Why Shooting at ISO 100 May Not Be the Best

I see a lot of people asking what were the camera settings for this shot? While it differs in each situation, one common setting that seems to matter to many is shooting at ISO 100. Is that really the best setting to be shooting at?

In this video from boudoir photographer Michael Sasser, he shares his reasoning for not shooting at ISO 100 with natural light. In several of his previous videos, he shares he camera settings with the photos he has taken which you can see the ISO setting typically bouncing around in the range of 250-400. 

I find myself agreeing with Sasser's logic for shooting at a higher ISO setting, which I am usually doing the same thing in most naturally lit events I attend. Sometimes the subjects are in shadow while others may be right in the light. For me, it's much easier to adjust shutter speed versus messing with ISO and other settings or risk shooting at a shutter speed that's lower than what I am comfortable shooting at without getting blurry photos. For high-end commercial jobs, if more light is needed, a strobe or light would more than likely come into play. For other shoots, bumping the ISO up will work just fine. If you do happen to get more noise than you are comfortable with, Sasser shares how he fixes that in post with a few simple tweaks. 

What are your thoughts? Do you embrace higher ISO settings or stick to shooting at 100 no matter what? Let us know in the comments.

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97 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

Being an old dog, it took me a while to realize that ISO is as malleable as it is. Back in the film days, a change in ASA/ISO meant a considerable change in the appearance of the image (and, of course, film choices were based on a lot more than film speed). And changing film was always more physical trouble than changing shutter speed or aperture.

But today, the appearance of the image varies much, much less as ISO changes. It is very often the variable that will change the appearance of the image least over a three or four stop range.

So today, I'm more likely to change ISO rather than aperture or shutter speed.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

For 99% of my work I shoot at base iso, no reason to get lower quality just for the sake of it.

michaeljinphoto's picture

This is the boat I'm in. I'll only raise the ISO if it's absolutely unavoidable. Then again, this is also one of the reasons that I stopped being a purely "natural light" photographer...

Marc Perino's picture

We do that too. We just had to shoot background plates for an amazon series. We had to shoot about 60 extras dancing on a disco dancefloor (70s style) in rather dim conditions (although it was used for shooting with multiple Arri Alexas because their base ISO is higher.).
Instead of pushing the ISO we told our assistant director to direct the extras in a fashion to dance and then "freeze" when the music stops -> that's when we shot....with ISO 64.
We did it about 30 times and it was hilarious. ;)

But I get his point for his type of photography.

Try this for live contemporary dance, esp when lighting is a nightmare... Most dance photography we see is done in pieces, with lighting ajusted.. and then in post, made to appear live. Ballet is a little easier, as the pieces are set and a photography can develop anticpatorial skills that just do not serve for contemporary. I would hate to tell you my settings.

Marc Perino's picture

I know exactly what you mean (see paragraph below). We found a "niche" solution for "niche" problem. We did not even know in advance if we had control over all the extras until they said so.
But it was only meant to be an example that you sometimes have to be creative to obtain the highest possible image quality. If the circumstances would have been different we would have tried to find a different solution.

As an example of this job concerning the ISO:
My colleague also is the unit still photographer on this tv show and on this club location he had aZ7 and a D850 that were cranked up to ISO 6400 all the time because while they are shooting the tv show with their Arri Alexas you don't have any control over the lighting at all. Let alone actors or extras. But after the film crew wrapped and when we were doing our background plates and executed the "controlled" part of the shooting we worked with the gaffer to pump up all the lights in the house which regularly flipped the fuse but we controlled as much as we could when we had the chance to do so.

So it was not regular "dance photography" at all. Nothing compared what you described.

thanks for the reply. Next week I have a session with an individual ballerina and my lights... I will be in control!!!! Honestly, at times when I am doing live contemp work I come out of it more exhausted than the dancers. It is very, very hard work. I used to be very dissapointed about my keeper rate, as I am a portrait photographer well used to having a high keeper rate... so taking the dive at first was a slight blow to my ego, until I accepted it is just a different world.

Alex Herbert's picture

Same, but I've had to adjust my expectations recently. Switching from an A99 to an A7iii this year my fear of anything over ISO200 isn't really justified anymore. Current camera performs better at ISO1000 than my old one did at ISO200.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

It has nothing to do with fear, but everything to do with how and what I shoot for work.

Alex Herbert's picture

When I said fear, I meant fear of grainy, noisy poor quality images. Which are no longer an issue for me unless I go above ISO1000. ISO200-400 is certainly not a problem anymore.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Yes and my comment was a response to just that.

Daniel Medley's picture

For event type of shooting, absolutely. For the kind of shooting Sasser does--in a controlled environment like a room shooting boudoir--I just don't understand why you wouldn't utilize off camera flash. A speedlight and large reflective umbrella would be what I would use before bumping my ISO above anything higher than 200. Under some very rare circumstances you may need a second light, but it would be very rare.

marc gabor's picture

A speedlight and umbrella?? that's insane. If you think that using that kind of light is not going to drastically alter the look and mood of the picture (way more than bumping the ISO a couple of stops) then you are living on another planet. I don't care how good you are with off camera flash, it's never going to look like a window. Not with a speelight and an umbrella. SMH
Also, ISO 200 is your limit? What camera are you using? Not even the oldest DSLRs looked that bad at ISO 200. Go pick up any magazine with great photography whether its portraits or wildlife, i guarantee you that more images are made with higher that 200 ISO than base ISO.

michaeljinphoto's picture

"I don't care how good you are with off camera flash, it's never going to look like a window."

