From Darkness to Light: A Beginner’s Guide to ISO in Nature Photography

ISO is an essential component of nature and travel photography that can greatly impact the quality of your images. This post will discuss the basics of ISO in photography, including what it is, how it works, choosing the right ISO for different situations, and creative techniques you can use to enhance your photos.

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What is ISO?

ISO is a measure of the camera’s sensitivity to light, with a higher ISO meaning the camera is more sensitive to light and a lower ISO meaning it is less sensitive.

ISO has its origins in film photography where the ‘speed’ of the film was selected before putting the roll into your camera. Manufacturers made a range of films with different coatings on films with different sensitivities (ISO) to light.

This has carried over into digital photography. While there is no film, the sensitivity of the sensor and how you use this exposure factor is still just as important.

What should I think about when selecting ISO?

When choosing the right ISO for your photo you should consider the lighting conditions and the type of effect you want to achieve.

In low-light situations, you’ll likely need to use a higher ISO to capture a well-exposed image. However, keep in mind that using too high an ISO can lead to excessive noise or grain, which can detract from the overall image quality.

Noise in photography is the grainy or speckled texture that appears in an image, especially when shooting in low light. It’s caused by the camera’s sensor amplifying the signal to capture enough light for the exposure selected, which can introduce random variations in the image.

This image has so much noise that the background to the sky is blotchy and the mountains are speckled.

In brighter lighting conditions, a lower ISO can be used to reduce noise and capture more detail, especially when paired with a narrower aperture and slower shutter speed.

This comes back to the exposure triangle and balancing the three exposure factors to give not only the exposure that you want but also the look that you want.

When should I adjust my ISO?

Of the three parts within the exposure triangle, ISO is probably the last one you will adjust. Day to day I have my ISO set to 200 and I just set and forget it.

If I am out and the light is changing fast I may set the ISO to auto and let the camera work it out. If you want to do this then it may be worth setting an upper limit. I know my camera can give me beautiful images with an ISO of up to 3200. Beyond this and it starts to get grainy and beyond something I can sort out.

You will probably want to change the ISO setting when your aperture is already the widest (smallest f/ number) and you can’t change your shutter speed because it would add motion blur.  For me, this is when I am photographing inside a building or woodland or photographing birds in flight when the light is fading at the end of the day.

ISO 100 ISO 6400
Less sensitivity to light More sensitive to light
Will capture less light Will capture more light
More light needed for good exposure Less light needed for good light
Less image noise More image noise

How can I use ISO to get the photos I want

There are many creative ways to use ISO in photography.

Intentionally introducing noise or grain into your images can create a unique and artistic effect, especially when combined with other creative techniques like motion blur or selective focus.

One time when the grain is beautiful is in foggy misty settings. The grain that a high ISO gives can be so serene and add atmosphere to a photograph.

In addition, using a higher ISO can be helpful for astrophotography, where capturing the night sky requires a higher level of sensitivity to light. In night photography I tend to start with ISO 1000 and see where it goes from there.

Tips for working with ISO and your camera’s limits

Every camera is different and the limits that your camera and lens plus the conditions on the day will vary. You need to explore what your camera can do and the effects that you like.

  • To use ISO effectively in nature and travel photography, it’s important to experiment with different settings and techniques.
  • Shooting in RAW format can help minimize noise and preserve image quality while using image stabilization or a tripod can help reduce camera shake and improve sharpness.
  • When shooting in low-light conditions, using a faster lens can also help you capture brighter and more detailed images without relying too heavily on high ISO settings.
  • Don’t be afraid to push your ISO up, there are ways to address the noise (to a degree) in post-processing with Lightroom or TopazNoiseAI

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