Everything You Actually Need To Know About ISO

Who is it that perpetrated this heinous crime upon us gentile photographers? What crime is that, you ask?

The elitist, protectionist, bourgeois lie that to be a good photographer you have to know the science and theory that makes photography work.

Harsh words? Perhaps. Fair? I think so.

Maybe the edu-photo-cation industry is just feeding the fear-hunger that came from the heroes who birthed this world-changing media—the Jacques Daguerre’s and Joseph Nicephore Niepce’s. They HAD to know science—whipping out measuring sticks, breathing in chemicals day and night, testing out new formulas—it had to be done. They were starting from scratch. We are not.

Maybe the science loving type is drawn to photography and have kept hold of their claim through the years in their basement darkrooms. The problem is they’ve taken that mindset into the light.

Maybe it doesn’t matter why, it just is.

But at what cost? Just about everyone I know loves to snap away with a camera and also enjoys looking at great photography. But nearly all them believe they won’t be able to join the two—taking great photos themselves. That’s a shame. They find the rules and the science and the mounds of theory intimidating. And I can’t say I blame them.

It’s the Wizard of Oz. The booming, imposing voice that is the photography education approach is really just an old man behind a curtain, his arthritic fingers gripped tight around a couple handy pieces of information—just enough to keep the illusion alive.

That’s not to say the science can’t be interesting, or inspire some to practice (though it’s the practice and experience that makes the photographer better, not the knowledge of the science or theory). Your favorite snapper, whether he/she is a fine art photographer, photojournalist, commercial photog, or whatever, I promise if you erased all their photo experience, all the practicing and jobs they’ve done, but left them with all the science and theory they’ve amassed in their careers, if you were both shooting the same idea they wouldn’t take photos that looked any better than yours.

The valley between what most people think they need to know to take really good photographs on a regular basis and what they actually need to know is broad indeed.

So, what is everything you actually need to know about ISO if your goal is to take great photographs?

  • ISO makes your camera more or less sensitive to light. So if you want to use a shutter speed and an aperture (f-stop) combination to get a particular result, but there isn’t enough light to do that, you have to use a higher ISO. If there is too much light, you turn the ISO down.
  • The higher the ISO number is on your camera the noisier—or grainier—the image looks, but you won’t really notice unless it’s really high or you compare the exact same set up shot with both a low ISO and a high ISO.

That’s it. Not so scary, right? You probably already knew those bits.

One of the best ways I know to become a better photographer is to find images you love, images you wish you took, then get out there and try to take that same photo—or at least your version of it. Knowing what ISO the image you love was shot at will never help you become a better photographer. Never. The information is useless.

Sure, there is more you could learn about ISO—enough that someone could (or maybe even has) written a whole book about it. If that’s your idea of fun, have at it. But if your idea of fun is to take great photographs, and you’re out there trying to learn how to do it, you don’t have to waste another second learning about ISO.

You’re welcome.


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1 Comment

  1. This is smart and makes me feel better about not knowing this stuff. Thanks for your honesty. I imagine there are a lot of people who don’t like this kind of talk, but I am not one of them. Give me shortcuts and save me time!! I just want to take cool pictures.