Shot at 1/800 second shutter speed and f/8.0, the camera chose ISO 4000 to fit the lighting conditions. Which, as it turned out, was perfect!

Embracing automatic ISO.

September 16 , 2013 by: Haje Jan Kamps Advice, Feature Articles, Practice

Recently, I find myself in more and more situations where I know what I’d like my shutter speed and aperture to be, but realising that the light situation is changing around me.

In a recent round of street photography, for example, I wanted to shoot wide open (f/2.8, using my 70-200mm lens), and I knew that I wanted reasonably fast shutter speeds (I spent the day shooting at 1/800 second)… But given that I was walking down Southbank in London, where there’s a lot of trees, overhangs, and rapidly changing light situations, what’s a guy to do? The solution, more and more often, is automatic ISO: Select the things you care about, and let your camera adapt to the changing lighting situations by varying the ISO.

It isn’t that long ago since this would have been completely impossible – Most of the camera bodies I’ve had so far, have had rubbish quality photos beyond ISO 3200 or so. With my most recent camera bodies, however (Canon EOS 5D mark 3, which I ended up selling because I found it too heavy for everyday street photography, and replacing with a Canon EOS 6D instead), the full breadth of the ISO range is perfectly usable.

'Yah, whatever...'

‘Yah, whatever…’

The above photo, for example, I captured by setting my camera to f/2.8 and 1/800. The camera selected ISO 320 for this shot. Perfectly fine; there’s no discernable noise in the image at all.

Going Macro

More extreme, however, was the example I experienced recently. I’ve done a fair bit of macro photography (I did write the book on it, after all), but I found myself in a situation that was nearly impossible: Taking photos of insects on the move, without my usual flashguns. What to do? I was shooting with my 100mm f/2.8 Macro attached to my Canon EOS 6D, and no light sources or light shapers. All natural meant that I needed a relatively high shutter speed (because I was shooting hand-held), and a relatively small aperture (to deal with the extremely limited depth of field). Even in bright sunlight, that doesn’t leave an awful lot of light left… But it turns out that automatic ISO still does the trick:

Shot at 1/800 second shutter speed and f/8.0, the camera chose ISO 4000 to fit the lighting conditions. Which, as it turned out, was perfect!

Shot at 1/800 second shutter speed and f/8.0, the camera chose ISO 4000 to fit the lighting conditions. Which, as it turned out, was perfect!

So I guess the lesson here is that on modern cameras, you can in many situations leave the camera to get things right, whether you’re willing to let shutter speed, aperture, or ISO to be variable. Nifty stuff.

About Haje Jan

This post was written by Haje Jan Kamps, who has written 565 articles for Photocritic

Haje has written half a dozen books about photography. He spends most of his time running Triggertrap, a company that creates creative tools for triggering your camera.

His most recent books are:

4 Comments

  • Great article! However on the first image did you mean 3200 ISO rather than 320? :)

    I’m going to take your advise and give this a try. I find myself in these very situations and find it a pain in a crunch, to try and manually figure out what ISO will expose correctly to my other manual settings.

    • Weirdly, no — this was taken at ISO 320 :-)

      • I guess that 320 is an odd ISO but I just figured it was a typo. :)

  • I’ve used auto-ISO a bunch on my 6D, but oh man do I ever wish it had exposure compensation in M+auto-ISO mode. There are way too many times I’m shooting in an environment which I *know* is going to continue to tell the camera’s exposure estimator to use one exposure when I really want it to expose just a bit differently.

    I should probably learn the metering modes better, but still. Just having EC would be enough.

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