Photography Basics #1: ISO

Photography is a very technical art. Beaumont Newhall said that, “Photography is the bastard child of science left on the doorstep of art.”
I like that. It’s fun to be a black sheep! Of course photography has been moved into a much more artistic circle since it was popularized by Instagram, but the fact remains that there is a very considerable amount of technical knowledge needed in order to manually operate a camera.

This week, I’m going to go into some of the technical parts, such as ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture.

These are the technical basics of photography, particularly manual photography. It’s a little information-heavy, so I’m breaking it up into three parts over the course of this week.


ISO stands for International Standards Organization. This is the governing body that determines sensitivity standards for photography.

Today, this is a setting on DSLR cameras that you can change whenever you want to, but back in the days of film, there was no way to change it on the camera, because it was determined by the film you chose! It was also referred to as “film speed.” If you purchased a roll of film that had an ISO of 400, that’s what you had to use until your film roll was done.

Back to the modern digital world, ISO will change how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Now, please do not think this is just a way to turn up the brightness for your images, there is a trade-off. The higher you turn your ISO setting, the more “noise” or “grain” you will see in the image, but the brighter your image will be.

Many professional photographers prefer the lowest setting their cameras will go to, typically 50 or 100. These low settings make the sensor relatively insensitive to light, but also product very clean, smooth images of a very high quality. This is also why photographers use big, extremely bright strobe lights. That light is necessary for that low ISO, among other settings, as well as being able to shape and control light to create the image they’re going for.

A good rule of thumb, in my personal experience, is that ISO 400 and below will usually be very clean and smooth.

Summary: ISO – lower number = lower sensitivity to light, but cleaner image | higher number = higher sensitivity to light, but there will be noise in the image.


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