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How to Overcome Your Fear of High ISO and Take Sharper Photos

I've previously written about several common issues I see beginner photographers have in this article: Avoid These 9 Beginner Photography Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Images.

One of those mistakes is having a shutter speed that is too slow. In the aforementioned article the reason given for that mistake is using an aperture that is too small – mistakenly thinking that you will get more depth of field and a sharper image. But in reality you end up with a slow shutter speed and overall blurry mess of an image.

But there is another reason – fear of the dreaded high ISO!

Fuji X-T1: ISO 6400, f/4.5 at 1/40th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 6400, f/4.5 at 1/40th – taken in a hurry walking through the medina in Fez, Morocco. It was dark and I did not have a tripod. Cranking the ISO helped me get this shot sharp and I think the added grain (noise) adds to the mood of the image.

In this article I'm going to help you get over that fear and start using higher ISO settings, to help you get better, sharper images.

STOP – I know what you're going to say. “But Darlene, if I use a high ISO I'll get too much digital noise in my photos, and I don't want that.”. Bear with me, read the whole article, and try it yourself. Then tell me in the comments below about your results, and what you think.

Where does the fear of high ISO come from?

I think this fear comes from the days of film where anything over ASA 400 (ISO 400 in digital terms,) resulted in almost unusable images, for a long time. Well, I was a bit of a trailblazer in that realm too, as I started shooting ISO 3200, 35mm Black and White film at weddings. Not only was that unheard of, but most of the wedding photographers at the time (including myself) used medium format (6x6cm or 6x7cm) cameras, so even using 35mm was taboo. Were the images from that film grainy – oh yeah! But did they have ambience, mood, and feeling – and my wedding clients loved them – OH YEAH!

In terms of ISO in the digital world, the early cameras were not really good at producing quality images at high ISO settings. My Canon 5D Classic (which I bought in 2005 and was the first full frame Canon body) was horrible past ISO 800. I cringed if I had to shoot it at 1600, and knew that I'd have to make those images black and white because the quality just wasn't there. They lacked detail as well as having golf ball sized noise (grain).

But, flash forward to today's cameras and it's a whole different game. Most cameras made in the last two years (even cropped sensor, mirrorless bodies, and even four thirds models with still smaller sensors) are capable of shooting at some ridiculously high ISO numbers, and producing surprisingly good results!

Why use high ISO anyway?

Sometimes you just don't have any other option but to crank the ISO, in order to get a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake. Remember, one of the biggest mistakes many photographers make is using a shutter speed that is too slow – which ultimately results in a blurry image.

Let's look at the example below. I was in Havana, Cuba at dusk and it was pouring rain. I wanted to capture both the rain and the lights in the street. This was my first shot:

Fuji X-T1: ISO 400, f/5.0 at 1/6th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 400, f/5.0 at 1/6th

I was using the Fuji X-T1 (which thankfully is fully weather sealed and I got wetter than it did) with the 18-135mm lens (also weather sealed). That lens doesn't have a really large maximum aperture (the widest it can open) so I was limited to f/5.0 at the focal length I was using. At ISO 400 that yielded a shutter speed of 1/6th of a second, which as you can see meant that everything is blurry. I simply cannot hold the camera steady without a tripod at that speed. So, I adjusted my ISO and tried again.

Fuji X-T1: ISO 5000, f/5.0 at 1/60th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 5000, f/5.0 at 1/60th

Notice I used the same aperture setting (f/5.0) but the ISO went up to 5000, which then allowed me to adjust the shutter speed to 1/60th. The math on ISO and shutter speed work, kinda:

  • ISO 400 > ISO 5000 = 12.5 times greater
  • 1/6th: 6 times 12.5 = 1/75th of a second, so 1/60th. Keep in mind it was also a bit darker by the time I took the second shot.

Big difference between the two shots right? Now if you want motion and like the blur of the first image, then go for it. But if you often find you get home and are disappointed because your images aren't sharp – considering cranking that ISO up next time!

Working in low light

I've written a more detailed article on the top of low light photography before, and mentioned using high ISO. But there is another tool that will help you shooting in dark conditions, where you do not have a tripod, and that is a prime lens with a big aperture.

See: What Lens Should I Buy Next for some recommendations. 

In some cases high ISO won't even be enough, so I suggest you get yourself a nice f/1.4 lens (50mm for full frame, 35mm for cropped sensor). Combine the two when you have really low light, or a moving subject where you need an even faster shutter speed, and that will help you keep your images sharp.

