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WHAT IS… ISO?

ISO 100 (left) vs. ISO 6400 (right)

ISO 100 (left) vs. ISO 6400 (right)

What does ISO stand for in photography?

An image sensor usually captures its best quality images at its lowest ISO. If you look at the specifications of a digital camera, you will usually see this listed as ISO 64, ISO 80, ISO 100 or ISO 200. In addition, you might also see other ISO values listed, in increasing value.

  ISO Sensitivity Auto; ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200 equivalent  

Here, we see the lowest ISO is ISO 100 and the camera can also take pictures at increasing ISO values up to a maximum ISO 3200.

ISO sensitivity expresses the speed of photographic negative materials (formerly expressed as ASA).

Since digital cameras do not use film but use image sensors instead, the ISO equivalent is usually given.

What ISO denotes is how sensitive the image sensor is to the amount of light present. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the image sensor and therefore the possibility to take pictures in low-light situations.

And, where you would have needed to physically change to a different roll of film if you wanted a different ISO speed, digital technology allows you to simply dial one in. In this way, you can record images taken at different ISO speeds on the same memory card.

ISO Speed & Exposure

ISO speed affects the shutter speed / aperture combinations you can use to obtain correct exposure.

Suppose your digital camera’s light meter warns you there is not enough light to correctly expose a scene. You could use the on-board flash, but let’s suppose again it’s not allowed (like in a concert or indoors recital).

You would then need to use a higher ISO. Set on "ISO Auto" mode, your digital camera will automatically select a higher ISO. Otherwise, you can manually select the next higher ISO and see if the increased sensitivity allows you to obtain a correctly exposed picture. If it does, you can now take a correctly exposed picture.

Similarly, if you find the camera is using a shutter speed that is too slow (1/60 sec. and slower) to handhold the camera steady and shake-free (thus resulting in blurred pictures), and you cannot open up the aperture anymore, and you do not have a tripod or other means to hold the camera steady, and you want to capture the action, etc. etc. — then you might select the next higher ISO which will then allow you to select a faster shutter speed.

ISO Speed & Noise

However, all this increase in sensitivity does not come free. There is a price to pay with your image appearing more noisy.

When you boost the sensitivity of your image sensor by selecting a higher ISO, the image sensor is now able to record a fainter light signal. However, it is also true now that it will record fainter noise, where noise is any signal that is not attributed to the light from your subject. Remember that an image sensor is still an analog device and it generates its own noise, too! The increased sensitivity allows the image sensor to record more light signal and more noise. The ratio of light signal to noise (S/N ratio) determines the "noise" in your resultant image.

An image sensor is usually calibrated so that it gives the best image quality (greatest S/N ratio) at its lowest possible ISO speed. For most consumer digital cameras, this value will be expressed as ISO 64, ISO 80, ISO 100 or ISO 200.

Just as with its film counterpart, an image sensor will exhibit "noise" (comparable to "graininess" in film) at the higher ISO speeds. Unlike film, where graininess can sometimes contribute to the mood of the image, noise produced by an image sensor is undesirable and appears as a motley of distracting coloured dots on your image.

ISO Speed & Image Sensor Size

The size of the image sensor determines the ISO speed range that a digital camera can use without suffering from undue noise. One reason for this is because the pixels on the larger image sensor can be larger and therefore receive more light, and thus have a greater signal-to-noise (S/N) ratio (for more information on noise, see our tutorial: What Is… Noise?).

If we take two image sensors, each with 12 megapixels resolution, but of different sizes, the 12 megapixels image sensor that is smaller will exhibit more noise at higher ISOs than the larger one.


1/1.8 in. (7.2×5.3mm)

APS-sized (23x15mm)
12 million tiny pixels crammed into a 1/1.8 in. image sensor cannot compete in image quality with 12 million large pixels on an APS-sized image sensor.

Most consumer digital cameras use 1/1.8 in. (and smaller) image sensors, so noise at high ISO is a problem. Though they will allow you to use a high ISO (such as ISO 1600), the resultant image will usually be quite noisy.

Click for original image [1.3 MB]
A 100% crop of a picture taken at night by a Point-and-shoot digicam at ISO 400 (1/1.8 in. image sensor)
Click on image for original size [warning: large file]

A digital SLR (dSLR), on the other hand, uses a large image sensor, usually full frame (24×36 mm) or APS-sized (half-frame). Noise is rarely a problem and the use of a high ISO 400 results in images with barely noticeable noise.

ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600
Click for original image [3.4 MB] Click for original image [3.0 MB] Click for original image [4.2 MB]
Pictures taken by a DSLR at different high ISOs
(APS-sized image sensor)
Note that here noise really starts to be a problem at ISO 1600
Click on image for original size [warning: large files]

Practical Considerations

  • You obtain the best image quality by using the lowest ISO possible on your digital camera. If you want to ensure your digital camera always uses the lowest ISO setting, switch the ISO setting from the default "Auto ISO" (this setting is usually found in the Menu) to the lowest possible on the camera, say ISO 100.
  • If you mostly take pictures where there is enough light for a correct exposure, i.e. sunny outdoors, then using the lowest ISO on your digital camera will give you the best image quality your digital camera is capable of.
  • If you want to take pictures indoors where light may not be sufficient and in other low-light situations, then you would need to supplement existing light with flash or studio lights. Either that, or select a higher ISO. Of course, depending on your digital camera, a higher ISO may mean a noisy image.
  • A large image sensor (APS-sized and larger) means that you are able to use a high ISO speed without unduly worrying about noise. This means that you can take pictures in low-light situations without your pictures being under-exposed. It also means that in situations where it is required, you are able to use a fast enough shutter speed to prevent camera shake. All, again depending on your camera, without much noise.
  • A DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) or DSLM (Digital Single Lens Mirrorless) camera can usually shoot at a high ISO 800 without being too much troubled by noise. Do a couple of tests to find the highest ISO your camera takes pictures with acceptable noise and, if your camera has this feature, set ISO to AUTO [highest ISO with acceptable noise]. For example, if your camera takes pictures with acceptable noise level at ISO 1600, then set your ISO to AUTO 1600. Your camera will then take pictures using ISO 100 to 1600 only.

Should You Use A High ISO?

Consumer digital cameras are just starting to adopt the larger image sensors. So, noise will continue to be an ever present fact of life at high ISOs.

Another category of digital cameras for advanced amateur photographers — commonly known as "prosumers" (professional consumers) — attempt to bridge the gap between consumer and professional digital cameras by using a slightly larger image sensor (at 2/3 in. or 8.8×6.6mm).

The newer compact mirrorless digital cameras use larger image sensors (1-in., 4/3 and APS-C) and have low noise/high ISO characteristics.

A little bit of noise may not be a problem depending on the size of your prints or images for display. There are also a number of noise reduction software that you can use to clean up the noise, though there’s quite a bit of post-processing work involved, and you might want to reserve this for the special pictures you want to print large format. You can also shoot in RAW, if your camera so permits, for better low noise/high ISO results.

If it is a matter of choosing between not being able to take a picture and suffering a noisy image, I’d rather be able to take the picture at a high ISO and then try to clean up the noise afterwards in a noise reduction software.

Just because your digital camera allows you to select a high ISO (ISO 400 – ISO 6400, and higher) is no guarantee that the results will be good.

Is There A DSLR In Your Future?

If you definitely must take noise-free low-light pictures and therefore need to be able to use a high ISO speed, then you need to consider digital SLRs and mirrorless DSLRs with their large image sensors.

Recap

  • ISO (equivalent) speed on a digital camera gives an indication of the sensitivity of the image sensor.
  • The best image quality is usually obtained at the lowest ISO setting on your digital camera.
  • If by adjusting the shutter speed / aperture combinations you cannot obtain a correctly exposed picture (usually in low-light situations), then you may want to select the next higher ISO.
  • However, remember that using a higher ISO usually results in noisy images on consumer digital cameras.
  • Use a high ISO if it is a choice between missing a picture and being able to capture an image — even if it means you need to spend time cleaning out the noise in post-processing using a noise reduction software.
  • If you leave your camera on "Auto ISO" and if you find that most of your images are noisy, then perhaps you are taking most of your pictures in low-light situations where the camera has automatically selected a higher ISO.
  • If you are printing mostly 4×6 in., you may find the noise is not evident in the prints (and so you don’t need worry too much about noise at high ISO) though they may be visible at original sizes on screen.
  • Use AUTO [highest ISO with acceptable noise] to ensure you always capture images with the best image quality.

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