The Buzz on ISO – Why High?

f5.6 1/1250 ISO 800 – 105mm macro – Mid-November Bee 2012

I guess the question is why use a high ISO?

Did I say it loud enough, lol?

Our last macro post two days ago dealt with aperture and shutter speed. It talked about how I blur the background of my critter shots.

So this leads us to the third choice in our arsenal of camera settings. Why change it at all when your camera selects the ISO automatically? There are a couple of good reasons for making a change.

f5 1/1250 ISO 800 – 105mm macro – Mid-November

The lower ISO, like 100, needs more light to get a proper exposure. ISO 100 might be what your camera is set for if you do not make a change and is good for sunny daylight conditions.

f7.1 1/1600 ISO 1000 – 60mm macro – Mid Summer Wasp

What goes with picking an ISO? Well, shutter speed and aperture do. There are other things to change like white balance for instance, but no need for more complications for now. Let’s stick with just the ISO, something that can be changed even on many compact cameras. I will show this in an upcoming post using my compact camera.

With the higher ISO, like my images at 800 and above with the Nikon D7000 camera, less light is needed to make a decent exposure.

Well, we can always use more light, right?

It is most useful when you have black insects as shown in this post. Without good even light, you can’t see the detail on a black subject. So to compensate, we raise the ISO.

Sure, we can use flash if it is more light that is desired. Often with macro shots I will use flash, but not today in these images. I will save flash for a later post, because there is a few tricks to know when using flash, and like I said, one thing at a time.

I find when people are first beginning to use manual settings, it is easier to try something different one at a time. Then the light bulb of understanding goes off. When this happens, they say, “Hey, why didn’t I try this before?”

And with many cameras, you can change the ISO and still let the camera auto pick the shutter speed and/or the aperture. Check your manual, or just try it on an auto mode. You might find this a great help.

f6.3 1/1600 ISO 1000 – 60mm macro Honeybee or fly, tiny antennae, hum? Mid-Summer

You might assume raising the ISO is a no brainer, always keep the ISO high. Light is good, no? Well, it is not light the camera is giving you, but greater sensor sensitivity to light.

Always when you get something good, there is a trade-off to pay. We pay by losing some color saturation and gaining some noise at a high ISO. With cameras today though, higher ISO is less of an issue.

My Nikon does quite well at ISO 800, even at 1250 like below in the photo taken indoors. But another trade-off is if printing them quite large, the loss in quality is really noticed. The greens are a slight bit less vibrant below, but it really is a nice subtle image of the Kalanchoe. Let’s look at this image even closer.

f5 1/200 ISO 1250 – 105 mm macro – Interior shot taken last week.

Everybody always talks about avoiding noise and never tells you what it means. So I will show you. See all the many patterned dots throughout the photo below? This is the noise. It appears in wide expanses of the same color, mostly noticeable in backgrounds.

This image above is a 200 percent increase. It would be a printed image 32 inches by 20 inches, like what would be a nicely sized wall hanging. See how the quality decreases, not so great huh? If I shot with flash, the ISO would be lower and I would have a higher quality image for reproduction.

Now look at 600 times its size, see the grayish dots now? There is other factors that play in this, but this is enough for you to see what happens.

How many would care about this at the original size on the web? None really because it is not noticeable at the paltry 72ppi. It only comes to light when I increase the size for comparison. So, for web use images, high ISO really is negligible.

So Besides Low Light, What Else is it Really, Really Good For?

If you don’t have a lot of light and need a fast shutter speed to dodge camera shake, you likely would raise the ISO. Shots at dusk are an example. You don’t want to ruin them by using flash.

In the bee image below, it was a case of raising the shutter speed. With bees I like to have the advantage if they take flight. You will see more bees in flight coming up with a post on focus. There are some tricks to getting the shots, more than raising the ISO.

Even a blind squirrel can find nuts on occasion, but no need to be like the sightless squirrel. It is not too hard to up your percentage of snapping those bees in flight.

f10 1/2000 second ISO 1250 – 55-300mm zoom  Autumn

So here are some specifics on ISO:

  • Doubling means we need half as much light or halving the ISO means twice as much light is needed. Example ISO 100 doubled to 200 or ISO 800 to 400
  • If you don’t have a lot of light, or need a fast shutter speed, raise the ISO. I raise it when shooting birds or bees in flight for example. It allows a very fast shutter speed needed to stop action on the subjects. You can lower the shutter speed if you want motion of the wings.
  • Many nature photographers will raise the ISO to get high shutter speeds for fast-moving subjects. You can compare the images to the last post on the grasshopper. I used ISO 200 because he was not moving very much at all. The bee was in constant motion.

f5.6 1/600 ISO 800 – 105 mm macro – Mid-November image

To manage exposure to get the sharp, clear photos we need to balance the three main elements—aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The choices we make change our resulting photo. Not too hard to remember, right?

f5 1/200 ISO 1250 – 105mm macro – Interior shot taken last week.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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52 Responses to The Buzz on ISO – Why High?

