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Friday Photo Tip: Using High ISOs
by Laura Hicks -  7/5/2013

We've all done it. We cranked up our ISO so that we wouldn't have to use our flash to get a great pictures in a low-lit situation. But using a high ISO can lead to an unflattering image. Images that have high ISOs are grainier and have weaker color quality than low ISO images. Below is a sample of what can happen to your image when using a low ISO instead of a high ISO.

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ISO 100                                                                         ISO 6400

The images above were taken in the middle of the day with the Sigma DP3 Merrill to show what can happen when high ISOs are used with a camera that does not handle high ISOs well. Below are images from the Nikon D600--a camera that does a much better job with high ISOs. A 100% crop is needed to show the difference between low and high ISO performance. But once you start pixel peeping you can clearly see that there is a lack of clarity beween the two images. The first set is taken in medium lighting. The second set is taken in low lighting.

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Nikon D600 ISO 100

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Nikon D600 ISO 100 100% crop

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Nikon D600 ISO 6400

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Nikon D600 ISO 6400 100% crop

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Nikon D600 ISO 100

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Nikon D600 ISO 100 100% crop

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Nikon D600 ISO 6400

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Nikon D600 ISO 6400 100% crop

Pixel smudging becomes much more pronounced in the low light images. Sharpness and color quality take a nose dive at ISO 6400.

Taking pictures in low light has become much easier to do than ever before. The newest digital cameras are boasting better high ISO quality than previous generations. That being said, you still can't get the same clarity out of ISO 6400 as you can with ISO 100.

So what does this all mean? How can you get better images in low light situations? Well, the answer is easier than you think.

  1. Use a tripod when you are shooting in low light situations. The tripod will allow you to reduce camera shake that occurs when you hand hold a camera with low shutter speeds.
  2. Use a wireless remote or the timer on your camera to further reduce camera shake that occurs from physically touching the shutter when taking a picture.
  3. Shoot in RAW if you can. It will give you more leverage when post processing your images.
  4. Set the ISO on your camera to 400 or less. ISO 100 and 200 produce the sharpest results, but 400 has always been regarded as the go-to ISO for indoor and outdoor photography.
  5. Use a lens with a wide open aperture like f/2.8 or greater. I like to set my camera on aperture priority at f/2.8 or f/2.0 when photographing slow moving or static subjects. This allows me to bring in the most light I can to my image while still using a lower ISO. 
  6. Chimp your images often to make sure your subject is in focus.

Just because your camera has the ability to shoot at high ISOs doesn't mean you won't pay a steep price for using it--namely sharpness and color quality. If you simply have to use a high ISO to get the shot, then do it. Capturing an important image is much better than missing it. Afterwards you will probably have to spend some time post processing your image. Running the image through a program like Noise Ninja will be very helpful. Also, changing the image to black and white is also a trick that photographers have been using for years when color quality is not good enough to fix.

So, take your tripod and find a opportunity to photograph in low lighting. As always, have a great weekend and go grab that shot! 


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