My name is Ashley McLaughlin and this is my blog, Edible Perspective. To learn more about my journey head on over to my about + FAQ pages. I'm thrilled that you stopped by. Enjoy!


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photography 101: ISO-mania

Have you mastered the terms to know from our last session??  If not, get your butt back there + read them again…and again. :)

Today I’m going to talk about ISO.  I’ve heard from a lot of people that they leave their camera on Auto-ISO.  From the start I’ve never done this.  As a beginner, leaving your camera on auto-settings just prevents you from learning how to use it.  When your photos turn out dark, noisy, etc. you’ll have to figure out how to adjust them to improve quality.  When using your camera on auto-settings, you’ll never really learn how these functions work.

Please remember, I am not a pro or even close.  I’m just offering up information on what I have learned!

Below is a delicious bowl of ground farro that I ate a few weeks ago.

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You’ve seen these first two photos before but not the rest.  I took a set of photos, of this bowl, to explain exactly what ISO is all about.

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So…what exactly is ISO?

ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light, or how the camera processes light.

Low ISO = 100 [less light sensitive – let’s in less light]

High ISO = 1600 [more light sensitive – let’s in more light]

When using a low ISO, your lighting conditions will be nice and bright.  This would be a sunny day outside or if you have a window where light pours into your house.

Using a high ISO, means the lighting conditions are dark or poorly lit.  As it gets darker out earlier, I have to crank up my ISO to make up for the lower light. You will tend to use a higher ISO in the evening, or in a poorly lit restaurant, etc.

So what’s the problem of using a higher ISO to let more light in?  Well, a little thing called noise.  Noise is a grainy film on the photo that results from setting the ISO too high.  The higher you set the ISO the noisier the photo. You always want to be shooting in the lowest ISO possible, to get the clearest image.  Also, just because your camera’s ISO goes up to 1600 or maybe 3200 or higher, doesn’t mean your camera is able to produce a quality image at that number.  On my camera, switching to ISO 1600 is extremely noisy.  I have used this setting only a handful of times, but never need to now that I have set up my lightbox for night shots.  I will use my camera on 800, but try to keep it at or lower than 400, as much as possible.

Also, the ISO you choose, affects the combination you will set your shutter speed + aperture [f-stop] at to get the correct exposure.  I will be covering shutter speed + aperture more thoroughly in the future, so don’t worry if this seems confusing.

It’s hard to know which thing to set first.  Typically I set the ISO first, but I know people that do it the other way around too.  When you get to understanding ISO better, you’ll know what you need to set it at, just by seeing the amount of light you have.

Typically when using a tripod, and shooting my breakfast, I first set the ISO to 200.  There is a decent amount of light coming through the window in the AM, and I know that I can get a nice depth of field [around f-8], while having my shutter set around 1/5 – 1/20.  Now you could also do this the other way around.  If you know you need your aperture [f-stop] at a certain number, say 11, to get the desired depth of field [portion in the photo that’s in focus], you can set this first.  Then you would adjust your shutter speed + ISO until your photo is properly exposed. 

In manual mode, you can use your light meter to gauge the exposure.  It will look something like this.


You are aiming to have the bar in the center.  You can achieve this by the two variations I have just talked about.  Changing ISO, aperture, and your shutter speed ALL affect your exposure.  Confusing no?  Don’t always rely on “the middle” though.  Your camera may shoot a little on the over or under exposed side.  When you learn your camera better, you’ll figure out where the bar needs to be for the best quality photo.  I typically like my photos when they’re in the very middle or 1 notch up.

Also, using a tripod helps tremendously!!  In brief – You are able to set your shutter speed much lower than you would be able to set it if you were hand holding.  This allows for much more light to be let into the camera, which allows you to not have to use as high of an ISO, which will result in a crisper looking image.  And everyone loves a crisp image! :)

Does that make any sense at all?  Once you start playing around, you will see what I mean, hopefully!  Here are some photos that will help explain just exactly what happens as you adjust the ISO on your camera.

For this first set of photos, I used a constant aperture setting [f-stop] and shutter speed.  The only thing I varied was the ISO.  I’ll show you the RAW camera setting numbers to better explain.  The first set basically just explains the fact that ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light and the higher you set your ISO, the more light sensitive your camera becomes.

ISO 100 : F/5.6 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/30

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ISO 200 : F/5.6 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/30

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ISO 400 : F/5.6 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/30

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ISO 800 : F/5.6 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/30

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ISO 1600 : F/5.6 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/30

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For the next set of photos, as I increased the ISO, I also changed the aperture [f-stop] and shutter speed to get a properly exposed photo.  This was unlike the set above where the only setting I varied was ISO. 

