The Basics of ISO

Everything you need to know about ISO from a professional sports photographer.

What is ISO? 

ISO is an important setting on your camera. It is often considered one of the three pillars of photography, along with shutter speed and aperture, and for a good reason! ISO can define the sensitivity of your camera without changing the amount of light that enters the lens.  

Essentially, ISO controls the brightness of the photo. When the ISO is high, your camera can accept more light, thus making the image brighter. When the setting is lowered, your camera’s ability to take in light is lowered too. With the help of this setting, you can make your photo as dark or bright as you’d like.  

How to adjust your ISO setting 

Your ISO setting will always depend on the final outcome you’re seeking. However, you also need to adjust it to the external environment. As such, if it’s rather bright outside, you need to lower the ISO. If, on the other hand, you are not in a well-lit environment, higher ISO can save the shot. The way it works is that a high ISO makes your camera more light-sensitive. As a result, it can catch even the smallest rays of light and amplify them. 

What to do with graininess 

When you increase the ISO setting on your camera, your photos can end up a little grainy. Some people like the graininess and use it as a stylistic effect to make their photos look vintage. Of course, that won’t work if you’re a professional sports photographer. Plus, your photos may also get less detailed as you continue to increase the ISO value. 

Try to combat that by keeping your ISO as low as you can without compromising the other settings. That won’t always work, as some conditions simply won’t allow for it. Remember that in photography, everything is a trade off. You also don’t need to always strive for the lowest ISO available on your camera. Find a good balance by playing with your camera’s settings and seeing how they interact with each other.  

Understanding ISO values

Every camera you come across will have its own set of ISO values. Normally, you should find ISO values ranging from as low as 100 to as high as 6400. The lowest setting on your camera is your base ISO. That’s the setting that you should try to stick to most of the time. It won’t always be possible, especially in sports photography, but that’s ultimately what you should aim for. Some of the older cameras have a slightly higher base ISO of 200. If that applies to your camera, don’t worry; it won’t impair the quality of image.

Maintaining your ISO at its base value will help you keep your image quality at the highest possible level. It will minimize the noise and graininess in the photo, and provide a sharp image.

Low vs High ISO

There is a reason why you’re given a choice of so many different ISO values. Though you may never get to use all of them, they are all useful in some situations! As you start to use your camera more, it will be easier to understand when and why certain ISO values are used. Here are some examples.

When should you use a lower ISO? Always. You should always strive for the lowest ISO you can possibly maintain without compromising the quality of the shot. Contrary to popular belief, you can often get away with a low ISO in a dark environment if you can mount your camera on a tripod or keep it completely still while photographing. A longer shutter speed will take care of the brightness for you and the low ISO will ensure the photo remains noise-free. An important condition is that everything in the shot has to remain completely still. If there is any movement at all, the resulting image will lose its sharpness.

You might be thinking, “If I’m always using low ISO, when should I change the setting to a higher value?” The answer is simple – when your subject is in motion. That is very applicable to sports photography. When you’re shooting matches, your subject is almost always going to be in motion. In that scenario, you need to focus on preventing motion blur before you do anything else. Otherwise you are going to end up with a beautiful noise-free but blurry photo. 

When there is no other way for you to ensure a sharp shot, you can start increasing your ISO value. If you’re still not entirely sure how it works, try using the Auto ISO feature on your camera! It isn’t perfect, but it will get the job done while you’re still finding your way around the camera. It’s a good place to start when you’re learning about ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

ISO in sports photography 

Most of your camera settings in sports photography will be determined by your shutter speed. When you’re following professional athletes who are quite literally jumping and flying around the field, you need your shutter speed to be faster than just fast. Sometimes, 1/1000th of a second is slow. 

The rule of thumb for ISO is – keep it low. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really ally with the rule of thumb we use for shutter speed, which is – keep it high. You will find yourself having to increase ISO just to maintain your shutter speed, and that’s ok! Try to manage the two and keep your ISO as low as possible without compromising the quality of image. 

You can find detailed tutorials that will try to explain the road to achieving the perfect ISO setting online. Those are great, but they won’t always work. As you continue to discover the way your camera works and get more intimate with it, you will write your own rules. We’re taught to always do the cooking by the book, but, eventually, you will find that nothing can beat your own recipe!

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