What is ISO in Photography? A Guide to Understanding ISO for Beginners

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If you want to know what is ISO in photography, you are in the right place. Understanding what is ISO as a beginner photographer is fundamental since it’s one of the most important camera settings. Together with aperture and shutter speed, it affects the exposure, and it can dramatically change the final look of your pictures. 

But what does ISO mean and how to use it?

Defining ISO in photography is not easy. Simplifying, we can say that it determines how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. The darker the environment you’re shooting in, the higher the ISO needs to be to make sure you have the right exposure. ISO is one of the three main elements of photography, and it’s part of the exposure triangle together with aperture and shutter speed.

But ISO also has the side effect of introducing grain (noise) in your image. We’ll see how this works in this article and how to avoid it.

Scroll to the end of the article if you want to see my recommended camera for beginners with excellent noise reduction. Or click here.

What is ISO in Photography, and how it Works?

ISO is part of the exposure triangle, and it affects the brightness and darkness of your photos.

I want to make it easier for you to understand ISO. For this reason, you have to imagine that ISO is a setting that works on its own. Instead of working together with the other two elements of the exposure triangle (aperture and shutter speed), think ISO as independent.

This way, it’s simple to say that thanks to ISO, you can take photos in dark environments. If you are in a very dark room, raising the ISO value allows the camera to capture more light. In contrast, with a low ISO value, you get a really dark image.

As I said, ISO can produce side effects. Depending on what camera you are using, very high ISO values can lead to a reduced quality of your image. Since higher ISO can introduce grain, also known as noise.

ISO and the Exposure Triangle

To make sure we don’t oversimplify things, you must know what the exposure triangle is, and how ISO plays a part in it.

In photography, the exposure triangle represents the three elements of exposure and how increasing or decreasing one of them will require changing the other two to obtain a balanced exposure.

For this reason, you have to be careful and make sure you don’t rely only on the ISO setting to balance your exposure.

In fact, ISO is only one of three main aspects of photography that will determine your exposure. The other two are Aperture and Shutter Speed and if you’re interested in learning about these two settings you can read my articles:

What Does ISO Stand for in Photography?

The International Organization for Standardization introduced ISO (also called ASA before) in old film cameras as a measurement of the film speed. The higher the “film speed”, the higher was the sensitivity of the film to light.

In modern digital cameras, both DSLRs and mirrorless, ISO is an electronic emulation of the same effect. Instead of having to change film in your camera, you rotate a dial and select the different ISO numbers available to you. 

ISO is still today commonly referred by many as changing the sensitivity of your sensor, but technically this is not entirely correct.

Yes, ISO does affect the exposure triangle, allowing your camera to capture more or less light depending on its value. Still, it doesn’t mechanically change anything inside your camera

Let me try to satisfy the most curious of you out there. I want to try and give a more technical definition of ISO definition.

Because of how a digital camera is structured internally, we can say that “ISO electronically amplifies the voltage observed at each pixel position before converting that voltage to a number. The effect of amplifying the gain of the photodetectors in the chip results in more grain in your image.”

It’s as if the light that hits the sensor is not pure light, but amplified light.

Ok, let’s see some examples.

ISO and Image Quality (Noise)

Now that you know the meaning of ISO in photography, you have to learn how to use it to obtain great photos and improve the quality of your images.

You should rely on ISO when, with the other two elements of the exposure triangle (aperture and shutter speed), you can’t achieve the exposure you want in your photograph.

In general, most people say that you should try to stick to your “base ISO” value to obtain the sharpest results.

But remember, this is not always possible.

Base ISO Definition

The “Base ISO” or “Native ISO” is the unamplified sensitivity of the camera sensor. 

The base ISO of a camera is the lowest value available, and it represents the value with which you can obtain an image with the highest quality and the least amount of noise. 

The lower the ISO value you use, the better your image quality will be in terms of noise.

  • Most cameras offer a base ISO of 100.
  • Micro Four Thirds cameras (e.g. Olympus and Panasonic) offer base ISO 200. 
  • Cameras such as the Nikon D810 or the newest D850 go down to ISO 64.

Pay attention, your camera might have a setting called extended ISO.

If you are a beginner, I recommend avoiding it. But if you want to learn more about it, this video by Tony Northrup can clarify its usage.

What ISO Should You Use

Different environments, photography styles, and situations will require choosing a different ISO value.

