ISO setting on digital cameras, what exactly does it do?

This is part of an occasional series looking at the basic controls on a camera. It’s here primarily to supplement, and as a taster for, my beginners photography classes and one-to-one sessions. Some of the controls on a camera are fairly intuitive. Zoom, for example, controls the focal length of the lens and so the degree of magnification of the image (we zoom in, or we zoom out). Shutter speed controls the…er…speed of the shutter; well accurately it controls the duration the shutter is open, and so the amount of light allowed to pass through the shutter and impinge on the sensor, which in turn directly influences how bright or dark the image is. But ISO? Knowling that the acronym stands for International Organisation for Standardation doesn’t help that much either, and yes, I know it should be IOS not ISO (there are reasons but truthfully that would simply be too much of a digression to go there now, ask me after class :)). So if we simply accept that the name, ISO, tells us nothing about what the control actually does – then what does the ISO control on a camera do? Essentially the ISO setting works rather like the amplifier on a radio or CD player; it varies the signal gain to produce a brighter (for higher iSO values) or darker (for lower ISO values) without any changes in the amount of light hitting the sensor. Typically ISO values range from 100 (low) to 3,200 or 6,400 (high) on some cameras. These numbers are derived from film; with film cameras the film had a set sensitivity to light. Film that responeded quickly was termed fast film; film that responded slowly …. you’ve guessed already ..slow film. The film’s sensitivity could not be changed, so once it was loaded into the camera the ISO value of that film was then dialled in using the camera ISO control, allowing the film’s sensitivity to be taken in to account when exposure was evaluated by the camera’s light meter (or it would be dialled in to the meter if a hand held light meter was used). The ISO sensitivity in a digital camera is created very differently to in a film camera, but the same numerical values are used and they approximate closely to the changes in sensitivity to light that occurred in film. Essentially, the steps between each ‘standard’ ISO value represents a doubling or a halving in senstivity, depending on whether one goes up or down. So ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100; ISO 400 is twice as senstive as ISO 200, and so on. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, if a particular scene was correctly exposed at a shutter speed of 15th of a second at ISO 100, then (all other settings remaining unchanged) the same scene would still be correctly exposed at 30th of a second at ISO 200 (a shorter time the sensor is exposed to light, but a more sensitive ISO value) it would also be correctly exposed at 60th of a second at ISO 400. Okay, so what would the correct ISO setting be if the shutter speed was changed to 500th of a second?
Hopefully this explains how the ISO values influence image exposure, but why do we want this control? Well there are a few situations where it is useful but the fundamental one is that a higher ISO allows us to use faster shutter speeds. If we go back to my first example, a shutter speed of 15th of a second at ISO 100. A 15th of a second is very slow and likely to produce a blurred image, a) due to the slight shakiness in everyone’s hands and b) as people (or animals, cars etc.) move. By selecting a higher ISO value we can then change to a faster shutter speed where these problems will be greatly reduced (for the sake of simplicity I have not considered aperture values and have assumed they remain unchanged).

 

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