As the ISO goes up, notice the degradation in the quality of the image.  I’m showing you 2 photos at each different ISO.  They are the same photo, however, the 2nd photo is zoomed in on where I had the focal point set to.

ISO 100 : F/3.2 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/50

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You may notice a little fuzziness behind the almond + walnut that are front and center.  This is due to the narrower depth of field I used to properly expose this photo. 

ISO 100 : F/3.2 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/50

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ISO 200 : F/4.5 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/50

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ISO 200 : F/4.5 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/50

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ISO 400 : F/6.3 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/50

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ISO 400 : F/6.3 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/50 *If you compare this with the zoomed in ISO 100 photo you can definitely start to tell a difference in the sharpness.

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ISO 800 : F/6.3 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/100

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ISO 800 : F/6.3 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/100  *Much noisier at ISO 800.

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ISO 1600 : F/9.0 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/100 *You can start to see the difference in image quality with this photo compared to the zoomed out ISO 100.  Because the light was decent when I took these photos, it’s harder to notice the noise with this zoomed out view. 

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ISO 1600 : F/9.0 : SHUTTER SPEED 1/100 *You can definitely see the noise when zoomed in.

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As the ISO is increased, I am able to widen the depth of field more [higher f-stop number, more in focus].  However, it is easy to see the degradation in the quality/sharpness of the photo as the ISO number gets larger.

Does this clear up ISO at least a little bit?  My suggestion is to read this post + then read it again.  Google is great for finding answers to questions as well.  Playing with your camera, then looking at the photos and RAW data will teach you a LOT.  Time to get busy!!


Reader Comments (66)

I aspire to be half as good as you one day :)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate (What Kate is Cooking)

I would like a job so I can have a camera to play with!! ox.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKelsey

Great tutorial for the photography-challenged (that would be me)! Thank you for this--it really helps!

Still confusing but def helpful! Thanks for the tips. :)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz @ Blog is the New Black

It really helps to be able to see it through photos--thanks for the tutorial Ash. Question though, if there is less noise at 100, why do you automatically set it at 200 (or even 400 like you said at the sesh)? Esp. when there is a lot of light...why wouldn't you put it at 100 for the sharpest photo possible? Just wondering. I'm more often the not, the other-way-around person so I set the shutter speed and aperture first and then play with the iso.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAllie (Live Laugh Eat)

I set it at 200 because I've learned the type of light that comes into my house in the morning. If I would set it at 100, I wouldn't be able to have the aperture open wide enough to get the depth of field I want. Once in awhile I am able to set it to 100 when inside, but typically to get a nice depth of field, I am not. Having it at 400 was typical when I wasn't using my tripod. Because I can now set my shutter around 1/5 or even a little slower, it allows me to also lower the ISO because I don't have to worry about hand shake and having the shutter speed around 1/80. When I don't use the tripod, my morning shots were typically around ISO 400, f/3.2, shutter 1/80. Now, I can get a much better image with a wider depth of field [around f/9] and ISO at 200, when using the tripod. Hope this helps clear that up! :)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

You're welcome!! I'm so glad it helped.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

such a great tutorial...i wish i'd had you explain it like this when i was learning how to use my camera!

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather (Heather's Dish)

awesome! I'm a newbie at all this so I appreciate every bit of help you send my way :)...I had covered aperature and shutter speed but hadn't gotten around to doing a lot of play with this was perfect timing! thanks a bunch...
cathy b. @ brightbakes

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBright Bakes

p.s. love the new header:)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBright Bakes

The new header is gorgeous! And thanks again for more awesome tips! I only have a point and shoot at the moment, but I hope to change that some day! :)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristin@purplebirdblog

Great post! I'm running to get my camera and try this out right now!

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRavenous Rowie

I'd like to know the settings on the photo you found the closest to perfect!

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKath

This is off the subject of this post, but I wanted you to know that I made your pumpkin spiced almond butter recipe. It is THE BEST that I have ever tasted! Thanks.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlinda

when i get my camera, i'll be doing all my research on your blog.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura (Starloz)

Love your lessons now that I have the cool camera to play with. I am learning so much from reading your notes again, playing around, and these posts too. I also went to a lesson at the Apple store today to learn about the camera settings and editing in iphoto. For the -2 to 2 exposure composition scale, I learned today that it can help correct dark settings to add exposure when the rest of your settings can't help anymore.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarci

Thank you so much for all this info Ashley. It's super helpful for a D-SLR newbie like me. :)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

I agree!!! I'm almost finished with my first batch and I'll be making another very soon!

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

wonderful post, ashley! and i love the new header! talk to you tomorrow!

