DSLR Sensors


William Lulow

An article in the New York Times of last Thursday, March 18, 2015 talked about former NYT photographer Vincent Laforet’s journey into making aerial images of cities at night. He notes that today’s DSLR sensors have gotten even more sensitive to light than the human eye. He has made many photographs of cities shot from a helicopter at night which create interesting patterns of different colored lights. But the point he makes is that sometimes these sensors can register light when the human eye thinks there’s just blackness to see.

He does make some adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, but otherwise these photos are unretouched. I have been regularly capturing images in low-light situations in clubs and other music venues with ISO settings up to and including 2500 with amazing clarity and little if no noise.


This image of Leon Russell in concert is just such an example. Shot with an 85mm f/1.8 lens at f/4.5 at 1/100th of a second, the ISO setting was 2000 – 2500. Note the clarity and lack of noise.

NikRael, LisaJaneLipkin,JakeHolmes,KyleHancharick

An image of Tom Chapin (published a few days ago), also has enough clarity and detail to make a decent print.

As I have mentioned in the past, I usually shoot in the studio with ISO ratings around 100 or 125, but nighttime shots are easily made with ISO ratings set anywhere from 2000 to 3200. Here is another example:


This image of New York City from a building on the West Side was made with the camera on a tripod, ISO 2000, f/5.6 at 1/125th of a second.

All of Mr. Laforet’s images were shot from a helicopter with the camera mounted on a hand-held gyro to keep it steady. I made shots with a 4×5 view camera mounted on a gyroscope, from a helicopter, during the daytime, though. Here is one of them:


This was made on film, but using a similar technique. These days, aerial shots are more easily achieved with digital cameras. Here are a couple more examples, but during the daytime:



All of these images were clear enough to enlarge to 16x20s and up.

I think the point is made that today’s DSLR sensors are quite up to the task of making good images in very low light.  The “auto” ISO speed setting on my Canon cameras goes up to 6400. I haven’t tried to make many exposures at that speed, but even with using the noise reduction filter, it would not yield a good enough image for large prints. However, there is even a setting (ISO expansion) that allows an ISO of 12,500 to be used. Cameras these days can just about see in the dark!