ISO is largely known in photography to be either your friend or your enemy. While high ISO values will induce grain into your photographs, is not always possible to shoot with lower ISO values handheld, therefore, in this post, I want to share with you 13 ISO tips to improve your photography.
To start with the very beginning, ISO is the “third part” of the exposure triangle, alongside the aperture and the shutter speed. Balancing those three settings, in general, will give you the right exposure for a photograph
But between all 3, the ISO is one of the most misunderstood and ignored part, which can make the most difference sometimes between a good and a terrible photograph.
1. Know when to use the auto ISO and when to use the manual ISO
In most of the cases, is easy to set the ISO on auto and forget about it. But that is a wrong approach, because one too many times, ISO will pick the wrong values when in general, the aperture or shutter speed should be adjusted instead.
During daytime or where is abundant light, you should always keep the ISO on minimum values, in general, this being ISO100. In this case, your photographs will have no grain nor image noise. Do not have the ISO on Auto mode because this will always mess with the other settings.
Remember, most of the time during daylight there is absolutely no need to increase the ISO beyond 100 unless the shutter speed drops behind a value you won’t be able to take pictures handheld
During the night, is a good approach indeed to keep the ISO on auto, but with a limit (more on the next point)
2. Set the maximum sensitivity limit of your ISO when using auto mode
Many photographers don’t do that and in this case, where the light is insufficient, the ISO can up to the maximum sensitivity set from factory. I can’t remember which one is this, and this would be different probably depending on the camera model, but is not a good thing to forget to set a maximum sensitivity for your camera.
In general, I would never recommend going beyond ISO12800, not even that much. That is an extremely high iso value and I would not recommend at all going beyond that value, no matter what camera you have, because it will induce a lot of image noise.
In this case, depending on your DSLR performance, set the auto ISO to an upper limit. The values I would recommend for night photography are between ISO1600 and ISO12800, with the balance to be found between ISO3200-6400.
Keep in mind that lower the ISO you use, lower the image noise and grain you will have in your images.
But what ISO should be the maximum used for your camera model?
It is an easy way to test this.
- Set your camera on a tripod in a dark environment, either indoors or outdoors. Would be a good approach is part of the scene would be pure black with a slightly lighted element (can be an object or a tree) In this case you can easily observe the grain and image noise.
- Next, set the ISO on manual and start taking the pictures on different ISO values. The first one ISO800, second ISO 1600, third ISO3200, forth ISO6400 and fifth ISO12800. Or you can pick more values of anything in-between
- After you captured those photos, connect your camera on a computer and copy the files. Not to do any mistakes, look on every picture data by right-clicking it>properties and see for each image what ISO was used to take it. Next, what I would do is to rename that photo with the ISO and the iso number, e.g. ISO1600.
- Visualise every single photo and study it. See where the ISO becomes too much and the image have a lot of noise and is too grainy. Remember, the grain will always look worse on darker scenes.
- After you’ve seen each photo and decided which ISO is too high, pick the one before where this is still acceptable and set your maximum sensitivity of the AUTO ISO of your camera on those values (as an instance, I never use on the NikonD750 an ISO higher than 6400 no matter what).
If your lens have VR/IS (image stabilisation) you can drop a bit the maximum ISO (but keep in mind that in this case, the aperture of your lens may not be that wide)
3. Set the minimum shutter speed of your AUTO ISO settings to a value appropriated to your lens.
Depending on the lens you use and your stability when you take handheld photographs, there is a minimum shutter speed to use in order to take sharp handheld photographs.
In this case, you can set the minimum shutter speed from the auto iso settings to this value. Wider the lens, slower the shutter speed can be. More telephoto the lens, faster the minimum shutter speed has to be in order to take handheld photographs.
As an instance, I personally found a good practice that with an 18mm lens, I can shoot handheld with a shutter speed of 1/40sec and faster, with a 35mm lens, 1/50sec, with a 50mm lens 1/50 to 1/60sec, wherewith my 105mm lens, I have to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/100 or faster.
During the night or low light photography, it may be pretty much difficult to reach those values. But now, by setting the minimum shutter speed from the auto ISO values on the appropriate value of a lens, your ISO will always increase automatically towards its max values you set in order to reach that minimum shutter speed you set.
As an instance, if I set the ISO6400 and minimum shutter speed of 1/60sec for my 50mm lens, depending on the lighting conditions, my camera will never drop below 1/60sec unless the ISO went to its maximum upper values of 6400 and still there is not enough light for a proper exposure image.
Keep in mind that the aperture will play an important role. As an instance, with my Nikkor 50mm which has an aperture of f/1.2, it would be difficult to reach those ISO high values in order to maintain my minimum shutter speed of 1/60sec, as an abundant amount of light can come into the camera sensor due to the very wide aperture.
