ISO is a term that you will often hear as you begin your journey in photography. It is one of the most fundamental and essential aspects of photography, essential for primary camera control. Without a proper ISO setting, your camera will take photos that are either too bright or too dark.
What does ISO stand for in photography?
ISO stands for International Organization of Standardization, although many modern photographers don’t know that. The International Organization of Standardization was a governing body responsible for standardizing sensitivity ratings for camera sensors (among other things. To date, the ISO has about 22,000 standards across industries of all kinds). In the days of film cameras, the ISO body would rate film’s sensitivity to light, giving it a speed and ASA rating. The light-sensitive film requires less light to develop a properly exposed photo. Some readers may remember how rolls of film came with numbers such as 100, 200, 400, etc. The higher the number, the more sensitive that roll of film was to light.
When the photography world made the switch to digital cameras, it retained the ISO standard to describe a digital sensor’s light sensitivity. The minimum setting on most cameras is ISO 100, which is the least sensitive to light. The maximum light sensitivity setting varies by camera model. If a photo starts to look grainy, the ISO number is set too high.
Why is ISO important in photography?
ISO is one of the three components of exposure in photography. It is important because it affects how bright your image is, as well as the amount of noise, or grain, the image will have in it. Great photographers know how ISO works with aperture and shutter speed to produce well-lit images. Understanding when and how to raise and lower your ISO will help you achieve the look you want in your image.
What It Does
It’s easy to get confused between ISO and exposure value, but they are not the same thing. While ISO controls the light sensitivity, it doesn’t determine how much light is captured by the camera. That task belongs to the combined settings of your camera’s shutter speed and aperture.
The job of ISO is merely to amplify the light signal that the camera receives. In the process, it can produce a similar effect as opening the aperture or using a slow shutter speed.
Does Changing ISO Influence Exposure?
ISO does not influence exposure. Exposure value is the product of aperture and shutter speed, which together, capture a certain quantity of light in a given lighting situation. ISO does not interfere with this process, nor does it determine how much light will be captured. But the ISO number does influence the final image by controlling how bright or dark it will be, using the exposure value as a base.
Let’s say that you are photographing a child in a dimly lit room. Imagine that you have set an exposure value of f/5.6 and 1/100 sec. The ISO number is set to 100. Considering that the room is poorly lit, the exposure will be very dark.
If you change the ISO number to 400, the exposure immediately improves even though the amount of light captured by the camera did not change.
How Camera ISO Works
ISO is so helpful because it allows a single camera to have multiple levels of sensitivity.
Back in the days of film, when you loaded a roll of film into a camera, you were stuck with a single level of sensitivity. If that film roll had a sensitivity of ASA 100, then it was ideal for brightly lit outdoors only.
With an ASA 800 roll of film, you would have to compensate for its sensitivity by increasing the shutter speed or lowering the aperture to a very large f-number. In other words, ASA 800 film is intended for capturing images in low light.
With modern digital cameras (including DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and point-and-shoot cameras), you are no longer stuck with just one sensitivity level. Today’s digital camera has several levels of sensor sensitivity, typically between ISO 100 and ISO 1600. This gives you the freedom to change the light sensitivity according to your needs.
The signal received by the sensor is amplified using an analog process. There is a limit to how much this signal can be amplified before an image becomes too grainy to use.
How to Change the ISO Setting on Your Camera
The process to change the ISO number depends on the specific make and model of your camera. Typically, models from the same manufacturer have similar settings and functionality. This is especially true when an upgraded version of an older model is launched.
Here’s how to change the ISO settings of the most popular camera brands:
Nikon’s entry-level cameras don’t have a dedicated ISO button, but the ISO setting can be found within the touchscreen menu.
- Press the ‘Info’ button to pull up the menu screen at the back of the camera
- Press the ‘I’ button at the back of the camera to make the options selectable
- Toggle the four-way button at the back of the camera till you reach ISO
- Press Ok. The various ISO options will come up.
- Use the up and down arrow from the four-way selector to select the ISO number of choice
- Press Ok.
