Limit Your Auto ISO

Limit Your Auto ISO

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One of digital photography’s largest advantages over film is the ability to change ISO settings on the fly. For those new to the game and not familiar with the idea, a roll of film was set to the same ISO and once loaded, typically was not removed until all 24 or 36 shots were done (or 10 or 20 shots for most medium format backs). This meant if 100 speed film was in the camera and you went inside to shoot in low light, it was hard to get decent results.

With the advent of digital sensors, the ISO setting, which represents the sensor’s sensitivity to light, became adjustable image by image. It was a boon for those of us who might hit a lot of different lighting scenes in the course of a day. Bright light, low light…it didn’t matter. Just take a second to adjust the ISO before shooting and presto! No worries about blur!

Take that one step further and it seemed like utopia had been discovered when Auto ISO was unveiled. It was something of a holy grail; now here is the chance to forget about ISO settings and concentrate on the scene at hand.

But hold on before you get too excited. Auto ISO has its limits. The main detracting factor for Auto ISO is the camera’s propensity to use it without consideration for the consequences. You see, your camera doesn’t care about noise in images, but your image viewers probably do. And if you care about your art, chances are you don’t like noise in your shots either.

And for a while this was the way it was. A camera might have an ability to obtain an ISO 3200 setting but do you really want to use it often? For those of us who answered, “No” we were stuck with setting our ISO and making it one more consideration before shooting. Until the manufacturers picked up on the feedback from the field.

I’m not sure who introduced the ability to limit Auto ISO first, but I’m inclined to tip my hat to Nikon as most of their cameras have the ability, with other manufacturers finally catching on. Who was first really doesn’t matter, because now that most manufacturers are adding in the ability to limit Auto ISO to future generations of cameras, we all win. I have come across enough students in my teachings that did not know this feature even existed that I hope more people will benefit from this post and start improving their photos by not letting ISO get too high.

Noise from camera sensors typically starts making itself known around ISO 400 or ISO 800. It’s different for different cameras depending on sensor size and manufacture. For those unfamiliar, noise is not grain, as in the days of film. Grain can be appealing, but noise is almost always considered ugly. It looks like the image below and typically shows up in darker areas. The first image is ISO 100 while the second is at an extreme of ISO 12,800. Click on each image for a larger zoom.

ISO 100

ISO 12,800

This is why it is important, if you use Auto ISO, to limit the setting. Nikon and Canon menu listings can be seen in this post and it’s beyond the scope of this post to point to every camera model’s exact location. Refer to your owner’s manual for more information on how to set the Auto ISO maximum.

Curious about what to set for your maximum Auto ISO? This is a subjective matter and will depend on your likes and dislikes. Take some sample images at different ISO settings in different lighting situations. My typical suggestion is nothing higher than ISO 400 for Auto ISO. If you want a higher ISO because the situation calls for it, then make the conscience choice to raise it.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Fahd April 21, 2013 02:35 am

    Is this option available on a Nikon D50?

  • Navin August 4, 2011 12:40 am

    Hey Peter,

    Thanks for the educating us.
    I did not know to limit the ISO setting and as a consequence, 1 in every 4 photographs got jeopardized.
    Thanks again..will check the setting today.

    -Navin Gupta

  • christopher colley July 15, 2011 04:17 pm

    hi guys i am a professional photographer from Jamaica spec in wedding sunset romantic photo i like the experiences

  • Anne Brooks July 15, 2011 04:46 am

    Hi, to Robert, I've always had trouble with the AF-C if I want to recompose. The subject is in focus, but the focus seems to move to something else if I recompose. Can I put my camera on AF-C and the subject stay in focus if it is moving, and STILL recompose? I am really missing something here. Thanks so much!

  • Mary Harrsch June 21, 2011 04:13 am

    Just a note to point out that Max ISO settings are available on higher end point and shoot cameras as well as DSLRs. One thing I don't see, however, is a way to set a minimum shutter speed. I have my Shutter Speed Priority mode set to the minimum shutter speed where I can hand hold the camera steady and must remember to change modes with changes in available light but it would be really nice if I could set a minimum shutter speed and maximum ISO for the Auto Program mode and simply not have to worry about either one so I could just concentrate on composition and lighting effects. I shoot a lot of available light images in museums and exhibits where I cannot use any type of supplemental lighting or camera support so shutter speed is especially important.

