Your camera’s sensor, your lens’s image stabiliser and the latest photo-editing software technology may surprise you with what they can do together.

When you’re on vacation or on a once-in-a-lifetime trip or just strolling through warm city streets at night, you’re going to want to capture the sights with your camera but you don’t want break the mood by wrestling with a tripod, making your family wait and looking like a hopeless tourist.

So my advice is to crank the ISO up as high as you need to in order to capture shake-free handheld pictures and just shoot away.

But what about noise? This was taken at a a shutter speed of 1/10sec at ISO 6400, and it’s sharp, contrasty and saturated and pretty much noise free. The noise-free part is down to software, but the rest is down to the camera – but it wasn’t an expensive, professional, large-sensor model. In fact it was a modest Nikon D5600 beginner DSLR with the standard 18-55mm kit lens.

The fact is that cameras and their sensors have got very, very good. Each new generation is a little better than the one before, advancing in such small subtle steps that we can’t say exactly when the change happened, but the difference compared to cameras of ten or even five years ago is remarkable.

The fact that you can get this kind of image quality from an APS-C camera at ISO 6400 is just amazing.

When it comes down to it, the fact that it’s sharp at a shutter speed of 1/10sec is pretty remarkable too, and that’s down to the lens’s image stabiliser. They’re built into most lenses now, and if you want to find out just how good they are, try shooting for a while with the stabiliser switched off.

High-ISO noise reduction: camera JPEG vs DxO vs DxO PRIME

The third factor in this shot, however, is the software. I made three versions of this image and you can see the results in the comparisons below at different levels of magnification. I’ve uploaded full-size screenshots which you can see by clicking on the images.

  1. The first version is the JPEG processed and saved by the camera.
  2. The second is the RAW version, processed using the default noise reduction in DxO PhotoLab
  3. The third has been rendered using PhotoLab’s PRIME noise reduction

High ISO noise reduction

High ISO noise reduction

High ISO noise reduction

The differences are quite remarkable. The camera JPEG looks OK from a distance, but up close the noise and loss of clarity is obvious, and there’s some colour smearing in areas of even tone too.

The standard DxO PhotoLab rendition is much better. There’s less noise and the detail is crisper and more natural-looking.

The DxO PRIME rendition is quite remarkable. This is a processor-intensive mode that takes longer to preview on-screen (it can only render a small section in a window) and longer to output, but it is amazingly smooth. It can’t restore all of the fine detail and textures you’d expect at lower ISO settings, but that’s because the sensor loses the ability to capture this subtle information at high ISO settings. The outcome is nevertheless really impressive.

This isn’t meant to read like an advert for DxO PhotoLab, and I dare say there are plenty of other noise reduction tools out there that could do something similar – though matching this result would be a pretty tall order.

But to get back to my original point, when camera sensors are this good, image stabilisers this effective, and software so good at noise reduction, you shouldn’t be scared to bump up the ISO.