Thanks again Ashley! These are so helpful! Really, the time you put into sharing your knowledge is very much appreciated.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKrissy @ Make It Naked

You RAWK! Thank you SOO much for these series of posts Ashley! :)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDee

I'll be buying a camera after the first of the year and I really appreciate everything you're teaching me! Thank you. :-)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEmily @ One Sweet Vegan

My head is seriously spinning. I have sooo far to go in the photography area--it's overwhelming!

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaryea @ Happy Healthy Mama

wow, this is really helpful. my mom has a big fancy camera i have no idea how to use...sadly it's not digital..but it would be worth a shot to try it out! ur header picture..dont' know how long it's been there..but i just noticed it!!! :)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterteenagehealthfreak

great tutorial! the pictures really help! I rarely touch my ISO, white balance, etc. because I feel like it takes extra time to get it just right and I'm always pressed for time. Hopefully when I'm unemployed (11 more workdays!) I'll mess with it more because it makes a big difference!

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTeri [a foodie stays fit]

I'm getting an SLR for Christmas and so excited to have these posts to help me figure out what the hell I'm doing!!

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNicole - yuppie yogini

Thank you for sharing this. I am a photographer...but know nothing about it! My creativeness spills over and clicking the shutter happens to be one of the ways I vent it. I knew the name ISO but now I know what it does...thank you!
Also, keep sharing about your swimming. I was on the swim team for 7 years but had to retire at 14 due to underdeveloped joints. In the middle of a growth spurt it really started to affect me...will stop this sob story with that! I enjoy seeing other people finding joy in the water. It is such a beautiful thing.

(have used a lot of your recipes by the way, and tomorrow I am having the breakfast cookie. I have a lot of food issues if you get my drift and knowing this is healthy for me...makes eating much easier. <3)

- syd

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSyd

Awesome tutorial!! It's always easier to see the differences in pictures like that. Definitely put it in perspective. :-)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

Wow, you are one true and knowledgeable photographer! Why else would Mama Pea choose you for to do her amazing illustrations? :)

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNamaste Gurl

Great explanation!

I have to set my camera to ISO 1600 a LOT in my kitchen so as to avoid flash, and it results in super noisy photos. I do it anyway because the only way I can have a blog is to not be a perfectionist, but it's a bit sad that I know I will never be able to print those photos or even use them as a desktop background (I think it's mostly okay for web though - at least better than flash).

I also cheat and set my aperture speed to 1/30 sometimes but again I know I'll never be able to print the shots.

Do you ever cheat like that and tell yourself that it's okay because you'll never print the photo?

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlina @ Duty Free Foodie

Thank you so much for the photography lessons! I just got my new camera last night and it is overwhelming - I like how you break it down with pictures - keep 'em coming!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkim

It is still overwhelming for me too...don't worry, once you start playing + reading it will start to make sense!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

I totally understand what you mean. I used to put my camera on 1600 "just to get the photo" but have recently stopped. In trying to focus more on the photography end of things, I have gotten away from this. I try to not even have my camera on 800 anymore. Two things that have tremendously helped with this were building a light box, which I posted about on the blog. It only took 30min and was under $25 to make. Also, I use a tripod, for every single photo for about the last month or so. Using a tripod allows you to really slow down your shutter speed to almost .5 second. I try not to have it go slower than 1/5 though. When you use a tripod + slow your shutter speed, you won't see the shakiness in the photo like you would if you hand hold it. I did used to put my shutter down to 1/30, but have stopped since using the tripod. Slowing your shutter speed will allow much more light in the camera, and will let you turn your ISO lower than 1600. If you have lightbulb outlets in your kitchen, you can also replace them with "daylight CFL" bulbs to help get some nice bright, white light. Again, I understand trying to "just get the photo" but there are definitely some easy ways to get your ISO down quite a bit. :) Hope this was helpful!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Aw thank you. :)

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Thanks so much!! Glad it was helpful.

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Thanks for your comment Syd! I'm glad you're finding my photog posts + swimming tidbits helpful. :) Thanks for trying out my recipes!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Exciting!!!!!!! HAve fun!!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

I know what you mean...but you'll get super quick at it!!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Thanks!! I just changed it yesterday!! :)

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

I know exactly how you feel. Don't will come!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

You're so welcome. I hope you find it helpful!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

HAhaa...thanks for being such a dedicated reader :)

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

THanks love!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

You're welcome Krissy. :)

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

You're welcome!!! Glad you're finding it helpful :)

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

I'm so glad things are starting to make sense. Have fun with your camera!!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

That makes me smile!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Aww, thanks so much Linda!!!! :) You're welcome!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Well, I did get the ISO 100 photo to come out looking correctly exposed, but the depth of field was too narrow for my liking. If it was blown up you'd see it more. I like the ISO 200 photo the best because the depth of field is a bit wider. Thank you tripod. :)

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Thanks Christin!!!

December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

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