Forget ISO 25,000. I'm loving what I'm seeing at ISO 50.

Note to all technical geeks:  I assume that the "native" ISO of a sensor is where it gives you the greatest dynamic range coupled with the cleanest file.  For the a77 DXO clearly shows on their graph that it is squarely at 50 ISO.  They're pretty smart so I don't really give a crap about anyone else's presumptions or conjecture.  And...I've shot at 50 and 100 and 200 and 50, by far, looks the best.  Sorry if the science fails you.

Many times over the past few years of writing about cameras I've made the statement that I'd prefer a camera with the ability to do a "real" ISO 50 over a camera that does infinitely high ISO files.  Here's the reason:  Most of the work I do is completed under controlled lighting and in commercial work the bulk of it is done on a tripod.  While 50 ISO may not work as well for moving people shots with LED panels I've still got a studio full of nice electronic flash gear I can press into service when I want it.  A "real" ISO 50 (as opposed to the "pulled" ISO 50 on the Canon cameras) can be the highest resolution and lowest noise setting on a camera with a sensor designed for detail.  And the added benefit in the case of the Sony a77 (as confirmed by DXO and this Dutch website: http://camerastuffreview.com/en/reviews-en/camera/85-testen/cameratest/sony-cameratest/275-review-sony-a77 ) is that this is also the setting for the widest dynamic range for that camera and sensor.  They were able to get over 2500 lines of resolution with a usable dynamic range of over 10 stops IN JPEG in their tests.  Absolutely amazing.  And the ISO's of 64, 80 and 100 are just tiny increments less perfect.

But I never take other people's test to heart without confirmation at my own hand.  After a week of shooting nearly 1,000 exposures with the a77 for clients (including a bunch of very nice, clean work at ISO 800, with LED panels as primary lights ) I decided to head out this afternoon, around 4:30 and run some tests of my own.  I set the camera to Super Fine Jpeg (I've flip-flopped and decided that, in the default settings, this is the ultimate Jpeg shooting machine....but I'll explain that in another post).

The idea to test at ISO 50 came from a statement I made in a post two days ago about getting the most out of your camera.  I suggested that rather than only focus on worst case shooting scenarios when breaking in your new camera, that you also try the settings on your camera where you can expect the best case scenarios to see just what you and the machine can do.  Having written it I thought it only reasonable to head out and give it a try.  I'd already spent loads of quality time on a tripod this week, some of it down around 100 ISO so I had an inkling of just how sharp and how much resolution the 24 megapixel files have.  In a word, at that setting, better than a $3,000 Canon 5DMk2.

I also wanted to do a test of my newest lens, the Sony 35mm 1.8 DT lens.  It's a lens that's made to cover only the image circle of an APS-C camera and it's made out of plastic materials but according to everyone else's test it's a really sharp optic.  Especially in the center of the frame.

Today was our "get used to Summer" day here in Austin.  The mercury hit the 95 degree mark.  A bit hotter downtown... 

I set the camera at ISO 50, turned on the Steady Shot IS, set the AF to spot, and the image file setting to Standard.  And away I went.  I even got fancy and put sunscreen on my face.  My concession to the relentless Texas sun.  I shot everything.  EVERYTHING at f4.  I figured that would be the sharpest setting.  Two stops down from wide open.

The combination of the slow ISO, the optimum aperture and the overwhelming resolution of the camera make for files that can be enlarged and enlarged without every showing grain, noise or lack of sharpness.  It's like shooting MF digital  (and yes, I have tested and reviewed three of the four major brands of MF digital cameras in the last three or four years...)  the performance at the lowest ISO is worth any of the other compromises in the camera.  I conjecture that, putting the camera on a stout tripod and adding in Multi-Frame Noise Reduction you have a fighting chance of rivaling the new D800 for ultimate, on paper print performance.  I'll test it soon and find out.

This is my new hat.  I think it's cool.  When I went to an ASMP breakfast this morning a very cool guy named, Destry, had one just like it.  Since he is nearly half my age I took that as a certification of coolness.  At any rate it came with me on my walk and sat next to me as I had a cappuccino (again, one of the finest I've ever tasted) at Medici Caffe on Congress Ave.  The shot is cool to me because it's taken at 1/13th of a second and it's incredibly sharp.  Shooting ISO 50 indoors.  How chic?  And it would give you prime glass shooters the opportunity to spend more time at the interesting side of the aperture ring....

I've often said that Austin is a wacky town.  These guys were driving around in the van with the side door open, filming who knows what.  They stopped at the traffic light and I photographed them as I walked into the cross walk.  No one else even batted an eye.  Weird stuff happens so continuously in Austin and most people are inured to it after a few months.

This is my perennial test building.  I blow it up on the screen and look at the bricks. If I can read the brick maker's logo I know I have a high resolution tool in my hands.

