This is a short test, but an important one. As any event or documentary shooter will tell you, the ability to record acceptable images at high ISOs is a job requirement. For photographers, this means pushing higher to maintain a faster shutter speed, for videographers this means pushing higher to stop down the aperture to make focusing easier. In either case, increasing the ISO is usually the only way to make the shot happen. But of course, pushing the ISO is not a silver bullet. The increased sensor sensitivity comes at a cost; namely, noise and general loss of detail.
For this test I took a quick shot with our 5D Mark II at an ISO of 6400. This is the highest “native” value for the camera – higher settings have to be unlocked in the menu and are simply called “H1” and “H2.” In reality, however, 6400 on the Mark II is an ISO of desperation – it is not a value that we would select in ideal or even less-than-ideal conditions. The noise is just too much to bear.
The original shot here is a 100% crop straight out of the camera – no manipulations. As we’ve come to expect, the JPEG file has discarded a substantial amount of information and looks generally washed out. But now we see that the JPEG format does indeed handle and display noise differently. The grain texture is more intense and the pattern is more pronounced. By contrast, the grain in the RAW file – while quite visible – is tighter and has less contrast. It’s not really a contest.
But the difference does not end there. The benefit of RAW is the post-production options. Adobe‘s Camera RAW (ACR) software has noise reduction capabilities (Luminance, Color, and Detail adjustments) that are far more powerful than what even Photoshop can do with a JPEG file. The second shot here shows the two with noise reduction applied – the RAW file having been tweaked in ACR and the JPEG file having been tweaked with Photoshop’s advanced noise reduction settings (I did my best, even going into the individual RGB channels). Again, we see that it’s really no contest between the two. Photoshop is a powerful program but it can only work with what it has. If a lot of information is missing, it’s hands are tied.
Be sure to check out the other blog posts in our RAW vs. JPEG series: