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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Photography 101 {selecting ISO}

So why get off the green auto setting at all, you ask?  Ok, I know you didn't ask, but humor me!  The best reason is because manual settings, and even partial manual settings like Av and Tv, will produce better photographs in the long run and allow you to capture the image you envision.  And because you (or someone you love) paid a small chunk of change for that DSLR, and it would be a shame not to use to it's fullest (or fuller?) extent.  

ISO is a good place to start, mostly because it's kinda quick and easy.  And lazy me is likely to do things that are quick and easy.  ISO basically, is how sensitive your film is to light.  Lower ISOs, like 100 and 200 aren't as sensitive and thus are used in bright light situations.   The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light and thus a camera can "take in" and record more light in darker situations.  So a higher ISO is one thing that will allow you to take photos in lower light situations. 
A really high of ISO 6400 - Tess sleeping
The room was pitch black with the exception of the light from the screen on my cell phone that I used to light up Tess's face.  Still with a high ISO, the meter was sensitive enough to take in enough light to record a good image.  
Personally, ISO is the first thing I set on my camera.  On both my Canon Rebel and my new 5D, there is a separate "ISO" button making it easy to set the ISO.  Depending on your camera, you'll have more or fewer possibilities for choosing an ISO.  But generally speaking on most cameras the lowest ISO is 100 and goes  up from there.    

So let's get specific.
#1 - a beginner's guide with some general guidelines to setting your ISO 
ISO of 100   outside/bright direct sunlight
           200    outside/bright indirect light
           400    outside/overcast or inside/bright light
           800+  inside/poorly lit or dark situations
ISO 200 -  Silly girls! 
We were outside in good  indirect light.  But no direct sunshine as we were in the shade.  
So why not just set your ISO high all the time?  So glad you asked!  There's a cost for increasing your ISO.  The higher your ISO the more "digital noise" or "grain" you'll get in your photos, and poorer quality of image you'll end up with.  How much noise/grain you'll see depends on your camera.  You probably won't see this grain on the LCD screen when you're taking the photos, but you will likely notice it later on your computer screen when editing or when the images are printed.  So the second guideline when selecting your ISO is

#2 You should always select the lowest ISO possible given your lighting situation.
ISO 100 - Liv at the Great Wall of China
It was overcast, but there was some sunlight coming through the clouds and snow is very reflective, so light was abundant.   Thus I was able to  get away with an ISO of 100 and have better quality image.  
So it's a balancing act when choosing your ISO.  You'll want to select one high enough for your lighting conditions, but low enough to get the best quality photo.   In short, set your ISO as low as you can, given the lighting conditions.  

There will be a new poll in the next couple days.  If you have any suggestions for future topics of Photography 101 posts, please comment.  I'll see if y'all have any suggestions before I post the next one.


  1. Thank you Nancy...once again, something I desperately needed to know. Been trying to do allot of reading online but nothing is as clear as the way you put it.

  2. Thank you. I am one of those who wanted the DSLR and the family spent the change on it for me as a gift....and I have no idea what to do with it. I've taken it off auto, yes, though I have no idea what I'm doing. Aperture, ISO...what?!

    So thank you. For me the Idiots Guide to your Camera is a good thing :)

  3. Very informative! Just have a point-n-shoot, but I can adjust ISO a bit, now that I understand the when and why. :)

  4. Another clueless wanna be awesome picture taker weighing in here. Thank you so much! You make it so easy to follow and understand!

  5. I love these lessons! I bought my camera off of Craigslist and after the exchange of money and product, the guy said to me, by the way, the manual for the camera is in spanish. The guy I purchased the camera from was from China...he couldn't use the spanish manual either. So I love your lessons because I just learned what one of my buttons on my camera is for. Keep it coming Nancy!


  6. Good primer on ISO - I remember the days when you selected the 'film' based on the light you thought you'd have - OK - to show my age - I remember the "breakthrough" of ISO 400 color film (prior to that ISO 400 meant Tri-X B&W!)

    How about one on flashes camera flash vs. attachables?

    hugs - good work - aus and co.

  7. SQUEAL.....finally someone puts photo language that my challenged brain can really grasp. THANKS!! I have a Nikon coolpix L100, so I don't have much choice but now I know how to use the buttons I DO have. Can't wait for the next lesson.

  8. Thanks for the info. I just got a new Canon Rebel after my Canon powershot hit cement (hard) and landed in the sand (while on vacation). This info. was most helpful and easy to understand. Oh and a testament to powershot still works. Gotta love Canon.

  9. Nancy,
    Thanks for the information about ISO. I typically set mine at 800 but now I know that's only for low light situations.


  10. Next time could you make one of the choices.."How to choose the right shutter speed" please!

  11. Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?

  12. Hi Anonymous---
    If you're a real person... no I don't mind at all, but thanks for tell me! Could you tell me who you are???

    IF your a pesky computer sending spam and have fooled me, I'm on to you and will send mini-ninjas via the www to you to infest your hard drive! Now if I could only figure out how to do that...


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