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Digital SLR Camera Basics

ISO Sensitivity

In the case of digital cameras, ISO sensitivity is a measure of the camera's ability to capture light. Digital cameras convert the light that falls on the image sensor into electrical signals for processing. ISO sensitivity is raised by amplifying the signal. Doubling ISO sensitivity doubles the electrical signal, halving the amount of light that needs to fall on the image sensor to achieve optimal exposure. In other words, if ISO sensitivity is raised from ISO 100 to ISO 200 while aperture is left unchanged, the same exposure can be achieved with a shutter speed twice as fast. The same is true if ISO sensitivity is raised from ISO 200 to ISO 400.

The slow shutter speeds needed for dark interior scenes leave photographs prone to camera blur. If you raise ISO sensitivity, you can choose faster shutter speeds and reduce camera blur. This is why people say that ISO sensitivity should be raised if lighting is poor.

ISO sensitivity can be set manually by the photographer or automatically by the camera.

Dark Scenes: Raising ISO Sensitivity

Low ISO sensitivity, slow shutter speed.
Low ISO sensitivity, slow shutter speed.
High ISO sensitivity, fast shutter speed.
High ISO sensitivity, fast shutter speed.

These photographs of a cyclist were taken under low light. Low ISO sensitivities require slow shutter speeds for correct exposure, resulting in blur caused by subject motion. High ISO sensitivities allow correct exposure to be achieved at faster shutter speeds, making it possible to take photographs that “freeze” motion.

No-Flash Low Light Photography

When lighting is poor, you can use a flash to light portrait subjects. Flash units, however, have limited range. If you raise ISO sensitivity, you can optimally expose both the portrait subject and the background without using a flash at all.

Photo taken with flash
Photo taken with flash
Photo taken at high ISO sensitivity with flash off
Photo taken at high ISO sensitivity with flash off
Noise
Raising ISO sensitivity allows faster shutter speeds, reducing blur caused by subject or camera movement. You may wonder why, if that's the case, you shouldn't simply always shoot at the highest ISO sensitivity setting, but in fact raising ISO sensitivity can introduce a type of image artifact known as “noise” into your photographs, making them seem grainy. Raising ISO sensitivity amplifies the electronic signal, which also amplifies any noise in the signal; as a result, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the more obvious the effects of noise on your photographs. The same is true of all digital cameras. We recommend that you raise ISO sensitivity only as high as needed to avoid blur.

Sample Camera Displays

camera information display
camera information display

ISO sensitivity:

Displayed as ISO 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200…


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