High ISO: Good, Bad or It Depends? A Photo-Recipe!

Me Ra Koh

I’d like to share a photo-recipe for when high ISO can’t be avoided.  In our CONFIDENCE Workshops, we teach women to shoot with the lowest ISO–when possible.  The “when possible” is the key to that sentence.   The lower the ISO, the more buttery, creamy, saturated your color is.  But is the high ISO bad?  Not necessarily.  A high ISO can definitely have its place.  Yes, the higher ISO will give you more of a “grainy” texture rather than smooth color.  But grain isn’t necessarily bad “all” the time.

When we are learning photography, it’s easy to search for all the rules.  We want to become better photographers, as fast as possible.  We tell ourselves ‘If I just figure out what NOT to do, then I can relax more and not look so silly.’  We think that by learning the rules, we will gain confidence that much faster.  But often the opposite happens.

We are online into the wee hours of the night, and we dig and dig for all the things we are NOT supposed to do.  We write those rules down, and without realizing it, we hyper focus on how to NOT break the rules rather than feeling free to create. Instead of gaining confidence, we are terrified of making a mistake. And since beginning photos are often all about making mistakes, we talk ourselves out of taking pictures.

Deep breath.

Exhale. Close your eyes while exhaling even deeper and picture yourself making room within you to make mistakes, to bend the rules, to color outside the lines, and to fall in love with discovering why you love taking pictures.  This space is where magic can breathe.

Here is a high ISO photo that I shot.

See how Me Ra Koh, The Photo Mom embraces High ISO in this photo-recipe

If you look close, you’ll notice the graininess in the image.  I shot this at 1600 ISO on the Sony a55.  Does the graininess bother me?  Quite the contrary.  I actually like how it adds even more character to the photo.

The girls had just come home from playing at the beach.  They jumped in the warm, outdoor shower.  The sun was setting fast which means not a lot of daylight left.  My ISO was 1600, Shutter Speed was down to 1/60th (or 60) of a second, and Aperture was f 3.2. If I wanted more light, I would have needed to pop my external flash.  But an external flash would have changed the look and feel I was going for–much more than a higher ISO.

This high ISO image works for me.  I LOVE this moment.  My niece’s middle name is Twilight, and I love that twilight was fast approaching as the girls giggled in the shower–twilight was my inspiration for not brightening this image more than I needed to in post process.  Playing, creating, experimenting, discovering–all pieces that keep photography alive and new for me.

As we embark on our photography journey, we are going to create a space within ourselves that allows magic to breathe deeper and discoveries to happen.  There are definite guidelines for taking great photos or running a successful photography business, but they are guidelines.  Joy is what brought us to photography, but so often the stress of getting better eats away at our joy.

One step at a time.  Yes?




  1. Summie Roach says:

    a most definite “yes”…one step at a time 🙂

  2. Kellie says:

    I love working with natural lighting. Recently I was at a Ceremony of Life for a recent friend that passed away. We were part of a large group of musicians that for years would get together and jam. So we had a large jam, all the bands got to play and express themselves, I took photos and didn’t want to use flash at all. The lighting was gorgeous, purples blues pinks.. Using depth of field 3200 and pulling the camera into my body I was able to take some great photos. In some photos the entire photo is crystal clear except the singers head or the hands of the guitarists.. over all and exciting experience, and one I’m glad to have had the opportunity to experiment with.
    I had another photo where everything in the photo all the dancers and the musicians were just out of focus lending to a sense of movement, it helped that the dancers were active and that helped with the flow, all but one person and it was a fluke, she is in white and she is almost perfectly clear.
    If I recall correctly the camera was on the table and being set up for a 2.5 second @800 shot and I took a photo by accident.

    I look at photography as a life time of learning, sometimes you don’t always see the photo’s secrets until you see it on the monitors. I always see something I hadn’t seen in the eye piece love the little surprises. Love the accidental shots too.

  3. Liane Dimond says:

    Thank you MeRa, “one step at a time.”

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Me Ra Koh, Sony Artisans. Sony Artisans said: New Photo-Recipe! High ISO Good, Bad or Does it Depend?: How high can you go in your ISO? What is ISO? […]

  5. Emily M. says:

    yes, i agree that a high ISO has it’s place, and that graininess can sometimes enhance a photo. this is one of my favorite photos, taken with an iPhone, and super grainy, even for an iPhone shot. but…i love it!

    great post, as usual, MeRa!!

  6. Jamie says:

    Wonderful post! Thank you for the freedom to be creative… even when the “rules” sometimes get “broken”. Funny, before your workshop photography was all about the do’s and don’t’s for me. Now it’s about the emotion. Thank you for giving me the “permission” I needed to see photography as a creative process, not just a technical one. (trying to explain this to my husband over the past week has been both humorous and interesting)
    “Instead of gaining confidence, we are terrified of making a mistake. And since beginning photos are often all about making mistakes, we talk ourselves out of taking pictures.”
    This is where I’ve been for the past couple of months… my picture taking has been at an all time low. Now I’m looking for ANY opportunity to take my camera out.

    Thank you for that,

  7. Charisse says:

    “We write those rules down, and without realizing it, we hyper focus on how to NOT break the rules rather than feeling free to create. Instead of gaining confidence, we are terrified of making a mistake. And since beginning photos are often all about making mistakes, we talk ourselves out of taking pictures.”

