As a photographer, especially new, there’s one piece of advice you’ve probably heard a gazillion times: “Always take photos at the lowest ISO possible, typically ISO 100.” However, while seemingly harmless, this advice can limit you in so many situations and harm your photography instead of helping it. In this video, Simon d’Entremont debunks this common misconception and teaches you why keeping your ISO at 100 isn’t always a good idea.
[Related reading: What is ISO in photography? A complete guide to understanding ISO]
According to Simon, this misconception about ISO is the biggest reason for poor photos. He argues that, in fact, increasing your ISO could be the best decision you make for your photography. In all fairness, I also quite recently stopped keeping my ISO at the lowest possible setting whenever I can, and it expanded my possibilities and made me more efficient. But let’s dive in into what Simon says about it, he explains it way better than I would.
Understanding ISO and noise
As you probably already know, ISO impacts the brightness of your photo. The higher the ISO, the higher the sensor’s sensitivity to light. Simon says that the high ISO is not creating noise in your photo, it’s revealing it. Thus, a noisy image is not the result of a high ISO but rather a lack of light.
In the video, Simon uses two photos to demonstrate this: one taken at ISO 12800, properly exposed, and the other underexposed at ISO 1600. When raising the underexposed photo to the same level of exposure, he showed that it was noisier than the properly exposed one, even though it was taken at a much lower ISO.
Practical applications of high ISO
While a low ISO is beneficial in specific circumstances, such as long exposure shots, flash photography, and product or architecture photography, there are many scenarios where a high ISO can save the day. This is especially true when your subjects are moving or when the camera could move. Personally, I couldn’t imagine doing concert photography without high ISO.
In landscape photography, a low ISO may provide a great slow-motion effect for waterfalls. However, what about the leaves of the nearby trees often rustling in the wind? To freeze this action, Simon recommends using a higher ISO to balance the exposure. Other situations where high ISO shines include photographing moving waves, shooting handheld in less generous light, and capturing wildlife in motion.
Tips for using high ISO
Embracing a high ISO doesn’t mean ignoring image quality. Simon recommends that you refrain from excessive cropping, tone it down on the noise reduction software, and avoid underexposing photos to keep the ISO low because “you’ll fix it in post.” A notable tip he shares is to free yourself from the shackles of over-managing ISO – and embrace Auto ISO instead. Sounds terrifying, I know! But maybe give it a shot and see how it works for you.
Changing the narrative around high ISO
Simon’s perspective on ISO is a refreshing view on the conventional wisdom. By understanding the true nature of ISO, you can improve your photos, but also make your photographic experience more enjoyable and carefree. Think of high ISO not as a cardinal sin to be avoided at all costs, but as a useful tool that can greatly improve your shots in the right circumstances.