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6 Tips for Using ISO Effectively With Your Camera


Taken at ISO 800 (shutter speed of 30 seconds and aperture at f/8.0)

Taken at ISO 800 (shutter speed of 30 seconds and aperture at f/8.0)

ISO has long been called the third corner of the exposure triangle, but was it really? In the film days you couldn’t even change your ISO, except by changing your film. In the early days of digital, you could change your ISO after each shot, which was a definite improvement. But, if you dared to increase the ISO, your picture would probably end up with a lot of digital noise in it. The reality is that most of us were confined to a very narrow range of ISO values when making our exposures.

Times have changed though. Newer cameras offer a lot more flexibility when it comes to ISO. First of all, they are capable of taking pictures at higher ISOs. Cameras now will routinely shoot at ISO 25,600 (and higher), which was almost unheard of just five or six years ago. Secondly, when newer cameras do shoot at higher ISOs, they produce less digital noise. Check out this chart from DxO Mark showing the ability of cameras to shoot at higher ISOs without being ruined by noise:


The chart shows the maximum useable ISO for given cameras introduced over the last 12 years. Notice how the dots are higher on the chart the further you go to the right.  The newer cameras are to the right of the graph and the tests show that they can shoot at higher ISO values with less digital noise.

In addition, seemingly mindful of the desire of photographers to change their ISO more frequently, camera manufacturers have made it easier to change ISO on the fly. Some, like Fujifilm, have even put ISO on par with shutter speed and aperture by giving ISO its own dial. As a result, it is easier to change the ISO and it truly has status as an equal partner in the exposure triangle.

Even beyond cameras, however, we now have a much greater ability to remove digital noise from our pictures. Much of this improvement is thanks to Lightroom. With a quick slider adjustment, we can eliminate much digital noise from our pictures, without making them blurry. Further, if you have a severe noise problem, there are dedicated plug-ins like Noiseware and Photo Ninja, designed to reduce noise in your pictures, which have continued to improve.

As a result of all of this, you have a lot more flexibility when it comes to ISO. But how does this really impact your photography? And where should you set your ISO in different situations?

If you are just getting started, you might be bewildered by the numbers, or perhaps don’t even know where to start. If you have been shooting for a long time, you may be locked into some habits that were engrained before all these changes in technology. Either way, here are some tips to help you put ISO to work, to improve your photography.

Tip 1: Start with ISO 200

If you have been shooting for a long time, you might be in the habit of keeping your ISO at 100 to keep noise out of your pictures. As mentioned above, given the state of camera technology, this was a prudent practice. Now, however, there is almost no discernible difference between a shot taken at ISO 200 and ISO 100 in most cameras. You may as well use ISO 200 as a default to give yourself an extra stop of light. It will result in better pictures. How so? In one of two ways:

  • It will allow you to use a faster shutter speed, which will make your photos sharper if you are hand holding
  • It will allow you to use a smaller aperture to increase your depth of field

By using ISO 200 instead of 100, you will enjoy a little extra flexibility in your exposure settings, without an increase in digital noise. It is pretty much a case of something for nothing.

Tip 2: Use ISO 400 for clouds or dusk

Do not hesitate to move the ISO up to 400 (or even higher depending on your camera) when the need arises. If you are outdoors and there are any clouds, or if the sun is starting to move toward the horizon, go ahead and move to ISO 400. You will find there is very little increase in digital noise in most cameras at this level.

Even though this was a bright, sunny day, the need for a super-fast shutter speed meant that I needed to increase my ISO to 400 to get this shot.

Even though this was a bright, sunny day, the need for a super-fast shutter speed meant that I needed to increase my ISO to 400 to get this shot. Exposure info: 1/8000th, f/2.8, at ISO 400

Tip 3: Crank it up to stop the action

Previously, you faced a dilemma when trying to stop the action. Should you:

  1. Increase the ISO and risk having the picture ruined by noise, or
  2. Keep the ISO low and risk having the picture ruined by blur because of the slower shutter speed you would be forced to use?

Obviously, neither choice was ideal. But now, with better cameras and noise reduction tools, there is no reason not to increase your ISO when you are photographing action (assuming you are not trying to blur it). In that case, start by moving the ISO up to 800.

