Low-ISO street photography by night

High ISO is usually a necessity for shooting on the streets at night without using a tripod but I thought why not have a session, for fun, where I stick to ISO200 throughout? I was near Petaling Street with some friends and we all chose to employ different shooting methods. One friend went the usual high ISO hand-held route, while another friend had a sturdy tripod setup. I was the only one crazy enough to run around without a tripod and irrationally stick to ISO200…

Instead of my usual F1.8 prime lenses, I decided to use the versatile zoom M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 IS PRO lens. This lens is now becoming my favourite thanks to its versatility (sadly, it also proves how lazy I have become). The built-in stabilization of the lens working in sync with the camera was useful and I already knew from my experience that I could confidently hand-hold my shots down to a second or two. My constant coffee intake obviously isn’t helping my hand-holding abilities but we’ll worry about that another day. Since I knew this was a personal shoot with no consequences should I screw up my shots, I didn’t mind challenging myself and taking a risk.

I was constantly getting glares and (playfully) cruel remarks from my friends because I hand-held my shots effortlessly without tripod, or bumping up ISO. At ISO200, the optimum, base ISO for the E-M1 Mark II, I was practically getting the best possible image quality out of the camera’s image sensor. The 12-100mm F4 lens is sharp wide open, throughout the zoom range. Being able to hand-hold the camera down to several seconds of exposure allowed me to incorporate light trails, which is always fun. At 100mm, I was even able to get a half-decent cropped moon image.

By limiting the ISO to only 200, I had to be extra cautious in choosing my subjects. The image stabilization works only on subjects that are relatively far away from me and motionless; e.g. buildings and highways. I would not have been able to shoot a human portrait at close proximity. This in turn encouraged me to see further away than I usually do – which lead to some interesting (or at the very least, different) compositions.

This ISO200 night shooting exercise clearly shows that cameras these days have pushed the shooting envelope so much that we should not be making excuses or blaming the equipment when it’s our own inadequacies that are the issue. Like everyone else, I fall victim to the perpetual lust for newer, better gear. Asking yourself if you have you pushed your gear to its maximum potential before deciding it was not good enough for you, is a good way to stave off the GAS.

This short shooting session was fun and something I’d definitely repeat soon. Perhaps, for the next session, I will make a video (similar to the one I previously produced here) to share how I “see the shot” at night.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 IS PRO are available here from B&H


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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. The best art is done within constraints. I think the idea of going out at night to do a low iso photography session is an interesting way to put a particular box to play in it and create something nice. Like the pictures.

  2. As always Ming, great pictures! A pleasure to read these articles, always. I don’t have current mFT gear, only my old G1 from 2008, but the base ISO from my 2006 Nikon D40 is ISO 200, and so is the X-E1 Fujifilm…and also with my 5D, i’ve set the ISO to 200 locked, as this 2005 DSLR doesn’t feature AutoISO at all. 😉 Nightphotography, i am using always ISO 100, and a Tripod, to avoid blurred images, whileas i’ve need usually depending onto the subject 8 to 20sec exposure time.

    Good Light!

  3. Great shots! As a tripod hater (I know, that’s silly), I am thrilled to see that it’s possible to make awesome images handholding the camera. Will try.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I don’t hate tripod like you do, but I admit I prefer walking around without a tripod!

  4. Nice! I’m a film shooter and frequently carry ISO 100-400 with slowish compacts (f/3.5) that I use in any scene I encounter myself, which often means less than ideal lighting. It helps that I can usually handhold sharp shots down to 1/8 or 1/4, with said compacts or SLRs. The low-light shots I get frequently surprise other film shooters who are too caught up on which ISO you “NEED” to take shots under anything that isn’t daylight, but I say try it yourselves and you’ll see! Sometimes just a bit of light is enough for the photo you need, or there’s more light than you think, and sometimes you may even enjoy the accidental motion you get from your hand or your subjects.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I wouldn’t dare to shoot at such dangerous slow shutter speeds without the aid of a tripod/bracing/support or image stabilization. I guess getting pin-sharp images is important to me. Though these photowalks were not work and I did not have to please anyone with my images, I used these sessions as my training ground to further improve my shooting discipline and also to allow me to operate the camera more efficiently and effectively. The more I shoot, the more confident and consistent I get, and I will ensure all I can to achieve the best image quality I can.

