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What is ISO setting on my digital camera ?

| May 4, 2009 | 5 Comments
What is ISO setting and how does it affect my photos ? Learn about benefits of using manipulating ISO setting for better low-light pictures. Also learn about side-effects of using higher ISO values (such as noise), and how to avoid them.

Fuji FilmISO (also known as ASA) is a number (traditionally in range 100 – 800 on most films) that describes the film’s sensitivity to the light. Previously, when using film cameras, ISO was also referred as film speed, and was marked on the film box. Higher number corresponded to higher sensitivity to light, and therefore better suitability for use in low-light conditions.

In digital photography, films are no longer used, but the still rules still apply. This time ISO setting defines the sensitivity of the digital camera’s image sensor. Higher ISO values correspond to higher sensitivity and therefore better low-light performance.

What is relation between ISO sensitivity, aperture and shutter speed ?

We have already talked about shutter speed & aperture in our previous posts. I have read somewhere an excellent comparison between taking a photo and sunbathing, and it also explains to a degree how a photo is created. If you think of your skin as a sensor, the amount you will tan or burn (final look of the photo – in comparison), will depend on the intensity of the sun hitting your skin (aperture), the amount of time spent sunbathing (shutter speed), and your skin’s sensitivity (ISO setting). All 3 factors contribute to the final look of the photo, however in most cases ISO setting is the most overlooked one by beginners.

How can I manipulate ISO setting to my advantage ?

Low ISO Setting in Low light

ISO 100

Hi ISO Setting in Low light

ISO 1600

Higher ISO will allow you to take photos in low light (Left ISO 100, Right ISO 1600)

The benefits of ISO sensitivity manipulation become most evident in low-light photography. Lower light means less amount of light hitting the sensor. To maintain the correct exposure a photographer would need to either open the aperture, or lower shutter speed. Open aperture results in less depth of field, meaning possibly blurry background, and slower shutter speed would result in blur due to the camera movement (assuming the photographer is hand-holding the camera). To avoid these issues, the photographer could either use a tripod (which is always the preferred solution), or simply increase the ISO sensitivity. Photos in the example above illustrate the benefit of using higher ISO setting in low-light situations. Both of the photos above were taken using the same aperture and shutter speed, however due to higher sensitivity, the right one was properly exposed. Increasing also works well in areas where a flash is explicitly forbidden, such as museums, art galleries, some indoor sports events etc.

One could ask: “If I can simply increase ISO sensitivity, why do you recommend tripod over ISO increase ?”

Noise – the consequence of using higher ISO

ISO 1600 HI Noise

ISO 1600 HI Noise

ISO 100 Low Noise

ISO 100 Low Noise

Higher ISO-1600 (left) vs slower shutter speed-with tripod ISO 100 (right). Click for bigger image

Digital noise is a side effect of increasing the ISO sensitivity. It basically occurs due to the fact that sensor is more sensitive to the amount of light, meaning that in some (especially darker areas) it becomes harder do get accurate reading on color and luminosity of the pixel, resulting in higher amount of noise obscuring image detail. Example above illustrates the use of higher ISO vs slower shutter speed. Left image was taken using ISO 1600, while the right one was set to ISO 100 with the help of tipod. Check photos below for the same image at 100% magnification.

High ISO

High ISO - Closeup

Low ISO - Closeup

Low ISO - Closeup

Higher ISO (left) vs slower shutter speed (right) at 100% magnification.

It is clearly visible that the left photo exhibits a significant amount of noise when compared to the right one, resulting in much coarser grain. Most digital cameras perform well in lower ISO setting (100-400), but usually only professional DSLRs can successfully cope with higher ISO settings. A general rule of thumb is: if you want noise free image, use lowest ISO possible, and if needed turn noise-reduction feature on.

However, notice that I mentioned that noise is a consequence, not a downside of using higer ISO. If you want to re-create a black/white vintage-style image with your camera, a moderate amount of noise can help recreate the vintage look, and add some extra credibility. Finding the correct amount is the key to success. Happy shooting.

Black/White Vintage look using low ISO and Noise

Black/White Vintage look using low ISO and Noise

Capture every momentous moment with a digital slr camera.


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Category: Beginners Photography, Low Light photography, Photography Lessons

About the Author (Author Profile)

Alan Graf is the editor and founder of Digital Photography Student. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and is also editor of CRO-Wallpapers.com – a Croatian wallpaper archive, and his own photo gallery at http://www.alangraf.com.

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  1. […] the difference in the ability to cope with the noise in low light conditions, where high ISO needs to be used. Please note that both digital cameras feature a 14 megapixel […]

  2. […] the ISO sensitivity of your digital camera to […]

  3. […] noise. The effects of increasing ISO and how does noise affect your photos is best described in our ISO guide. What you need to remember here, if you are using a tripod, remote release etc, always use lowest […]

  4. […] have used the following settings on my Pentax K200D (manual mode): 1. ISO set to 100 2. Lens 18-55mm kit lens set to 18mm 3. Aperture set to minimum (f/22) 4. Shutter set to […]

  5. […] too easy to get all involved in the technical aspects of a photography, such as aperture, shutter, ISO, depth of field, etc without even realizing that the most important aspect of photography is […]

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