The Art of Noise

One of the things I like about making my YouTube MFT-centric videos is that they make me think hard about everything I say in them. Actually, that’s a what I don’t like about making them too. I recently made one on the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 ‘Pro’ zoom and included some shots of a band called Girls With Guitars taken at my local blues club. The shot here of Sadie Johnson is representative of the quality and a number of people contacted me, including one saying that the video had persuaded him to make the jump from a Canon DSLR to Micro Four Thirds.

My immediate reaction to something like that is always the same. I hadn’t intended to sell anything to anyone. Did I over-egg things? I took a look at the EXIF to make sure that when I said it was shot at ISO 6400, I had the right shot and the one I’d used wasn’t at ISO 400. Had I used massive noise reduction on it which was disguised by the video process? The answer was no, no and no. If the quality they had seen from an MFT camera/ lens in the (vestigial) light of the club surprised them….I can honestly say it surprised me too. This is 100th @f/2.8, with the zoom hosed right out to 150mm on the E-M5II. And sharpening off.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In fact when I first imported my RAWs into Lightroom and checked the results, I did a double take myself. These were at 6400? The RAWs have more noise than shows on this size repro, so I’ve included a 100% pull up but these are with no noise reduction applied. The only difference with the video frames is that they have been downsampled to 1920×1080 which is perhaps the most effective noise reduction of all. Nonetheless, even without the downsampling the 6400 is completely usable. I used to specialise in live shots for record companies, newspapers and magazines of bands like Abba, The Who, Wings and AC/DC  and the quality I could get in those days from the best fully professional Nikon gear didn’t approach this.

So why did I feel uneasy that someone was persuaded by my video to move to MFT equipment. That’s easy. If MFT is so capable, imagine how much more so is a 36x24mm sensor with 4 times the image area and consequently bigger light storage ‘buckets’. On the other hand, my correspondent already had DSLR equipment so what he had alighted on was that smaller, lighter cameras could now do the job that he wanted. It wasn’t that I had hoodwinked anyone into thinking that MFT quality was better. Just that it was good enough for his requirements. I’m comfortable with that because he’s buying MFT for the same reasons I did.

Which led me to wonder whether, if I were a working pro in the media still, would I now be using Micro Four Thirds equipment? I think after the introduction of the Panasonic GH4 and Olympus E-M1 and the f/2.8 zooms for both systems, I probably would. The Achilles heel of the system, the continuous autofocus has improved by leaps and bounds, more in my view from greater and thus faster computing power than Panasonic’s Depth from Defocus or Olympus’s on chip phase detection. I only ever covered sport under protest anyway and back then it was manual focus so I can say in all honesty that even MFT continuous focus is a lot better than a bored photographer willing himself to keep focus on some £250,000 a week Chelsea footballer kicking a ball around apparently at random. I did say I didn’t like sport!

Leaving aside the system’s weakest (but not weak) point, what else would stop me using it? One thing would be if the cameras looked amateur, looked like consumer products. With the GH4 and E-M1, especially with battery grips, that just  isn’t so. Client perception does matter, even if it shouldn’t. My Hasselblad equipment got me studio work in a way that no 35mm ever would. Once, when I was shooting a book cover portrait of a young, lively author for a new publishing client, I elected to use my Nikon and 105mm. The art director came in to the studio and remarked, ‘oh, we’ve hired a busker, then’ when he saw my handheld Nikon plugged into the Elinchroms. I went to the car and brought in my Hasselblad, bunged it on a tripod and shot away. The fact that the shot they used was taken on my Nikon gave me satisfaction but an art director is an art director, he’s in charge and he signs the cheques so there was no percentage in me labouring the point.

I think under modern conditions, I’d probably keep a Sony A7 with a standard lens plus short and medium telephone for studio in place of the Hasselblad. Maybe clients would still expect to see a medium format or a camera from Nikon or Canon, I don’t know. Whatever, I’d obtain one if it would bring in business.