Tip 4: Start with ISO 1600 indoors

As soon as you move indoors, increase your ISO to 1600 if there is reasonably good light. Move it even higher if the lighting is poor. There is a lot less light indoors, even though it often doesn’t look that way to you (your eyes adjust very quickly).

It was not possible to use a tripod in the Opera Garnier in Paris. Hence, ISO 3200 for this picture (actually pictures, since it is many pictures stitched together)

It was not possible to use a tripod in the Opera Garnier in Paris. Hence, ISO 3200 for this picture (actually pictures, since it is many pictures stitched together)

Note: If you have, and can use a tripod then keep your ISO lower if possible (there is no moving subject).

Tip 5: Don’t be afraid to use 6400

I was recently trying to take pictures of a high school play, featuring my daughter. I faced a toxic combination of extremely low light, and a moving subject (flash was not allowed). I had a pretty fast lens, opened all the way up to f/2.8. To keep the subject from being blurred, I needed to use a shutter speed of at least 1/400th of a second. To get a proper exposure, I required ISO 6400. I used it, and then gave it a dose of Lightroom noise reduction later, to get the following picture.


Exposure info: 1/500th, f/2.8, at ISO 6400

Perfect? No. But if I had hedged at all, it would have been blurred and completely ruined. The point is that ISO 6400 might not get you perfection, but it will get you a shot, when the alternative is no shot at all.

Tip 6: The same applies for higher ISOs

Nobody wants to use very high ISO values. But when you’re faced with the choice of a shot at ISO 6400 or 12,800 (which will probably have a noise problem), versus a blurry shot from using too slow of a shutter speed, take the noisy picture every time. You have some hope of curing a noisy picture in Lightroom. You have no hope of fixing a blurry subject.

This was shot through a window from inside the Louvre, and using a tripod was not possible. Since I was hand holding, I needed to use ISO 3200. I didn't like using an ISO that high, but it beats not getting the shot at all (or having it blurry from too slow of a shutter speed)

This was shot through a window from inside the Louvre, and using a tripod was not possible. Since I was hand holding, I needed to use ISO 3200. I didn’t like using an ISO that high, but it beats not getting the shot at all (or having it blurry from too slow of a shutter speed). Exposure info: 1/8th, f/4, at ISO 3200


I recognize that, in a sense, this entire article could be summarized as: It is okay to increase your ISO. There is more to it than that though, and that is particularly true if you are just starting out, or getting used to a new camera. I have used hard values in this article to give you default numbers, for some different scenarios. That said, of course, every situation you will face as a photographer is different. Just use these as starting points and adjust from there. In time you will get your own starting points.

Further, your use of ISO will depend on your camera as well. Obviously, newer and more expensive cameras have better low-light performance. How does yours stack up? You can check the DxO Mark rating to start. The best thing to do is to test your camera, which is easily done by taking the exact same picture at different ISO values (while adjusting shutter speed to keep the exposure the same) and then comparing them on your monitor (at 100%). Having done so, you will be well poised to use ISO to improve your pictures.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, beginning photographers should be sure to check out his new book Getting Started in Photography, now available in the Kindle store!

  • Willie Scott (Willie and Melin

    Tip 1 – you meant to write “smaller aperture to increase your DOF”

  • Dang. You are right. Will fix that. Thanks!

  • Tim Lowe

    As you state at the end, it is critical to understand the performance of the sensor of your camera(s). Photographing the same “scene” at different ISO settings AND aperture is the right approach but scene selection is also important. Close, fine, parallel lines do the trick of revealing the point at which image quality becomes unacceptable. Attempting to remove noise from such an image with digital tools will give you a muddy mess when the noise levels reach the point where noise exceeds detail.

  • Francois Malherbe

    You do not say anything about “Auto ISO” which I use a lot on my 7DMkii. this solves a lot of problems when taking action pictures. Your comments would be appreciated

  • J Public

    I use Canon, and try to refrain from reading techy stuff. But is it true that every other manufacturer makes sensors which are better at higher ISO? And if so is there a significant difference? Answers such as “don’t worry about it” would be much appreciated.

