Do photos at ISO 3,276,800 look as horrible as they sound?

Perusing the stats for Nikon’s latest flagship camera, the D5, you may be struck by one number: ISO 3,276,800. That’s right, the camera has an ISO of well over three million.

When you change your ISO setting, you’re adjusting your camera’s sensitivity to light. Standard settings range from 24 to 3,200 (or higher), and these numbers have a direct relationship with the device’s sensitivity, so a lower setting makes it less sensitive and a high setting makes it more so. Finding the right balance between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture is key to getting the perfect shot. And an ISO into the millions offers more potential for photographers. Lots more. Lots and lots.

The number and capability in itself is amazing, but I hesitate to push my smaller D7200 over ISO 3,200, leaving me with one big question: What does ISO 3,276,800 even look like?

With the camera now officially shipping, we have the answer from Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto:

Not so great, unless you are trying to create a pointillism painting with your camera.

While that top ISO probably won’t be worth much, the camera does show quite a bit of promise for pushing well past the ISO 3,200 that was the maximum on most digital cameras just a few years ago.

ISO 25600
ISO 25,600 Image by Jared Polin

While the definition of a “usable” image is flexible, the images are surprisingly detailed even at those extreme ISOs. Add in some decent noise reduction software and the D5 could have some pretty interesting capability in low light.

Interestingly enough, the D5 actually scored lower than the older D4S on the DxOMark test for low light ISO. The camera had better color sensitivity at ISO 100, similar performance at ISO 800 but lagged about a stop behind the D4 from ISO 800 to 12,800.

While professionals won’t be using the D5 at ISO 3,276,800 anytime soon, the improvement in noise reduction at ISOs closer to the tens of thousands holds some promise for low light shooting. And with the improvement from just a few years ago, perhaps someday an ISO in the millions won’t look like a bunch of dots trying to recreate an object.


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