- Press the ‘Info’ button again
For professional and semi-professional Nikon models, a dedicated ISO button is located on the camera body.
- Press the ISO button on the camera
- The display should read out the current ISO number
- Turn the command dial at the back of the camera to change the ISO number
Current versions of the popular Canon Rebel models feature a dedicated ISO button.
- Press the ISO button to display available ISO options
- If it has a touchscreen, simply pressing the ISO number will select the ISO
- If it does not have a touchscreen turn the command dial to change the ISO number
Sony cameras, such as the A7 series, include a dedicated ISO selector located on the back of the camera. Change the ISO using the selector wheel.
- Press down where it is mentioned ISO.
- The display at the back of the camera will show you the ISO number that is active.
- You can now turn the selector wheel, and it will scroll through the available ISO numbers.
Does ISO Change a Camera’s Built-In Sensor?
No, ISO does not change any camera hardware. A typical image sensor inside a camera has a single level of sensitivity. A digital camera uses software to boost the light signal, giving the impression of altered hardware. The sensor’s built-in sensitivity never changes, though it varies between camera models.
What is ISO Range? Understanding base ISO and camera ISO
Base ISO is the lowest ISO number a digital camera is capable of processing. Most DSLR cameras can shoot at a base ISO of 100. Many older models have a base ISO of 200, while today’s newest models can lower the light sensitivity all the way down to ISO 64.
The base ISO and the maximum ISO range of a camera are known as the “native ISO range.” However, many cameras are capable of shooting beyond its native range using special software. This is referred to as a camera’s “expanded ISO range.” The software accomplishes this by digitally expanding or extending the light boosting capability of the camera.
Keep in mind that expanded ISO range is mostly a marketing gimmick and not necessarily achievable in a useful manner. But it’s important to realize that expanded ISO range is another form of signal amplification.
Camera ISO and Exposure
You may be wondering why photographers prefer to lighten a scene by changing the ISO number instead of adjusting the aperture or shutter speed. The answer is because in many cases, ISO simply offers the most flexibility and better results. In some situations, you are in no position to alter the aperture or the shutter speed, or both.
Let’s say you are using a kit lens which opens to only about f/5.6. That means the widest aperture you could use is only f/5.6 when shooting at its tele end. Without ISO, your only option is to change the composition by zooming out and then using a smaller aperture. But even then, kit lenses aren’t known for having the fastest apertures.
Imagine a situation without a tripod which requires you to hold the camera by hand. You can only use minimum shutter speed before bringing undesirable motion blur into the equation.
Assume that you are shooting a photograph of the Milky Way. You need a fast aperture, so, f/1.8 would be the right choice. But you also need a razor-sharp composition which has no “star trail.” That means you need to shoot with a fast shutter speed. But a combination of wide open aperture and fast shutter speed wouldn’t let in enough light.
The solution in all these examples is to use a higher ISO number. There are many situations where raising or lowering the ISO number is the only way to achieve the desired result.
What is Auto ISO?
Auto ISO is a very useful feature available in many digital cameras. With Auto ISO enabled, the camera determines the best ISO number automatically, depending on parameters such as the exposure value and ambient light levels in the scene.
Auto ISO takes care of one of the three shooting parameters that you must dial in yourself. The three parameters are the shutter speed, the aperture, and the ISO.
Let’s say that you want a specific look and feel for your image regarding the depth of field and amount of image blur. That means both aperture and shutter speed are fixed. In a situation like this, when you know that you cannot tweak either of the exposure value components, changing the ISO becomes the only option. But what if the light changes rapidly? Auto ISO is the perfect solution in this situation. Otherwise, you’d have to constantly adjust the ISO manually.
Auto ISO is used across a broad spectrum of photography genres. Take sports photography, for example. You need a certain depth of field to isolate the subject from the background. A fast shutter speed is required as well. Balancing the exposure becomes rather tricky, and Auto ISO helps immensely.
What ISO settings should I use?
