Reasons to Shoot High ISO Images

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1/125th at F2, ISO 6400 (Fuji X100s)

Fuji X100s: 1/125th at F2, ISO 6400.

The most common photographic fear that I come across these days is when people are afraid to raise the ISO setting on their cameras.

Just a handful of years ago, these fears were justified.  Raising your ISO to 1600 or 3200 was a no-go for a majority of cameras.

But no longer. Things are changing.

Some Reasons Why to Shoot High ISO  

The improvements in camera technology have been such that you can now photograph at ISO 1600, 3200, and even 6400 with many of the newer SLRs, micro four-thirds, and mirrorless cameras.

Before you move on, if you are unclear about what ISO is, read more on the subject here:

But doesn’t a lower ISO mean better image quality?

Canon 5D Mark II: 1/320th at F6.3, ISO 1600 (135mm). The high ISO allowed for a 1/320th shutter speed to account for both the motion in the scene and for the long focal length used.

Canon 5D Mark II: 1/320th at F6.3, ISO 1600 (135mm). The high ISO allowed for a 1/320th shutter speed to account for both the motion in the scene and for the long focal length used.

Well yes – and no.

Yes, if you are setting up a studio shot and controlling the lighting.  Yes, if you are using a tripod, if you are a landscape photographer, or if there is very strong natural light.  Yes, if you don’t have to compromise your shutter or aperture settings to expose the shot correctly.  ISO 200 will always create a significantly sharper and cleaner image than a shot at ISO 1600 when the aperture and shutter settings are the same.

In every other case the answer is no.

Raising your ISO will give you the ability to capture a higher quality photograph in many situations because it gives you the ability to use a faster shutter speed and smaller aperture (a larger aperture number) to get a sharper scene.  Getting the aperture and shutter settings correct are much more important than using a low ISO in creating a technically great photograph.

If you want to know how great event photographers consistently create such bright and beautiful images, it’s not only because they use fast lenses and flashes.  It’s because they are not afraid to raise the ISO to very high levels to capture the natural light in a scene.

In addition, the look of grain at high ISOs in digital cameras has become more pleasing.  The newer camera models have not only reduced the strength of grain (noise) at high ISOs, but they have given that grain a more pleasing look.

ISO has now become a luxury instead of an obstacle.  We can photograph in dark areas while handholding the camera when we need to.

Detail Shot of the 5D Mark II at ISO 1600. Minimal, pleasing grain.

Detail Shot of the 5D Mark II (released in 2008) at ISO 1600. Minimal, pleasing grain.

When shooting at a high ISO, get the exposure right

The major problem with photographing at a high ISO is that raising the exposure in post production significantly will ruin the look of the grain.  Raising the exposure a small amount is usually okay, but if you are photographing with a high ISO, you need to be even more diligent than usual about exposing your images correctly in the camera.

Pay attention to colour noise versus black and white noise

You also want to pay attention to how your camera handles the look of noise in your colour images.  The Fuji X100S, for instance, handles colour noise exceptionally well, where as other cameras do not do so well with colour noise at very high ISO levels.  However, in many cases, the problem can often be solved by simply turning the photo into black and white.

Fuji X100S, tiny detail at 6400.  Excellent color noise.

Fuji X100S, detail shot at ISO 6400. Very significant grain but excellent colour noise.

Take a look at the image detail above.  This was taken with a compact mirrorless camera at the very extreme end of its ISO range, 6400.  Yes, there is a lot of grain but it still looks good.   I prefer not to go over 3200 with this camera when I can avoid it, but without using ISO 6400 here I probably would not have been able to capture this image.

How do I test my camera’s ISO?

I wish I could talk about specific cameras here, but the list is too long.  I use the Canon 5D Mark II (released in 2008) and Fuji X100S and regularly shoot at ISO 1600, 3200, and even 6400 when capturing the city streets at night.  The Canon 5D Mark III does an even better job with noise at high ISO.

Each camera has different noise (grain) levels, so the first step is to research reviews on the noise levels of your camera or potential purchase.

If you own the camera already, the next step is to test it out yourself.  Make sure you are using a fast shutter speed and an aperture of somewhere between F8 and F16, so that each image you take is guaranteed to be sharp.  Then take the same shot at ISO 200 all the way through 6400.  Look at the images zoomed in to 100% (1:1 in Lightroom) on your monitor in both black and white and colour.

