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We’ve covered aperture and shutter speed and now it’s time to talk about ISO. Setting the right aperture and shutter speed is useless if you haven’t got the correct ISO set, so out your learning caps on.
What is ISO? To put it in simple terms, ISO is your camera sensor’s sensitivity to ambient light. Just like your eyes change sensitivity when you walk into a dark room. The fact that you can simply change ISO in the same camera is one of digital photography’s greatest gifts. To make sense to kids born in the late ‘90s, back in the old days, if you wanted different ISO values, you had to have different films. Now you have one image sensor that does it all.
Unlike shutter speed and aperture, the values of ISO do make sense to first time users. The lower the ISO, the lower the number indicating the value will be.
ISO sensitivity ranges from around 50, which is a very low sensitivity, all the way up to 409.600, a very high and arrogant value found on Nikon’s latest flagship, the D4s.
The normal range of ISO values used by 95% of photographers is between 100-3200. But how do you know what value to use and when?
Well, the most basic thing to understand about the use of ISO is that the lowest values have to be used when the light is the strongest. Shooting at midday, or with powerful strobes requires the lowest ISO values available on your camera. By contrast, low light situations and locations, such as churches or dark interiors, demand a high ISO. The late or early hours of the day also require ISO 800 or even higher values.
What about ISO and image quality? Things have gotten a lot better in the last ten years with regard to high ISO, but you should still remember that at least in theory the higher the ISO the more noise the photo will have. It is the digital equivalent of film grain. The only problem is that it doesn’t look really good or artistic at all. Detail is also influenced by ISO. High ISO, besides adding noise will also reduce the amount of details.
Therefore, in all respects, the best image quality from any camera is obtained at the lowest ISO settings. That’s why medium format cameras don’t even have values higher than ISO 800, and even that is quite useless. You buy a camera like that not because of its ISO performance, but because of the amazing details it can capture.
However those cameras are only for a certain category of pros. If working with ambient light is your bread and butter, consider a full frame DSLR. Most do very well at high ISO, some are quite exceptional.
So to sum up, low light= high ISO, strong light = low ISO and for maximum detail use the lowest ISO available.