  • Lisa Moyer

    About the picture with the high ISO – I would be happy to have that in my home. Nice Shot!

  • Thanks! I like it a lot as well.

  • Good question. I have looked around and not found an answer. Call me a Canon apologist if you want, but I don’t believe Canons could be as bad as this data suggests. That said, I have no data whatsoever to back that up.

  • I personally do not like Auto ISO and never use it. I could see a case for it when you are shooting wide open and need a certain shutter speed. My guess is that is how you are using it for your action pictures. In that context, I think it is a good idea.

  • Eric

    Thank you for your article. I totally agree, better to have a noisy shot than no usable shot at all because it’s too blurry. I am using more and more higher iso that I eventually fix later with Lightroom. During some events, I go even further by using a mix of higher iso and some fill in with the flash (when authorised) if the light is extremely low. That setting will give me lightful and nicely contrasted images without having the “typical white flash effect”.

  • Mixing in some fill flash when you can is a good idea. Thanks!

  • Andy V

    Jim – Thanks for the tips, nicely written in simple form that give confidence to people like me who try to stay in the lower ISO range. At this time of year with light fading even during the middle of the day I guess moving to a higher ISO is even more relevant.

    You don’t mention what kit you use to get the excellent shots posted in the article, often useful for people to know as aspiring to deliver what is I assume Full Frame quality with APSC kit and associated lenses can be frustrating, but I understand that the points are equally valid for all camera types.

  • Frogbum

    Good tips on ISO selection……. Most times I shoot at ISO 200, and work up from there. A note – some cameras do have high ISO NR (noise reduction) choices in the shooting menu, to reduce noise. Of course there is a trade off like any other feature – softening of the image.

  • Michael

    Thank you Jim! This is a great introduction for using ISO in different lightening condition. I use my Canon 6D which is considered as a very good ISO performer, however, whenever it’s possible I strive for the lowest ISO as long as my resulting shutter speed equals or higher than my lens focal length to avoid motion blur while hand-hold my camera. I also never rely on Auto ISO setting. So when I am outdoor and the weather is sunny, I use ISO 100 most of the times, in deep shades – ISO 200 or 400, indoor with my Speedlite 580EX – ISO 400 or 800. If I use tripod, my ISO is 100 and IS (Image Motion Stabilizer) is off. I rarely use ISO 1600 or even 3200 and I post-process my RAW images in Light Room using Detail Noise Reduction slider.

  • Doug

    DXO says my camera is good to 800 ISO so knowing I couldn’t use flash at my sons wedding I took a number of test shots at the wedding venues and later at my sons home I tried out the Hi1 setting even using +EV if memory serves (equivalent to ISO 6400). On the computer at 100% view noise was totally unacceptable but as the majority of photos were intended for an album I got prints at 6″x4″ and was surprised to find that even an extreme setting could work provided a face filled the frame, at lower settings an acceptable result was achieved if a face filled quarter of the frame.
    My camera is the Nikon D5000.

  • oops, how did I miss that too! Fixed – thanks for catching it.

  • Don’t worry about it! I’ve always had Canons and never had an issue.

  • Yeah I found there data to be really conservative and would love to know what criteria they deemed “acceptable”. I’ve shot my Canon 5D3 up to 12,800 ISO and my Fuji X-T1 isn’t even reviewed by them, although there are comments about it if you search the site. Seems they haven’t done any Fuji cameras which is odd. My Fuji X-T1 with APS-C sensor – to me – is just fine at 6400 ISO. So it all depends on your use for the image, size you’re going to make from it, etc. Would I make a billboard from ISO 12,8000? NO. Is it good enough for a website, Facebook or a small print – yes. IMHO.

  • Thank you! I am glad this appears useful to you. To answer your question, some of these photos were taken with a Canon 5D mk ii and some on a Canon 6D. But don’t worry about that. Everything here applies to other cameras as well. Yes, full frame is better at low light performance, but the difference is marginal and don’t let it hold you back.

  • Good point. Thanks for adding that!

  • Ok, that’s a good point. All things being equal, yes, one should use the lower ISO. If you are on a tripod and nothing is moving, I see no reason not to start with the idea of using ISO 100. And you are right about the 6D (in fact, DxO says it does better in low light than the 5D mark iii !)