If you have a photo printer, I highly suggest printing out those images to see how the grain looks in real life and to see the differences between each image.

It is also important to remember, if you are regularly printing at smaller sizes, such as 5×7 or 8×10, then you will likely not notice a significant difference between ISO 200 and 1600.  If you prefer to print at larger sizes, such as 13×19 or 20×30, then there will be a noticeable difference.  So test it out.

Canon 5D Mark II: 1/500th at F9, ISO 800 (28mm).

Canon 5D Mark II: 1/500th at F9, ISO 800 (28mm).

Zoomed in - insignificant grain at ISO 800.

Zoomed in – insignificant grain at ISO 800

Fuji X100S: 1/250th at F9, ISO 1600.

Fuji X100S: 1/250th at F9, ISO 1600.

Insignificant and pleasing grain.

Zoomed in – insignificant and pleasing grain

Grain is beautiful!

Do you remember the last old, grainy photograph that you saw in person?  It was gorgeous, right?  Digital technology is getting there.  Now is the time to get over your fear and try out shooting at higher ISO!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • Hear hear! I had this fear of high ISOs, leading me to take a tripod everywhere. I found that very quickly I felt restricted by the tripod, and embracing high ISOs let me leave the thing at home and get more creative with camera position and composition – far more useful for someone at my early stages in photography.

  • Mark

    Completely agree. I was on a trekking holiday and one night, around the camp fire we were joined by some local children who started singing and dancing away – made for incredible photos, but with the light had to shoot them at ISO 10,000 (on a 6D) – yes there is a bit of noise if you view it at 100%, but at normal viewing sizes the photos really capture what was happening and just wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to bump the ISO up. It’s about the photo, not the technicality (well…not always true….but you know what I mean!)

  • I am quite timid as a photographer but ISO has never managed to scare me! http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Yeah Charlie – don’t mean at all to knock tripods as they’re necessary and I use them pretty often, but I get the most interesting shots and adventure much more when I go handheld with a high ISO.

  • jt

    I use the auto ISO feature on my Nikons whenever I’m not shooting in a studio environment and it works beautifully in all conditions. Set the base at 100 or 200, depending on the camera’s default setting and then chose which mode you want to use. I generally use aperture priority unless doing fast action such as sports. Then shutter priority or manual is better.

  • Spoonie

    For those that are afraid of high IOS’s I think this is a good article, but I think there is some clarification that is needed on the use of the term “grain”. Digital noise from a camera sensor is chroma-noise. Film grain is luminance-noise, it’s a random optical texture that is inherent in film. Digital noise doesn’t even approximate to grain, your sensor is a square grid, its not possible for it to have grain like a metallic silver or dye cloud emulsion.

    I realise a lot of digital photographers have not and will probably never shoot film, but its still important to understand what these things really are, film grain is individual to every emulsion, different films were chosen often on the characteristic of the grain, your digital sensor will always reproduce the same noise pattern.

  • Yes great clarification Spoonie. Film grain and digital noise are very different things, although they have some similar characteristics.

  • Johan Bauwens

    On my 6D I’m not afraid to use Iso 10.000 either, which gives the same result as Iso 4000 on my previous 5DII… But it’s all about size. My old (2007) 1DIII can take pics at Iso 3200 and when magnified on your computer screen, it looks horrible, but it doesn’t show any grain when printed on a A4 sheet ! Don’t pixelpeep on your screen :-).

  • Tim Lowe

    Check your camera’s performance at higher ISO settings. Sensors are getting much better. My D800 performs flawlessly at setting that were pretty gritty on my D300s.

  • Richard Keeling

    Excellent article. I was at an art museum photo shoot with my photo club and despite the low level lighting and prohibition on using tripods, some of my friends still felt unable to go to high ISOs. Missing out on good shots as a result.

  • Tracy V

    Thank you so much…I do believe you have converted me…I am terrified to go more than 200 ISO because my images will be ‘bad’! You’ve sent me on a mission!

