Don't Be Afraid of High ISOs in Your Photography

Don't Be Afraid of High ISOs in Your Photography

Every photographer would love to shoot at the lowest ISO their camera allows all the time to maintain the highest possible levels of detail and dynamic range. But sometimes, that just isn't possible; in fact, sometimes, you have to pump up the ISO quite high to get the shot. Do not be afraid to do that.

We all wish we could shoot every photo at ISO 100 to maximize the quality of our images, and while certain genres have that luxury, others sometimes have to pump that setting well above the base level. Because of that, it can be very tempting to sacrifice the other two exposure parameters, particularly shutter speed. When I was new to photography, I certainly tended to try to keep my shutter speed as slow as possible, almost to the point of obsession. But it was the wrong way to think about about exposure, and it caused me to miss images both for technical reasons and because my mind was preoccupied with the wrong thing.

The majority of nonprofessionals (and a reasonable proportion of professionals) shoot with crop sensor cameras. Crop sensor cameras tend to have about a stop worse noise performance than a comparable full frame camera, and as such, they tend to start showing noise sooner.

Similarly, the older the camera, generally, the worse the noise performance. The earliest digital cameras (even the first full frame models), amazing as they were at the time, were quite horrible by today's standards. For example, a few years ago, I purchased a Canon 1D Mark II N just for the fun of playing with an older camera. The 1D Mark II N came out in 2004 and features an APS-H sensor (1.3x crop factor), smaller than full frame, but larger than today's APS-C sensors. Nonetheless, it tops out at ISO 1,600, and above about ISO 400, the results are noticeably bad. I even purchased a Canon D30, Canon's first homegrown DSLR, which came out way back in 2000 with a 3.1-megapixel APS-C sensor. By today's standards, those specs are laughable, but back in 2000, it was an incredible camera. 

And yet, even with those extremely limited feature sets, photographers have been creating great images with them and similar cameras for the last two decades.

Taken by the Canon D30: The light was fading fast, and I had to bump up the ISO to the maximum of 1,600 to get this shot. Does it compare to modern cameras on a technical level? No. Was it still a satisfying shot for me? Absolutely. I would rather have the noisy shot than have nothing at all.

Why You Should Not Be Afraid to Bump That ISO

So, now that we have established that even older cameras with relatively horrible ISO capabilities can still take decent images, let's talk about some of the reasons why you should not be afraid to bump up the ISO on the likely more modern camera you are using. 

Camera Shake and Motion

1/320 s, 140mm, f/2.8, ISO 6,400: 1/320 s was already pushing my luck with these fast-moving dancers; I would have preferred somewhere around 1/800 s. Any slower and I would have started getting motion blur. My aperture was already wide open, so my only choice was to bump up the ISO.

When you are shooting moving subjects, it is crucial to have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze them. Similarly, for a given focal length, you can only slow the shutter down so much before your hands start to blur the image due to camera shake. Many photographers err too far on the side of a slower shutter speed in an effort to keep the ISO down and end up introducing one or both of these two issues. Remember, you can always apply noise reduction, but there is very little you can do to fix a photo that is blurry due to camera shake or motion blur. On the other hand, if your subject is still, but camera shake is an issue, grab a tripod.

Wide Open Isn't Always Best

1/160 s, 35mm, f/4, ISO 16,000: The couple wasn't always parallel to my focal plane while walking, and I had very little room to move due to the wall and tables behind me, so I knew I needed a little extra depth of field to safely keep them both in focus. That meant boosting my ISO.

Conventional wisdom says to just open up your aperture to let more light in and keep your ISO down. And while this is perfectly fine in a lot of situations, it is not always an option. For example, you simply might not be shooting with an ultra-wide aperture lens. A lot of walkaround lenses max out at f/4, for example. Or, your situation might call for more depth of field than f/1.4 — shooting group photos, for example.

Sharp and Grainy Is Always Better Than Blurry

1/2,000 s, 120mm, f/2.8, ISO 4,000: It is crucial that the action be clear in this sequence. Otherwise, it wouldn't be clear where the ball was or that the first baseman was pulled off the bag by the throw.

As I said before, you can always run noise reduction, but there's not much you can do to save a photo with camera shake or motion blur. If a photo is about conveying information visually, you can always give the viewer more and better information if it is sharp, even if noisy. 

