Introduction to Photography ISO

Camera ISO Settings

Camera ISO Settings

Though digital photography long ago supplanted traditional film cameras in almost every setting, many remnants of the film era remain in the collective consciousness of today’s consumers and professionals. One such remnant is the term “ISO”, which at one time measured the sensitivity of a given roll of film to the light of a room or outdoor setting. This film sensitivity was labeled on every pack of film to indicate whether or not it would work in excessively bright or low-light situations. Today, camera or photography ISO is still around but is more closely associated with the sensitivity of a digital camera’s sensor to the light in a given area.

Lower is Better: How ISO Numbers Measure Light Sensitivity in Photography

In the film era, it was recommended that people always buy the lowest-ISO film they could find, since lower numbers indicated a better approach to the average light found in most homes or even most outdoor celebrations. Higher numbers were better for situations that had very little light available, including nighttime outdoor shots or darkened interior photo work. Today, that still applies but the adjustments must be made by the camera’s sensor instead of by the camera’s film.

ISO settings that are lower, typically between 100 and 800, indicate a sensitivity that will work with most traditional photo settings. Indoor lights, bright outside sunlight on a grassy surface, and the light from a sports stadium, will typically work well with these settings. Where they run into trouble, however, is the capture of low-light landscapes or darkly lit events happening inside.

When those circumstances arise, a higher ISO number should be selected by the user. Typically, numbers between 800 and 3200 are good for capturing photos in areas where there is little light available. These lower settings do change the nature of the photo, however, and those changes should be understood by photographers before they change how sensitive their camera’s image sensor is to the lighting of a given room or landscape.

ISO Impacts: What Happens When ISO Numbers Go Up or Down?

Changing a camera’s ISO setting is a great way to tweak its approach to light and improve the quality of a picture, but this is generally not an across-the-board enhancement. Alterations to the camera’s ISO setting will change the way a picture appears when it’s displayed on-screen or printed at a kiosk. Among those changes:


Higher ISO settings increase the grain of a photo. In this case, grain could be considered the “pixilation” or “smoothness” of a photo when it’s displayed or printed. Essentially, this is because the added sensitivity to light allows the subject to become much more fragmented when printed onto film or perceived by a digital sensor.


Higher ISO settings require greater light capture, and that can increase the amount of blur when using something between 800 and 3200. For this reason, those photographers using higher ISO should always mount their camera on a tripod so that the photo doesn’t suffer from an unnecessary amount of blur and confusion.

Movement Sensitivity

Even if a subject is not necessarily blurred, higher ISO settings are less supportive of fast movements and they might cause the background to become unintelligible if they stay focused on a given subject. As most photographers know, it’s almost always easier and more productive to capture a fast-moving subject in great light.

Camera Concerns: How ISO is Employed in DSLR and Point-and-Shoot Models

Today’s digital cameras are typically split into two distinct categories, with Digital SLR models representing professional photographers and hobbyists while point-and-shoot digital cameras remain a mainstay of home users, family members and vacationers everywhere. These two cameras are primarily different in their use and employment of fine control over the photo’s settings and quality. Accordingly, there are different methods of employing ISO within each type of digital camera.

  • DSLR cameras typically come with a full range of ISO settings at every level, manually controlled by an external knob or displayed on-screen for adjustment using the camera’s menus. These settings can be intricately controlled on a photo-by-photo basis, perfect for everything from birthday parties to concerts and beyond.
  • Point-and-shoot digital camera models typically have only a limited range of ISO settings, mostly for bright light, average light, and low light. Intermediary settings are typically not available for use. Furthermore, these cameras often employ Auto-ISO based on the perceived lighting of an area prior to the picture being taken. This removes a great deal of customizability, but it also produces pictures that are more predictably perfect than a Digital SLR’s manual settings adjustment would allow.

Consider ISO Settings to Be the “Mood Lighting” of Digital Photography

The most common use of a higher ISO setting is in environments where a flash would obscure the subject or ruin the mood of the event being captured. Consider a child’s birthday party: Shining a bright camera flash in the child’s face while the blow out the candles could ruin the moment and cause all kinds of complications. Simply using a higher ISO, and no flash, can maintain the mood and capture the event without disturbing it.

When it comes to controlling light and maintaining the natural ambiance that the photo seeks the capture, ISO settings are the way to go. Even more, when these settings are combined with aperture and shutter speed, they can permit advanced photography of even more stunning situations. It’s all part of the photography trifecta that produces great exposure and stunning results for photographers of all types.

PhotographyVox Newsletter

If you want to learn more about photography as well as get the latest updates on new cameras and equipment, you need to subsribe to our newsletter. On a weekly basis, we're sharing select exclusive tips and tricks. For a limited time by signing up you'll also get our new ebook "The step by step guide to take better photographs instantly", FREE.

Leave a Comment

Skip to toolbar