What’s With The ISO?

In Thoughts & Theory, Tutorials &Technique by David39 Comments


Every week, without fail, I get an email from an inquisitive mind about the EXIF data in Within The Frame, specifically the question goes like this, and I quote from yesterday morning’s email on the matter:

I noticed that in quite a lot of your photos you use high ISO even though there seems no reason to do so, for instance using ISO 800 and 1/5000 sec exposure. Wouldn’t ISO 200 and exposure 1/1250 sec give better results ? That is, less noise and higher dynamic range. Isn’t 1/1250 fast enough ? Of course the case may be that you had no special reason for this setting at a specific photo but it seems to be quite a consistent feature.

It’s a good question. Every photographer has different priorities, different ways of shooting, etc. If I were in a consistent lighting situation I’d put my camera on ISO 400 or lower, probably starting the day at ISO 200. But the thing is, I do so much shooting in mosques, temples, and dark little workshops that it’s not long before my ISO gets cranked up to 11. And by 11, of course, I mean ISO 800. And then – here’s the dirty little secret you’ve all been waiting for – I get distracted shooting, walk outside and spend an hour at ISO 800, and the resulting high shutter speeds, before I notice. Why? Because my top priorities are the settings that affect the aesthetics of the image in the way that I am most concerned about – in my case usually the aperture and resulting depth of field.

I know, I know, the ISO affects the aesthetic, but it just doesn’t affect it ways I notice or care about most of the time. My 5D and 5D/2 bodies create great looking files if you expose the image for the most amount of data and don’t try to pull much detail out of underexposed shadows, which is why I expose the way I do (HERE‘s an article on that). I don’t use Noise Ninja, never have. I’d probably benefit from it once in a blue moon, but i generally don’t have issues with noise. Nail the exposure and even at 800 the files look great to me. But like I said, we all focus on different things and some people get fixated on noise.

So the short answer – I get distracted, see something I’m excited about and chase it. Sometimes the ISO takes a while to catch up. You have to know what’s important to you. I’d rather follow my eye and my heart and get the shot than fiddle with ISO, but usually it’s not even conscious. I wish I could give you a better answer, something about string theory and reciprocity failure and the muted tones of a lower dynamic range…but mostly I just get distracted easily.


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  3. Love this story as I do the same thing being much more involved with creating than camera settings. When I discover it I say shucks but it does seem to affect the results. ….now Wb is a different story

  4. Distracted and forget to swap ISO…never. 🙂
    Shooting humanitarian photography does lead you in and out of a lot different lighting situations. Sometimes capturing the moment takes priority over fiddling with the ISO setting. Good article.

  5. With excellent photos, the subject and composition are what the majority of people notice. I don’t believe they come away noting what ISO was used above all else.

  6. Wonderful explanation to an image I love from WTF. Your ISO is like 2500 or more (sorry I’m at work and don’t have your book with me (shhhh!!)) and your shutter speed is around 4K with an aperture of 2 or something… In the previous text you talk about shooting in a mosque and then stubling upon this image of a grinning girl just outside. It’s a wonderful moment and great capture you would have missed if you were dropping your ISO. Frankly the high shutter probably also contributed to the wonderful sharp exposure. Thanks to that, I’ve given up on killing myself to keep the ISO as low as possible, and have more selects for it!

  7. Life is too short to worry about some things

    I’m glad for camera manufacturers to somehow realize they should put in auto-ISO functions and let you set you minimum shutter speed – absolute only time I turn it off is when I’m on a tripod or using studio strobes.

    And yeah, life is good because it is relatively short =]

  8. Ahhh, solidarity in numbers.

    I think this is one downside to using multiple bodies. I set one with a certain ISO (or autofocus point which is far worse), switch bodies and then come back and take an off shot.

  9. I am savoring WtF and the same question occurred to me – thanks for addressing it – good info!

  10. David, What’s the top ISO that you trust on your 5D and 5DMK2? Do you have a hard and fast rule that you stay away from particular ISOs?

    BTW, love your work. 🙂

  11. I totally agree with you about getting distracted. Im more worried about getting the shot first then the technical stuff later unless i happen to think about it right before i shoot. Most of my favorite images and some of the famous ones throughout time(unplanned ones at least) arent technically pleasing(camera shake, blurry, high noise/grain) but its the story in the image that counts.

  12. LOL, at least you don’t buy a new 150-500 lens, set it to shutter priority and then get so excited about the close-up shots at the zoo that you forget to change the shutter speed for the ENTIRE day. 🙂 Oh well, I live nearby.

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  14. Great explanation! I have a Canon Digital Rebel XTi. I notice at ISO of 800, it is fairly noisy even with the 580 EXII Speedlite flash. I know I can use noise reduction software, but my hope is to get the best photo in the first place. Would a camera such as Canon’s 7D be able to handle the higher ISO’s better (i.e. with less noise)? Thank you

  15. Thank you very much for this post. I am far from experienced and being so I always get quite annoyed when I do that same thing. “David would never do this kind of thing”, I say to myself. 🙂 I’m so glad you do. It punctuates the fact that your focus is on the aesthetics of the shot and not the perfect ISO. What a freaking relief!