In terms of my general work, though, stills on movie sets, features for magazines and women’s pages for newspapers, live music, occasional fashion, I can’t see any impediment now to the use of an MFT camera. The single shot auto-focus is impeccable and I cannot overestimate the usefulness of the electronic shutter on a movie set instead of the hideous sound blimps for DSLRs. And imagine being able to hear what people had to say at  press conferences on TV without the chatter-clatter of those infernal mirrors! And single AF is more than fast enough for cat-walk model gait.

The only long term worry I’d have about the system professionally is if it went the direction of the GX8 and started to compete for pixel count. For professional purposes 16Mp is quite enough and any development energy should be in the direction of less noise on the present count. It is obviously necessary to keep the enthusiast market on board – more important than the professional one in terms of sales – but I’m not convinced that any serious photographer feels the need for more pixels over even less noise. I’m even less convinced that MFT with its interchangeable lenses and sophisticated – and complex- electronics is suitable for a beginner. That seems to me to be a market that MFT shouldn’t and probably couldn’t address.

A camera like the GM5 may be tiny and look like a compact but it most certainly isn’t, in reality having more in common with the GH4 than a £100 Fuji.

I’ll finish by saying a quick word of thanks to Sadie Johnson. Not only did she (and her fellow band members Heather Crosse, Eliana Cargnelutti and drummer Jamie Little) provide a fine evening of foot stomping full blooded blues for me, she’s probably sold a good few MFT cameras for Olympus and Panasonic.
Which means that I needn’t fret over whether I’ve misled anyone. If you bought one and feel let down, blame Sadie, not me. It’s all her fault.

16 thoughts on “The Art of Noise

  1. b Tommy Douglas

    Taking up photography again in the last couple of years has been fun. And almost overwhelming. What is possible with my MFT kit seems so much more I was able to do with my Minolta SRT-101 shooting Tri-X and developing in D-76. No more Agfa loupe and contact sheets!
    I love to shoot but when I can’t I like to tinker with the settings to see what this and that will do to IQ. My recent (unscientific) tests comparing RAW to JPEG gave me a result I don’t understand. It seems like on my little LX100 shooting in JPEG with iDynamic set to high, Sharpness set to +1 and Noise Reduction set to -1 I net an image I can edit in Snapseed 2.0 with little difference than I get using in camera RAW processing.
    What do I not understand about RAW shooting? I have always tried to get my shot composed and exposed in camera so I am wondering about how RAW should be used.
    I understand you must be flooded with replies and comments; your thoughts would be much appreciated.

    Reply
    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Hi Tommy

      the jpg out of the camera is more than good enough for most people, what RAW carries is the potential for more – if you want or need it. Your camera has a lot more exposure leeway than you think but a jpg is an expression of that that suits most people and is akin to a print in film days. The print is great but is only one expression of what the neg could be.

      With RAW, you can take the image and change exposure and white balance after the pic is taken. The jpg makes an estimate (a good one) of what most people want and discards the rest of the information. Essentially. If you go back to film days – and when you mention Tri-X and D-756 my heart skips a beat, what a combo! – then the RAW file is the negative, the jpg is a print from it.

      I use RAW all the time because I can keep the original and export it in any form I wish. For example, where jpg tries to suppress noise by smearing detail, my personal preference is to retain detail at the expense of noise. Some pic I took at high ISO in 20103 were awful. With modern noise reduction, they are amazing. That’s the value of RAW. But I re-iterate, if someone is happy with the jpg output of their camera, they can quite happily live without RAW.

      Reply
    2. Dan

      If you’re happy with what you get then that’s all the matters.

      However, there re two scenarios where I rely on raw. The first is when shooting landscapes. Generally there’s a lot of detail in a scene that your eyes naturally see, but which seem to be missing in the photo – generally in the shadows and highlights. Jpegs “bake in” the information so that you can’t recover these details in post. However is you shoot raw, there’s a lot of information that can be recovered laters on.

      Secondly, I sometimes discover the camera metering incorrectly exposes a scene – this is often experienced in situations where I have to shoot fast, and the light conditions are changeable and reasonably extreme. I’ll check a picture on the screen and it looks fine, but not when I view it on my computer. This is because the camera screen may be too bright so it can be viewed on a sunny day, and this leads to incorrect assumptions about the exposure. Shooting in raw allows me latitude to correct this.