The Proper Exposure in Camera Is Almost Always Better Than Fixing in Post

Try taking your camera out and shooting one photo at ISO 3,200, then the same photo with the same shutter speed and aperture settings at ISO 100. Then, bring both photos into Lightroom and raise the ISO 100 photo five stops to match the ISO 3,200 photo. Which image is noisier? 

This is because when you increase exposure in post, you are increasing both read noise and shot noise. On the other hand, increasing ISO in camera only increases shot noise. Of course, you may want to protect highlights by underexposing a bit, but when it comes to noise, it is generally best to get your exposure as close as possible in camera. 

Additional Tips

Have a Top ISO in Mind and Set Your Camera Accordingly

Many photographers choose a top ISO they're comfortable with given their camera equipment and what they're shooting. Many cameras have built-in functionality to handle this, such as an auto ISO mode that allows you to set the maximum allowable ISO or the ability to set the maximum ISO in partially automated modes such as aperture priority. Digging into these options on your camera can be very useful for a lot of situations.

Learn Artificial Lighting

All of the discussion up to this point has hinged on the assumption that it was not possible to add more light to the situations that were being discussed. After all, I don't think I can plop a flash on a baseball field during a game, and some wedding clients specifically request no flash. But in situations where adding light is possible, if it's a lack of understanding holding you back, it's time to start learning. You don't need ultra-expensive equipment; just a cheap speedlight and softbox are great to learn the fundamentals of how light behaves and how you can shape it. 

Conclusion

Don't be afraid of bumping up your ISO when you need to. You can work with a sharp image that has noise in post, but an image that's blurry due to subject motion or camera shake or that doesn't have enough depth of field can't be brought back. Sharp and noisy is always better than blurry. 

Lead image was taken in a room lit only by candlelight and a few small LEDs: 1/80 s, 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 6,400.

Log in or register to post comments

20 Comments

David Pavlich's picture

I found it quite liberating when it comes to higher ISO numbers when I sold my 5DIII and bought my 5DIV. The 5DIII struggled at 6400 where as the IV is quite manageable at 6400 and even at 12,800, I've managed to get some pretty nice keepers. I have the maximum ISO set on my IV at 12,800 since it seems to work pretty well there.

Daniel Medley's picture

"But in situations where adding light is possible, if it's a lack of understanding holding you back, it's time to start learning."

I agree a lot with this. Sure, there are many circumstances in which it's just not possible to use flash, but in many situations it's not only possible, it's advisable. For example it seems that boudoir photographers often times pump up the ISO when they really should be using a dash of flash. In my opinion, generally, unless you're actually doing it for artistic reasons (there are artistic reasons for shooting at higher ISO), there is little reason to not be using flash in a typical indoors boudoir setting.

Matt Williams's picture

"Try taking your camera out and shooting one photo at ISO 3,200, then the same photo with the same shutter speed and aperture settings at ISO 100. Then, bring both photos into Lightroom and raise the ISO 100 photo five stops to match the ISO 3,200 photo. Which image is noisier?"

Not *entirely* true. If a sensor is truly ISO invariant, it won't matter. Most Canon's are not ISO invariant. A lot of the newer Sony-made sensors are.

However, this method can introduce other issues like banding. But a truly ISO invariant sensor would be just as noisy either way.

Alex Cooke's picture

True, I should have clarified that.

Arthur Morgan's picture

Despite my being at the wrong end of the skills spectrum for passing a comment people may be interested in a little discussed technique that I have been using for a year or two and can be thought about when noise is discussed.
Use a higher ISO than would usually be desirable, take many pictures ( between five and forty ) with a fast shutter speed, and then align and blend them as a smart object using "mean" as a blend mode.

Provided that each frame is sharp enough and the alignment close enough Photoshop can set everything up nicely, albeit very slowly.
This gets rid of random noise and gives sharper edges than single frames.
The results are different to slow shutter speed but equally interesting.
For details go to astronomy tuition sites.

Graham Glover's picture

For four years I was shooting our daughter's high school marching band, three years of which I was the chair for the photography & media group. There were a dozen of us. It was always a matter of making the artistic decision for shutter speed and aperture, 1/500s and f/5.6, and then use whatever I needed for ISO to get the shot, usually 12,800. I needed enough speed to freeze color guard flags and enough depth of field to get more than one kid in the shot. With the Canon 5DMkIII and Lightroom, noise was never an issue. Now with the 5DMkIV and the 100-400 MkI shooting girls varsity soccer, it's 1/1000s, f/5.6, and whatever I need for ISO, up to 32,000. If I have to take a little noise to get the shot, I'm good with that because I get the shot.