  • Steve1812

    Good article. I favour sports/action/theatrical shots where when the light is poor, many go home. I turn up the ISO to get the speed I need and 1600 on a Canon 50D is not too shabby. Yes some noise removal in appropriate software – mostly colour not luminance, and I have shots I am proud to have snapped. Beats going home.
    Iso 3200 needs a fair bit of help on a 50D but Im still there.

  • Night shooting with high ISO during one of the many LA Art Walk nights: http://www.flickr.com/photos/capsloc/sets/72157634618451930/

  • Doug

    ” it’s a random optical texture that is inherent in film. Digital noise doesn’t even approximate to grain, ”

    Well, yes and no. It is only random in the sense that the film medium is not a uniform material like a digital sensor is (as you said). However, digital noise is an exact approximation of grain.
    They are both, in essence, a visual limit to the resolution of the recording medium, based on the desired speed of the medium’s reaction to the light hitting it.
    You trade visual resolution for a more reactive medium and the ability to utilize the desired (or necessary) shutter speed and aperture.

    “your digital sensor will always reproduce the same noise pattern.”

    Umm. I don’t think so. You do understand what ‘noise’ means in this context right? It’s a random response to the light hitting the sensor. In the end, you are getting a zero or a one either way, but you are not going to see the same noise from shot to shot. You could say the same thing about film using this kind of logic. I shot rolls of 800 speed film in the past that looked like they all had the same noise in them, but it was still random.

    @jamaher:disqus ,
    Good article. I think you did a great job of showing what is possible with high ISO shots.

  • Edmund

    Grain is beautiful. Yes I used to think this with film, maybe pushed a couple of stops to enhance the grain. But with the quality of modern cameras I no longer think it is attractive. Photoshop will add grain for you if you want that effect but taking the best RAW photo should be the aim and bumping up the ISO to hand-hold a shot should not be encouraged.
    Yes, I pushed 400 ISO film by two stops when necessary but that was in the days that there was no other alternative. I see photographers in these discussions exposing at 2000/th of a second at 1600 ISO – why would they do that? Why does Mr Maher think that ISO 1600 with f9 at 250/th is better than at f4.5 at 400 ASA?

  • Barry E Warren

    Great Info on ISO. I’m always fooling around with ISO and everything else on my camera.I’ve had some pretty good shots in the higher ISO settings. Thanks…

  • John A.

    Digital sensor noise does have a less-than-random component.

    No manufacturing process is perfect, and there will be variations in sensitivity and readout from one sensor dot to the next that will introduce a consistent bias from shot to shot.

    It can be seen if you take a couple dark frame shots (lenscap on), stretch the histogram in post, and compare.

    Dark frames can also be subtracted from an otherwise equally-exposed frame (ISO & time) to remove much of that consistent noise component.

    https://digital-photography-school.com/?s=%22dark+frame%22
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark-frame_subtraction

  • PPL

    Yes, modern camera’s with low noise open a new world in handheld photography. ISO 12800 is perfectly usable on my D3S. Tripod photpgraphy in low light is still a valid form of photographic art, but high ISO also catches some low light atmosphere you can’t get with a tripod because of subject motion blur. It’s great to get usable (or even good or excellent) images out of very low light situations like in museums, theaters, etc. without having to rely on flash or tripods. The somewhat grainy look works well on many subjects.

    Yet I agree that leaving the camera at high iso at all times is not the way to go, Edmund has a valid point there. the resulting image must make sense, whatever the ISO you chose to use.

  • Gordon

    I agree, I am always amazed at how people do shy away from using high ISO. I enjoy shooting rodeo shots and frequently they are held at night under poor lighting. To freeze the action I have to use a high ISO often up around 12500 and sometimes faster to be to get a shot , no motion blur. I use a Canon 5d Mk11 and also a Mk3.

  • Lorri A

    I figured early on that if my camera had these higher ISO settings I may as well try them out, nowadays I quite often shoot at ISO 3200, and get some awesome stuff. The grain is virtually non-existent at normal viewing sizes, yeah, it’s there at 100%, of course it is, but that’s when I tell myself off for ‘pixel-peeping’.

  • Ossy

    Not sure if I agree with you about not using a tripod. I can hear what you are saying about the nuisance value of carrying one around. A bit depends on what lens you are using. I find if I am shooting a sporting event Rodeo, polo cross, BMX, mountain bikes, I can get much better results by using a tripod and tracking the subject than trying it hand held. If you have a heavy lens its also a lot less tiring using a tripod than hand held.