  1. Really nicely explained and I love the visual examples with settings you’ve shown here. The photos are spectacular!

    • Thank you. I try to explain it simply mainly because I am not a pro and I am more aware of the simple things the pros overlook when talking to those just beginning. I remember in photography classes I took in college, the instructor talked over everybody’s head.

  2. WOW – the level of detail is amazing – thanks for sharing!!! Have a Great One:)

  3. Yeah, I know. I struggle with this one, because I think “What if I get a great shot that I want to enlarge someday?” But if the light is low, I need to do this more often. Incredible shots, as always!

    • With cameras today ISO is really not as important a consideration as years ago. The newer cameras from Nikon, D4, have ISO 204,800 on H4. This is not a misprint either. Native range is 100 to 25,600.

  4. Brian Comeau says:

    Great post Donna. Very good explanation in plain English. These images are spectacular. You have captured some amazing detail in the flowers and the pollinators.

  5. This is so helpful. I keep half-learning these points – gradually it sinks in. Even your F8 has a pretty shallow depth of field though – is that because it’s a macro lens? I find the F numbers confusing. I wish they could be some more arithmetic series of numbers, instead of – whatever they are! Thanks for the beautiful examples and great explanations. Another type of subject btw that is hard to photograph – hills and valleys My slopes always look flat. Do you think there is a way to make them look more – slopey?

    • I did not see the f8 shot in the post that you were referring, but there was a f7.1 and a f10. I believe it is a result of the f10 and some of the other images shot with the 105mm lens that throws off expectations of the f-stop with the longer focal length of the lens. One is a zoom, and it would depend on if I am using it at 300mm or pulling it in to 55mm (300mm compresses the image) and also how far the background is in relationship to the subject. The 60mm and 105mm lens is meant for close work and each have a limited depth of field, like I mentioned in a previous post. At f32 it might only have 3 inch depth of clear focus, and at f11 maybe only 1/2 inch. I wish I could give you a clearer answer.

      As for your ‘flat’ look to distant hills, are you shooting with a zoom lens? They compress the image and make them appear flatter. I use f22 and above for landscape shots, so all of what I see is in focus. But I think maybe it has more to do with the time of day. Later in the day you will have that blue light and also softer shadows. I think landscape photographers are very particular about where the sun comes in on a scene. There is an iPhone app called Sun Seeker. It tells you anytime of day, anywhere in the world the sun angles. Also it tells sunset and sunup. It geo locates too. I have it on my iPad. I have yet to use it though for my photography. I need to be at a place I do not know.

      Other important factors are what is your foreground, and is your sky interesting. By having a really interesting foreground and shooting it close and low, it forces the perspective on the what is in the distance.

      Also, most landscape photographers shoot from a tripod because the time of day usually demands its use. Honestly, shooting big landscapes has always been not my strong point. I do have a wide angle lens, which has helped greatly.

  6. Emily Heath says:

    Really enjoying these posts. The insect which you were unsure whether it was a honeybee or fly is a gorgeous honeybee.

  7. Victor Ho says:

    Very well done. Another good lesson.

  8. Barbie says:

    Thanks for the amazing guide on ISO!! It all makes sense now!

  9. I agree with Country Mouse. It takes repetition for these lessons to sink in. I liked the part where you said, More light is good, right? Crank up the ISO! You know the mind of a beginner.

  10. Great post! Very good explanation of ISO and wonderful photos – the detail is amazing!

    • Thank you Joylene. If you have anything to add to my comment of explanation, I would welcome your input. I tried to explain to one commenter and was not sure if I explained it well. Any pro that wants to add, feel free.

      • I don’t – I am learning from you! I haven’t really experimented with macro. I took some close ups of my garden plants last year, but they weren’t true macros. I don’t even own a macro lens yet! I think your explanations were wonderful.

  11. Always so much to learn about cameras. Thanks for explaining.

  12. James Lane says:

    Excellent lesson, all the tutorials I read tell me to stick to ISO 100. As a beginner I do so without question, well its time to start experimenting. Thank you.

    • Hey, give it a shot. Like I said in the post, there are quite a few well known pros that shoot at high ISO, one very well know street photographer. I do know of a couple that do not raise it from the lowest setting though. It really depends on your specialty of what you photograph and if you print large prints, or those in that end up in magazines.