  16. Huh. And here I thought I was the only experienced photographer that becomes so engrossed in the subject I forget to check the exposure settings!

  17. easily distracted: in my house we call it “Shiny Syndrome.” Life is all fine and fun until something shiny goes and grabs our attention and lures us away from focus and full thought…yeah, been there. But if it works (and evidently it does, otherwise we wouldn’t keep coming here, right) it works, yeah?

  18. All you fancy pants with auto-iso – I’d probably still select it most of the time given the choice between auto and not – I don’t shoot in any P mode either.

    Honestly I did notice some higher ISO data in David’s images but never thought to comment on it, I had actually assumed the same; forgot to change it back. I have Nik’s Dfine but have yet to have a true need to use it and playing around with Lightroom 3’s beta colour noise reduction ain’t bad either.

    Really, if there WAS a lot of noise in any of David’s images I doubt I’d notice – they’re far too powerful (the ones he shows anyways) for noise to be the first or second thing on my mind when I take a peep.

  19. Thanks for the answer. I don’t feel so bad now. I too get distracted or caught up in the excitement of the moment. I too shoot in aperture priority. I set my camera on auto ISO which uses my base ISO of 200. Then I set up the lower limit of the shutter speed, and once the shutter hits that lower limit the camera automatically starts to jack up the ISO to an upper limit which I’ve set. Usually 6400. The Nikon D700 does a great job with noise reduction, and whatever residual noise is there can be taken care of very effectively in my Dfine plugin. I once ran a test of the camera and software – I shot a series of photos in the engine room of a mothballed coast guard tender in New York Harbor. With no flash, I used an ISO of 25,600. The raw images were recognizable, but far from acceptable. Then I used Dfine, and voila, a keeper. When I blew that photo up to 13×19 inches using Genuine Fractals I was amazed at the results.
    Hooray for digital technology!

  20. I really liked the honest response to this one!!

    I hate coming home to lightroom after a busy day and finding that happened 😉

  21. Its nice to see someone like yourself having the same issues that other of us amateurs have. I have done the same thing, but like you said you can still get great images that way. Ive found that as time goes on, sometimes the difference between 800 and 1600 ISO dont kill a photo, as long as youve been able to capture what it is you set out to capture

  22. David, thanks for your reply.
    Jugging by the results, your strategy seems to work. I’m afraid it will probably not work for me with my ‘very old’ D50. ISO 400 is barely acceptable and 800 is out of the question. For me the auto ISO as suggested by some of the others is the best strategy

  23. 98% of the time I shoot with auto ISO and in Aperture priority mode. The 2% of the time I do change the ISO manually, I always end up forgetting the change and shooting for hours with the wrong ISO setting. I sometimes feel like I need to tie a string around my finger when I’m shooting to pay attention to the ISO!

  24. Yep – Auto ISO is a saviour.

    Prior to my 5D/2 I wasn’t a fan as, like the person that contacted you, I kept my ISO as low as possible to keep the quality as high as I could. But on bodies like the 5D/2 you still get great images even at high ISOs.

    And who hasn’t bumped the ISO up, and then forgotten and shot something you shouldn’t have. Frustratingly I’ve got some great shots (taken with an older camera) which are very noisy as they should have been shot with a lower ISO but I’d forgotten and left it high! 🙁

  25. Like you I take a lot of pictures in souks, mosques and other dark places, and I have lost track of the number of times I have forgotten to reset the ISO. Usually though, for me, the results have been a disappointment, and I now rely more on Auto ISO.

  26. Seeing the results (and that’s the only thing that counts) your strategy is right – concentrating on the image (+histogram) brings the result, not fiddling with the menu. And to our luck, technological progress has given us cameras that allow us to be a bit sloppier now. For me, Auto-ISO is the most used automatic mode, and I don’t shy away from using ISO 1600 any more. 5000 however is a different beast, at least with my camera, the results are not that printable any more.

  27. Your right David. But it depends if you want to have big prints. ( like me for mine exhibition, people, landscape and religion 130-150) you must take care fore your iso.
    Good luck.

  28. Hey David – Thanks for the honest and straightforward answer…you da’ man. My most common “distraction” is when I crank down the f-stop to intentionally get some motion blur and then when the action changes, I forget to open back up. The lots of unintentional blurry images that follow are NOT the aesthetic that I’m going for. Doh!

  29. For me, changing the iso to anything above 100 is always the LAST resort. I set the aperture to what i need, try to get the exposure as low as possible (1/60), and then see where i come out with the iso.

    And after having read so many articles about the best way to use the histogram, I also concentrate on getting this histogram as far as possible to the right side 🙂

  30. hmmm, my reciprocity failed once… ended up stringing it up with my lower dynamic range, well in theory anyway 🙂
    Is ISO more of an issue depending on your intended end use of the file ? (eg: large print vs small web?) or as stated above – is it just not such a huge issue full stop?
    love your work David,

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