  • Lorri A

    Share some of your results with us when you do, please.

  • Lorri A

    You’ve got some magical images there, night shooting definitely calls for a higher ISO, especially with people in the shots.

  • For me, it is about maximising my learning. As I am relatively inexperienced, I have been concentrating on learning more about compositional techniques and how to create strong images, and found that the freedom of movement offered without a tripod really helped to explore different compositions, angles etc.

    Obviously for certain shooting scenarios, tripods are desirable and even essential – just depends on where you are with your photography and what you are trying to achieve.

    I do feel though that a dislike of higher ISOs isn’t a particularly good reason to use a tripod.

  • Ossy

    I think we are splitting hairs on the difference between a grainy shot on a film and noise in a digital image. The basic facts are if we choose to push the equipment we are using beyond normal parameters then there will be a trade off in the quality of the image. Years ago like 25 or 30 years ago before the digital age I was doing some cave photography on the Nullarbor with a group of professional Japanese photographers they had film with a ASA of 1000 and were pushing this upto 1500, something we mere mortals had never experienced back then.

  • Spoonie

    Digital noise is chroma noise, if you look at a uniform colour section of a high noise image you will see pixels of abdomen different colours, and it will be in a square grid (which is what I mean by the same pattern).

    Film grain is luminance noise, if you look at grainy film what you will see is different shaped “grains” of (nearly) all the same colour but at different luminosities. In a blue sky you will only see blue.

    Film grains are different shapes, they are not little boxes arranged in a uniform grid. For instance some are like “T” shapes that all fit together.

    Some grain can be really attractive, it adds a pleasing pattern to the image simply to the way that bokeh can be pleasing (and in the same way some if just ugly).

    Photographers chose certain films not just because of the speed or contrast characteristics, but because of the characteristics of the grain, particularly in B/W photography.

  • Zach

    I don’t personally like grain in my photos.

  • Claude B.

    I don’t mind about high ISO. One evening in a dark inside area, there was a kid next table eating ici cream, and no time to settle the camera to get a quick shot. I put my camera on automatic and get few shots. There were of course grainy but I had that great moment. Then I check those shots and there were at ISO 20,000 and 23,500. Modified in B & W were another possibility to used-it.

  • I shoot at a high ISO very, very often. I am shooting street photogaphy on The Strip at night in Las Vegas. My major problem is the crowd that seems to be never ending. I get good sharp photos using a mono-pod. However, for safety reasons regarding the crowd, I mostly shoot with no support. The last thing I need is people coming down on me with a law suit because they tripped over my equipment. You use the equipment you can afford, and do the best you can. Work at it, the rest will come.

  • marius2die4

    I have a Olympus e620 release in 2009 or 2008. I don’t have any problem at image like image before.The problems occur when I shoot wildlife or sport. In this case, in many picture the noise is not so pleasant. For architecture, landscape, portret is not a problem.

    Some of my picture:

    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/

  • Ossy I didn’t mean it to seem like I was saying you should do this instead of using a tripod. Tripods and monopods are essential for a significant portion of photograph. I use a tripod a lot. I meant to say that you don’t always need to use a tripod at night and you’ll end up getting completely different types of shots when you go out without one.

  • Edmund I hear what you’re saying but the point of this was to talk about capturing images where there’s no other alternative than to use a high ISO. Shots at high ISOs on most newer digital cameras look very attractive when done well.

    I would never expose at 1/2000th at ISO 1600 unless there happened to be a mistake.

    Using 1/250th at F9 at ISO 1600 on my Fuji X100s on the other hand is a fantastic way to shoot street photography when the light is not very bright. That is one of my go to settings. I prefer the extra depth of field to make sure more of the scene is sharp for these type of images and F4.5 is not ideal when I can use F9 for street photography. F9 was a choice and not a mistake. When I want to use F4.5 and have less DOF for my photos I’ll go down to 400 ISO, but the point of this article was to say that it’s more important to get the aperture and shutter speed ideal (whatever your ideal settings may be) than the ISO (for handheld photography).

  • The 5D Mark III ISO is incredible!

