Travel Photo Tips: What is ISO, and how does it affect my pictures?

what is iso

ISO. Three little letters which stand for International Organization for Standardization (not exactly thrilling) and make a monumental difference in the outcome of images, particularly in low-light scenarios. It’s one of the most prominently featured specifications of any modern digital camera, and it’s one single aspect that can make a night-and-day difference in the outcome of your shots. If you’re on the road, on vacation or just galavanting about with your new camera, there are a few key pointers you need to know about how ISO works, and how it can affect the snapshots your take. We’ll spare you the behind-the-scenes, science-y explanation on ISO though and get right to the heart of the matter.

While film and photography purists may balk at the assumption, the average photographer really only needs to know a couple of things about ISO — particularly the novice who simply needs their vacation photos to look at least somewhat like how they remember the scene looking.

FIn general, if a camera has a wide ISO range then it can capture faster moving action in low-light settings. Also, higher ISO ranges enable handheld shots to be taken further into the evening (and without blur). The gallery below highlights every single ISO stop between 200 and 104,200 on a Nikon D3s. Few cameras will offer an ISO range similar to this, but walking through it shot-by-shot gives you a great view of how a boosted ISO alters the outcome of a shot. Pictures are worth a thousand words, as they say. All of the other settings were kept constant for these shots (Shutter Speed: 1/8 of a second; f/5.0; 50mm focal length, no flash fired; auto white balance; tripod-mounted shot). Click the ‘Read More’ link here for a deeper dive into ISO, along with loads of pointers on how and when to tweak the value when shooting.

%Gallery-112103%Most point-and-shoot digital cameras have an ISO range from 200 to 800. A few of the nicer models extend from 200 to 1600, and an elite few at the highest-end extend from 200 to 3200 (Casio’s EX-H20G comes to mind). We’ll focus on the majority here in order to drive home a point. Chances are, the average point-and-shoot that you pick up will top out at ISO 800. If you force this camera to shoot at ISO 800, you will still have trouble shooting handheld images in low-light scenarios. Why? The inverse relationship between ISO and shutter speed.

You see, when shooting in low-light, there are five main things you can rely on to get a decent, visible, usable shot:

  1. A flash. This works almost every single time, but it usually blows out your shot, makes everything in the center a blinding white, and generally makes pictures look “fake.” Consider the use of a flash your last resort, but on a point-and-shoot, it’s likely to be a must.
  2. More light. If you have an indoor family portrait that you’re struggling with, try taking things outdoors. The sunlight vastly improves shots, and you should always seek outdoor light first and foremost before turning to a flash, a heightened ISO setting or a slower shutter. Natural light is king.
  3. Increased ISO setting. In general, the higher the ISO value, the faster your shutter speed can be while still grabbing a usable shot. Conversely, your shutter will need to be slowed as your ISO value is dropped in order to prevent an overly dark photograph. Unfortunately, specks of “noise” and grain are introduced with each heightened ISO value, so it’s never as simple as just “maxing out the ISO,” at least not if you care about image quality.
  4. Slowed shutter speed. If you slow your shutter to 1/8 of a second (as an example), you’ll probably be very impressed with how much light can be captured. Unfortunately, anything slower than 1/60 of a second is nearly impossible for a human to shoot handheld without introducing blur, and that’s for still life. If your subject is moving, you’ll need to shoot at around 1/160 of a second or faster to ensure that nothing is blurred. Of course, if you use a tripod and / or a remote shutter trigger, handling these slowed shutter speeds becomes much more possible, though the setup process is far slower than simply pulling a camera from your pocket, pointing, and shooting. Sadly, most P&S models will not allow you to manually slow the shutter (or adjust the f/stop, for that matter).
  5. Lower (“open”) your aperture. If you have an interchangeable lens camera or DSLR, and you can adjust the f/stop of your lens, tweaking that number lower will allow more light to flood in but will simultaneously give you a shorter depth of field. This means more of the background will blur (introducing an effect known as “bokeh“), but it’s a great way to grab more light. Most P&S cameras will not give you this option.

For example’s sake, let’s say that you’re no fan of your camera’s inbuilt flash. Let’s also say you don’t have a tripod handy. Finally, let’s say that you’re stuck indoors in a low-light situation with no way to increase the amount of ambient light. This scenario is more common than you may expect. This is the exact scenario that most encounter when going out for a family dinner. This also describes most wedding receptions. Sadly, this also describes most hotel rooms that you’ll want to capture on vacation.