      I sometimes shoot to the right … deliberately slightly over expose so that I can capture detail in the shadows and then bring the exposure of the highlights down later. If I tried bringing the exposure of the shadows up, I may introduce noise. The great thing about shooting with a mirrorless is that I can view the histogram … even through the viewfinder, so I can check that when I’m moving the histogram to the right I’m not clipping the highlights. You can turn on the blinkies to check for blown highlights, but I find this a crude tool. I think the threshold is something like 80%, whereas the histogram lets you see exactly of the highlights are distributed.

      Reply
  2. pete

    Have you got your GX8 yet? I’m told mine arrived today so I’ll be out with it Saturday!

    Reply
    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Got one 3 days ago. Possibly my favourite camera ever. Stabilization improved – not to Olympus standards, mind you, the layout and the EVF…the EVF is a revelation.

      The camera really feels right in the hand and the size, for me is ideal. Mustn’t say too uch, though, I have to review it! You’ll love it, I reckon.

      Reply
      1. pete

        cheers for that David…. still better stabilisation is nice…. how does the inbody statbilisation compare to the gx7? same?

        Reply
        1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

          The stabilization is definitely better than with the GX7. It makes the Olympus 40-150 a perfectly practical proposition.

          Reply
      2. Robert

        OK, you can’t reveal too much before the official review—just tell me this PLEASE, that the Oly 40-150mm Pro is stabilized to suit you! And that it feels/balances well on the GX8…….then I’ll patiently await your insight on the whole GX8 experience.
        🙂

        Reply
        1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

          I wish I could do the reviews more quickly but I’m one of those people who needs to get everything clear in my own mind before I can express it to other people. I’ve been using the big zoom because that is of interest to me too. First of all, it feels like it was made for the GX8. The GX8s right hand grip and shape feel better on the GX8 than they do on the E-M1. That’s subjective, obviously but I set great store by how equipment feels – and the GX8 and 40-150 just make me want to go out and take pictures of anything for the fun of it.

          The stabilization is ultimately less good than Olympus’s but I’ve been shooting at 1/60th with it on 150mm and I need nothing better. I could probably get a reliable 1/30th with the uncanny Olympus stabilization but I’d say that that is about the difference, the Olympus is worth 3-4 stops, the Panasonic 2-3. My hand are quite shaky and always have been so you’d likely get lower speeds but I think the comparison is about right.

          Reply
    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      That’s lovely – a hummingbird hawk moth. We get those in the garden. I wonder what shutter speed you’d need to stop their wings? The little zoom gives nothing away for its size – it’s hard to see why any others of the same aperture are bigger, considering it has built in stabilization.

      Reply
      1. pete

        well that was 1/1600 alas I didn’t have time to set the shot up….

        how are you finding the oly bodies…… i found the em1 nice to handle but disliked the em5…… needed the additional grip that I then had to remove to change a battery

        Reply
        1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

          I’m the same as you about the Olympus cameras. I like the E-M1 for its much better handling. I prefer many attributes of the E-M5II like the rear monitor and silent shutter but I don’t get on with the handling. It’s too small with too many buttons. The griop improves it a lot but a nuisance with the battery and I find the doubling up of the front dials a bit ugly, somehow unsatisfactory. But, overall, a little miracle of a camera. That stabilization!

          The height of usability is the GH4 with battery grip for me. I’m getting a G7 soon and I have high hopes for that, a mini GH4 maybe. I still iwsh it had good IBIS, though.

          Reply
    2. Robert

      Hey that’s a pretty good Hawk Moth! Personally I love the GM-5. It is my everyday carry and my choice of a backpacking camera. I’ve also got an RX100iii and it sits mostly idle since obtaining the GeM-5 🙂 I keep the RX100iii because it does allow powering during operation via the USB; this is something I WISH Panasonic would incorporate into their bodies—it is so nice while traveling to be able to charge or top off batteries while driving to the next venue.
      Almost always on my GM-5 is the 40-140mm per a major influence by Mr. Thorpe. Where/how can you get so much camera (features) and focal length (40-140) in such a diminutive package? Check out this quick snap of the Moon on the way into the hospital the other night-
      [url=https://flic.kr/p/xQdxT5][img]https://farm1.staticflickr.com/768/20892700206_cd749c7159_n.jpg[/img][/url][url=https://flic.kr/p/xQdxT5]The quiet One[/url] by [url=https://www.flickr.com/photos/medicineman4040/]MedicineMan4040[/url], on Flickr