  • Happy to hear that Tracy!

  • I have not tried the 6D Johan, does ISO 10,000 really approximate 4000 on the Mark II? Is so, that’s incredible!

  • I pixel-peep too Lorri 🙂 It’s good practice to do it but I always have to remind myself that the normal viewing distance is at least a foot or two away, if not a lot more for large images.

  • PPL I agree with you – I was not trying to say that you should always use high ISO. Far from it. Tripods and low ISO are necessary for a lot of situations. The point was to open people up to understanding the situations where using a high ISO can make their photographs much better.

  • Thanks Barry!

  • Johan Bauwens

    Yep, not joking. Check out this pic (there is some grain and there was colour noise, that’s why I converted it to black and white) :

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/23084668@N07/10126503103/

  • paperpilot

    James I notice you often use a micro four-thirds format as an example but don’t shoot one. I have been shooting with a Panasonic DMC-G5 recently and found digital noise not to be a problem up to ISO 1600. I recently shot photos the night of my granddaughter’s wedding where I had to shoot at ISO 3200. The grain was quite apparent and objectionable if I had to do a large amount of cropping. Framing the shot was much more important at this ISO.

  • Wow pretty serious.

  • I use APS-C and full frame, not micro four-thirds. Both the Fuji X100s and Mark II do very well at 3200 and decent at 6400. Although I don’t have much first hand experience with micro four-thirds, I don’t think they’re quite to that level yet with ISO, but I could be wrong. I’d guess that I’d feel comfortable up to 1600 with a lot of those cameras and I’d think some wouldn’t do well past 800.

    And really each camera is different, so it’s tough to say.

  • Ossy

    Ossy, well I don’t mind receiving some criticism so I will post a couple of shots that were taken using High ISO
    and a tripod. I would welcome any comments being made its the best way to learn. There is some noise in both shots but I probably would not have got the shots if I hadn’t used a higher than normal ISO.
    The first one is taken at 6400 ISO, with a Canon 5D MK3 using a Canon 300mm f2.8 + 1.4 extender @ 1/1250/f4
    The second one in the bull ride later in the evening under lights
    Canon 5DMK3 Canon 300mm lens 1/800 @f2.8 ISO 25000
    I would really appreciate any comments anyone can offer on these images. I shoot a lot of Rodeo and quite often under difficult lighting conditions, shooting into the sun from inside a covered yard / arena, great for the riders but shocking for trying to get a decent photo. I am not a pro photographer by any means just a very enthusiastic amateur. I used a tripod for both shots.

  • Alex

    John, dark frame subtraction is used to eliminate noise caused by heat due to long exposure. It’s completely different to noise generated by ISO which is amplification of the sensor output. At a given time, place, temp and shutter speed heat noise is fairly repeatable. ISO is not or it could be easily eliminated or reduced by a dark frame subtraction type method.

  • Edmund

    Thank you so much James for the personal feedback. I understand completely, if you have no alternative better to up the ISO than not to take the shot but a lot of photographers (me included) would rather use the F2.0 on your Fuji and a lower ISO. Thank goodness we are all different!

  • Susan Hilpert

    When I discovered a family of screech owls in my SC yard in summer of 2012 I had to use a high ISO (as much as 6400) because they were only out at dawn and dusk. Also I was usually ducking (if not crawling) under the shrubbery to get clear shots. Without a tripod, I was able to get within 3 to 4 feet of the three youngsters and got some amazing shots. The high ISO also allowed me to use a faster shutter speed as they tended to move their heads a lot!

  • Edmund

    You are quite right there, the grain from my Panny G3 is unacceptable over ISO 800, occasionally I’ll push it to 1600 but the final image must only be postcard size.

  • Edmund

    Why has no one mentioned flash? I know that it alters the mood but with a card to bounce it off and a cheap slave unit to give some side lighting this is a valid alternative to high ISO.

  • skipc43

    I often like to shoot high iso just because of the noise and graininess. In certain shots, it actually enhances the mood of the shot.

  • Totally understand – for certain scenarios tripods are essential. My point is that it depends on where you are in your learning of photography – for me I’m still concentrating on improving composition, and I find hand-held shooting is more conducive to improving in this area (in my opinion).

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