Understanding Your Camera's ISO Control

A few weeks ago, I wrote that photography is often called "painting with light." In response, a reader asked me what you do when there isn't any--light, that is. Well, unless you're shooting inside a closet or at the bottom of a mineshaft, there's always some light around. Your job as a photographer is often to make the most of whatever light you have access to. I've explained how to get the best results with your flash, but there's a way to maximize the natural light in your scene as well: Using your camera's ISO control.

ISO in a Nutshell

I get a lot of questions about ISO--many photographers don't seem to understand exactly what it does. Your camera's ISO control determines how sensitive the camera's sensor is to light. On most cameras, ISO starts at 100 and goes up from there; the higher the number, the more sensitive the sensor will be.

Of course, that begs the question: Why wouldn't you always just leave the ISO as high as it can go all the time?

That's because ISO is a bit of a mixed bag. Higher ISO values give your camera a better light response, so you can take sharper photos with shorter shutter speeds in low light, but this comes at the expense of more digital noise in your photo. On the same camera, a picture captured at ISO 800 will tend to look noisier--random pixels that resemble grain on an old film camera or static on a television screen--than a photo shot at ISO 100. On the left is an enlarged detail of a photo taken at ISO 1000. Notice the rough, sandpaper-like quality of everything in the scene, including the wall and the girl's complexion.

Use ISO Strategically

It's a good idea to always shoot with the lowest possible ISO you can get away with. On many cameras, that means dialing in ISO 100 and leaving it there unless you have a good reason to increase it.

What kinds of reasons? Imagine you're outdoors late in the day trying to take some photos and your flash won't illuminate the scene because it's too large or far away. In that case, crank up the ISO until the camera stops giving you a slow shutter warning. I'd suggest going with the lowest ISO that'll give you a satisfactory photo in order to avoid introducing too much noise in the image. But don't fret too much about this: It's a lot better to capture a sharp photo with some noise in it than a shaky photo that was shot too slow for the available light.

You might also be able to rely on your camera's Auto ISO setting. Check your camera's user guide for details. On many cameras, you can set the ISO to Auto and it'll dial the ISO up and down on its own when you shoot in certain modes (like Automatic exposure mode). I'm not a huge fan of Auto ISO because I don't know exactly what the camera is doing, but it's a convenient way to ensure you get the sharpest results without sweating over the settings.

ISO Math

It's also worth pointing out what the ISO numbers mean. What, for example, is the difference between ISO 100 and ISO 200? Thankfully, cameras use a fairly consistent set of conventions, so that doubling the ISO doubles the light sensitivity. So in this sense, ISO is like shutter speed or aperture. If you go from ISO 100 to ISO 400, that's two stops of exposure change (doubled and then doubled again), so that's equivalent to changing the shutter speed from 1/60 second to 1/15 second.

Put another way, suppose your camera is currently trying to take a photo at a shutter speed of 1/15 second at an ISO of 100. Change the ISO to 400, and the camera will now be able to take the same photo at 1/60 second, which is probably good enough to take a sharp photo. Change the ISO to 800, and the shutter speed will be 1/125 second.

ISOs Go Really High Now

I'm old enough to remember when an ISO of 800 was very aggressive and 1600 was all but unheard of. These days, the party has barely started at ISO 1600. Camera manufacturers have made dramatic improvements in sensor technology in just the past few years, and these days many cameras come with ISOs as high as 12,800. That's a range of 7 stops, and it gives you incredible freedom to freeze the action with a fast shutter speed in extremely dim settings. There are cameras that offer even higher ISO--the Nikon D3s, for example, goes as high as 102,400, which is ten stops of exposure control. Of course, you will see a significant amount of noise at those stratospheric ISOs, so if you use them, it pays to use some noise reduction software.

Cutting Down on Noise

Many photo editing programs, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel Paint Shop Pro, have a nose reduction filter that cam significantly reduce the stray pixels of noise you get when shooting at a high ISO. Remember the noisy photo we saw earlier? Take a look at the photo on the right, after it met a noise reduction filter.

You can find a noise reduction tool in Photoshop Elements. Choose Filter, Noise, Reduce Noise.

That said, you'll get better results with a program that's designed specifically to eliminate noise. My favorites--and ones I've recommended many times before--are Noiseware and Noise Ninja.

There's a free version of Noiseware called Noiseware Community Edition, which is a great starter tool, but be aware that the program limits your photos to a JPEG quality level of 90 percent. Give it a shot, and if you like it, purchase the commercial version of Noiseware for about $50.

I like Noise Ninja even more, and in fact Noise Ninja is considered the gold standard by many photographers. It is built into the new, excellent Corel AfterShot Pro photo editing program, in fact. A Noise Ninja license costs about $35 and lets you apply a custom noise profile to your photos based on your specific camera, so it can remove noise in an extremely accurate and detailed way. If you shoot a lot of high ISO photos, definitely check out Noise Ninja.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Great news! For a limited time (from March 1 till August 31, 2012), Hot Pic of the Week winners will receive one free downloadable copy of Corel PaintShop Pro X4.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Signal Mountain Milky Way" by Mike Keller, Towson, Maryland

Mike says: "I shot this in the Grand Teton National Park around 10 p.m. in pitch black. I intended to capture the Tetons at under the Milky Way, but this turned out to be more complicated than I expected--not only was it so cold that I had to wear gloves when I wasn't adjusting the camera, but I had to work under a dark blanket in the middle of the night. Luckily, my wife had a little flashlight with her, otherwise, I probably wouldn't have been able to get this image. I shot the picture with a Canon EOS D50 with a 30 sec exposure at f/4 and ISO 2500. I made a few minor adjustments with Photoshop CS4--mainly, I eliminated a little noise in the sky and altered the composition."

This week's runner-up: "Tower Theater" by Chris Opfell, Calabasas, California

Ryan writes: "I took this photo of the marquee of the shuttered Tower Theater in downtown Los Angeles. I used a Canon S90."

To see last month's winners, visit our February Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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