This evening I played around with ISO 3200 on the E-PL1. That’s the highest setting you can apply, and the results are not really nice. The most important thing is that you’ll get the exposure about right – here you can’t even trust the histogram anymore. I took a shot on the veranda where the camera told me that I was 3 stops over – and the raw processor later told me that I was still 2/3rds of a step under a “correct” exposure. Anyway, I had to focus this manually, which was hard even with the magnification on, because with an electronic viewfinder all you’re left with in an almost complete darkness is noise. I applied noise reduction in post processing, and the blurred chillies you see were just moved by the wind during a half second exposure:
Still halfway ok if you consider that I could hardly see anything in the viewfinder. It was just getting too dark too quick to continue with this, so I went inside.
With only the light from our kitchen on, I pointed the camera onto Zuleikha’s chair. Set the camera to bulb white balance (which I further corrected in post), and the exposure to a point where the camera told me I was 2.7 stops over. But here the histogram worked, and this was the point where there was no red clipping indicator visible anymore. I applied a bit less noise reduction during post, and my raw converter told me that I wasn’t 2.7 stops over, but less than 0.1 stops – so I was pretty exact. And of course with more available light than outside, noise is indeed a bit less on this one:
These older Olympus cameras with the sensors made by Panasonic aren’t really your ideal low light cameras, which is nothing new and a well-known fact. But you see that for web use like here with images just 640 pixels wide, you can help yourself if you get the exposure more or less correct.
I’d love to try the same with the newer Pens or with an OM-D or – to be really unfair – with a Nikon “full frame” DSLR. But when I look at the image samples of the new E-PL5 at DPReview, even the full size photos look awesome at ISO 8000 – so I guess that at 3200 like here, there wouldn’t be much to complain about anymore. The E-PL1 is ok up to ISO 800 or a bit less, so I expect at least a two stop advantage for the newer models. And that’s 3 stops better than my E-520…
What do we learn from this? Well nothing much new like I wrote above. For static scenes you could always help yourself with a tripod and using the lowest possible ISO. But as soon as your images include moving objects (like humans) which you want to catch in the dark, the cameras we currently have are simply the wrong tools for the job. Easy as that.
If you want to see a more capable tool for that, look at Ming Thein’s review of a better one.
Update, from later the same evening:
I’m still trying to improve on this. So I went to our bedroom where only Mitchie’s bedside energy-saving light was illuminating the room. I used a very low Kelvin manual white balance and 2 stops overexposure to take a photo of the cat which was sleeping on our bed:
I applied only a “low” noise filtering in post here (same as in-camera), and minimally cropped and contrast-enhanced this after setting minus 1/3rd stop exposure correction (I was a bit on the “hot” side obviously). This is a far better result even at ISO 3200, and that’s why the full size image of this can be viewed on Flickr if you click on the photo above. Hand-held at 1/15th of a second, but this time with a decent result. “What’s decent?”, you might ask. Well – of course there is still noise if you go pixel-peeping at 100% (which you can also do at Flickr), but I’ve made perfect A3-sized prints (double-page magazine size; ca. 30x40cm) from images worse than this one – with ISO 1600 on my E-520 for instance, and before I started to learn how to deal with it.
Thanks for viewing and reading.