All About ISO

In the early days of film photography, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defined a standard to determine how sensitive the film was to light. This was known as the ISO speed. It is still relevent in digital photography today – the ISO equivalent speed is still a measure of how sensitive the CCD inside the camera is – and thus how quickly it will capture the image it “sees” through the lens.

ISO speeds normally follow the pattern: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600. A “slow” ISO speed is at the lower end, ISO 25, 50 etc. A “fast” ISO speed would be 800 or 1600. Most digital compact cameras work in the 100-400 range, although some go higher. Most digital SLRs will work in 100-1600, and some can even cope with 50-3200.

What does this mean for your pictures? Here are some advantages and disadvantages of two extremes of the ISO range:

ISO 100

  • Best in sunny conditions outdoors
  • Gives good colour saturation
  • Best at recording high-contast scenes
  • Images have good definition (sharpness)
  • Shadows and highlights reproduced in good quality
  • File size (for JPGs) will be lower – more images on a memory card
  • Leads to slower shutter speeds – can cause camera shake (blur)

[ISO100 – there is good colour saturation and sharpness in the picture]

ISO 1600

  • Best in dim conditions – overcast days or indoors without flash
  • Gives reduced colour saturation
  • Best at recording low-contrast scenes
  • Images have reduced definition (sharpness)
  • Shadow areas likely to suffer from ISO “noise”
  • File size (for JPGs) will be higher – fewer images on a memory card
  • Leads to higher shutter speeds – often avoiding blurry pictures

[ISO1600 – there is less colour saturation and sharpness in the picture]

In the above images, I have not done anything to alter the quality apart from cropping and resizing for the web. But this doesn’t show the full story – here’s a full-size comparision between the photos – showing the centre portion round the doorway:

[Left, ISO100 – good quality, colours and sharpness. Right, ISO1600 showing poor shadow detail and lots of “ISO noise”]

Of course, these effects go gradually from one end to the other as you go through 200, 400 and 800. It’s always a trade-off between being able to take (any) picture (in dim conditions) and the technical quality that will result from using a high ISO speed. And the beauty of digital is that you can change the setting from one shot to the next if you need to – in the days of film, you were stuck with it for the whole roll!

So, if your camera will let you set the ISO speed manually, why not have a go at experimenting with different speeds next time you are out shooting? You will then learn what gives you the best results in various lighting conditions.

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