Alex in this particular instance- I agree with you completely! I do not always agree with you but I enjoy your perspective and your insightful view on things. I have read many of your articles, and have enjoyed them. I Made an account on fstoppers right now just so I could tell you that!
Keep up the good work bud :)

Alex Cooke's picture

Much appreciated!! Your kind words made my day! :)

On a Sony Alpha Sensor dynamic range is very forgiving for purposeful underexposure. Say you are shooting a dance performance in minimal light that may also contain a background with glaring highlights? If you expose the foreground properly, you will blow out those highlights. You will have a lot harder time recovering that detail during RAW conversion than recovering the foreground mid tones. Capture One is a far superior raw converter to achieve these results easily. The new version has added an additional dynamic slider that offers even more recovery and control.

Gabriel SAP's picture

Interesting! I find my Sony A7III way better for recovering highlights than pushing shadows.
On the Canon days I used to shoot a little underexposed but with Sony I had to learn doing the opposite.

Spy Black's picture

For a lot of paid gigs you probably want to avoid noise as much as possible. Fortunately nowadays there are tools to mitigate it. Unless you plan to print big on a paid gig, you can probably get away with a fair amount of noise. For web res imagery you can get away with murder. :-)

For my personal street photography I've never batted an eye about noise. Getting the shot is paramount. Back in the 90s I got into a night street photography kick and I used to roam the streets of NYC with 35mm and 2-1/4 cameras loaded with 1600 and 3200 color film that I would readily push a stop if the need arose. You should see the noise from that. ;-) Interestingly enough (for me) I've found both those high speed films and high ISO digital to have one character trait that made the images usable: high accutance.

Comically enough I was roaming the streets the other night when I got an impromptu call to shoot a social event. I was nearby and had no time to go home and rig up. The end result was for social media, so I shot the gig with 2 M4/3 cameras running anywhere between 5000 to 25600(!) ISO. I ran a 2-step noise reduction process and rendered at web res, and they loved the pics. :-)

Sam David's picture

I know this will appear heretical, but there are excellent plug-ins, especially Topaz DeNoise AI, that make even shooting at ISO 12000 (the max on my D750) acceptable. And, as Alex makes clear in his excellent article. it's far better to get a picture than not. I find studio shots using available light done between ISO 2000-3000 can easily have the noise removed and be sharpened and give me the natural look which artificial lighting just can't achieve.

Spy Black's picture

I find DeNoise AI (and all the Topaz AI apps, actually) to be hit & miss, especially with hi res files. Also, even with a good GPU it's agonizingly slow with hi res files. It's had a better hit rate (at least for me) on web res images.

Sam David's picture

When Topaz AI products first came out they were painfully slow, and I'd think twice (maybe thrice) about whether I really wanted the image enough to make the wait worthwhile. With each update, all of the products, and particularly DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI, run their processes faster. The reality is that I haven't found better products dealing with high ISO noise and, again, I'd rather have the image than not.

Daniel Medley's picture

On my D750 anything above ISO 1600 will not provide acceptibally clean images if a clean image is what I'm after. No matter what I do.

Also, one thing that I've found as I've progressed through my photographic journey is that the notion that artificial light can never look natural; that there's something inherent to artificial light that it can never look natural is just not true. The reality is that artificial light can certainly be created that looks natural.

I am stunned at the rapidity of improvements in post-processing programs that can very credibly clean up images that were on the cusp of being unusable before. That alone has given me more confidence to raise my ISOs. I shoot Canon so compared to Sony and Nikon I have a high-ISO noise disadvantage, but post-processing software is evening that disparity more and more every year.

I never understood why people were so afraid to shoot high ISO's. some of my favorite photographs are noisy as heck. As long as i get the shot and it's sharp that's what matters to me.

Robert Montgomery's picture

funny sometimes I shoot for grain in my film choices. I ain't afraid of no noise" next up 'Come on feel the Noise' and then AC/DC's Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution.

Nice I did too on my Nikon D700! I would go out at night and jack up my iso as high as it could go before hitting the HI1 or the HI2 ISO's. I'd then shoot jpegs in black and white. i got some pretty neat shots doing that.

Robert Montgomery's picture

Lol try Tri X pushed to 3200 then Rodinal 1+25.