  • TED GOODMAN June 21, 2011 01:08 am

    i just shot 1200 photos of the worlds greatest cowboys at the Innisfail (Canada) rodeo. The rodeo started at 6pm and ended at 9 pm. Thanks for my Canon 7d I was able to continue shooting after everyone else could not .I would raise the ISO as darkness approached gradually reaching ISO6400. As someone else said depending on what you are going to do with you photos will determine if noise will be a problem for you.
    A PHOTO WITH NOISE IS BETTER THEN NOT GETTING THE PHOTO.

  • Vic June 19, 2011 12:34 am

    C'mon...how long does it really take to press the ISO button and set it to the right setting before you begin shooting...like 1/2 a second? I never use Auto ISO

  • Cathy June 18, 2011 12:28 pm

    Often times I limit ISO and then I can spend far less time in lightroom. My D700 handles high ISO, but at times the background may have color noise. Thanks for posting this.

  • Maria-Lynn Turi June 18, 2011 01:37 am

    Unfortunately, my Canon 7D (purchased December 2009) doesn't seem to have this capability. Drat! I must say though, that I have noticed that it tends to choose the lowest iso possible, and often chooses one lower than I might have.

    I do a lot of low light photography - candles only in a large church at night time where all the people are constantly moving. (I have the EF-S USM F2.8 18-55 mm lens). Example photos here: http://cid-c09e1349a0a3e39b.photos.live.com/play.aspx/Great%20%5E0%20Holy%20Friday%20St.%20Elias%20Church%202011

    http://cid-5143f9d45c8246a2.photos.live.com/play.aspx/2010%20Pascha?ref=1

    I also do a lot of video with my 7D in those same conditions. The only thing I don't like about it is that it often overheats before the service is done and I miss something interesting while I wait for it to cool off.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/tsyhan?feature=mhum#p/u/112/HBPXtHQWVco
    http://www.youtube.com/user/tsyhan?feature=mhum#p/u/2/4Z-gkK4lUiA

    One thing I discovered recently is that while shooting video I can change the gain on the fly. That really helps when the lighting conditions change.

  • Paul June 17, 2011 07:37 pm

    J Chau is right, different cameras will have different characteristics? I try not to shoot abobe 800 iso, but that's on a Nikon D700

  • Christopher Johnston June 17, 2011 01:44 pm

    If you are a pixel peeper and blow up the ISO 12800 image you see noticeable luminance noise. The lower rez web image looks fine. You need to think about where the image will end up to decide if you want to go that high on the ISO. I recently 2nd shot a wedding and the lead photographer told me to not go over ISO 1600. On my 7D depending on the glass I'm using things can start to fall apart at around ISO 1250 so I try to stay under a ISO 1000 if I can help it.

  • Frank June 17, 2011 11:18 am

    I am not a serious player with the DSLR, so I would limit my ISO setting up to 6400 in my Nikon D7000 which is the default setting if you turn this feature on. I am surprised that so many people never use any ISO larger than 800. ISO like 1600, 3200 or 6400 would enable us to shoot clear pictures (certainly with noticeable noise, but who will see the pictures in 100% every time) in low light situations with decent shutter speed. In my case, I use D7000 with the 18-105 kit lens shooting photo after 7 pm in dim light such as street lamp or light came out of surrounding buildings without any problem. Just find the setting suits you and you will be amazed about how this technology enables us.

  • MattyJ47 June 17, 2011 08:19 am

    I think your better off having a photo with some noise than not getting a photo at all

  • Rog Patterson June 17, 2011 04:38 am

    Interesting and useful, so I checked my Nikon D60 manual for "how to ". After spending half an hour being referred back and forth thru half a dozen pages supposedly on the subject and still not learning how I could limit auto ISO switch to max at ISO400...I gave up.

    Thanks for the idea, anyway,

    Rog

  • coy June 17, 2011 04:24 am

    Useful article. Nice practical summary Tony. I would probably limit my iso to 1600 unless it's really low light but will have to test how smart the auto feature is.

  • Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead June 17, 2011 04:22 am

    This is my 15th month DSLR anniversary! I mean in some organised fashion, paying attention to advice from pros. My conclusion so far on ISO setting: I very rarely go above 400, even with my Nikon D7000 which boasts being able to cope noiseless at 1600! 90% of my shots are at 100. Lower ISOs produce sharper shots too. But then also, 90% of my subjects allow me time and use of the tripod.

  • Andres Jaimes June 17, 2011 02:38 am

    I have a Canon 5DMII and the maximum auto ISO I use is 1250. That has proved to me to be a good value giving me very low noise. As some others have say, I don't know if the quality of the sensor (or the size) help me accept this relatively high value.

    Thanks!

  • J Chau June 17, 2011 01:26 am

    Wow. Worst advice ever on limiting AutoISO to 400. You should limit it to what YOUR camera can reasonably handle and still give good IQ. For newer cameras, ISO 3200 is not a problem at all. Remember that the camera will ONLY raise the ISO to 3200 if the situation calls for it. Just because AutoISO is set to 3200 doesn't mean all your pictures will come out at ISO 3200. Your comparison pictures make no sense because in that particular situation, the camera will NEVER pick ISO 12,800.

  • Tony Page June 16, 2011 11:39 pm

    Leaving aside the potential aesthetic uses of noise, I really wonder how many of us actually have a final use of our images that make noise an important factor? Apart from the fact that sensor low light performance has dramatically increased in recent years, the truth is that the low size requirements on line and indeed in the prints (if any) most of us make minimize the depredations digital noise causes in acuity and texture.

    I use Nik Dfine to reduce noise where necessary, and it does a good job, but I sometimes wonder whether it's necessary when I'm reducing the size of my images for web use, or indeed small print use. There's such a lot of detail in our megapixel images these days, and we throw so much away when we reduce them to the dimensions in which they usually find their final form. Just do the maths, and you'll see what I mean.

    I always recommend using auto-ISO for travel photographers, and I certainly wouldn't limit it to ISO 400 or 800 unless I was intending to produce exhibition prints which required extreme acuity and noiseless textures. Of course, a lot depends on the quality of light, sensor and lens performance and the like, but you get my point.

    The important thing is to get the shot, and the more you can concentrate on that rather than fiddling about with aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings the better. No-one's saying that you don't have to keep an eye on what your camera is doing, but in any shooting situation certain factors are more important than others. If you need a shallow depth of field, you're going to pay particular attention to aperture and focus. If you need to freeze an action shot, shutter speed is a prime consideration. Now we all know that ISO will be influenced by our choices if we're using auto ISO, but frankly that's a minor matter compared to the other factors these days.

    Good shooting!

    Tony

  • Eric June 16, 2011 10:02 pm

    Mark/Robert

    Thank you for your help with this. I'm going to try what you both suggested.

  • Robert L June 16, 2011 09:50 pm

    @eric - Hey Eric another thing to look at are the camera's focusing modes. You need to learn how the camera works with the sensor modes in each setting - I can't remember the terminology for my Nikon but I believe I normally use Dymanic something or another - either way you pick a sensor and if the subject moves out of that sensors path then the next sensor will pick up the focus.

    Another focusing setting I use is AF-C for tracking moving objects - you half press the shutter to lock in on the subject and it will adjust in and out as he moves. Now if you have this setting on AF-S well..... you will get the first shot in focus (maybe) then the next in the sequence will all be blurry. AF-S will set the subject distance and then you can re-compose without loosing that distance - good for stationary objects... i guess

    Good luck and have fun capturing those moving subjects!

  • Mark June 16, 2011 03:40 pm

    @Lisandro -- If you look up some of the past surveys done on this site, the vast majority of members use either Canon or Nikon. All other brands do not equal either one of these two by themselves. This is why most articles have a focus on Nikon/Canon but that does not mean they are useless. In most cases the information is transferable to any brand, but it is up to you to learn the details from your manuals since most of the authors don't have experience with these minor brands. Usually Sony cameras have the same capabilities, just another way to get to the settings so learn and then look to your manuals for how to do it with your specific camera. Even Canon cameras do not all have the same way to set these things, but you can usually find out in your manual if it does and how to implement it. Good luck, Mark.

