Chapter 4: What Is ISO? – The Ultimate Beginners Photography Guide

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Welcome to the fourth chapter of Free Online Photography Course – The Ultimate Beginners Photography Guide.

As I mentioned in Chapter 1: Introduction To Photography there are three most important and fundamental camera settings every photographer should know. One of which is ISO and the other two are Shutter Speed and Aperture.

In the previous Chapter 2: What Is Shutter Speed? – The Ultimate Beginners Photography Guide and Chapter 3: What Is Aperture? – The Ultimate Beginners Photography Guide we covered everything about Shutter speed and Aperture. So, in this Chapter 4 you may already know by looking at the heading of this article that we will go in depth detailed information on ISO. Now, let’s get started.

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Table Of Contents For Chapter 4

  • What Is ISO?
  • What Does ISO Stands For?
  • Relation Between ISO And Exposure.
  • Relation Between ISO And Noise.
  • What Is Base ISO?
  • When To Use High ISO And Low ISO?
  • What Effects Does ISO Have On Your Photograph?
  • How To Set Or Change ISO?
  • Relation Between ISO And Different Cameras.
  • Summary Of Chapter 4
  • Self Assessment Questions (SAQ’s)

What Is ISO?

ISO is one of the three fundamental settings of the photography that helps you control the overall exposure, along with shutter speed and aperture, that you can adjust when capturing a photo. In more professional terms ISO is one setting of your exposure triangle (Chapter 5) in photography, the other two being shutter speed and aperture.

ISO is basically used to brighten or darken your photo by increasing and decreasing it, which is something you might adjust for technical or artistic reasons. By using ISO you can be flexible with the other two camera settings of an exposure triangle (Chapter 5) which will give you more control over the effects of shutter speed and aperture on your photograph.

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What Does ISO Stands For?

The term ISO stands for “International Organization for Standardization”. However, camera ISO does not directly refer to the organization that creates various technology and product standards. Ever since two film standards called ASA and DIN were combined into ISO standards in 1974 (later revised for both film and digital photography), they were referred to as one word “ISO” from that point on.

Although ISO initially defined only film sensitivity, it was later adopted by digital camera manufacturers with the purpose of maintaining similar brightness levels as film.

Relation Between ISO And Exposure

ISO does not directly effects your exposure but it is more accurate to say that ISO is like a mapping to tell your camera how bright the output photo should be, given a particular input exposure.

Although, ISO may not effect the exposure of photograph directly, it is used to brighten the photo that you have already captured, it is shutter shutter speed and aperture which by physically capturing light brightens up your photo.

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You can brighten the photo you have already taken by increasing and decreasing your ISO. Image with high ISO will be brighter than image with lower ISO. Again, ISO does not directly effect your photo. Here, is an example of image capture at high ISO and low ISO:

Image Captured at ISO100.
Image captured at ISO 500. As you can see this photo is brighter than the above image which was captured at ISO100.

Relation Between ISO And Noise

There are many effects of ISO on your photograph one of which is exposure and the other is Noise. Noise which is also referred as grains (film grains in post production) is one of the effects of ISO. Capturing photos at high ISO will have more noise as compared to capturing photos at low ISO. Below image comparison is an example of it:

Left Image ISO 50 Right Image ISO 400. (Zoomed in)

The amount of difference in noise is clear, the image captured at ISO 400 when zoomed in you can see more noise than the image captured at ISO 50 which has less to no noise.

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You might think why even use high ISO, the answer is it is not possible to shoot at low ISO everytime. For example: Night photography or low light photography you have to bump up the ISO but it is also not impossible. Below image is an example of it:

Image captured at ISO 160.

Now, how to capture withot getting noise or how to capture a great low light photo with low ISO. Stay tuned for a seperate chapters dedicated to those two topics in this free online photography course where I will give you detailed information and how to achieve it. Until then, let’s get to our next topic of chapter 4.

What Is Base ISO?

The lowest ISO that a camera provides is the base ISO of the camera. Every camera has a different base ISO. Some older DSLR’s and some modern mirrorless cameras such as FujiFilm X-T2, have a base ISO of 200 whereas the other modern mirrorless cameras such as Sony Alpha 6600 have a base ISO of 100. Optimally, you should always try to stick to the base ISO to get the highest image quality. However, it is not always possible to do so, especially when working in low-light conditions as mentioned above.

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When To Use High ISO And Low ISO?

You might be thinking the the answer for this question is easy, that use high ISO when shooting in low ligh or night and use low ISO when shooting in bright light or daylight. Well, you are not wrong but it is also always not true. Now, let me explain why?

There are times when you have to shoot at minimum aperture or fast shutter speed and in some cases both. So, in those times you have to use high ISO regardless of bright daylight. The below image is an example of it?

Photograph Settings: 1/500s shutter speed, F/6.3 aperture, ISO 2000.