Get yourself a 4x6 softbox and/or a scrim... Or you can set the light outside of the window, too, depending on the situation. There's nothing special about "natural light". Light is light.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I think this guy should look into proper set up for his boudoir, may be he does not want to reinvest his money into a proper studio. 1000iso at 1/1200 for a model that stands still or move slowly is certainly questionable any day.
In the end, the studio model he choose deliberately to work from is the real issue here. ISO bashing has nothing to do with people who like shooting at lower iso. Turning it around for a commercial is really smart but not something to fall for.

Daniel Medley's picture

Wrong. I can shoot using a speedlight and a large reflective umbrella in a room like what he (Sasser) typically shoots in and you wouldn't be able to tell what the light is coming from. Also, like Michael Jin was saying, there are a many things that can be done to modify the light. Light is light.

Even on this planet.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Yes, Sasser should tour a couple furniture studios in NC and gain some inspiration.

Daniel Medley's picture

I think Sasser does fine work. In my opinion.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Work is fine for sure. His commercial crappy for sure.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

By the way, I am not sure you understood what I meant in the first place. They don't shoot boudoir at those studios, so it's not the photographer's work that I am referring about. Room sets and plenty of them in huge studios is what I am referring to with total control of lights (or light). If sudden clouds force him to shoot auto ISO and he has to make a video about it, building his own set in a warehouse or large garage is really what he need to look into.

Stuart Carver's picture

I mainly shoot base ISO when doing Landscape stuff as there is seldom reason to raise it. But handheld and not in good light I’ll just set auto with a limit of 6400 and let the camera decide based on my other settings. People do seem allergic to it though.

michaeljinphoto's picture

This essentially amounts to cutting corners because you're lazy and you figure your clients won't notice/care.

Christoph .'s picture

The clients care far more about the connection in the image than the tiny bit of extra grain you get going from 100 to 800 on a modern camera, that even photographers probably wouldn't see at the sizes these works are created at.

Adding lighting can be intimidating to an unexperienced model in that setting can make it much harder to connect if you're having to move and adjust the lighting instead of focusing on the client

michaeljinphoto's picture

The client is paying you for your time, effort, and expertise. You're essentially taking their money and not giving them the absolute best product that you are capable of producing at that moment because you think that they won't care about the little bit of grain. I'm sure they do have more connection to the image than a tiny bit of grain. I'm also sure that 99% of them wouldn't notice the grain even if you pushed the ISO to 3200. Whether they do or not is not my issue with this. I dislike the kind of business ethic that this practice embodies. If you can equally deliver an image with more or less grain, why would you purposely choose more? Because you're too lazy to adjust two dials instead of one? There are times when you have no choice but to push up your ISO. A highly controlled situation where you have plenty of time isn't one of them.

This is different from a situation where you are in over your head and hit your limitations. It's different from the unintentional screw-up. This is different from a situation where you simply don't have the right gear. This is a deliberate act to save yourself trouble at the expense of the product that you are being paid to deliver. Paint it however you want, but I don't agree with the practice nor do I think that it's something that ought to be encouraged.

Oh, and no, I don't shoot at 100. I shoot at 64.

And maybe that expertise is knowing how to use a modern camera.
What is the obsession with grain?
It used to be 100 was normal and 400 iso was pretty much the limit. Not true today.
If I can shoot with fewer hot lights or strobe by using LED or gasp! natural light by bumping the ISO up I'll do it.
Have not had a client mention grain since about 1993.

michaeljinphoto's picture

It's not about what the client notices or doesn't notice. It's about professional integrity. You're taking money for a job. Are you doing the best job your can, or is "'good enough' good enough"? If I deliver a sub-par product due to my own failings or limitations, then so be it. I tried my best and I hope I wouldn't fail, but it happens (frankly, more than I'd like). However, I would never PURPOSELY do something that I know compromises quality unless there was a really good reason for it. Wanting to turn only one dial instead of two isn't a really good reason.

There are a million and one corners that any of us could probably cut without our clients realistically noticing. In it, there's tons of time to be saved and tons of headaches to be eliminated. If your mentality is one where it's OK to cut corners as long as nobody notices, then that's you so go ahead. That's not how I believe that a person ought to operate. If you have any professional pride, you should go the extra little step even if your client won't notice or appreciate it because you'll know it... just like when you deliver "good enough" results, you're the one that will have to live with knowing that you could have done better and deliberately chose not to despite your client trusting that you were doing your best.

Now if the client specifically INSTRUCTS you to just deliver "good enough" for whatever reason as some of my clients tell me, then that's a different story. In that case, you're acting honestly in regard to your client's expectations of you.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I agree with you. I find it interesting that people will spend a lot of money on cameras and especially on lenses to just abandon quality to noise and high iso.

marc gabor's picture

The problem with your argument is that shooting at ISO 400 is not just "good enough" it's just as good. If you can't see a difference then there is no difference. Theoretical differences in quality don't count for anything. Just because you can make your job more complicated doesn't mean you have to just to prove to a client that you are a competent photographer worthy of their hard earned dollar.

michaeljinphoto's picture

Perhaps you can't notice a difference between noise at base ISO and ISO 400. I can. So no, it's not the same nor is it just as good.

Clearly this is a philosophical difference so I doubt it's going to go anywhere.

If your photos are not good at high ISO, maybe you are using technical details to hide bad photography. Good light and good composition are not affected by ISO.

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