      Reply
  3. Dan

    I’ve often wondered what the real requirement for a pro camera is – i.e. whether they’re over-specified for the actual requirements. I guess as cameras improve, we push them in areas we wouldn’t have tried before, so the bar is always changing. I just received a 45x60mm framed photo taken from my GH4. Firstly, I didn’t realise how big it would be until I saw it – I’d never printed that size before, and secondly, I was impressed at the quality at those dimensions.

    What’s your opinion of an MFT in the studio? I realise the new 50mpx Canon 5Ds are aimed for the high end where medium format currently resides, but surely there’s a market that doesn’t require that level of detail. I’m still relatively new to indoor flash photography, but I’m really enjoying it. Sadly, my model is my 8yr old son with one distracted eye join his iPad rather than a professional who knows how to pose.

    I know you say that sports isn’t your thing, but I seem to get more keepers of the local skateboarders with my GH4 than I ever did with my Canon 7D. The tracking is fantastic. And I do think that the 20mpx sensor on the GX8 is a step forward. People used to say that the bigger the photosites on the sensor, the less noise, but recent tests I’ve seen seem to suggest otherwise. If you shrink a higher res picture down to the size that a smaller MP picture would produce, the noise tends to vanish. I’ve never been impressed with the quality of the GX7 in low light, so upgrading to the GX8 is mighty tempting. Looking forward to your review of the GX8, David. (And please use the Olly 40-150mm f2.8 in some of your tests – i’m dying to know how it works with the Panasonic IBIS as I’d love something with a touch more reach than the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8)

    Reply
    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Good idea about the 40-150mm f/2.8, you’re right, that’s the one lens that has no equivalent at all in Panasonic’s range. It’s true what you say about downsampling a 20Mp image too but I would still personally have a reduced noise 16Mp. But – you’ve triggered another useful thought and I’ll compare the 20Mp image downsampled to 16mp with the GX7 at native. Sports, I’d contend that MFT is plenty good enough for most sports, which aren’t that fast moving and certainly good enough for my needs. What testing I’ve done on moving subjects, quite a lot, tells me that MFT suffers by comparison with high end DSLRs but not consumer ones. I’d be disappointed if a £5,000 camera didn’t do something better than a £1000 one! If I were a pro sports guy, I’d simply buy the best for the job, almost certainly a highly expensive DSLR from Canon or Nikon because that’s what the competition will have.

      In the studio, I’d use MFT but I do prefer a bigger format. I could get very high quality in the studio with my 35mm cameras but it took care. With the Hasselblad it came easily. I feel that the advantages of smaller formats are lost in the studio since I work with a tripod mounted camera so there is no reason not go with the biggest. If I were a studio pro again, I’d invest in a Hasselblad digital which would soon earn its keep. But, now I don’t get tax allowances an cameras and have to buy my own, I’d be content with my MFTs.

      I understand fully about your son and the iPad but studio work is as much about people skills as camera ones so look at it this way, if you can get a distracted lad to do what you want, any adult would be a walk in the park!

      I think with professional cameras, too much emphasis is placed on technicalities. I meet up regularly with mates from Associated Press, for example, guys who cover wars and fashion and…everything. The subject of cameras hardly ever arises.If you asked one about how many Mps his cameras were, the likely answer would be ‘I’m not sure but enough’. He would mention an awkwardly placed control, though, which made the camera difficult to use. What he would know is how good the servicing and backup was. Was there a lens for every occasion, even when a terrorist incident needed a 2000mm? Would it suffer in the desert? Would it freeze up at a ski resort? Professional work just doesn’t need 50Mp cameras and I find little interest in them from professionals I know. If you look at the pixel count of the cameras high end professionals (not studio) use you’d rarely see one with more than 20Mp. You want to write stuff to disk fast, to have two on board storage media, all very prosaic!

      Reply

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