  5. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Great photography, Robin. I think we try harder and – hopefully – do better, when we try to stretch the envelope. Personally, I love taking shots by available light, at night, without a tripod. The percentage of keepers drops a little, but the keepers make it well worth while. In your case, I’ve no idea if that applies – what DOES apply is the extraordinary clarity and sharpness of the images, and the amazing detail. Thanks for sharing them

    • Robin Wong says:

      The incredible clarity and sharpness have a lot to do with the choice of ISO sensitivity. At low ISO, any camera today can produce clean and highly detailed images! Things will suffer when the numbers are being bumped up.

  6. Enrique Romerales says:

    Thanks a lot for the nice pictures. To me, narrow dynamic range is the only shortcoming of M4/3 (I own E-M1). The third picture is a typical case of high contrast night pictures. If you look through the windows, many interiors are entirely blown out. But nevertheless, the pale green walls of the house are very clear and clean, presumably more than they were in the real scene. Do you overexposed to keep cleen the shadows? With one or two stops less, wouldn’t you have preserved the interiors of the building visible while keeping the facade more realistic as a night scene? Or do you think it is impossible for this sensor to keep everything relevant properly exposed in a photo like this with a single shot?

    • MT jumping in here: it’s possible but you have to be prepared to do a lot of recovery and suffer somewhat noisy shadows…

    • Robin Wong says:

      The shot was intentionally “overexposed”, but I beg to differ in approach. To me that shot was exposed exactly as I wanted it to be. As you have observed, the walls are presented to be very bright. The exterior walls were dim in real life and to capture what my eyes saw, I might need to tone down the exposure of that image to almost 2 stops (maybe a little less). By bringing the exposure down, it is very possible to balance the blown out areas and recover more details. To me the architectural features of the building and beauty of the geometry are what I wanted to show in this photographs. I cared less about what went on inside the buildings.

  7. Leo Montes says:

    Great shots as always!! Question, what settings did you use for dealing with noise? Did you have to reduce it afterwards w some software or the pictures are just straight from the camera?, thanks and congrats again!!

    • How much noise do you think there is at ISO 200?

      • Robin Wong says:

        Exactly as Alvaero mentioned, there was minimal noise to deal with, as I did not underexpose any of these shots. The beautiful thing about shooting at base ISO with any camera, you basically get clean images.

  8. just: BRAVO !

  9. Very impressive. I re-watched the before / after video and realize just how good that is as a format, especially when the stll shots are available individually as part of the text. Any topic you would like to cover in this way would be more than welcome.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Michael! Am now plotting on my next video, surely night shooting but maybe doing things a little differently. We shall see soon!

  10. I have been asking myself for a while whether there is that much difference in High ISO output from micro four thirds compared to a larger sensor. What is the max ISO you would shoot at? I ask because for the shooting I do, I want to keep my shutter speed up, and it’s valuable to get your real-world knowledge about the trade-offs.

    • Robin Wong says:

      If shooting high ISO with clean output is a priority, then bigger sensors will give you more headroom to work with. I don’t shoot at dark environment too often and I do not usually go up more than ISO1600. However, with careful exposure and post-processing I’d say ISO3200 is doable on E-M1 Mark II. I would still do anything to keep the numbers as low as possible.

  11. I like this kind of thing. In fact I did a blog post on this very concept some time ago (it involved a Sigma, which are not known for their high ISO performance).

    Would it be OK to put a link to it here? I don’t want to be presumptuous.

  12. these are so cool –

  13. Awesome shots, handheld moon especially is very impressive!

    I have a noob question:)

    With low light conditions like that I find myself correcting exposure and pushing the histogram ‘to the left’ quite a lot. With my old lumix G5 at f2.8 and ISO1600 I will usually correct exposure by -1 or even -2 to get shutter speed to 1/30 with is minimum I can hold steadily. The scene gets darker which is fine, (its supposed to be dark at nigth:) and you can pull shadows in post later on.

    Do you also do that? Or do you consider the quality loss to be too extensive and keep the exposure settings suggested by camera meter. Is crushing blacks completelly fine in case of nigth photos?