The images below would not have even been possible without the 35mm f/1.4 lens for my Fuji. Notice the extra, super high ISO on the second one of 12,800. Yes you read that right – 12,800! Is it noisy (grainy) – oh yeah! But I got an image and he's frozen in mid-air. Can't do that with an f/5 lens and ISO 400, just not possible.

Fuji X-T1: ISO 4000, f/1.4 at 1/850th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 4000, f/1.4 at 1/850th (notice some of the dancers feet are frozen off the ground here).
Fuji X-T1: ISO 12,800, f/1.4 at 1/400th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 12,800, f/1.4 at 1/400th (subject frozen in midair).

As a trade-off to getting the subjects frozen and sharp I've given up a bit of image quality in terms of added noise, color saturation, and shadow detail. You can't pull these high ISO images too far in processing or they just break apart. But I'm willing to accept that because I'd rather have those things than miss the shot because I have a blurry dancer.

Here's another example of low light and a moving subject. In the first photo below, I tried to shoot when he wasn't moving much and got a decent image at 1/60th.

Fuji X-T1: ISO 3200, f/4.3 at 1/60th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 3200, f/4.3 at 1/60th

But notice in the second image, below, he was moving too much and the same shutter speed just didn't freeze his hand. Once again I was using the 18-135mm lens for these images, and had I switched to the 35mm f/1.4 I would have been able to get a faster shutter speed. Let's see how much faster:

  • f/4.3 > f/1.4 is three and a third stops difference
  • 1/60th plus 3.3 stops > 1/320th

That would likely have been more than enough to freeze the motion of the subject's hands. I possibly could have also even lowered the ISO and shot at ISO 1600 and 1/160th. Having both a fast lens (one with a large maximum aperture) and high ISO in your toolkit, gives you more options.

Fuji X-T1: ISO 5000, f/4.3 at 1/60th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 5000, f/4.3 at 1/60th

How high is high?

So how high is too high? Well, the answer to that will depend on the age of your camera. If your camera is less than three years old, you can probably crank it up to 6400 no problem. If it's older, you may want to do some testing first. But give it a good test, go all the way up the scale of what your camera offers and push the limits – then see how well, or badly it performed and decide for yourself. You could also read some reviews for your camera and see what the reviewers found – a good site for that is DP Review.

But try to get out of the mode of being stuck at ISO 400, and maybe going up to 800 if it's really dark. Feel that fear and do it anyway – give it a try at 1600, 3200 or even 6400. Just remember to do your testing on something that doesn't matter. Set up a scene in your home and run the gamut of ISO settings. Don't test it on something important. This is part of knowing your camera before you go out to shoot so you have no surprises in the field.

Some more examples

All of the following were shot handheld, without a tripod.

Fuji X-T1: ISO 5000, f/3.5 at 1/80th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 5000, f/3.5 at 1/80th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 3200, f/3.5 at 1/80th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 3200, f/3.5 at 1/80th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 6400, f/5.0 at 1/45th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 6400, f/5.0 at 1/45th
Left: ISO 6400, f/5.0 at 1/250th Right: ISO 5000, f/1.4 at 1/80th
Left: ISO 6400, f/5.0 at 1/250th – Right: ISO 5000, f/1.4 at 1/80th (shot at night no tripod)
Fuji X-T1: ISO 6400, f/4.5 at 1/50th
Fuji X-T1: ISO 6400, f/4.5 at 1/50th

Night sky photography and high ISO

If you want to photograph the starry sky, or the Milky Way at night, you will need to use a high ISO, around 1600 or 3200 depending on your lens.

Read the following for settings to shoot the night sky: How to Photograph Star Trails and the Milky Way

This is a shot I did in the desert in Morocco recently. Notice my settings!

Fuji X-T1: ISO 3200, f/2.8 for 30 seconds
Fuji X-T1: ISO 3200, f/2.8 for 30 seconds

You need to use a high ISO like this, otherwise your exposure will be longer than 30 seconds and the stars will no longer be pin points, they will start to arch as you capture their movement across the sky.

Summary – just try high ISO and liberate yourself

So there are many reasons to use high ISO and to get over that fear of noisy images, which is really what it's all about. So just do it, shoot at 6400 and see what happens. The world likely won't end and you may even get an image you like.

Please share your high ISO images below, as well as any comments or questions you may have.

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