Photographers. Why the Fear Around Shooting at High ISO?

By Russell / March 4, 2017

Last Updated on by

I'm sure it's not just me who thinks shooting at high ISO is actually okay, it's definitely not a felony. In fact, I was of the many people who thought digital noise would just kill my photographs and deem them…useless?
It's arguably one of the most feared aspects of shooting photography in general – because there are always those who will say/dictate that a very (or slightly) grainy image is basically unusable.
Let's put a case forward to say, nope, we disagree. Often, some textured grain can really add some emotion or nostalgia to an image – to give it a sense of “now”, “this moment in time” – a moment “captured” and not missed.
Some guides for a little background reading on ISO….

shooting at high ISO
Image by André Hofmeister – ISO 1600 – Nikon D7000 – ƒ/2.0 – 50.0 mm – 1/40sec

Shooting at High ISO Should be Embraced

Personally, if you're afraid (I'm not talking “pee your pants” afraid here) of bumping up the ISO on your digital camera, don't be. My standpoint is that getting an image that's not out of focus due to too low a shutter speed for your hands means you've got yourself a usable photo. It's other people's opinions that will alter things for you.
Not too long ago, raising your camera's ISO to 1600, 3200 or at a stretch 6400 was like image suicide. You were left with an image totally obscured by digital noise aka grain, which unless it was meant to be artistic or a clever piece of well-timed street photography, it wasn't much use to anyone.
We've moved on a little now. Technology has improved, sensors are becoming more capable (particularly crop sensors) and we're about to get images we can be pleased with, avoiding any anxiety around shooting at high ISO.

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shooting at high ISO
Image by Daniel Lee – ISO 800 – Canon EOS 6D – ƒ/2.8 – 50.0 mm – 1/400sec

Shouldn't we as Photographers be Aiming for the LOWEST ISO Possible?

It depends.
Are you shooting street photography or a birthday party, or are you shooting a portrait session in a studio? I ask because it really does depend on what you're photographing. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor is to light hitting it during an exposure.
Landscape photographers for example, will unlikely want any sign of digital noise. If you're using a tripod and don't have to be concerned with shutter speed (or aperture, for maximum light coming in) then there's no reason to crank the ISO up to 3200!?
Shooting at high ISO is essentially for hand held photography on the whole.

shooting at high ISO
Image by Mike McCune – ISO 12800 – Canon EOS REBEL T1i – ƒ/5.6 – 29.0 mm – 1/80sec

Why Begin Shooting at High ISO then?

Raising the ISO on your digital camera will provide you with the opportunity to get what most would call a “better quality” image because you're able to increase the shutter speed and therefore reduce any held-held blur/movement caused by trying to shoot at too slow a shutter speed.
This also means that if your desire is to use a smaller aperture (i.e. a larger number) then shooting at high ISO will enable you to capture more depth of field and therefore capture a sharper scene overall without the need for a tripod.
If you can capture the given natural light from the scene in front of you, it means your possibilities are smashed wide open – think about how pros are able to get stunning images at such crazy-high ISO? It's not ALL down to fast lenses and $3000 camera bodies.
Sometimes, it's down to the mere fact that they're not afraid of those high numbers like ISO3200, 6400, even 12800+.

shooting at high ISO
Image by A.F. – ISO 3200 – Canon EOS 60D – ƒ/5.6 – 75.0 mm – 1/6sec

Using High ISO for Quality Pictures

On modern digital cameras, just because an image has been shot at a high ISO, doesn't necessarily equal that the grain produced is unpleasing to the eye – quite commonly now the actual strength of the grain has lessened and the look is much more chic.
Think of it like this. Shooting at high ISO has now become more of a luxury for photographers because it means we're no longer turning our ISO up with one eye closed pulling that awkward teethy grin
We can now afford to shoot in darker and less well lit areas – call it low light – which means our options are there for us to explore way more than ever before.
Here's the thing…shooting at consistently high ISO does mean you will be more pressed to expose your image properly. You've really got to analyze the available light, check your shutter speed and aperture – can you tweak at all? On your lens, is image stabilization on or off?
Read this article on The Exposure Triangle to understand the nuts & bolts.

shooting at high ISO
Image by Aurore D – ISO 6400 – Pentax K-x – ƒ/4.5 – 210.0 mm – 1/60sec

Color Noise vs Black and White Noise

Note there are two types of noise caused by shooting at high ISO. Color & Black and White.
Seems obvious? You DO need to be aware of how your camera handles noise in your color images. Some cameras handle this better than others i.e. the image will be pleasing or just ready for the trash bin.
Sometimes, converting to Black and White in post production can rescue an image if there are then further edits done to rectify and fatal flaws. Let's not forget the careful use of post production techniques where you can actually reduce the noise in Lightroom.

shooting at high ISO Image by David Huang – ISO 3200 – Nikon D80
– ƒ/1.8 – 50.4 mm – 1/250sec

shooting at high ISO
Image by Miguel Discart – ISO 6400 – Sony ILCE-6500 – ƒ/4.5 – 37.0 mm – 1/160sec

Testing Your Camera's ISO Range!

You'll like want to know what you can get away with, right?
Seeing as this varies from camera to camera, DSLR to Mirrorless, you'll need to have a play around.

  • To start with set a fast shutter speed and a small(ish) aperture like f/8 – f/16
  • Now take the shot of your chosen sample subject and begin shooting at ISO 200 right through to 6400
  • Now zoom in (1:1 in Lightroom or 100%) and observe what you see in a color version and black and white.
  • Next, consider printing samples of each ISO to check what they look like printed? Now you can have a good idea of what your camera is producing within its range of ISO.
shooting at high ISO
Image by Jake Cook – ISO 3200 – Canon EOS 5D Mark III – ƒ/4.0 – 17.0 mm 1/30sec


Let's relook at how we conceptualize noise and digital grain – it's not all bad, not by a long shot. And the best part? You'll become a more creative photographer because you're not putting the camera down and waiting to shoot another scene with more available light, just so you don't have to go above ISO 640!

Further Resources

Further Learning

High ISO and Landscapes don't traditionally go together, but what's “high” anyway?
Sometimes you want the grain for a more alternative shot.
This Guide is for YOU: “Landscape Photography Guide” by the team at Photzy!

About the author


    Russell is a self-taught photographer who loves travel and capturing life as it unfolds. Having lived in the far east for a few years with some long term travel, this catalyzed his new-found passion for photography. Lifestyle, Food, and Event Photography are areas he enjoys most.

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