what is iso

Now, with your camera set at ISO 200, you’ll notice one or two things. One, there’s essentially no grain or noise to be found. But unless your shutter speed is extremely slow (approximately 1/60 of a second or slower), your image will be almost completely dark. That’s no good for anyone. For example’s sake, let’s set the shutter to 1/160 — assuming you have a camera that allows you to adjust this setting. In a dark room, with the shutter at 1/160 of a second or so (fast enough to shoot handheld without blur), and ISO at 200, with the flash off, you’ll basically get a black shot. Go ahead and try it. Your results will almost definitely be too dark. Here’s where you realize what kind of magic lies in the ISO value. Keeping all other settings the same, bump that ISO value to 800, or 1600 / 3200 if your camera supports it. Now take the same shot. You’ll notice a much, much brighter imagine, albeit one with some level of grain or noise. In some cases, even “maxing out” the ISO isn’t enough — you’ll simply be forced to slow the shutter and use a tripod or let the flash fire.

what is iso

But since we’re focusing this article on ISO, let’s talk a bit more about that noise and grain. Basically, you’ll be able to take clearer, more visible shots in low light as you bump the ISO value higher (assuming your shutter speed remains the same!), but the compromise is that you allow more noise and grain into your shots. It’s a tradeoff, so to speak. The inverse is true as well. As you back the ISO value down closer to 100 or 200 (whatever the minimum is for your specific camera), you’ll see darker images, albeit ones that are very sharp. The goal is to strike a balance. Find an ISO setting that introduces a bearable amount of noise, yet still gives your camera the ability to take more visible shots in dim situations.

If you’re able, it’s always preferable to slow the shutter speed in order to take the pressure off of your ISO value. But unless you have a tripod and / or subjects that aren’t moving, that’s not always an option. This very reason is why ISO values on cameras are so important, particularly high ranges. The higher the ISO range on your camera, the better off you are after sunset and indoors. If your DSLR, for example, can reach ISO 6400, you can manage to grab more visible shots than a similar DSLR with an ISO ceiling of just 3200, all other settings being equal. Taking that to an extreme, Nikon’s D3s has a native (non-boosted) ISO range of 200 to 12,800. Needless to say, having an ISO value of 12,800 at your disposal means that you can take very useable images in near-darkness, but of course you’ll have noticeable grain to deal with. But when it really comes down to it, you’d probably rather have a noisy shot of your anniversary dinner than a shot distorted by blur or simply too dark to make out what’s going on.

what is iso

In case I haven’t convinced you, buying a camera with a wide ISO range is very important. You’ll probably end up taking more low light pictures than you’d expect, and it’s always nice to have a high ISO range to resort to if you simply must get the shot. In general, the higher the price on a camera (be it a point-and-shoot, an interchangeable lens / Micro Four Thirds camera or a DSLR), the higher than ISO range will be.

My overly simple advice here is to buy the camera with the highest ISO range that you can afford; you can never have too high of an ISO value at your disposal. Nikon’s D3s is the current ISO king, but retails for over $5000. Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH2 Micro Four Thirds camera just recently started to ship in the U.S., and it has set a new bar for ISO range on a Micro Four Thirds camera. It can reach as high as 12,800 and retails for just $900. Casio’s Exilim EX-H20G has a surprisingly great ISO 3200 setting, and it’s amongst the best out there for low-light shooting in the point-and-shoot arena at $350.

Let’s recap:

  • The higher the ISO, the greater your camera’s ability to shoot in low light (with the shutter speed remaining equal)
  • The higher the ISO, the more noise and grain are introduced into your images
  • The lower the ISO, the more you’ll need to rely on external light sources, a flash or a slowed shutter
  • “Maxing out” your ISO can help you capture a shot you otherwise wouldn’t get, but if it results in too much grain when you preview it, you should consider using a flash, slowing the shutter speed, using a lower f/stop (which decreases the depth of field and blurs more of the background) or seeking more light via lamps or by heading outdoors

Stay tuned for more tips on understanding shutter speed, metering, f/stop, white balance and more!

Dana Murph is a creative photographer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can view more of her work at Dana Jo Photos and contact her via Twitter at @danajophotos.

Photo of the day (9.23.10)


Some photos beg more questions than they answer. Flickr user Marisoleta snapped this statue in Nagasaki, Japan, and the caption notes that the figure is Kannon atop a turtle-shaped temple, surrounded by little children. Kannon is the Japanese Buddhist goddess of compassion, which may account for the children, but what about the turtle? She is also known as a protector of seamen, which could also extend to sea turtles. Fun fact: camera company Canon is named for the goddess as well. The temple also includes a Foucault’s pendulum, one of the largest in the world, to demonstate the rotation of the earth and a bell that chimes daily to commemorate the atomic bomb explosion.

Capture an interesting shrine on your travels, or any giant turtles? Submit to the Gadling Flickr Pool and it could be our next Photo of the Day.

Canon Powershot SX210 IS digital camera review

As part of our ongoing series of camera reviews, this review will take a closer look at the new Canon Powershot SX210 IS. The SX210 IS offers some of the best specifications of any point and shoot camera – a compact body with a 14.1 megapixel sensor, 14x optical zoom, HD video, 3″ LCD screen and a variety of smart shooting modes.