  • Mark June 16, 2011 03:31 pm

    @eric -- you really don't give enough info to answer your question well. One thing to look at is your aperture setting. Your exposure is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings. To freeze motion, you need a fast shutter setting, so the aperture needs to be as open as possible (low number) and then the ISO needs to raise enough to get the balance of the three to a proper exposure. I usually suggest that beginners try a shot with ISO set to "auto" and use the "program" setting on the camera which is basically "auto" without the flash being enabled without manual override. Then see what the camera "picked" and figure out what the image looks like. If the motion blur is too much, you need to set a faster shutter, so go to TV mode and set the shutter faster, take a shot and see what the camera picked for the other two settings. If your ISO is too high and you have a lot of noise, you need a faster lens where the minimum aperture is a lower number in order to do the type of shot you want or wait until a brighter time of day to try the shot. These are all a balancing act that require compromises unless you are rich and can have the very best equipment for all conditions. Hope this helps, Mark.

  • Kiren June 16, 2011 02:52 pm

    Hey
    Thank You for the info. I knew it it was there in DGcams but never took it very seriously.
    Now will go thru those settings. Great info.

    cheers
    kiren

  • Mei Teng June 16, 2011 10:50 am

    I agree the 5D Mark II does have an amazing ISO range. I always set my ISO manually.

  • aeww June 16, 2011 10:29 am

    D700 and 7000 here, auto iso at 6400 - I don't mind if it uses up to that, since it's clean enough as-is and after running thru lightroom/noise ninja/whatever smooth like cream.

  • Rachel Owens June 16, 2011 09:55 am

    This is great! I didn't know some cameras had this capability. Sadly I didn't see it on my Canon 7D. Maybe I'll have to check the manual to see if I am missing anything.

  • Major Bokeh June 16, 2011 08:10 am

    In normal daylight conditions and especially when I am taking snapshots and not really art, I love auto modes. But when I am trying to get a desired result, I always set my ISO manually. The 5D Mark II as well as other Canon models have an amazing ISO range.

    I often shoot at ISO 50 on a tripod for great clarity and when trying to show motion, to increase the length of time the shutter is open. On the other end you can raise the ISO to an absurd ISO 25,600! Loads of grain, but pretty amazing result in the lowest of light situations. Especially when coupled with the 50mm f/1.2 L.

  • Lisandro M. Enrique June 16, 2011 07:21 am

    I must say that I am a faithful reader of your site, and find it very interesting. The articles are always helpful, but there is something that makes me Noise: always make an example and talk about settings for Canon and Nikon.

    What about other brands? Ok, I understand that it is very difficult to mention all, but limited only to those two and it seems a bit overdone.

    Every time you show a trick or way to set the camera mentioned aspects only for Nikon and Canon. What about Sony? or other brands that have large number of users?

    As this is a comprehensive photo site, and assuming that is not sponsored by major brands to which you always refer must be logical that at least name other manufacturers.

    I hope my comments do not bother and concern, but it is very annoying for me to read articles, all the way often realize that are "limited" only to certain users.

    Anyway, the articles and your site feel great, I live in Argentina and make an effort to learn through your site even in a language that is not native to me. Say this, Im sorry for my poor english. :-P

    Thanks for everything, a big hug, Lisandro, proud owner of a Sony a55.-

    :-D

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer June 16, 2011 06:43 am

    Those are impressive ISO 12,800 results in the example photo!

    Increasing the ISO is a last resort for me, and on my Nikon D300 I almost never use over ISO 800.

    I have only ever used auto-ISO once, when photographing an equestrian event that had horse and rider going from a covered open air barn to direct sunlight and back again.

  • Eric June 16, 2011 05:42 am

    Hi Everyone,

    I am new to photography and new to DSLR camera's. For awhile now i've wanted to get into photography and purchase a decent DSLR camera so i finally did it. A couple days ago i purchased a Nikon D5100 and i love it. I've learned very quickly that its not always as easy to use a your normal digital camera that i'm use too. I have my camera set to auto focus and my ISO is set to 100. For the most part i'm taking very nice photos except for moving objects like a car driving by or my dog running behind our house, they all come out blurry. I've figured out i need to increase my shutter speed so i did but now my images are dark, very dark. If i increase my ISO then the images are brighter. My question being new to this is there somthing else i'm missing to capture a great quality photo of a fast moving object without increasing my ISO to 800+ or do you always have to increase your ISO for fast moving objects? Any advise would be greatly appreciated!

