Fujifilm / SOOC

Who is scared of High ISO?

What you are about to read is not intended to be a technically exhaustive explanation about how images are created in low light and why noise and grain occur in photographs. This is a topic that can and has been discussed by many and is the stuff that books are written about. The following is merely a brief and simplified introduction for my statement that “you should not be afraid to shoot in high ISO with your Fujifilm camera, especially when you are shooting in Acros.

Okidoki, let’s jump right in.

One of the first rules we come across in our photography journey is, that, in order to achieve well exposed, clean and sharp images, we should try to keep ISO as low as possible and err on the side of caution when dialing up the sensitivity setting.

Why? I’ll try to keep it simple.

In digital photography, high ISO introduces the occurance of ugly, unwanted artifacts that make an image noisy (there, I said it! NOISE! The word that sends shivers down a photographers’ spine.) It makes an image look soft and shows up as messy dots, which are most noticable in the dark shadow areas (luminance noise). Chromatic noise is particularly disturbing because the unwanted artifacts show up as randomly coloured pixels that do not fit with the rest of the image. They occur because, most likely, we took a photograph in low light with increased sensor sensitivity (higher ISO) which also increases the electrical charge that runs across it. 

As I said, there are many more, more detailed and more technical explanations, but for the purpose of this article, let’s put a pin in it here. 

In film photography, noise is referred to as grain which is different, yet similar. Film grain is what happens after light-sensitive silver halide of a film’s emulsion is exposed to light and turns into visible silver crystals. The higher the film speed the bigger the crystals. What becomes visible as grain in film photography is therefore not too dissimilar from noise in digital photographs.

But, here’s the thing. Film grain is not uniform. It appears randomly on the image and the grains have different shapes and sizes. And, in particular in black and white photography, it adds texture and depth to an image, therefore is wanted and artistically pleasing. It certainly gives black and white film photographs a certain romantic look and feel.

Scan of an image shot on film from 1994

Do you get the idea? Noise bad… Grain good!

You can also check out this Soundbite from Season 01 Episode 05 of SOOC where Ritchie Roesch and I discussed the difference between Noise and Grain.

Fujifilm has made a name for itself in the development of their colour science and their cameras’ excellent performance in low light. Apart from the technical details, Fujifilm jpegs shot in high ISO still look great. The geniuses at Fujifilm have a long history of working with actual film and have managed to incorporate their experience into their mirrorless cameras and the results they deliver in low light or high ISO’s. Fujifilm noise looks more like grain and, as we now know, adds to the “nostalgic” analog film look.

We even go further than just liking these imperfections now. We add grain back into an image because we like it that much. In addition to including the appearance of grain in the various film simulations, the “Grain Effect” setting was, as far as I know, first introduced in the X-Pro 2. Adding “grain” to your images is a great way to make them look less processed, less digital and more film-like. This means that we can achieve grainy, more analog-like looking images, even when shooting in low ISO’s.

Acros + Grain Strong – ISO12800

However, one of the challenges of making a digital file look like analog is the uniform occurance of digital grain. It is computer generated and therefore oftentimes not as organic in appearance as film grain. Fujifilm took this to heart, especially in the development of the Acros film simulation. Not only did they achieve a look that is very similar to their popular analog counterpart, but in this film simulation, the appearance of grain changes with the increase of ISO (like film does) making it more believeably analog-looking. Let’s see what Fujifilm says about this:

To achieve the ACROS like texture, the film-like “graininess” is another important element. To be specific, ACROS mode has a completely different noise reduction algorithm from other modes. The “graininess” of the silver-halide films are what we see as “noise” in the digital data. For color images, they are the unwanted noise, but in the monochrome images, it becomes an important texture. Turning the noise into grain-like texure is what makes ACROS unique and different.

We developed it from the core of the image file to achieve a very complex and natural like grain expression. Optimal and different grain expressions are added to highlight and low light areas. You would not find unnatural dotted graininess in the highlight areas just like how the monochrome film behaves. In the low light area, you would see the graininess just like how it would appear with the monochrome film. There are undulating grain within the picture. And it adds depth like no other.

No wonder this film simulation is as popular as it is.

Shot in the Kodak Tri-X 400 recipe by Fuji X Weekly, based on Acros + Grain Strong Large | ISO1600

Fujifilm wouldn’t be Fujifilm if they didn’t think of the holistic shooting experience in this process which is why they took it even further.

ACROS also changes the output of graininess depending on the sensitivity setting. As the sensitivity gets higher, stronger grain effect becomes visible, just like the film.

Image Left: Acros at ISO200 | Image Right: Acros at ISO12800

This is really important for anyone who enjoys shooting straight out of camera and basically the point I am trying to make – creating a case for shooting SOOC jpegs using high ISO. You will achieve the most convincing results by actually shooting Acros in high ISO.

Image Left: Acros at ISO200 | Image Right: Acros at ISO12800

Okay, now over to you. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to try this. Challenge yourself by shooting in high ISO and get a first hand experience of what effect these in-camera settings have on the appearance of your images.

Of course I also invite you to upload your results for the upcoming episode of SOOC in which we have challenged viewers to shoot in one of four recommended recipes (check details here) and have added challenges to make shooting straight ot of camera even more exciting!

So? How about it?

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  • […] Check out this article in which I will share more on shooting in high ISO, grain and noise but for now, let’s celebrate beautiful shades of grey. […]

  • Daniel
    August 22, 2023 at 8:07 am

    Hi Nathalie ! Thank you for this very relevant article that deals with an interesting subject. Moreover, the photos are superb.
    Digital or analog, I do not worry about having noise or grain if it helps to create an atmosphere on the image. I continue to practice both in black and white.
    Acros is in this sense quite suitable ; I also use the monochrome mode with red filter in sub-exponent of 0.7 stops.

    • Nathalie Boucry
      August 22, 2023 at 3:49 pm

      Hey Daniel! That’s great. I’m glad you find it useful. So happy to hear that you also enjoy working with grain! Thanks so much for this feedback!

      • Brandon Libby
        October 17, 2023 at 1:45 am

        My favorite was shooting my X-T2 at 12,800 with my own Acros recipe and 1×1 format. I was strictly using the xf35f2. Working with those restrictions made for low stress shooting (as I never had to worry about motion blur or low light) and a quiite restrictive path of creativity. Come to think of it, this sooc jpeg shooting style produced some of my favorite photos and was the most fun! Thanks for sending me reminding me of this fun time! Cheers


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