Use a High ISO to Create Grainy Shots

Use a High ISO to Create Grainy Shots


Today we’re going to continue our Breaking the Rules of Photography series by suggesting you experiment with a high ISO.

Don’t know what ISO is? Read this introduction to ISO before reading on.

While not really a ‘rule’ of photography – it is generally accepted in most photographic tutorials that you should avoid noise in your images at all costs by choosing the lowest ISO possible for the light situation that you’re shooting in. This will leave you with shots that are as smooth, clean and sharp as possible for the lighting conditions that you’re in.

While this is a recommended practice in most shooting circumstances – there are times where ramping up your ISO setting to it’s maximum can create some interesting effects.

Grainy or noisy shots can give your image a gritty and raw quality that creates a completely different mood in your shots.

I should say in concluding that this technique is getting more and more difficult as an in camera technique because manufacturers are getting better and better at eliminating noise and grain from high ISO settings. In the ‘old day’s of film this was a lot easier to do as high ISO films naturally had lovely gritty grain to them. Some cameras will end up with muddy/murky shots instead. A better route is probably to take a shot at a lower ISO and do some post production work to get the grainy effect that you’re after – however sometimes it’s more fun to try to get these effects in camera.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Lisa August 1, 2013 12:21 pm

    We paid a "professional" photographer to shoot our wedding pictures in a beautiful park in Florida. It was early evening and sort of overcast but not dark by any means. The professional took the majority of our shots (posed, still) at ISO1600. Bad results - very grainy.

    I've contacted the company and the owner is going to reprocess the raw files. Is there really anything that can be done to "correct" the bad technique. I fear not but I'm hopeful.

    I'm sooo extremely displeased. Should have had one of the cheap guys shoot the event in auto.

  • Mandeek LIVE November 12, 2011 05:40 am

    I agree with you, breaking the rules is necessary for creativity to be sparked. Yes these things can be achieved in post processing, but why not do it with the camera settings. This is how I got to know my camera, was by playing with the various settings, getting annoyed or pissed off then looking it up. I have come up with interesting shots, based on "oops" or "oh shit". I like the grainy look in say a portrait (depending on what I am doing) or especially a live band shot, mixed with black and white, or a cross-processing. Thanks for this post M|K

  • Luke July 22, 2011 05:17 am

    Agree to ben's comment. Also, if you're planning on submitting the photo to a contest or for publishing, many have restrictions on post-processing done to images.

  • Ben October 4, 2010 02:07 am

    I believe the digital options available to us in photo editing suites steer us away from making definite choices as photographers. I prefer to do as much as I can in camera instead of in post.
    How else will one learn? You have to make mistakes and analyze the settings and talk with yourself and see what you would have done differently. Might as well send a monkey out to shoot your pictures in full auto and then 'fix' them in post.
    I shoot manual; RAW; sometimes b/w; high ISO, etc,etc because I can. I make definite choices. If I don't like what I have, I learn and move on.

  • bobby August 5, 2010 03:29 am

    what is the fullform of ISO

  • Dyrdek December 21, 2009 10:10 pm

    seems that there fanboys of film photography here. guys, can you please stop whining about "film is not dead" and all that shit? accept the fact that digital is here, and if you want to stick with film, nobody's stopping you. just shut up, shoot, and please, don't be a Mr. Know-it-all, ok?

  • Jasper Van Tilburgh April 18, 2009 10:05 am

    I'm sorry but I'm reading some strange opinions about High Iso's..
    I'm a full time wedding photographer and I hate flashes so I don't make compromises on grain but only on those the couple could want to have realy big like some posed family shots. All the other pictures ment to give a right feeling of the place and time are most of the time taken with higher iso's.
    Never had complains about that right feeling of a picture. Grain? Yes I love grain and specially when it comes out a difficult light and place.

  • emily November 24, 2008 12:23 am

    i think that you are wrong you are just to affraid to experiment with your shots because someone might say they dnt like it and this will make you feel bad and insicure

  • Altweiss September 5, 2008 08:18 am

    Why try anything creative or artistic when photoshop is right there, just begging to hold your hand?

  • The Floating frog August 20, 2008 09:58 pm

    Nice try Calvin, Well done Darren for being professional in your reply. Nice article by the way.... Darren :)

  • Ricardo Baez-Duarte April 8, 2008 09:42 am

    Good tip.

    You can imitate the grain in Photoshop using the Add Noise filter.

    Just take this additional tip into consideration: open a new layer above the one you would like to add Noise.Open the new layer pressing the option key simultaneously and then you will see a dialog asking among other things the blending mode, set it to Overlay and click "Fill with overlay-neutral color (50% gray)".

    Then use the Add Noise filter on this new layer. You may use afterwards a little of Embose Filter to smooth the resulting texture.

  • aris October 4, 2007 04:18 am

    Also keep in mind that the noise produced as the result of in-camera high ISO settings is REAL. It is actual noise, as it occurs in the analog signal as it is amplified. Adding the noise later is artificial. Interpret this fact as you like ;)

    However, one advantage of adding noise is that dead pixels on the sensor will not come through. If you are unlucky enough to have some, you may have noticed that they are more prominent as ISO settings are higher.