Despite housing a massive 14x optical zoom, the SX210 IS is a very compact camera – and as part of this new generation of ultra-zoom point and shoot cameras, its zoom performance is actually very good.

On the back of the SX210 IS, you’ll find the usual controls – a D-PAD/scroll wheel, play, erase, display and menu buttons and a quick mode selector knob.

On the top is the zoom knob, along with power and shutter control. Next to these buttons on the top is a stereo microphone and a pop-up flash.

On the side is where you’ll find a MiniUSB jack and MiniHDMI. Both these connectors already give the SX210 IS high marks in my books – because too many camera manufacturers are sticking with their own proprietary connectors – something Canon moved away from on most of their products.

The LCD on the rear is large and bright – and works fairly well in direct sunlight – which is just as well, because the camera lacks an optical viewfinder. In fact, you’ll have a hard time finding optical viewfinders on any point and shoot camera
nowadays.

Now on to the actual performance of the camera – start up time is quick – under 2 seconds. One annoying part of the start up is the position of the flash – it pops up on the top left, and even after two weeks, I still find myself holding it there when I turn it on. Not a huge deal, it just means I usually have to manually raise it.

Zoom is quick, but the zoom control is very poorly designed. The small zoom rocker is sharp, and after a lot of zooming, you’ll actually hurt your fingers. It takes a lot of pressure to move the zoom at its fastest.

Thankfully those two minor issues are the only negatives – photo quality is fantastic, and video quality is above average for a point and shoot camera.

To prove my point, check out these two photos showing off the zoom capabilities of the camera – both were taken at the same spot:

Menus on the SX210 IS are very easy to navigate, despite being loaded with a ton of features. The layout is such that I never got lost, so kudos to Canon for their user interface design. The menus can be navigated using the D-pad (button) or scroll wheel for quick navigation.

One menu item I do want to point out is the dedicated section for Eye-Fi memory cards – as a huge fan of Eye-Fi cards, having special camera features for these wireless cards is just plain brilliant. The camera stays powered on during transfers, and you can check the wireless status on the display. In addition to this, you can enable or disable the wireless portion of the card, which is perfect if you want to save some battery life.

The Canon SX210 IS retails for $349.99 – street price seems to average about $30 less. This puts it quite a bit above the price of the recently reviewed Nikon S8000 (with a 10x optical zoom), but the 14x zoom on the Canon does justify its higher price.

All in all I’m loving the SX210 IS – so much in fact, that it is finally a camera I’ve settled on (after purchasing and reviewing a whole bunch of others). So, until the next best camera comes along, I’m going to highly recommend the Canon Powershot SX210IS as the best travel friendly point and shoot camera of the summer season. It will not disappoint.

Canon offering free photography workshops in national parks this summer

Camera manufacturer Canon is preparing to hold a series of digital photography workshops in several national parks this summer beginning in Yosemite this June. Those workshops will run from the 7th through the 28th, before moving on to the Grand Canyon National Park in July, then on to Yellowstone and Acadia National Park in August. You can check the full schedule of locations, dates and times, by clicking here.

The workshops will be led by teams of professional photographers, who will share a host of tips to improve your photography skills, including how to get the best outdoor scenery shots possible. Best of all, the workshops are absolutely free, and you don’t even need to bring your own camera equipment if you don’t want to. Canon will have several of their own DSLR models, as well as a variety of lenses, on hand for you to test drive.

Each of the parks will offer their respective workshops on a variety of days and times, but generally there are options for morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. Check the schedule for the park you intend to visit to find the time that works best for you. It is also recommended that you get there 15-30 minutes early, as the photos courses are expected to fill up quickly.

And when you’re done with the workshop, and you’ve captured that perfect photo, you can enter it into the Canon Photography in the Parks contest. All landscape and wildlife photos are eligible, and the winner gets an all expense paid trip for two to a national or state park, and a Canon photography package that includes a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM kit lens, and a Pixima Pro9500 Mark II photo printer.

[Photo Credit: Mila Zinkova]

One night in Beijing

Asian cities like Beijing come alive at night. Neon hums from high above local buildings; meat sticks sizzle on charcoal; the whizzing hum of passing traffic toys with your ear. Guardian photographer Dan Chung recently found himself in Beijing and attempted to capture this lively nocturnal feeling using his camera. Not content to use standard video camera, Chung’s work is made entirely using a still image Canon EOS5DmkII and a couple special lenses.

The photography medium makes perfect sense when you see it: the scenes practically shimmer with bright colors and cinema-perfect lighting and shadow. Take a break for the next four minutes and bask in the movements and colors of nighttime in urban China.

[Thanks, Mike!]