    How true that statement is Me Ra. I have found myself in that space more often than not. For a period, I was even unsure about sharing those not so perfect pictures on my so “public” facebook page or even my personal blog. It became very limiting. Thanks for writing this. It really is important to breathe and enjoy the process…not worry about the outcome before we even get on the road.

  8. Delanae says:

    Love this freedom to create…because I’m a natural born rule breaker, not out of choice, I just can’t ever remember what the rules are. 🙂 This post takes so much of the pressure off!


  9. Cyndi says:

    Thanks for that, Me Ra! I’m now in that ‘up all night studying’ phase, trying to understand and memorize the ‘rules’.
    This is a really good one for me. BTW, are there a few favorite/standard steps of postprocessing in lightroom that you always do to every photo? I’d love to know if you have any favorites, or usual cleanups you do to most pics.

  10. I’m a natural light photographer, mostly outdoor. I have an SB 400 and SB 900 that I am learning (slowly, might I add) how to use, but I’m using them nonetheless. I’m finding that indoor without the flash, my high ISO settings are not cutting it, as slightly grainy images are not always the style I’m going for. I’m thinking that if I still want that natural light effect indoors in a shadowy room, I’m going to need to buy a much better lens, such as something that opens to 2.8.

    Until that happens (which will not be for a while), I am going to have to learn some new techniques for indoor shooting with the equipment I have. Any suggestions? Articles? Thoughts?

  11. Sue Christianson says:

    ooooo…..thank you for this post. I was just processing some grainy pictures because of having to use a higher ISO. I was questioning myself alot and was frustrated with it. But this post helps SO much! Thank you! Thank you!

  12. Julie says:

    Thank you for such a powerful reminder to regain the JOY that started this journey in photography and the freedom to explore, play, and re-engage with the magic of it vs. merely “rule-keeping.” I appreciate it Me Ra!

  13. Ann Lee says:

    ok, one step at a time.

  14. Rhonda says:

    Here’s what I get from this… It really is about the moments. Sometimes graininess adds to the moment and sometimes it doesn’t, but the moment passes and we can’t ever get it back again (yes, we can try to recreate, but sometimes it’s just not the same.) So take the picture and don’t worry about bumping up the iso to grainy if that’s what it will take to capture the moment. Because the capturing the moment is what I LOVE about photography.

    I look forward to getting better equipment just so that I have more room to capture the moments the way I want to. If you had been taking this picture with your a900, what could you have pushed the iso up to to get the same graininess – or would it have been the same at 1600?

  15. Carol says:

    Boy, did I need to hear that! Exactly where I am right now! After reading in Isaiah tonight, I just decided to do what Hezekiah (sp?) did (chapter 35, I think) and lay all my worries before the Lord…why do I not do this ALL the time? He can handle it! He is the Creator of the Universe! Why do I need to worry and fret and lose my joy? I do love photography, but God holds the creativity card. If He is within me, then I gotta get in touch with Him about it all…even photog…guess I will get better in His timing…going to bed now…no worries!! Be blessed and take courage…

  16. Alli says:

    I’m trying to figure out something… anything and fear is constantly grabbing me and holding me back. It holds me to follow those rules or stick inside my current comfort zone. For instance, the whole reason I haven’t completely succumbed to shooting manual is because of the fear of missing a shot due to incorrect settings. Things happen SO fast and if I’m fiddling with dials and menus, I fear I might miss something. It is so frustrating. I want to let go of that fear, but just one bad shot is all it takes to set me back.

  17. Tina G. says:

    First, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us. Second, thanks for this post. I am so stifled by my own perfectionist ways that it makes me, and probably my husband, crazy! I have spent countless hours researching the “right way” to approach photography. The right composition, the right settings, the right lens, the right lighting, the right subject and on and on. Thank you for suggesting we breathe and regain the joy. Photography has consumed me. I wake up every morning thinking of my next shot. I care for my grand baby every day and have thousands and thousands of photos of her. I’ve spent too much time worrying about the shots that didn’t happen rather than the few that are great. She’s been put here to help me grow as a photographer. I am giving myself permission to relax and to make more mistakes and believe that that will make me a better, stronger artist.

  18. Lynde says:

    am a BIG fan of high ISO. i often shoot at 1600-3600+ ISO. 😉 and i love the results…
    In fact, I still go back and add additional grain because i just love it so. So much more than sucking the life out of it with a flash. I still have yet to purchase an external flash. I have gone 2 full years of owning a “pro” camera that doesn’t have a pop-up flash, so I don’t have *any* option for a light source aside from what is available. It poses quite a challenge and it is awesome. ISO is my good, good friend.


  19. Deep Breath…Oh Yes…YES…most defiantly YES!

  20. I recently discovered you as a photog through a CD given to me by a friend who works for Sony. I also shoot w/ Sony. Part of the problem of learning for me is trying to emulate my teacher (Karen Russel “Snapshots of a Good Life”) who has this $7000 dollar camera and fabulous lenses (which she earned and deserves by the way). She never uses flash, stubbornly refuses to and yet her pics almost never look like shes in bad lighting. So of course I get super frustrated and think everything is garbage especially when shooting people when I get grain. NO MORE, THX!!!! This article has helped free me to explore and create. BTW for our anniversary this month hubby bought me the new Sony a33!!!! I now have video and better ISO handling!!!!

  21. Sonia says:

    Thank You MeRa for those encouraging words. It is easy to get lost in the stress of taking picture’s and being PERFECT. Next time when this happens to me I will truely remember to take that deep breath and remember JOY!