High ISO Adds Noise But Who Cares?!

What do you do when you're in a dark room and have to take photos of a moving subject?  My subject, aka Child 1, has just started swimming lessons and I wanted to get some photos of him as he learns.  His lessons are at C of E Junior School in Horsell, Surrey, which has a heated indoor pool.   During the winter months, it's not particularly bright inside and ideally I would love to use flash.  However, this would have meant that I needed someone walking alongside the pool carrying a flash.  Not really an option because: 1) I didn't have another person and; 2) I really think the staff would have had something to say about us walking around water with electronic equipment!  So, as with so many aspects of photography, I had to compromise.  

My subject was moving and so I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.  I was shooting with my 70-200mm at f2.8.  I had a 50mm at f1.4 and if I shot at f1.4, that would have given me 4x the amount of light but 50mm wasn't going to give me the zoom I needed.  So, I used the longer lens and just increased my ISO.  Increasing the ISO increases the sensitivity of the camera's sensor to the available light.  

A lot of people get confused by ISO but try this as an example.  You're outside during a sunny day and  to walk inside into a dark room.  At first your eyes can't see anything but after a while and they adjust.  The amount of light in the room is unchanged but your eyes become more sensitive to the available light and you can suddenly see more.  This is exactly what ISO does.  By increasing the ISO, you increase the sensitivity of the sensor to the available light.  Unfortunately, it's not all good news.  Increasing the ISO increases the amount of noise/grain in the photo.  At high ISOs, photos can become so 'noisy' that they are hardly worth taking.  But.... everyone must agree that a noisy photo is better than no photo.

FYI:  most cameras have a base/native ISO of around 100-200.  At this setting, they produce the cleanest, most noise free photo.  A few years ago, using an ISO setting of 800 wasn't a great idea due to the noise.  Fortunately, technology has improved a lot recently and these days, shooting at ISO in the 1000s isn't  a big deal.  Here are my photos of Aaryan learning to swim:

These are all taken with an ISO of 3200 and I increased the exposure some more whilst editing.  There are many people, often on forums, that go on about how they never shoot at high ISOs etc.  Good for them.  I prefer getting a photo and preserving memories than worrying about a bit of noise in a photo.  

So, next time you're in a dark environment with no flash, go ahead and raise your ISO.

PS - Aaryan is learning to swim at AquaSplash Woking.  So if you live near the Woking area and are looking for lessons for your child, I highly recommend them.  Paul and the team there are fantastic with children.  Child 2, who turns 4 in a few weeks is due to start there from January.  Their website is

What do all the Buttons on my Camera do??? Part 1 - What does the ISO Button do?

These days, so many people own a DSLR camera.  I get to attend a lot of weddings and the number of people with DSLR cameras grows all the time.  Often people will come up to me and are not sure what all the buttons and dials on their camera do.  Most people have their camera set to Automatic, which means that the camera does everything for you.  Automatic is a great setting if you need to take a shot that is happening at an instant and you do not have time to change your settings.

There are many features on cameras but there are three main settings that everyone should know about.  They are Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO.  They determine exposure and form the foundation of every photograph we take.  


Aperture:  This is how large the hole/opening of the lens is.  The larger the hole, the more light can get inside and hit the sensor.

Shutter speed:  Determines how long the lens is open for.  The longer shutter speed, the longer the lens is open for and the more light can get inside.  

ISO:  This adjusts how sensitive the camera sensor is to light.  The more sensitive it is, the less light is needed in order to capture a decent exposure.

Today, we will look at ISO.  The ISO setting sounds complicated but it is probably the easiest setting to understand.  Quite simply, it makes your camera more or less sensitive to light.  Almost every camera, whether they are DSLRs or compact cameras, allow you to adjust the ISO.

Example:  You are at a party and the room is dark.  You click the shutter and see that the photo is dark or it’s bright but is blurry.

Why is it blurry?


This photo was shot at ISO 640 but is blurry.

The shutter had to stay open for longer so that more light could get in producing a well lit photo.  If you are holding the camera by hand and/or your subject is moving, then the image will be blurry.

Why is it dark?

Simple...... there wasn't enough light!  Depending on what setting your camera is on, the resulting photo may be sharp but be very dark.

One way around this is to use your flash but this will not usually be an option if your subject is far away.  The pop up flash on most cameras are poor at best but even so, you can only use them if your subject is close to you.

What should I do then?

If you can't use a flash, then you should increase your ISO setting.  Most cameras have the normal ISO set to 100 or 200.  Try increasing it to 400, 640, 800, 1000 etc.  This will make the sensor more sensitive to light and mean that the shutter is open for a shorter duration.  You will then get better brighter photos, which are not blurry.

This photo was shot at ISO 3200.  It is much sharper.


So why don’t I just whack up my ISO and leave it there?

Good question!  High ISO produces noise and a grainy picture, which most of us don't want.  Of course, if I had a choice between a blurry photo or one that was sharp but grainy, I would choose the latter every time!

So next time you are in a low light situation, check your ISO setting and increase it as necessary.

Take a look at Part 2 - What do all the Buttons on my Camera do??? Part 2 - A is for Apple.... Rubbish! It's for Aperture!