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Move to Manual: ISO

March 4, 2012

If you’ve missed any of the Move to Manual posts so far be sure to check them out! We’ve talked about Composition & Perspective, Finding Great Light, Understanding Aperture and Understanding Shutter Speed. All of these techniques build off of one another to create a perfect balance, allowing YOU to successfully shoot in manual mode!

Do you guys remember film cameras? Do you remember going out to buy film, sorting through the different brands, the different speeds?

When I was on the Yearbook Staff in High School, I remember being in charge of taking pictures of the basketball teams. As you know, High School Gymnasiums aren’t the most well lit places and all of our games were at night. I remember taking my moms Canon Film Rebel with me and using only 400 Speed Film; which resulted in poorly lit photos that were mostly unusable.

ISO is for digital photography what film speed was for Film Photography…it measures your cameras sensitivity to light.

ISO is one of the big make it or break it capabilities for a lot of photographers when it comes time to buy a new camera. Commonly, digital cameras have settings of 100, 200, 400, 600, 800, and 1600. Some cameras don’t go any higher than 1600, while some go up to 20,000+. It all depends on the kind of camera you’ve purchased. My Canon Rebel XSI only had an ISO capability of 1600, which allowed for fantastic outdoor shooting, but not always the best shooting indoors.


Because your ISO controls how much noise or “grain” is in your image. Have you ever taken a picture and then uploaded it to your computer only to see that it wasn’t smooth and clear? That you had some roughness to the image that you didn’t know how to explain? That’s most likely because your camera (if you were shooting in Auto or another setting other than manual where you weren’t controlling your own ISO settings) was most likely using a higher ISO setting to compensate for low light.

The higher the ISO the more noise in the image and the more sensitive to light your camera is.

The lower the ISO the less noise in the image  and the less sensitive to light your camera is.

When I’m shooting outdoors, I start my ISO at around 200. I get no noise, let in enough light to not have to tamper with my aperture or my shutter speed and I still get a good exposure. When I’m shooting indoors on a good day (meaning, when it’s not so cloudy out that I’m not getting good light), I can shoot at an ISO of about 400-600.

Take a look at these images I took using the various ISO settings on my camera for a good look at how ISO can effect your images.

I shot all of these shots on the Av (aperture priority) setting on my camera just to demonstrate. They were all shot at an Aperture of 2.2 with various shutter speeds.


I could probably get by shooting at 1600, but would never really want to take my ISO up that high. If I can keep it under 800 then I’m doing good. And usually, I can compensate for lighting in other ways rather than messing with my ISO.

So now that you understand a bit about ISO and what it can do to your photos, it’s time to experiment.

Find an inanimate object lying around your house (similar to what you did with the third assignment when you practiced learning Aperture) and take some pictures at each one of your cameras different ISO settings. See how high it goes before you start to see a lot of noise. Don’t forget to upload your photos to the Move to Manual Flickr Group! I’ve enjoyed seeing your shots over the last few weeks and I have had several of you message me and send emails saying how much you’re learning! Don’t hesitate to post questions in the comment section or on my Facebook Page! I usually come around to check out the Flickr Uploads on Friday so you guys have all week to practice your shots!

Next week, I’ll be back to tie up a few lose ends on understanding a bit about White Balance, Focal Points and Metering. Then, the week after (March 12) we’ll be pulling everything together and get your shooting in manual!

  1. […] We’ve gone over the basics of composition and lighting; what aperture is; how shutter speed, iso and white balance can change your photos, and we’ve talked about metering. […]

  2. I’m a little behind, but I’m loving this series. Thanks for explaining in plain English!

  3. […] of these White Balance settings controls the color tones in your image. Just like last week with the ISO tutorial, I took a series of shots using the various white balance settings on my […]

  4. Eve says:

    This is good info, but what does ISO stand for?

    • Courtney says:

      That’s a great question, Eve!! One that I had never actually thought to look up myself. Ha. It stands for “International Organization for Standardization” It’s a governing body that provides standards used to represent film speed, or the equivalent sensitivity of a digital camera’s sensor.

  5. Thauna says:

    I need to catch up….I put my camera in hibernation for the Winter. Time to dust off my skills (ha!) and get ready for some Spring shooting. I think your series is just what I need to get back into the swings of things.

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