  • Iliah Borg

    If anything, increasing ISO decreases the noise. Noise is the result of low exposure, not high ISO. And no, ISO is not a part of the exposure.

  • J Public

    And that … is the right answer! Many thanks.

  • kevin

    I do a lot of picture taking on dark rides at Disney which means in motion, no tripod. I have no choice but to crank up the ISO; however, I get great results.

  • Prosenjit Biswas

    I too think, ‘auto ISO’ should have been discussed. In ‘auto ISO’, one can set the maximum ISO, and the camera will opt for the best ISO possible, depending on the available light, aperture & shutter speed. I personally use auto ISO most of the time, and kept the auto ISO menu in quick setting. So, when needed, I instantly modify the auto-ISO setting. Its lot easier to let the camera decide what ISO to use rather than evaluating it yourself.

  • Prosenjit Biswas

    You heard it right, 😉 but don’t worry much.

  • Ali Zabouti

    I’ve read about something called “native ISO”. My Sony RX100iii is supposed to have a native ISO of 125, and the camera underlines that number to tell us that apparently.

    Because of this I try to use 125 if possible.

    Have you heard of this concept? Does it really apply to newer camera?

    Thanks and thanks for an interesting and helpful article.

  • Henrietta

    Thank you so much for this article. I’ve been struggling to balance speed, aperture and ISO, because I’ve been obsessing about keeping ISO as low as possible, and therefore missing shots, Henrietta.

  • Iliah Borg

    “… this entire article could be summarized as: It is okay to increase your ISO” amounts to “it is okay to underexpose and push”. Rather simple to experiment and see how much underexposure is tolerable with any particular camera.

  • Thank you Henrietta! Glad it helped. That’s why I wrote it, because I think a lot of us do that. We’re so hung up on keeping the ISO low to keep noise under control, and given the improvements in cameras we really don’t need to be so worried about it. Still a good idea to keep ISO low, of course, but we don’t want to let it ruin shots.

  • Good question. Many cameras have an ISO expansion that is available. As I understand it, that amounts to digital processing of your photo. It can be handy in a pinch, but I’d generally avoid it. The “native” ISO is the ISO range that is available without using the expansion. So yes, I’d start by using 125. But, as mentioned in the article, don’t get hung up on keeping it so low that it causes you problems in other areas of your exposure.

  • Good to hear. And yes, this seems like an area where the improvements in camera ISO would really help.

  • no worries you’re welcome!

  • Travel-Bug

    The reason we all read articles like this is to get our brain back into gear (assuming you are not learning for the first time as a beginner). I find that photography has so many aspects to it that getting an informative and easy to read article such as this just what the doctor ordered. Thanks

  • Ali Zabouti

    ISO “expansion”? This stuff is so convoluted!

    But I will take your article to heart and start feeling less anxious about using higher ISOs.

    Thanks for a useful article!

  • Excellent! Glad you liked it. Thank you!

  • Daniel Casey

    For my son’s recent football season I used the auto ISO function on my Canon Mark III. I had never considered it before, being an old school manual shooter who learned to shoot with film, when you could not adjust ISO without putting a new roll in. The results were pretty good. When shooting outside, there was no need for high ISO; the camera rarely if ever went above 600 or so. It allowed me to keep my speed up and play around with F stops a bit, with the camera adjusting the ISO accordingly. Granted, doing that inside would be a bit different; the ISO would climb much higher and I might have to use noise reduction when processing with Creative Cloud, but I may give it a shot.

  • Christine

    Thanks for giving us permission to bump that ISO up! 🙂 I still hesitate sometimes, but you are right – modern cameras really take awesome shots at ISOs you wouldn’t dream of using just a few years ago. It can really save you in a low light situation.