When I got back to the studio car I remembered that I'd left the top down.  I'm glad it didn't rain.

My final shot (above) is a person at an outdoor bar on sixth street.  She is standing in front of a fan and occasionally the fan sprays out a mist of water for that "evaporative cooling" effect.  She was gracious enough to re-pose because she was about to walk off when I found her.

Remember the days before everyone wanted their camera to be the Swiss Army Knife of cameras and to be good at everything (impossible)????  We had cameras that took big film for landscapes and images that would go up large.  We used em with slow film to maximize the effect.  We had our snicky little Leicas with impossibly fast lenses, and pushed film, for the stuff we needed to shoot in the dark.  We had the best of both words by using specialized tools.

I'm right there with the new Sony cameras.  The a57 is a low light champ with 16 nice megapixels.  The a77 is my studio, low ISO, super res camera.  And I have one more thing that none of the Canon and Nikon shooters have yet.  I have a beautiful EVF finder.  The only 21st century technology, professional camera system out there.  

It doesn't really matter what brand of camera you have.  You might try using it at it's lowest "real" ISO and using good technique.  You might be shocked at just how good your gear can be.

EDIT FOR ALL THE STRANGE PEOPLE ON FORUMS.  While you may "want" the base/real ISO of the Sony a77 to be whatever you want it to be I'm going by the material I read at DXO Mark.  The info shows the highest DR and the lowest noise at ISO50 which is NOT a menu extended ISO but a marked ISO.  This would explain the lower (by one stop) noise performance at the top ISO as well.  If 100 ISO were the real sensitivity of the sensor I think that's where you'd see the top DR.  And unlike many who would rather argue than test for themselves, I've actually shot comparisons between 50, 64, 80 and 100.  50 is better.  On all counts.

To the wag who suggested that I must be using Sony cameras now because, "Nikon Stopped Giving Free Stuff to Kirk.."  I'll reiterate what I've disclosed here time and time again:  We pay real, hot American money that I earn from writing books and shooting assignment photography for almost 100% of the cameras I write about and review.  We note all exceptions.  The one camera I received free of charge was an Olympus EPM-1 (the lower part of the product range) as part of their "GetOlympus" promotion.  While I would love for Sony and Nikon and Canon and Olympus to send me free, top of the line cameras, in reality I pay for them just like everyone else.  

Good Lighting means paying attention to the light that's already in front of you.

Elgin, Texas Sausage Maker.  4x5 Transparency.

A few years back a fellow name Mike Murphy was the photo editor for Texas Highways Magazine and he called to ask if I'd like to shoot a feature on the town of Elgin, Texas.  Elgin is known far and wide for their really good BBQ and their really great sausage.  I took the job and, even though we were in the Nikon D2X digital age at the time I asked if I could use large format film for the assignment.  Mike agreed.

While it may seem counterintuitive to shoot magazine photo-journalism with a 4x5 inch Linhof field camera (TechniKarden) it's really not and photographers have been doing it for decades.  Many of the images on our list were shots of things like historic building exteriors and interiors and I wanted to be able keep my verticals straight.  I also like the idea of slowing down and concentrating.

I shot 100 frames for the assignment.  That's all that came in the two boxes of film I had budgeted.  I shot two boxes (40 pieces of large format, black and white 100 ISO Polaroid test material) because that's all that came in the two boxes I budgeted.

I wanted a shot of a sausage maker and when this guy came walking by me with a big metal tub of sausage I thought the excess would be humorous and would make a good opener for the dining section of the story.  I asked the man if he could come back with another tub in about 10 minutes and I started setting up the camera.  I figured out my composition and, since it was dark in the area I wanted to man to stand in I knew I'd also have to set up a light.  I set up a Profoto 300 w/s monolight, firing into a 60 inch Softlighter umbrella, with its diffusion cover.  I was looking for f11 and then I dragged the shutter to bring up the background. (That means I dropped the shutter speed slower and slower until a meter reading (incident at the back wall) told me I was in the ballpark.  Only when I was nearly certain of my lighting from the flash, and from the tungsten down lights, and the overall florescent lights did I commit a Polaroid.  It was half a stop bright so I made a mental note to adjust for the film.

I did not filter the flash to match the green fluorescents in the back ground and then neutralize the whole frame with an on camera filter.  I liked the idea of the color contrast of the flash lit sausage and bright red apron against the green of the wall.

I shot three frames of film because I could see, standing next to the camera as I shot with a shutter release cord, that my subject blinked on the second exposure.  When we finished I thanked him and then took everything back down and moved on to my next shot.

It's a straightforward photograph and, like the rest of the article, was fun to do.  It was my last editorial job with 4x5.  Everything since then has been digital.

Would I do it that way again? With large film?  In a heart beat. If Polaroid was still kicking and the magazines were willing to budget for it.