Also, if your camera has VR/IS (image stabilisation), sometimes she shutter speed can drop to as low as 1/4sec and you are still able to capture sharp handheld photographs. In this case, always decide to drop the ISO before the shutter speed.
4. Grain and image noise can be always be masked in post-processing. But not all of it and with sacrifices.
In software like Lightroom, you can always mask the image noise and the grain resulted from high ISO settings. But remember, moving the slide from the noise reduction will soften the image. But here is a trick. You can use the sharpening and texture to recover the sharpness of the image which suffered from noise reduction.
The idea behind it is as follows:
- High ISO will induce image noise and grain. The best would be to zoom into the image and check the amount of noise and grain and also the sharpness of the image (as zoomed 1:1)
- Increase the Noise reduction areas by moving the sliders of Luminance (which is the main) and other sliders such as contrast, colour, details etc. See in your case which settings will relatively reduce the noise and grain with the lowest costs of sharpness.
- Furthermore to this, now is time to slide up the Sharpening (and to mask it a bit if possible), also texture would play a good role to recover the sharpness/texture of your objects or scene in focus.
As you finalise this, compare the original image with the one where we applied noise reduction and sharpening. If the new image would have good sharpness or the loss of sharpness is acceptable and well balanced with the noise reduction, you did a very good job. If not, play a bit more with the sliders from the Sharpness or nose reduction and see which areas can be improved.
5. Find a sweet spot to “trick” the image noise in Lightroom
The image noise resulted from high ISO values may never be recovered in totality. But if the image noise is not that bad, you can use the image reduction and then sharpen the image as in the above process
Learning and experimenting with this process you may be able to find the “sweet spot”. What this would mean that you can shoot at some specific lower ISO values, mask the image noise and sharpen the image without any loose in the sharpness of the image but the result would be to masks almost completely the noise.
- When sharpening is used too much, the image is noticed to be over-sharpened.
- When the noise reduction is used too much, the image becomes too soft and when applying the sharpening, this will be noticeable.
But when shooting at lower ISO settings and you find this spot in between, you can always use the “free ISO no noise card”
6. Sometimes, you have to manually set your ISO to specific values.
No, in this case, is not ISO100. And no, in this case, you cannot use AUTO ISO. I am talking About astrophotography and similar cases, where you need to put a focus on the ISO values more than any other camera settings.
In Astrophotography, you have a specific shutter speed you have to use depending on the lens you have. The aperture in most of the cases is set to widest. But the ISO is going to be the only part you need to adjust for the right lighting to be acquired from the stars, mostly depending on the actual light pollution.
Here you may have to use sometimes ISO2500, ISO3200 or ISO6400. You can never have the ISO set on auto in this case and shooting on ISO100 will simply not work.
7. Always use the lowest ISO value unless you need to increase it
If the scene you are photographing has sufficient light and you don’t really need to increase the ISO settings, then don’t.
Always consider widening the aperture of your lens or decreasing the shutter speed in order to let more light come into your camera sensor before you boost your ISO.
You must understand the fact that about every time (but this depends also on the camera ISO performance) high ISO values affect not only induce image noise and grain but also affects the sharpness of the photo.
In general, when the image is getting more noise, sharpness decreases. If you often shoot in low-light with higher ISO values, boost the sharpness from in-camera or later in the post-processing.
For beginner photographers are important that you practice and master the ISO of your camera, it’s capabilities and how to use it properly in the exposure triangle. As a photographer, you have to give it a bit more important than you gave it until now.
Depending on how well you understand and know what ISO values to use and when the ISO can be either your friend or your enemy. This is entirely up to you.
8. Always use ISO 100 on long-exposures.
Unless there is absolutely no way to control the shutter speed which may go slower than you actually need when you take a long exposure, I strongly recommend you to keep the ISO 100 on manual in this case.
If we forget the ISO on auto, this will always try to increase to its maximum value. There is no way you could take long-exposures with the ISO on auto.
When you take long exposures (of a river, light trails etc.), there is no time limit you can have your shutter open. For this reason, you should not go beyond ISO100.
9. Use ISO100 with a narrow aperture to take daylight long exposures without a filter.
In general, during the day, in order to take long exposures, you need to mount an ND filter to reduce the amount of light which comes into the camera sensor. But not always.
Sometimes, if you drop down the aperture to f/16-f/22 or any values around with an ISO of 100, in some scenes such as a waterfall in a forest, the shutter speed will drop itself to a couple of seconds, perfect for taking long exposures during the day without the need of an ND filter.
10. Never use extended ISO. Native ISO is the way to go.
Extended ISO is the ISO boosted by the camera over its practical ways. In general native ISO’s are ISO100, ISO800, ISO1600, the same ones we are used with them. Extended ISO values would be Lo1, Lo0.7, Lo0.3 or Hi0.3, Hi0.7, Hi1 etc. This would differ from camera’s models to another.