  • Great article, Jim. You hit the nail on the head… sometimes it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the “rules” we learn, we forget that those “rules” are really more guidelines and generally come with exceptions. I physically cringe as I have to make that ISO increase decision. This article was a reminder to just relaaaaaaaaaaaaaax and shoot. =)

  • Barbara McNary Spindler

    By jove, I think I’ve got it!!!! At least getting more and more confident at getting it, thank to articles like this. I take professional photos for a High School Photography athletics site, and trying to get those tac-sharp photos as the sun is setting SO early these days is next to impossible! I simply call it “fuzzy mode”… But now, oh so courageously, amping up the ISO to 2000 gives me so many extra shots at high speeds to capture more action shots with very little noise! Thank you so very much for spelling things out in easy to understand language that helps ME so very much become a better photographer.

  • Nuup

    A neat trick for high ISO images is to over-expose them. Noise is less noticeable in bright areas. So if you can fill your frame with a bright face, you can ramp up your ISO more than for example in an mostly darker shot.

  • Nuup

    No, Auto-ISO is definitely a convenient improvement. I mostly shot in aperture priority mode (A) and let the camera choose the lowest ISO value. In critical conditions, I switch to manual mode (M) and set aperture and shutter speed while letting the camera expose via ISO setting.

    Of course you can always manually choose your ISO setting per image or set it fix and loose IQ, but why would you?

  • Nuup

    You’re right when saying “It is okay to increase your ISO”. I’ve no issues ramping up ISO up to 6400 on my APS-C camera. However, things start getting nasty above ISO 8000 and ISO 12800 is more for just grabbing the shot.

    But I also noticed that image quality significantly improves with low ISO values. I still see a huge gap between ISO 50 and ISO 100. So keeping ISO as low as possible without compromising shutter speed or depth of field is still a good advise.

  • ETTR

  • I shoot with the Mk II also and love it, when shooting birds in flight I usually set my shutter to a minimum 1/1250 f8 and ISO on auto, I limit it to 3200 and it works fine for me, the higher ISO when spot metering really helps get a good shot

  • darylcheshire

    in the auto ISO setting you can set minimum shutter speed. I set it to 1/125s and it reduces motion blur and raises the ISO to keep it at this speed. It was an eye opener as I previously had it at 1/30s but got a lot of blurry photos.
    This was taking street photos at dusk.
    Camera is a Canon 5DmkIII, I don’t know if the minimum shutter speed setting on auto ISO is a common feature, I note the Fujifilm X100 has it.

  • RakVish

    Recently I had to cover an event indoor, and bumped up the ISO to the max. It was only then that I became a little more confident about using higher ISOs. The article helps a lot to clear out all remaining doubts and inhibitions I had with ISO. Thanks!

  • zman2596

    I’ve been shooting a year now with a dslr and am just now learning not to rely on “auto-ISO”. Thanks for the good article.

  • Harold Isaac

    I own the Nikon D300 and the Nikon 17-55 f2.8 and 70-200 VRII f2.8 lenses and do a fair number of indoor event shooting with low lighting. I have tried to avoid going higher than ISO 1250 and 1/160s shutter speed. Typically when I’m done I hand over the card to the director who downloads the photos and posts on a website after doing just a bit of correction. Could I go higher than 1250 to push up the shutter speed w/o compromising too much on the quality?

  • Ron Phillips

    After I returned home from a holiday trip to Berlin, Prague, Vienna & Munich, I started going through my 5,000+ images taken with my Nikon D750, most taken with my Nikon 28mm – 300mm 3.5 – 5.6 ED VR lens, and found that somewhere about 5 days into the trip, my ISO jumped to 5800. The images, whether shot in bright daylight or in the evening under existing light conditions, were using ISO 5800. I was terribly disappointed and still don’t know exactly how this happened as I swear that I had my settings set differently. (P.S. I had a similar thing happen with a few photos from another trip the year before). All images were shot in RAW mode. I’m what I would call an advanced amateur (though I’m doubting that after this fiasco! LOL) and have been editing these images in LR, MacPhun and Photoshop applications. I’m pretty impressed with how clear and sharp many of my shots are….including low-light photos taken on city streets at night, of cathedrals, interior shots, etc. However, I would not choose that high of ISO intentionally unless it was really required to get a shot. I still do not know how this happened, but thankfully most of my images are certainly worthwhile, and I’ve had some rather remarkable prints made of of some of them. I’m wondering if I did something to “over-ride” the ISO settings….or? (sigh)

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