As you can see in the above image, this image was captured at ISO 2000 which is considered as a high ISO in bright daylight. This photo needed high ISO value such because the birds where flying too fast so it was shot at fast shutter speed 1/500s and the image needed to be sharp so it was shot at f/6.3 so if you would use low ISO in this kind of situations your image will be dark and underexposed.

Below image is an example of using low ISO even at low light photography, in this case it is a long exposure photography:

Image settings: Aperture f/22.0, Shutter speed 639s, ISO 100.

As you can in the above image, it was taken at night and still shot at ISO 100, which is considered as very low ISO at night and also it is considered low even in a bright daylight. As you can see it was shot at 639 second shutter speed which is around over 10 minutes and because of it the camera already had too much light coming in through the lens that is why the ISO had to be low.

So, the bottom line is that using high and low ISO depends on the situation you are shooting in and especially depends on the other two settings of exposure triangle (Chapter 5) which is  Shutter speed and Aperture and your ISO being one of the setting.

If you want to learn more about low light photography and long exposure photography stay stuned as I will be posting chapter totally dadicated to those topic and my next chapter 5 would be on exposure triangle.

What Effects Does ISO Have On Your Photograph?

As I mentioned earlier that ISO has many different effects on your photograph. Two of which is exposure and noise which I have already explained in the above topics. They are the two major effects ISO does to your photograph besides that there are many more such as overall image quality and dynamic range which is also an important effect of ISO.

Now What is Dynamic Range? In photography, the “dynamic range” is the difference between the darkest and lightest tones in an image, generally pure black and pure white.

When you shoot at low ISO your photograph will have high dynamic range and when you shoot at high ISO your photography will have low dynamic range. Remember, the difference of loosing dynamic range will depend on what camera you are using.

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How To Set Or Change ISO?

Now that you have learnt everything you need to know about ISO, let’s take a look ate how to change or set ISO?

Changing ISO varies from camera to camera. Here are some common ways to change ISO:

  • To start, enter a mode that lets you select the ISO yourself. Get out of Auto mode, and go to Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Program.
  • For entry-level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, you probably need to open a menu (possibly the “quick menu”) and find the section for ISO. Select the value you want, or set it to Auto.
  • For higher-end cameras, there may be a dedicated “ISO” button on the camera. Press it while spinning one of the wheels to change your ISO setting. If you don’t see a button labeled “ISO”, it is still possible that your camera will let you program one to perform this task.
  • Other cameras may have a dedicated wheel that already has various ISO settings marked. This makes things even easier.

Check your camera manual if you still aren’t sure. However, it is worth being very familiar with how to change your ISO setting quickly, since it’s something you will likely be adjusting quite often, especially if you shoot in low light conditions without a tripod or flash.

Below image is an example of a camera with a dedicated ISO dial:

Example of camera with a dedicated ISO Dial.

Relation Between ISO And Different Cameras

This is a bonus topic for all of you who are a beginner photographer. The effects of ISO will differ in different cameras. What I mean by that is ISO will have different effects on different cameras and the performance and image quality at different ISO will be different camera.

Some cameras are very good at low light performance such as Sony A6000 series and Sony A7, A7s and A7r series so basically I am saying that the sony cameras are usually better at low light performance which means the image quality will be not too much bad at high ISO.

There are many other cameras which also has good low light performance and there are also many cameras who has terrible low light performance and also the dynamic range at different ISO will also differ on different cameras.

My recommendation to you as a beginner photographer would be do not go into too much details any camera is capable of taking good pictures just choose the one which fits your budget and fulfil your needs.

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Summary Of Chapter 4

ISO is one of the three fundamental settings of the photography that helps you control the overall exposure, along with shutter speed and aperture, that you can adjust when capturing a photo. ISO is basically used to brighten or darken your photo by increasing and decreasing it. The term ISO stands for “International Organization for Standardization”

Image with high ISO will be brighter than image with lower ISO. Capturing photos at high ISO will have more noise as compared to capturing photos at low ISO. ISO can also effect the dynamic range of your photo, with high ISO low dynamic range and with low ISO high dynamic range.

Self Assessment Questions (SAQ’)

  1. What is ISO?
  2. Effects Of ISO on your photography?
  3. Effect of ISO on noise?
  4. High ISO will result in darker image. (True or false)
  5. Low ISO will have high dynamic range. (True or false)

This is the end of Chapter 4: What Is ISO? of the Free Online Photography Course – The Ultimate Beginner Photography Guide. You can subscribe to The Black Light Studios website to stay tuned and get notifications on the upcoming chapters. In the mean time you can check my other posts on this website.

This is it for this post. Thank You! for visiting The Black Light Studios, I hope you find this article helpful to you and got the information you were looking for. Stay tuned for more posts like these by subscribing to The Black Light Studios website. If you have any suggestion or feedback comment down below or contact us through the contact form via contact menu.

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