Please note: consider the following as simplifications of possible ISO values. Each individual style of photography would require a more in-depth discussion to evaluate all the aspects that contribute to delivering the right image quality.

ISO value for Landscape Photography

At your camera’s base ISO value, you’re not adding any gain hence no noise. For this reason for landscape photography, you’ll need to shoot at your base ISO value whenever possible. 

Shooting during the golden hour, when the light is less intense, you might need to increase your ISO to 400 or even 800 if shooting handheld.

On a tripod, you can experiment with a long exposure technique and keep your ISO to 100 and slow down the shutter speed.

ISO value for Nighttime Photography

If you’re shooting the night sky, you’ll need to use a really wide aperture. Since your image needs to be as sharp as possible, this is one of those cases where it’s easy to understand that you can’t rely only on ISO.

Increasing the ISO at its max will unnecessarily degrade your image, introducing noise. A long exposure is needed (slow shutter speed) to make sure your camera captures enough light without relying only on ISO.

Without going too much into the details of night sky photography, it’s enough to say that, in this scenario, you need to try and for example, start from an ISO value of 800

Depending on your camera, you will need to increase it until you see that the night sky is visible, and your photo is correctly exposed. 

Lastly, note that a full-frame camera will give you best results introducing less noise at high ISO.

For more details on how to take photos of the night sky, I love the simplicity of this article on Digital Photography School. Find it here.

ISO value for Portrait Photography

In portrait photography, you have to keep into account that people move when they are photographed. Their facial expression changes, their posture, their pose changes as well, and this is especially true if you’re photographing kids.

For this reason, you need to use a fast shutter speed to avoid introducing motion blur. Remember the exposure triangle described above. If you keep the aperture constant, the only way to get a fast shutter speed is to increase your ISO. Start from ISO 100, and depending on the light conditions, increase it to ISO 400 and check the results.

Darker conditions will require higher ISO or a proper light setting.

ISO value for Street Photography

The ISO settings in street photography follow a similar reasoning as portrait photography. To avoid motion blur, start from base ISO (100 or 200) and increase it as needed depending on the environment and light conditions. 

Usually, narrow streets are darker even during the day, start from ISO 400 in this case.

Don’t forget that motion blur can be a feature of your photo. To add this artistic touch, shoot in low light, and keep your ISO low. If you shoot in aperture priority, the camera will increase the shutter speed, introducing motion blur in moving subjects. 

ISO value for Wildlife Photography

As we’ve seen for street and portrait photography, your subjects will move. Animals are the most unpredictable and fascinating subjects. Think of birds or any fast animals.

To get the best light is often recommended to shoot during the golden hour, and some wild animals tend to show up right at that time of the day! As you now know, if you don’t want motion blur, you need to increase your ISO and keep the shutter speed low.

Start from ISO 1000 and increase or decrease as needed. Always find the right balance between the noise introduced and the presence or not of motion blur.

Beginner Camera With Excellent Noise Reduction

Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Digital Camera 24.3 MP SLR Camera with 3.0-Inch LCD - Body Only (Black)
  • 24 MP APS-C CMOS sensor ISO 100-25600 and Focus Sensitivity Range :EV 0 to EV 20 (at ISO 100 equivalent with F28 lens attached)
  • Operating temperature:32-104°F / 0-40°C.Hybrid AF with 179-point focal plane phase-detection and 25 contrast detect points Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC
  • Up to 11 FPS continious shooting, Compatible OS:Windows Vista SP2*8, Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8, Windows 81, Mac OS X (v106-v109)
  • 3-inch tilting LCD with 921,000 dotsCompatible with Sony E Mount lenses
  • OLED electronic viewfinder with 100% coverage and 14 million dots

At the time I’m writing this article I’m deciding to buy a third camera and I’m doing a lot of research.

I don’t want to spend a lot and I’ve been reading a lot about this relatively old camera since I’m considering buying it. For its price, it has a lot to offer and I’m recommending it here because it has fantastic noise reduction.

The noise reduction setting of the Sony a6000 can also be adjusted to keep as much detail as possible in your image. I can’t believe how reasonably priced it is on Amazon. For slightly more than $500, you’ll also bring home a 16-50mm lens. You can find it at this link Sony a6000.


Conclusion

Have fun experimenting with different ISO values on the field and see how the brightness of your image will change. Make sure you keep the correct balance in your exposure triangle and feel free to post your questions in the comments below if you need help understanding these concepts.

Pinterest Image, Understanding ISO

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