  • v June 16, 2011 04:43 am

    200 general - 800 max, just for clarification.

  • v June 16, 2011 04:42 am

    mine is set to 800.

  • Eric June 16, 2011 04:17 am

    Modern dSLR's (anything in the last generation or two) are remarkably low noise at higher ISO settings, and modern software (Lightroom 3 or Photoshop CS5) has some remarkable noise reducing capabilities. I used to be pretty averse to putting ISO at anything other than 200 - but now I can honestly say I just don't care. The camera seems to make the right call - you have a minimum shutter speed (set to whatever your minimum is for hand holding), after which it tries to increase the aperture, and then if it still needs more light it'll start cranking up the ISO.

    As a general rule, noisy photos are better than blurry photos, and properly exposed photos beat underexposed photos. So yeah, you can cap ISO at 400 or 800, but you've gotta make the compromise somewhere. If there's not much light, you either need a slower shutter or wider aperture, and if auto-ISO is kicking in that means you've probably maxed both out already. So I just let it go all the way to 3200 when necessary.

    The only time I turn it off is when I'm shooting with a tripod, but I'm usually shooting in full manual mode if I'm doing that anyway.

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com June 16, 2011 04:04 am

    I shoot car photography for my website http://CustomPinoyRides.com.

    Car photos always have to be crisp and free of noise to bring out the shine in the paint and stuff. So I always make it a point to shoot at the lowest ISO possible. Usually ISO 200, and then I just use a tripod.

  • Diego June 16, 2011 02:50 am

    I wish Canon would learn from how Pentax implements Auto ISO. With Pentax you can not only set a limit, but you can also set how the camera will choose the ISO - if you want it to choose a slightly higher ISO than usual so that you can attain high shutter speeds when shooting at Aperture Priority.

  • Rob June 16, 2011 02:36 am

    I so wish the 5DII had this feature. It is a great low light camera but if I could use auto ISO and limit it to 1600 it would minimize the on the fly changes when lighting quickly changes (I have this happen to me a lot when I am at a shoot with large windows on a partly cloudy day).

  • EF specialist June 16, 2011 02:26 am

    I'd love if my 7D had this auto ISO limit feature. Shame on Canon, simple FW update would do the trick...

  • Maine Weddings June 16, 2011 02:14 am

    I rarely used the Auto ISO when my main camera body was the D300s. It's really risky to use it with a cropped sensor. Now that I shoot with the D700 I use it all the time. I can get useable files at 6400 ISO which sounds ridiculous but it's true.

  • SJCT June 16, 2011 01:18 am

    I had no idea this was available either. Tonight, I check the settings!

  • ScottC June 16, 2011 01:02 am

    Interesting, I had no idea this feature was now available (my camera model is 4 years old).

    Though most of my photos are taken handheld I do try to keep the ISO as low as possible. For a long time I was stuck on "ISO 100", but the noise reduction capabilites in LR have improved dramatically (as have those in many newer camera models) and my subsequent willingness to use higher ISOs has opened up some opportunities.

    I don't use auto very often, but I have found one auto mode that my camera seems to do well with:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5820338573/

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 16, 2011 12:48 am

    Hi

    Great article explaining ISO and how to handle it with DSLRs. As a rule of thumb, I keep my ISO as low as I can with the given camera I am shooting with. If the light is manageable, then I want the sharpest image I can get. However, sometimes one isn't so lucky with light. For example, when shooting indoors at a Butterfly Exhibit, it seemed bright enough, but with ISO100 and my 100mm f2.8 opened up, it was impossible to get a decent shot due to low shutter speeds. I pushed the ISO to 800 and continued with now troubles.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/touch-down/

    The final quality turned out just great! In film days I would have had to pack multi ISO rolls anticipating poor light. Now it is so convenient!