hear people describe the grain as an aesthetic aspect that is part of the end goal of the image. 

Why then do we hate noise in our digital images but strive for specific grain (sometimes even “moar grain!”) when we talk about film? As I (and Henri Cartier-Bresson) wrote before about the quest for sharpness, which is still relevant today, perhaps the crusade against noise is the main topic of contention for the new generation of those more concerned with technical aspects rather than aesthetic. Instead of trying to always shoot between ISO 50 and 400, pump your camera’s sensor ISO up, get that shutter speed up, play with the depth of field and “go against the grain” – to put it simply, embrace the noise.