How to Harness the Power of ISO and Shutter Speed

In low light situations, photographers often find themselves in a predicament when it comes to creating a proper exposure. Slowing down the shutter speed will allow for more light to register on the camera’s sensor, but increase the amount of motion blur captured in the final image. Bumping up the ISO can enable faster shutter speeds while still attaining a proper exposure. However, higher ISOs tend to deteriorate digital images. So how exactly does a photographer compromise when faced with these technical difficulties? Artist Marcin Lewandowski explains what factors into making the right decision for an image:

By asking yourself the following questions, you can determine the best course of action when forced into making an aesthetic change to accommodate a difficult environment.

Where is this image going?

Do you intend on posting the final picture on a blog or website? Or should the image be able to be printed, cropped, or enlarged at whim? Believe it or not, thinking about the end point of an image can be an excellent starting point. By keeping the ISO to a minimum, you’ll preserve details—a must if you plan on making physical prints of an image. On the other hand, images destined for the internet can withstand a much higher ISO without experiencing much deterioration.

Do you have a tripod or steady surface that you could use?

Having access to a tripod can make all of the difference in a difficult lighting situation. By relegating your camera to a stable surface, you may not have to compromise much at all. As long as you are photographing a stationary subject, you can use a slower shutter speed and a low ISO without sacrificing image clarity or risking unintentional blurs.

Of course, using a tripod is not always an option. If you are in a situation where you are forced to hand hold the camera, it might be best to either up the ISO or use the unavoidable blur to your advantage.

long exposure portrait

How much of a priority is motion in your image?

Ideally, you’ll be able to come up with a solution that allows you to keep your ISO low and shutter speed slow. In certain scenarios, such as a situation in which you need to freeze motion, these settings may not be conducive to the final product you seek. If capturing action is an absolute must, lower your aperture and opt for a higher ISO. Experiment and see how low you can keep the ISO while still capturing a sufficient amount of light, or how slow of a shutter speed would be necessary to freeze the motion you’re trying to capture.

Could your image work in black and white?

Sometimes, high ISO is a necessary evil. But this does not necessarily mean that all hope is lost for the photograph. Although very few photographers strive for images riddled with digital noise, many still consider film grain to be a beautiful quality under the right circumstances. If you absolutely can’t avoid noise and banding, you could always use post processing techniques to mimic film grain. A simple conversion to black and white can eliminate any color distortion as well as transform the entire mood of an image in one simple click.

high ISO black and white conversion

The next time you face difficulties on a shoot, don’t despair. Although the image you initially aimed for not be easy to capture, with a little bit of creativity and compromise, it’s possible to surpass your expectations and produce something entirely unique.

“Choosing the right ISO/shutter speed combination can be driven by either purely aesthetic reasoning or by technical difficulties, but remember that the final look of the photograph and the choice you make is entirely up to you.”

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