Portrait Photography: Increasing ISO for Sharp Results

by Ibarionex R. Perello

Arizona man in bar.
Arizona man in bar.
© Ibarionex R. Perello
All Rights Reserved
While traveling in Tucson, we stopped at a local Mexican restaurant to have lunch. I saw this man and a friend sitting at the bar as we waited for our table. I immediately responded to his face and hat and the way the light from an open door was illuminating him.

After gently convincing him to allow me to make an image, I realized that even with my f/2.8 zoom lens, the shutter speed was too slow. With the lens wide open, the shutter speed was just 1/8 second, far too slow to reasonably hand hold and expect sharp results. Because I didnít want to lose the moment by setting up a tripod, I knew that I needed to boost my ISO from 100 to 800.

The increase of 3 stops allowed me to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/60 second, which worked much better. Though I was using an Image Stabilization lens, I didnít want to depend on the technology alone to produce a sharp result. I wanted a shutter speed that I could reasonably hand hold even without IS, but have the lensí technology engaged as a little added security. I have seen many photographers practice poor camera technique from their misplaced dependence on the technology delivering great results.

I always make it a point of noting my shutter speed as I begin to shoot. Itís as fundamental to me as focusing. I have had too many great images ruined because of camera motion resulting in a soft image. Though I make every effort to hold my camera as steady as possible, there is always a little vibration occurring. Itís not a problem with fast shutter speeds. But when the shutter speed drops below 1/60 second, especially in combination with the use of focal lengths of 80mm and higher, there is an increased risk of softness due to camera movement. Noting my shutter speed before exposing the first frame helps me take the steps needed to make sure my photographs turn out tack sharp.


Though increasing the ISO to 800 or even higher introduces more noise into the image, I prefer having a noisy image that is sharp, rather than a noiseless image that is soft. There is always something that I can do with the former, but not the latter.

Yet, even at this high ISO my camera delivered a very beautiful image. Though the light wasnít abundant, there was a good quality to it, which helped make the image strong visually and technically.

Years before, I would have missed out on this shot, because I would have decided there wasnít enough light. Now the ability to change ISO on the fly, has provided the means to make quality images virtually anywhere.



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