What is Digital Photography ISO and Grain?

Last Updated May 27, 2020 by . First Published in 2017.

Introduction to Photography Series
  1. Photography Masterclass for Beginners - Free Photography Course
  2. How Cameras Work, Types of Camera and What are Megapixels?
  3. What is Exposure in Photography? What is the Exposure Triangle?
  4. Camera Shutter Speed Explained for the Beginning Photographer
  5. Aperture and Depth of Field in Photography Explained
  6. What is Digital Photography ISO and Grain?
  7. How to Understand Camera Lenses and Focal Length
  8. Photography Composition Rules That Will Improve Your Photos
  9. Camera Metering Modes for Exposure Demystified - Which One To Use and When
  10. Camera Shooting and Exposure Modes Explained
  11. Complete Guide to Flash Photography
  12. Why You Need a Camera Tripod for Photography
  13. White Balance Camera Settings Explained
  14. Understanding Camera Histograms in Photography
  15. Master These 10 Camera Settings For Your Best Photos
  16. What is RAW in Photography and Why You Should Shoot in RAW
  17. Complete Guide to Macro Photography for Beginners
  18. Landscape Photography Tips for Stunning Photos

We take a look at digital photography ISO, grain and noise to see what they are, their effect on exposure and image quality.

What is Digital Photography ISO and Grain?

What is Digital Photography ISO?

ISO is an International Standard for measuring the speed of colour negative film, or how sensitive it is. In digital cameras, it is an equivalent measure of computed amplification of a digital signal. As with its film counterpart, digital ISO increases the sensitivity to light, at the expense of quality. High ISO film suffers from graininess, while digital ISO suffers from noise during the amplification process. The higher the ISO setting, the more the light is amplified and the more noise is introduced. The more noise, the lower the image quality.

A camera setting of ISO 100 is the same as ISO 100 film, so photos taken using the same shutter speed and aperture with the same ISO will have the same exposure in digital and film. ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100.

How to Change ISO Camera Setting

Most, if not all, cameras have a manually adjustable ISO setting as well as an automatic setting. Most of the time the automatic setting will handle the exposure quite well and only increase the ISO when it feels it cannot get the correct exposure with shutter speed and aperture alone. When shooting in shutter priority, the camera can make the aperture as wide as possible but it this wont let in enough light then it has to increase ISO.

You can manually set the ISO setting and there is usually an ISO button or menu item, however this will vary by camera make and model. For Canon dSLR there is a button labelled ISO which, when pressed, allows the scroll wheel to adjust the ISO from auto to any of the available settings.

How to change digital photography ISO setting on Canon dSLR camera
How to change digital photography ISO setting on Canon dSLR camera

You can also find ISO settings within the camera menus. On Canon models you can select the automatic ISO range - the camera will automatically pick an ISO within that range and can be very useful if you want to have automatic ISO in the 100-800 range to control noise.

Most dSLR cameras also have a high-iso noise-reduction mode when will help control noise on the higher ISO settings at the cost of speed - it can double the amount of time taken to save a photo.

Using ISO in Low Light

When working in low light you will at some point find yourself using the widest possible aperture and the slowest shutter speed you can to stop action. At this point, your only choice is to increase the ISO to get a balanced exposure, however, as a general rule you should always use the lowest ISO as possible. That way, you can try to achieve the cleanest images with the best dynamic range and colour depth.

If you there is not enough light and your pictures are blurry because the shutter speed isn't fast enough, and you're already using the widest possible aperture the only thing left to do is to increase the ISO. You could leave this on Auto, but I usually don't as I feel my camera always seems to choose a higher ISO than it needs. Don't forget to put it back down after you're done.

High ISO Noise, or grain, is visible as lots of tiny random dots which spoil the photo
High ISO Noise, or grain, is visible as lots of tiny random dots which spoil the photo

Example Digital Photography ISO Values

Target ISO values for outdoors will range from ISO 100-400 outdoors and ISO 400-3200 indoors. Please note that these values will vary slightly depending on the ambient light in the situation and your camera.

Here are a few example ISO values to use as a guideline, however you should always seek to use the lowest ISO value possible.

  • ISO 100 (or less) - Best for shooting well lit subjects such as on a bright sunny day.
  • ISO 400 - When lighting is still good, but not the brightest, such as cloudy days or well lit rooms.
  • ISO 800 - For general indoor photography, without a flash or additional lighting support.
  • ISO 1600 - For shooting indoors when dark, evenings or night time. If there is any movement involved then you'll need to have a fast shutter speed as well.

Digital Photography ISO Tips

Learning what the best ISO settings are and the limits of your camera can be invaluable. Try setting the camera to program mode and take some shots at different ISO settings and see how the camera adjusts aperture and shutter speed. Examine the photos throughout the ISO range to see where the limit is for acceptable noise. For me personally I don't use anything above ISO 1600 unless absolutely necessary. On my camera ISO 12800 is pretty useless.

Using the lowest possible ISO value is a general rule, and as with all rules there are exceptions. Sometimes setting a very high ISO value can create a gritty photographic style or can be used to replicate old photographs. There are also times when you want to close the aperture down to increase sharpness - e.g. a landscape, and increasing the ISO will recover the exposure.

Astrophotography uses high ISO values to capture as much light as possible. Individual exposures are then stacked on top of each other to improve the signal to noise ratio and reduce, or even eliminate, noise in the resulting photo.

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