You need to change your ISO when the light changes or you need to control the ambient exposure. If there is bright sunlight and you are shooting outdoors, you will need to use a smaller ISO number. If you are shooting indoors and the subject is stationary, you need a higher ISO number. However, if you are using a flash or speedlight, you need to use a small ISO number to ensure that the image is not overexposed.
Your goal should be to keep your ISO as low as possible and still achieve the look you want for your image, given your other choices for shutter speed and aperture. You should only raise your ISO when you are unable to brighten the photo using a slower shutter or wider aperture. For example, you may be shooting a wedding in low light. You are shooting at f/2.8, which is as fast as your lens works. You want to stop the action, so you are shooting with a shutter speed of 1/25o. If your image is still dark at ISO, raise it until you have a properly exposed photo.
High ISO and Image Grain
The only downside to using high ISO is the appearance of image grain, commonly referred to as noise. Image grain looks like tiny white dots that appear across the image, especially around the darker shadow areas. Using a low native ISO number produces the cleanest imagery. If you must use a higher ISO, noise reduction becomes an important aspect of post-production.
What is the best ISO for night photography?
A night-time shot is the most difficult since it requires the perfect balance between all the exposure parameters, including ISO. No two night-time shots are the same, and settings will frequently change.
Let’s say you are shooting a night-time portrait shot. To start off, you will want the widest aperture that your lens can handle. This will do two things: Allow a lot of light and provide a shallow depth of field.
Next, the shutter speed should depend on the amount of the ambient light you wish to capture. This fact tends to surprise beginner photographers. While shutter speed is primarily used to freeze motion, it also controls the amount of ambient light that is captured.
If you are not using a flash, your ambient exposure needs to be slightly higher. Otherwise, your subject’s face will appear too dark. To achieve this, you need a longer shutter speed. But the problem with longer shutter speed is that it induces image blur. In this case, a higher ISO number can balance the exposure.
What is the best ISO setting for daylight?
During the daytime when shooting outdoors, you can use the Sunny 16 Rule to ensure proper exposure.
The Sunny 16 Rule is very easy to implement and even easier to understand: Shutter speed is the reciprocal of the ISO number. If it is bright sunlight and you are shooting outdoors, set your camera ISO at 100. Use a shutter speed of 1/100 (one over the ISO number) and use an aperture of f/16.
The Sunny 16 Rule is the basis for multiple other situations. If it is overcast and you need to open the aperture, you can either eyeball the exposure or use a light meter. Let’s imagine the shutter speed is asking for 1/100. This might be a little towards the red line, especially if you are using a telephoto lens. So, you decide to set your shutter speed at 1/200. Therefore, what is the ISO number? The answer is 200, which is reciprocal of the shutter speed.
What is the best ISO setting for indoors?
I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but “it depends.” Start with an ISO of 100. Set your shutter speed and aperture where you want or need them to be given your goals of the photo. Then adjust your ISO to achieve the exposure you are looking for. Remember that images using higher ISO can get grainy or noisy, but a grainy image is better than one you don’t capture at all!
What is the best ISO and shutter speed for wildlife photography?
Wildlife photography is yet another demanding requirement for photographers. The light is constantly changing, with the direction, intensity and color temperature in constant fluctuation. For situations like this, it is imperative that you use a color chart as a reference. This ensures that you have the correct white balance setting for each session.
If you are shooting with a strong directional light during the early part of the day or the late afternoon (also known as the golden hour), start with your aperture setting first. Next, balance the shutter speed. Choose the lowest ISO after your exposure value is dialed in. If you need a faster shutter speed, you can always dial in a higher number, but be sure to balance the exposure with a higher ISO number. This will be a good time for Auto ISO if your camera supports it.
Manual mode can be challenging. If you have been shooting on the ‘green’ mode (also known as the auto mode), you would probably find things a lot easier to do. But you would also be missing out on many shooting opportunities to take better photos. Auto ISO can be helpful at times, but the manual mode is by far the best shooting mode and the one that gives you complete creative freedom.
With the manual mode, you can not only control the depth of field of your images, but also the ambient exposure and the overall mood of your images. In difficult lighting situations, you would find it extremely useful to use the manual shooting mode instead of relying on automated settings.