Until Friday night, the number 12,800 meant very little to me. That changed during the second overtime of KU’s soccer match against Texas. The ridiculously high number was the ISO setting forced upon me by the soccer battle that did not end until well past all light had faded from the sky.
ISO is the standard used to rate film speed. While film cameras are almost extinct, those same standards apply to modern digital cameras. The ISO rating is the film’s, or the digital image’s, sensitivity to light.
The lower the number the less sensitivity there is to light. The result of a properly exposed image at a low ISO rating is generally the ultimate in image quality. Think National Geographic’s stunningly colorful images for example.
A high ISO means there is high sensitivity to light, allowing photographs to be taken in low light. The tradeoff is a dramatic loss of quality as the ISO goes higher and higher. In the days of film, the images would become very “grainy.” In today’s digital world “grain” is now called “noise.” Think private detective shooting low light images of a client’s cheating spouse. The evidence is there, you just would not want to frame a print because of the quality, and the other obvious reason.
The combination of ISO rating, shutter speed and lens aperture is a balancing act for every photograph. The sports world requires a shutter speed high enough to freeze the action. Depending on the sport, a shutter speed of over 1/1000th of a second is optimum. Much lower than that, motion becomes a problem.
Aperture is the third factor. This is the iris of a lens. The iris opens and closes in our eye depending on the light. With more light, the iris closes. Everything seems much sharper due to greater depth of field. Scenic photographs usually use high aperture settings. In low light the iris opens allowing us to see better in the dark, but we do not have the same depth of field or see as well. It is the same with digital images. The one advantage is that only what you focus the camera on is sharp. This helps in sports to clean up backgrounds and let the action really stand out in a photograph.
That all brings me to Friday night. The KU soccer match began at five o’clock in the afternoon on a field with no lights. There is no point discussing why a game would be scheduled that late. The photographer is never included in scheduling meetings. As Tennyson wrote, “Ours is not to reason why…but to do and die.”
When I worked with the Kansas City Royals during spring training the cry in the dugout of any meaningless exhibition game was always, “Win it or lose it. Just don’t go extra innings.” That was my cry with the score tied at two late in the match. No overtime, please. No such luck.
Trying to maintain a high enough shutter speed for the action, my ISO had started its climb from a 320 ISO early in the match. Long ago the aperture had been opened all the way. Before long I was reaching heights on the ISO scale I had never gone before.
In my film days there were two classic film developers. D-76 for most standard processing and Acufine for when we needed to push Kodak’s Tri-X film well past the film’s standard 400 ISO. Since I am not very scientific, in would go my film for varying minutes of processing along with a small prayer.
There were always experimenters that had heard of some super secret method of processing said to develop magic negatives and grow hair on your chest at the same time. None really worked. The Capital-Journal crew loved to joke with these young and eager photographers that a few special ingredients and horse urine did the trick. We really were joking, but I bet some might have given it a try. The truth of that time was anything over an ISO of 1,600 started to get very sketchy.
Today, the best professional digital cameras have ISO ratings up to 12,800. I swore I would never go that high until Friday. As the first 10 minute overtime passed, it was virtually night. During the second overtime period, all light had faded and my shutter speed was 1/60th of a second. When Caroline Kastor headed the ball into the net to defeat Texas 3-2 in the 115th minute, the image was so blurred it was impossible to use. Only a few reaction images were usable, but I did manage to get the needed images.
Those photographs will never be framed or appear in any photo show, but the jubilation of Kansas and the dejection of Texas (which is always fun to see) were on our web site soon after. Hopefully, I will not be going to these heights again, but for one dark moment, I was glad I could climb to 12,800.