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Hey EyeDoc, yes, normally you would want to keep your ISO as low as you could possibly go, to keep any possibility of noise being generated by the sensor. But let’s just use the dark church scenario as the example.
Most churches are subject to mixed lighting scenarios which create havoc on most photographers. I remember shooting a wedding and I counted at least 5 different light sources, ambient light from the windows (bright sunlight, no clouds), ambient light through stained glass, candle lighting, fluorescent lighting, tungsten lights from stage lighting and of course other peoples flashes. I know that was 6, but you get the idea.
Controlling the light in a setting like this is almost near impossible, working with it is achievable with the right settings and it also helps to always shoot in RAW to adjust the mixed lighting scenes accordingly in post, but that’s another topic.
The catch light is nice, it adds a little depth to your subjects eyes and doesn’t make them look lifeless or evil, good idea.
Now the ISO setting can be a 2-way street. It can help with capturing the details in the shadows but, like you stated, it can also create some unwanted artifacts that we all call noise. The thing you have to remember though, it’s not just the ISO setting, the shutter speed also plays a part with noise as well.
If you have a dark(er) setting and the ISO cranked up to let’s say 6400 but your shutter speed is @3200, the ISO is compensating for the fast exposure of the shutter. With this setting, the shutter opens and closes so quickly, that the sensor does not have enough exposure to “burn” in the image fully, so ISO is doing all the work, sort of. I’m not including aperture, because I am assuming your are shooting with a DOF in mind, but let’s just say it is a f/2.8 lens to be safe and you are shooting at f/2.8.
With that setting, you can’t go any lower than the widest aperture of 2.8, so your only 2 adjustments left are ISO and shutter speed. See if you decrease the aperture, the more light is needed so again more ISO and slower shutter speed. This is why so many fauxs fail at proper lighting for darker venues. They either cannot grasp the concept of the manual adjustments or they do not realize when they are in need of supplemental lighting for proper exposure, either constant or flash (strobe) lighting. Now most churches don’t really want big flashes from strobes going off during the ceremony, it is better to know what your camera can be adjusted for before the ceremony starts. The wedding I did, I was shooting with 2 lenses, a 24-70 and a 70-200, both f/2.8’s and I don’t think that I went any higher than 7.1 for the aperture, 800, maybe 1600 on the ISO and 250 or 320 for the shutter with no flash. After the ceremony, 2 strobes, lower ISO, and 250 on the shutter due to flash sync.
For non-portrait shots, the highest I have shot with no significant NR was 51200, but again, it was an inanimate object and long exposure to overcome the noise.
BTW Doc, could have used you this weekend as I got a fine grain of particulate (dust) wedged in my eye and could not get it out to save my life. A few days of feeling like there was a boulder in my eye was enough for me.