ISO in Photography for Beginners

ISO photography

As a newcomer to photography, ISO is one of the basics of photography that you should be aware of. The other basics you should know are shutter speed and aperture. Today, we are going to focus on ISO in photography. And learn how important it is for making your photos professional. By the end, you should be ready to make your photography the best it’s ever been.

The definition of ISO

ISO is the camera setting that effectively brightens or makes your photography dark. The higher the ISO number, the brighter the picture. Pretty simple, right? Knowing ISO in photography will help you shoot images in the dark. It will also help you have more options for your aperture and shutter speed settings.

Don’t be too confident changing your ISO settings just yet, though. Remember to take into account that a high ISO will equate in grainy, noisy photos. Going too high with the number will result in unusable photos. That being said, try to raise your ISO in your photography when you can’t brighten your photo using aperture or shutter speed. You might notice your photo subject is blurry with longer shutter speed. If that’s the case, you should be looking at your ISO.

What does ISO stand for in photography?

ISO means International Organization for Standardization. Not to be confused with the actual organization. Originally, ISO was referred to as film sensitivity. To clear things up, in 1974, two film standards (ASA and DIN) came together to create ISO standards. Because of the combination, the name was changed to ISO. Digital camera manufacturers adopted the term in order to maintain close brightness levels to film.

ISO values

Sometimes called ISO speeds, the common settings are as follows:

  • ISO 100 (low ISO)
  • ISO 200
  • ISO 400
  • ISO 800
  • ISO 1600
  • ISO 3200
  • ISO 6400 (high ISO)

Starting at the lowest ISO speed, you are getting a smaller amount of brightness. Once you double the ISO, you’re doubling your brightness in your photography. Each number above is double the brightness. 100 to 200 to 400, etc.

Learning base ISO for photography

Your base ISO on your camera settings is your lowest ISO settings. The base ISO is going to give you the least noise and the highest of photo quality. On newer digital cameras, you’ll often see an ISO base of 100. Older DSLRs usually have a base ISP of 200. The rule of thumb is to use your base ISO for the best quality in photography. If you’re in darker lighting environments, start going higher with your ISO. Go high until you find your best image brightness with low noise or grain. Pro tip: try avoiding any “HI” or “LO” settings for your ISO. Many newer cameras have these extended settings. You won’t get any better photos by using them. So, it’s best to forget about those altogether.

Setting ISO correctly

To change ISO, you might have different settings depending on the camera you use. Most will let you change the mode by choosing the ISO. You want to go to Manual>Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Program to get out of Auto and change it yourself.

Entry-level DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras will let you open a menu or quick menu to find the ISO setting of your choice.

More expensive cameras may have a solo ISO button on the camera itself. You’re going to press the button while you spin the wheel, changing the ISO number. And some cameras may have their ISO setting marked specifically. Check your owner’s manual for more information. This is something you will want to learn before you go out shooting your camera.

What ISO is best for your photography?

Not sure which ISO for your photography is best? It depends. For instance, you’re going to want to use the lowest ISO, the base ISO (100-200), most times. That’s going to be your best best when you have the right amount of light and you don’t want any noise at all. For low light environments, when the lighting is low, use a low ISO if possible. Set your camera on a tripod, and use a low ISO while using long shutter speed. The camera will be still, and able to get the best picture without noise this way. Any movement of the camera with a long shutter speed will make your subjects look like a ghost.

Sometimes, you will have to use high ISO. It will often come between using a longer shutter speed with a low ISO (often blurry) or high ISO with some noise (hopefully not a lot). If it comes between the two, and you can’t sit your camera still enough, a higher ISO will be right for you. If you have an Auto ISO setting, it will automatically adjust to low light settings, so it’s best to stick with that. Sometimes, the camera will start using longer shutter speeds. So, just be aware of the blare.

How to minimize noise with the best image quality

Many photographers believe it is important to only use the base ISO all the time. Though, sometimes you will not have a choice. This is true if the light is low for your photography. I only use base ISO if I have enough light. If not, I get my handy tripod out and mount my camera to it with the longer shutter speed. So, if you’re taking photos where there might be a certain amount of movement, a higher ISO is for you. That way, your image won’t turn out blurry.

For the best image quality, I first select the aperture setting for my depth of field. Then, I set my ISO, then change my shutter speed for the right amount of exposure. If I find my subject moving or blurry, I’ll slowly move my ISO past the base until I stop getting the dreaded blur. If everything is still, I keep the ISO down for minimal noise or graininess. I’ll then open the aperture up. Though, it will mean the depth of field might change.