Have you ever noticed that your photos seem to look grainy, noisy, or pixilated?! Today, we’re breaking down the reasons why!

I totally get it, I’ve been there, and it’s frustrating! You see all these pretty photos everywhere and they look so nice!  The colors pop and they are simply beautiful and “clean” looking.  But for some reason, your photos always come out grainy and lack color and vibrancy. This begs the question, “why are my photos always grainy?”

Well…it’s your lucky day, because I am going to not only tell you the exact answer you need, but also give a super awesome tips that’ll help you have great looking and clean photos (even when shooting in less than ideal conditions). Let’s get down to business and answer your question!

The Problem Child – ISO

Perhaps I shouldn’t divulge the answer too quick or you might leave, but I am a “to-the-point” kinda guy. ISO is the culprit here. Are you familiar with what ISO and what it does exactly?  If not, skip over here to my tutorial on understanding ISO and then jump on back.

Just as a friendly reminder, here is a excerpt from my understanding ISO tutorial:

ISO (or ASA) is a term originating from the film photography days which referred to film sensitivity to light.  The lower ISO film number (100,200,400 etc…) the lower film grain or noise one would get on their final image.  The exact same idea applied today, in the digital world. The only difference is, instead of light sensitivity of the film, it is how sensitive to light the camera’s imaging sensor is.

So the key to understand is ISO simply is a reference, and unit of measure, as to how “sensitive” your cameras sensor is to light. The lower the number, the more light and the less grain. The higher the number, the less light, and more grain!

Since ISO plays a vital role within the exposure triangle (how aperture, shutter speed and ISO interact with each other to make each exposure), your “proper” ISO setting will change based upon many factors. However, one thing is certain, the higher the ISO number, the more grainy your photos will become.

In addition, your photos will not only have more grain than you want, but your photos will also have less dynamic range as the ISO is higher.

…But one thing is certain – the higher the ISO number, the more grainy your photos will become.  

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To capture the above photo on the dark party bus I had to use ISO 8063 at f/1.8 and 1/200th

Why Not Always Use the Lowest ISO?

The most common thought would be to simply always shoot with the lowest ISO setting. This would minimize grain in your photos. While that is actually true and a great strategy, you have to keep in mind that there will be times when you “need” to raise your ISO. If some unwanted grain comes along with it then so be it!

Here are two real life examples so you can see how I handle my ISO…

Scenario 1:

An outdoor wedding with plenty of daylight. Lots of sun and daylight means I am getting plenty of light through my lens and into the sensor. This means I’ll be using fast shutter speeds (to prevent overexposure) and I can and should keep my ISO as low as possible (like ISO 100).  This will give me the greatest dynamic range, which is the range of tonality in an image. It will also produce the best color in the photo. It will also virtually be completely free of any grain.

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The photo above: ISO 100, f/4.o, Shutter Speed 1/1600th

Scenario 2:

A wedding sparkler bride and groom exit at night outside and choosing to shoot with no flash. With this scenario, I have no light except from the ambient lighting from the sparklers. The first thing that pops in my head (and should pop into yours too) is the need to have a fast enough shutter speed to prevent a blurry photo.  As soon as you ever think of needing a fast enough shutter speed to prevent blurry photos, and you aren’t using flash, you need to automatically know that your going to need to raise your ISO. You’ll also need to shoot at as wide of an aperture as possible to allow in as much light as you can to the camera sensor.

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Photo above: ISO 6400, f/2.0, 1/200th

From these two examples, you can now understand that selecting your ISO will always change depending on the situation you are in.

Always keep this in mind: Use the lowest ISO required to get you a fast enough shutter speed.

The High ISO Reducing Grain Trick!

Sometimes you are going to have to shoot at really high ISOs and we have to learn to deal with it.  But when you do, one trick to keep in mind is to slightly overexpose the photo in your camera while shooting and that will drastically reduce the amount of grain you will see.  The reason why is that grain is more pronounced in the darker, shadow areas of a photo. If you underexpose in camera and then correct in Lightroom when editing you will actually introduce more grain, whereas if you do the opposite and overexpose by a tad you will effectively reduce some of the noise and grain.  Give this trick and you’ll see what I mean.

My Checklist for Minimizing Grain in Your Photos

Now that we know WHAT causes grain in your photos I want to give you a checklist of HOW you can minimize or even correct grain in your photos after the fact.

  • Lower ISO = less grain
  • When shooting at higher ISOs, slightly overexpose in camera.
  • Understand that while editing the photos, raising the shadows or increasing the exposure to a photo can introduce or even magnify grain.
  • Within Lightroom, in the develop module, utilize the Noise Reduction sliders to quickly and easily reduce visible grain.

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