    Another advantage of post is that you can control the amount of noise and even simulate the grain of certain film stock (right? I have only read about this).

    ... and what was fun when we were little? MAKING NOISE!!!

  • Darren September 2, 2007 08:35 pm

    Calvin - I think you are mistaken. I think your forum is quoting this article. The post on your forum was posted on 30 August at 10am - this post was posted on 29th of August at 12.01am. The person from your forum actually puts the passage in quotes and leaves a link to this forum.

    Really sorry but I always give credit where credit is due and I think you've made a mistake here.

  • Calvin September 2, 2007 04:13 pm

    Please give credits where it is due, you quoted from my forum, as a problogger you should know it is wrong to do so without any credit given

  • Ciarán September 1, 2007 03:19 am

    I don't know if I agree that grain should be added digitally in the post-production. For one it is more fun and challenging the "old fashioned" way. Secondly, I've never been able to get the same quality of grain from a digital camera compared to an analogue, especially in low light situations.

    I'm personally a big fan of grain. Not only do you get grain at a high ISO but the contrast is also increased. I took photos for a friend's wedding using film that was pushed to an ISO of 6400. The obvious benefit was that I could take photos inside without needing a flash and it also gave a beautiful contrast between the blacks of the tuxes and the white of the bride's dress.

  • Andrew Ferguson August 31, 2007 05:03 am

    I'm with Donncha, I tend to try and restrict my high ISO shots to black and white. Colour grain looks a lot less visually appealing than monochrome.

  • Suman Chakrabarty August 30, 2007 01:41 am

    I really liked michael's reply. :)

  • macdane August 29, 2007 11:34 pm

    Um, yeah... I typically use high ISO in two instances:

    A. When shooting in low available light (because I need to);

    B. Immediately after A, regardless of conditions, since I often forget to lower the ISO back to a reasonable level (because I'm sometimes just a moron).

    I can't think, offhand, of a time when I intentionally used high ISO simply because I wanted to, so I guess I have a project for this weekend!


  • Gwernyfedd August 29, 2007 11:15 pm

    What is the correct way to download camera raw to my computer so that I can edit using CS3.


  • mjt August 29, 2007 07:52 pm

    this brief article is a bit misleading. why? because "grain" and "noise" are really two different things as they relate to digital photography.

    secondly, the definition ("intro. to ISO") of what "ISO" (as it relates to a digital camera) is is also a bit off.

    grain, as properly used in the film world, is the side affect of a physical property of film ... it relates to the size of the grains [of silver halide, for example] in film emulsion. you can't duplicate this in a digital camera - you can only convincingly do this in post-processing.

    what you get by bumping up the ISO on a digital camera is image noise, because of the increased signal-to-noise ratio. the noise [produced by the camera] we see in "digital prints" are different than what we see in a film print. this noise will produce undesired color noise, which will make the print (or image) look "un-natural" compared to its film print sister.

    a simple test might is in order. shoot a subject at ISO 100 and then at a desired ISO for explicit noise ("grain"). bring both images off the camera into post-processing. apply the Noise-Scatter-HSV hack, in PS or The GIMP, to the ISO 100 image, and compare the two.

    one other observation concerning the "introduction to ISO" article - in cases where film is discussed, the past tense is used ("...was the indication ...". "It was measured..."), as if film is dead (many of us still shoot film :)

    regards, michael

  • Donncha O Caoimh August 29, 2007 04:56 pm

    I love the feel a high iso shot gives to b/w images. Colour isn't as forgiving however. Any time I've added noise after the fact it's always well received. I suppose it's a step away from the "always sharp, always perfect" type of shot that are popular on flickr and other sites these days.

  • elmer August 29, 2007 04:39 pm

    the only reason for me to use high ISO is when shooting in low light or shooting while avoiding the blur caused by hand or subject movement.

    but in scenes when there's no possible blur to occur, i would not use the high ISO.

  • onkel_wart August 29, 2007 04:22 pm

    You're missing one point here...
    I took this shot with available light only -- no flash.
    Meaning: Sometimes you will not be able to avoid using a high ISO setting resulting in more or less grain. Nevertheless -- a grainy image is not always bad (and I hope you like my shot....)

  • Darren August 29, 2007 12:39 pm

    you're both right (as I say in the article) - but don't you sometimes enjoy a bit of an in-camera challenge? :-)

  • Ryan August 29, 2007 09:00 am

    Agreed. There's no reason to purposely take a low quality shot when you can create the same effect in PP. You're out of luck if you decide a different effect would look better.

    And great shots are hard to capture again.

  • Harlan August 29, 2007 06:23 am

    Dude, this is Digital, right? Add grain in post-processing. If Photoshop is too challenging, Picasa or iPhoto or whatever will do it for you. The effect goes well with converting to black and white and increasing the contrast...