ISO Friend or Foe?

by Adam Pawlak February. 03, 2018 658 views
Nikon D3100, ISO 6400.  JPEG image straight out of the camera (cropped only).

Nikon D3100, ISO 6400. JPEG image straight out of the camera (cropped only).

Are you still using ISO limits from three cameras ago? Or maybe you follow limits that you read about on some blog post, article or YouTube video?

If you are, chances are these values are WAY too low. You may be crippling the output from your camera.

High ISO performance is probably the greatest area of improvement in digital photography in the last several years. Yet it amazes me how low people continue to set their ISO limits, and how many experts continue to recommend such low settings.

I must admit I was guilty of this too. I learned to shoot on an old small sensor point and shoot super zoom camera, a Canon S5 IS. I loved that camera, but I learned quickly that as the ISO started to creep up, the image quality went downhill. ISO was definitely a foe here.

So when I got my Nikon D3100, I initially stuck with the same ISO limits I had been using on the S5. I had too many other things to learn.

Then one day I was shooting in constantly changing lighting conditions, and I got tired of fiddling with the ISO, so I just set it to the maximum upper limit. I was quite surprised how good many of my shots came out at ISO values higher than I would have ever considered using. I have left it on full auto ever since.

Warning: Potentially very boring images ahead, but I trust you can handle it. They are just test shots I have taken in the past.

Image 2: Nikon D7500, ISO 8000, JPEG straight out of the camera

Image 2: Nikon D7500, ISO 8000, JPEG straight out of the camera

Now one popular strategy is to purposely keep your ISO low, shoot in RAW format and then brighten it up in post processing later. Many do this to avoid the grain or noise level that increases as ISO rises. Let us take a look at an example of this:

Image 3: Nikon D3300.  Left image is a straight out of the camera JPEG shot at ISO 8000.  Center image is a shot taken in RAW at ISO 800 and processed in Lightroom.  Right image is that same RAW file processed in Affinity Photo.

Image 3: Nikon D3300. Left image is a straight out of the camera JPEG shot at ISO 8000. Center image is a shot taken in RAW at ISO 800 and processed in Lightroom. Right image is that same RAW file processed in Affinity Photo.

Ok so yes, you can keep the ISO down and edit later if you like, but I think it is important to realize this is not the only way to get decent low light images. I had to really work to get the center and right images to brighten up. With the image on the left, all I did was take the picture. My first attempts at editing did not look so good:

Image 4: Same as Image 3 except my edits center and right did not come out so well.

Image 4: Same as Image 3 except my edits center and right did not come out so well.

My point is, you are guaranteed to have to do a lot of editing if you follow the limit ISO and edit game, and this workload increases with the more images you take. If you are a working pro this editing is not a big deal (or maybe it is if you are pressed for time) but if you are a hobbyist or just an enthusiast, high ISO can be a friend and a real time saver.

And the newer your camera, the better high ISO performance it probably has.

But even with an older camera like my D3100 (which was released in 2010!), you can still push it and get usable if not great results:

Image 5: Nikon D3100, ISO 11,400  JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 5: Nikon D3100, ISO 11,400 JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 6: Nikon D3100, ISO 11,400  JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 6: Nikon D3100, ISO 11,400 JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 7: Nikon D3100, ISO 12,800 (this is the maximum ISO for this camera) JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 7: Nikon D3100, ISO 12,800 (this is the maximum ISO for this camera) JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Here are a few more images from a Nikon D7200:

Image 8: Nikon D7200, ISO 10,000 JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 8: Nikon D7200, ISO 10,000 JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 9: Nikon D7200, ISO 25,600 JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 9: Nikon D7200, ISO 25,600 JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 10: Nikon D7200, ISO 25,600 JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Image 10: Nikon D7200, ISO 25,600 JPEG image straight out of the camera.

Now you may think these images are not so great and that is fine but they are definitely usable. Most of these were shot in dim to poor (but not terrible) light. You may get varying results as your ISO level climbs and the light level drops.

So my suggestion is, if you have never shot high ISO, give it a try. You may be surprised at what you get, and you may save yourself from having to edit as much. Or at least you will have a choice not to.

You could set a moderate upper limit if you want to and just leave it there and let the camera manage the ISO up to that limit. Or you can set your ISO limit to the highest setting on your camera and accept the fact that if you shoot in the dark you are going to get noisy images.

Once you learn what ISO setting your camera will choose for each situation, you could take control and even set your ISO for each and every shot per your taste and brag about it!

You will be able to look at a scene and say hey – that is ISO X or it is ISO Y or…. wow it is really dark in here and no matter what ISO level I shoot at this is really going to look like crap. Maybe I should get a better lens or light a candle or turn a light on or do the unthinkable and mount a flash and bounce the light off the ceiling...

But don't just blindly follow someone else's suggestion. There are many combinations of shooters, situations, cameras, tastes and preferences for editing. Explore what is a practical upper limit for you on each of your cameras, because what is an acceptable level for you on one camera might not be on another. And reach even higher with each new camera that you get.

Now I should not even need to write this, but make sure you try this out with a bunch of test shots in various lighting and shooting conditions before you use this on anything important.

If I have helped anyone with this article, please leave a comment below. Or even if you disagree, please reply and tell me why. But be a friend, not a foe :-)

Join the conversation
5
There are 5 comments , add yours!
Joe Zink 2 years, 8 months ago

I have mine limited to 1600 on the GX-8. Haven't tried to use the higher ISO 's yet, but will definitely be messing with it.
Thanks for the info!

2 years, 8 months ago Edited
Adam Pawlak Replied to Joe Zink 2 years, 8 months ago

Thank you Joe, and you are quite welcome.  One of my future plans is to try this out on a micro four thirds camera.  I have read their high ISO performance continues to improve also.

2 years, 8 months ago Edited
Andi Saw 2 years, 8 months ago
Comment was removed by admin
2 years, 8 months ago Edited
Adam Pawlak Replied to Andi Saw 2 years, 8 months ago

Thanks And I Saw.  Glad I inspired you to look into this.  It is good to experiment!

2 years, 8 months ago Edited
Berckmans Peter 2 years, 8 months ago

With new cameras it is not a problem to shoot high iso. For me is 6400 the highest usuable setting and use it when needed

2 years, 8 months ago Edited
Adam Pawlak Replied to Berckmans Peter 2 years, 8 months ago

Thanks Peter.  I hope others are trying higher limits too.  I am just surprised how many recommendations I see encouraging people to keep their ISO way down.

2 years, 8 months ago Edited
Up
Copyright @Photoblog.com