Darkness visible? Very Low Light Photography

Very Low Light Photography on the Canon 5DmkII

5DmkII ISO25600 Pre Noise Reduction
5DmkII ISO25600 Pre Noise Reduction

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of photographing a really cool jazz band at the Electric Theatre in Guildford. During the shoot I spotted (or rather almost spotted) one of the band members sitting in one of the seats in the auditorium. I say almost spotted because with only the stage lights on the auditorium was very dark, only being lit by the reflected lit from the stage. It was such a low light that I could hardly see him with the naked eye. This was a great opportunity to see what the 5DmkII could really do at it’s highest ISO setting. In most situations I photograph in I don’t normally take the ISO much above 1600. Every now and then the environment calls for something different and the extreme low light of the auditorium at the Electric Theatre was a good example.

With the camera on manual mode I metered the scene and dialed in an exposure of 1/50th, f/3.5, ISO25600. Apart from a very slight white balance tweak the image above is straight off the camera.

Up close and personal – Extreme low light results

To be honest, I was really quite impressed with the result on the back of the camera. It was hardly a usable image, the noise level was horrendous as can be seen from the 100% crop from near the centre of the frame in this second image, but nevertheless it had captured the scene and very well too.

5DmkII ISO25600 Pre Noise Reduction - 100% Crop
5DmkII ISO25600 Pre Noise Reduction – 100% Crop

So although the camera can literally see in the dark, he results are far from usable.

Cue Lightroom 3…

All is not lost though. Processing the image in Lightroom 3 can significantly improve the situation as can be seen from the before and after images on this page. In fact, after only a 10s edit the image had improved considerably as can be seen in the third image. It still isn’t perfect but I would argue that it is much more usable. The noise has been reduced significantly albeit at the cost of sharpness.

5DmkII ISO25600 Post Noise Reduction - 100% Crop
5DmkII ISO25600 Post Noise Reduction – 100% Crop


As you can see, I huge improvement in the noise and although a little soft we now have a usable image.

It’s worth mentioning that these two before and after images were the same 100% crop from the full resolution file. What you can see are the actual pixels that were captured and represents approximately 1% of the overall image. Unless you are a pixel peeper you wouldn’t normally see the image this close up and that is certainly the case for viewing on-line or in printed media. The overall image sharpness will improve a little as we reduce it’s size as can be seen in the fourth image, below, which is much more representative of an image captured for a web page.

5DmkII ISO25600 Post Noise Reduction
5DmkII ISO25600 Post Noise Reduction

Conclusion about low light performance

The Canon 5DmkII does indeed make darkness visible but it does rely on post processing as a get out of jail card, particularly if you need a large or full resolution version of the image. I would imagine most people would pixel peep this image, see a huge amount of noise and hit the delete button.

In this type of extreme low light work, I don’t believe one can make a judgement based on noise at the pixel level, certainly not before post processing at least. There is an 8-stop difference from ISO100 to ISO25600. That’s huge. That’s almost the difference between white and black.

What’s even more incredible though is that the 5DmkII is now 3 years old. The 5DmkIII has now been announced and will be in the shops soon. Lightroom 4 is also now available. It would be very interesting to run a similar quick test with the new 5DmkIII and Lightroom 4 to see how much technology has advanced.

If anyone has the mkIII to lend me for a few days, please let me know.

Share your thoughts...