When you use the “Hi” ISO values, the image will look too much grainy and there would be too much noise for the image to be usable in any way. This would go beyond the maximum ISO your camera can support.
When you use the “Lo” ISO values, this will cost you a (specific) stop of the dynamic range. Shortly the image will have the dynamic range decreased.
Therefore, I cannot recommend more to only use the native ISO of your camera in order to have the best quality of your images.
11. Think when you need a fast shutter speed.
More than once probably you had to shoot sports, wildlife or any other action sceneries where the subject is on the move at a very fast rate. In this case, IF you are not shooting in the shutter priority mode, ISO sensitivity settings may play one of the important roles here.
The first thing which I have to mention that in sports, you need a very fast shutter speed in order to freeze the image and eliminate any sense of blur resulted from slower shutter speeds. In order to do that, you may have to raise your ISO as not always the lighting available will be enough for us to use these fast shutter speeds target values.
But the trick with increasing the ISO may not be enough. What we would need in fact is to ENSURE that we increase the minimum shutter speed to a faster rate, as such instance, not 1/60sec but 1/250sec. In this case, the ISO will increase more often automatically to reach those values, although, in shutter priority mode, the aperture is also automatically adjusting.
But why we don’t always shoot in shutter priority mode and to get over with?
Well, here is the trick. In shutter priority mode, you set your shutter speed and expect for other settings to balance automatically in order to reach that shutter speed, such as the ISO and the aperture.
But seldom, we get ISO increased first before widening the aperture to its maximum values (e.g. f/1.8), therefore, unnecessarily noise image may be induced where it should not.
In this case, as I’ve worked with this several time and had good results, I would prefer some settings as it follows for sports or fast action sceneries:
|Aperture:||Widest Values (depending on the lighting conditions)|
|ISO sensitivity settings:||Auto ISO|
|Minimum Shutter Speed:||1/250|
|Maximum ISO sensitivity:||ISO6400|
Following the above settings or settings similar as to the above ones, will allow you to have control over the aperture in sports or fast-action photography and reach a fast shutter speed, where if there is enough lighting available, you can reach it before increasing the ISO.
Keep in mind that this method is an alternative not many photographers are using instead of shutter priority mode for sports or aperture priority mode, but if you use it, establishing the right ISO settings would be crucial for the best results.
Also keep in mind that if you shoot in Aperture Priority Mode and you set the aperture to its widest values, you will have a shallow depth of field, which can also have an impact either positive or negative to your final image.
12. You can creatively use image noise
Not always the image noise or grain means a bad thing. Well, in general it does, but in some specific cases, you may want to use that in your advantage.
I am not necessarily talking about to shoot in high ISO in order to intentionally get image noise for creativity but inducing image noise or grain in post-processing although this may be not always related to high ISO settings, may give a “touch” of creativity.
This would work amazing in special if you are trying to imitate a vintage photograph.
Although I don’t do this often enough to give you more advice, I could say that you can have the best results in working your images in photoshop rather than Lightroom as more options are available for grainy/image noise. Lightroom also has a few slides to give you the basic of it.
13. Boosting underexposed images induces a lot of noise.
One of the photographer’s struggle is the dynamic range. Not necessarily talking here about underexposed photos but also photographs where we have a lot of dark shadows.
At the moment we slide up the blacks or shadows in Lightroom or any other post-processing software in order to recover the shadows and dark areas of an image, a lot of image noise is induced. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT!.
I remember not once but endless times where a good scenery photo would be ruined because of the darker darks which has to be recovered. I’ve learned my lesson. Well, as a pure informative solution, in order to do that we may have two options here.
- When shooting against a scene with a lot of dynamic range differences (e.g. bright highlights and dark shadows), I would recommend you to shoot in HDR mode. If you do this, you are able to recover the darker parts of your image without the loose of quality and to avoid image noise and grain.
- In the cases where you may not be able to shoot in HDR, what I do most of the times is to ensure I increase the EV (exposure value) in order to slightly over-expose the image (ONLY WHEN NEEDED). This will brighten up the darker areas and a lot less noise would be noticeable when post-processing. But beware, if you expose too much and the highlights are burnt into the image, there is no way at all of recovering it.
Conclusion on ISO tips to improve your photography and images
There comes the hardest part of this topic. I never have a problem writing down my knowledge and experiences in photography but always have a problem when I am about to end a post. I am always stuck at writing ‘conclusions’.
But as reflecting the ISO tips to improve your photography, only as informational advice, put a bit more pressure on ISO than you did it before. Although this is the most underrated part of the exposure triangle, sometimes, if not most of the times, ISO may play the most important role which can make a huge difference on the quality of an image.
With this, I should say thank you for remaining with us until the end of this post and if you have any question you can leave a comment in the section below and I will make sure to answer it as quickly as possible. For now, I shall say goodbye and I hope to see you around.
Take care and stay safe.
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