    • Robin Wong says:

      I did not find myself the need to underexpose my shots, I exposed to the right allowing slight overexposure, hence the noise was more manageable in the shadow areas. Also at ISO200, there is plenty of flexible room to retrieve some details from the shadow. I did not have to do much, since most of the shots were already properly exposed. I could hand-hold my shots down to half a second confidently.

  14. Robin Williams says:

    Delightful photos, particularly the geometric, dehumanized image of the block of flats.

    Is that pollution or noise in the dark night sky around the twin towers? It looks as if it was taken with a different camera/lens or at higher ISO (or is it just the tele end of the 12-100?)?

    In any case, a great set.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for the compliments. Yes, all images were shot with the 12-100mm, some at very end of the telephoto zoom. Being a city with busy traffic the air is always hazy.

  15. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Very nice photos!

    For this reason,
    and for stills in a deep forest (with no wind),
    I once in a while consider switching to M4/3 for the good stabilization.
    ( I hate having to carry and set up a tripod…)

    Have you perhaps had a chance to compare with the Panasonic variant of combined camera + lens stabilization?

    > “The image stabilization works only on subjects that are relatively far away from me and motionless;”

    Motionless, naturally.

    But “far away”, I’m curious as to how far away you mean?

    ( The part of the angular stabilization caused by sideways head movement, of course, decreases with distance; but I imagine that pointing straight is the harder part and that should be independent of distance?)

    • Robin Wong says:

      The only Panasonic camera that came close in terms of image stabilization capability is from the G9, but I still feel Olympus has an advantage. I never did side by side comparison, so that was not a conclusive statement.

      The image stabilization will not work for close up shooting (macro, or anything close, such as human subjects, anything inside a room). However, shooting far away scenes (landscapes, buildings, etc) the 5-Axis does very well at stabilizing the shots (keeping straight lines sharp with no blurring or double-lining).

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Thanks Robin for clarifying!

        But it seems strange to me, that the camera+lens stabilization doesn’t work for stills at, say, 2-5m (without a farther background) – at least for the wider part of the 12-100mm range?

        Does it work at all but to a lesser degree for such closer subjects?
        Or do you have to shift to either camera or lens stabilization?

        • Robin Wong says:

          The 5-Axis IS still works, but of course you can’t do the ridiculous stunts such as 5 seconds hand-holding. I wouldn’t do anything crazy shooting at such close range and strictly adhere to the standard rule of thumb 1/focal length minimum shutter speed, to be safe.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:


          • Frans Richard says:

            Hi Robin, I really don’t understand why IS would be less effective at shorter distances. If you are stationary and your camera makes a small movement, I would think an object farther away would blur more than an object closer by, because the image of it would travel a larger trajectory over the sensor. The more tele the lens the larger this effect would be. Since IS compensates the angular motion I would think IS would be equally effective at a shorter distance, given a stationary object of course. So what am I missing here?

            Great images by the way, almost unbelievable they were taken hand-held! Do you think using a relatively heavy (for m4/3) body and lens helped stabilize the shots?

            • Robin Wong says:

              Hey Frans,
              I came to the conclusion after practical shooting experience. There is no simple way to explain this but let me try.
              When shooting subjects that are very close to the camera, say macro-like distance, minor camera movements, down to a few millimeters is significantly large enough to cause noticeable blur.
              In comparison to subjects far away, say a building that is kilometers away from where you stand, that few millimeters movement is inconsequential.
              Therefore, the 5_Axis Image Stabilization can compensate for the small movements when the subject is far enough away, but is less effective for subjects too close to the camera, as small movements are magnified.

              One way to see this in action, is to shoot extreme close up (high magnification shot) using a macro lens, you will see that it is a lot easier for the camera to shake even with just very small movements.

  16. Even with lots of caffeine in your bloodstream and a challenge of base ISO, your shot discipline allows you to pull off pin-sharp exposures. Pretty amazing! Got to figure out how to hold the camera as still as you do. You keep raising the bar, Robin!

    • Robin Wong says:

      I just can’t help myself, I need my dosage of coffee! Such an unhealthy addiction, but so necessary!


  1. […] on the stabiliser of the Z7 and the large amount of ambient light. I must have been inspired by Robin’s experiment some time back, but in this case I was deliberately seeking out motion, layers and wimmelbild to convey the […]

  2. […] up on the Low ISO Street by Night article (where I shot hand-held at ISO200 for the entire evening), I wanted to continue with the theme but […]

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