In today’s photography, does noise even matter?

Does the noise in this image matter? Nikon 1 V1 @ ISO 3200, in-camera JPEG (click to enlarge)

In the early years of digital photography, it seemed like there were two simultaneous battles between manufacturers: the “megapixel war” and the “noise war.” It seemed like everyone was rushing to put more pixels on their sensors, and also make them produce clean images at what were unheard of ISO settings for film users (if you used film, ISO 1000 was very grainy).

All of these battles led to better and better sensor technology, and the production of larger sensors for digital cameras. At any megapixel resolution, a larger sensor means larger photosites, and in-turn, a cleaner image at high ISOs. With the release of the Nikon D3, and later D3s, a usable ISO 12,800 was a real possibility.

But here’s the funny thing about noise. In today’s cameras, it really only shows up at the extreme sensitivities (usually ISO 3200 and higher) and at extreme magnification (ie, viewing your shots at 100%). At one point in time, this was important; if you wanted to deliver a clean two-page “double-truck” spread for a major photo magazine, or make 16x 24″ prints, you needed a clean image. But how many of us are making prints that size anymore, if we’re even printing at all?

Ask most people how they display and share their photos these days, and they’ll answer “on Facebook.” Or maybe, they use a dedicated photo-sharing site like Flickr, or my new favorite, 500px. For the most part, we view these images on a computer screen with a maximum pixel dimension between 800-1000 pixels. Sometimes, even smaller. And at those sizes, even cameras with fairly small sensors, like my CX-format Nikon 1 V1, produce perfectly usable images!

Don’t get me wrong, my V1 isn’t even close to what the D3s can do at any given ISO. But if you’re not making big prints, then maybe you shouldn’t fixate on zooming in to 100% to look for imperfections that no one will even notice at the final display size.

4 thoughts on “In today’s photography, does noise even matter?”

  1. Well said Jason. Understanding your audience is always key to creating a successful impression … it’s just here we’re taking an interim step to best disply that impression to our audience 🙂

  2. How true. Depends all of the display size. And some fellow G+ User has pride with his 9*12cm big format camera. Nearly a contact sheet what he show in his stream…..
    Could be shot with a V1 and nobody can tell it.
    Because the output is small….

  3. Jason your spot on. My clients really only want the images to post on their web sites. They really only print my images in proposals which never go larger than 8 1/2 x 11, or in media hand-outs. Looks like at least to me prints are not the main stream anymore.

  4. Lots of interesting feedback on this post at G+. Many pros point out the need for large files from specific clients, like wedding prints or stock agencies. While this is certainly true, the vast majority of camera owners don’t display their work larger than 1000 pixels across. Worse, they upload them to Facebook via the “image mangler” and so that image taken with a $6000 DSLR/lens combo doesn’t look much better than one taken with an iPhone.

    The desire for more pixels and larger sensors has a place, no doubt. But the marketing tagline of “print up to 13×19” might not have as much impact today as it did even three years ago.

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