  13. A.M.B. says:

    I love these macro shots! I could really focus on the differences between the bees, wasps, etc. Neat.

  14. I do not yet have a camera that allows me to take these kind of shots so I am enjoying your up close view of the garden.

    • Wait and see what I do with my point and shoot this January. I am hoping to see how it is on insects. I always used it on architectural shoots and never really blog stuff. It is small and inconspicuous when I am on a job site. Plus, those images were never meant to be pretty, just for documentation. It was nice to have a small camera after taking the pro film Nikon F2 to job sites. Workers used to scramble when I brought that camera. My point and shoot took a nice closeup last post though, so I am expecting good things from it.

  15. Excellent information and I’m going to share this post. I’m also going back to read your other instructions. Thanks for the elementary details so I can get it and the examples. Very good. Now I’m in the market for a new camera and have no idea what to get.

    • Thank you so much, Anna. I am honored you would reblog my post. Cameras have so many new, fancy options and features. I have had Nikons for thirty years, so I am not much help in comparing brands. But one thing I have been reading, is the new cameras with the high resolution, 36 Mp and above are a bit harder to get used to. You have to focus them well or you see any camera movement or mis-focus by the photographer, because they are incredibly sharp. That is what has been keeping me from getting the new D800 from Nikon. I do so much hand held that I was sure I would have problems. I did talk to a Nikon rep and he said they did fix that issue with the first cameras off the production line, but I think the problem would be me, not the camera.

  16. Reblogged this on Flowergardengirl™ and commented:
    Excellent step by step tutorial on those pesky camera settings…….along with photo samples to see how it really works. Great job Garden Walk Garden Talk blog!

    • I do not know what happened to your reply. I looked everywhere for it. So I copied from the incoming alerts from WP.

      “Your post is so good on the camera settings. Down to east kind of talk. I’m in the market for a new camera and really need the point and shoot out there. I don’t think I want an slr. So I am reading your posts with great interest. Thank you for wording it so well and showing the photo results. Very proud to share.”

      Thank you so much. Your last post was so sad, but I am glad you shared. People need to know.

  17. supernova says:

    Hello Donna, I can’t express how much I enjoy your superb photography. I’m a beginner and appreciate your tips and information immensely. The close up shots are stunning. Thank you for this post. Take care and have a good weekend. SN

    • You too have a great weekend, SN. I decided in all my relevant posts that I might add some information beginners might not know. Next post is my monthly garden post to welcome in the month, and when I shot the images this morning, we had frost and fog. They are both challenges to beginning photographers. I do not get much opportunity to shoot in these conditions, but have made some observations that seem important. So I figured, why not share.

  18. Patty says:

    I am enjoying your f-stop and ISO posts and I hope that at some point it will make sense to me. I am seriously challenged by all machinery.

    • Patty, if your camera can, put it on Aperture Priority Mode. Pick f11 then push the button that shows the ISO. Turn the dial and make the number higher, say 400 to start. The camera will pick the right shutter speed. Take a test shot. Once you know where to make the change, you will start using it.

  19. debsgarden says:

    Really great photos! You have inspired me to get out my camera’s manual and see what it can do!

  20. b-a-g says:

    I’m embarrassed to say that my first question was : What is ISO?

    • It measures the sensitivity of the image sensor, or how sensitive the image sensor is to the amount of light present. The sensor converts an optical image to an electric signal. ISO is the International Standards Organization.

  21. Donna I am beginning to get a glimmer and will be busy rereading as I take my camera on new adventures..thanks…and thanks for giving Benjamin’s blog a nod…I have most of the books he is giving away…all are superb by excellent authors.

  22. blossomingme says:

    Truly beautiful photos and love the camera tips! Can’t wait to practice on my gardem meanders, thanks 🙂

  23. Andrea says:

    First, thanks for spelling out ISO as reply to b-a-g!

    My camera is Olympus, very different system from Nikon and Canon but chose it for lightness. I found my ISO 800 to be already noisy, so i always use the lower ones. My guide is that when i first shoot the subject and i feel its slowness, i increase it. But still i can’t freeze those forewings of swallowtails, they are always moving even when getting nectar! So I always get moving forewings. I only know increasing the shutter speed, but i didn’t know about increasing the ISO. Thanks Donna, i will share this in FB.

  24. Fossillady says:

    You have some incredible photos … and such a generous lesson. I really like the one where the bee was feeling the other insect with his feelings. And this pretty little cardinal photo is just lovely! Kathi aka fossillady

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