Forgotten in its old age

by Aditya

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In times of film photography there was a rule to either use ISO 100 film (or even great Velvia 50) which usually had considerably less grain noise than ISO 400 film. So 100 for outside or well lit subjects and 400 for indoor everyday photography. It was also considered that ISO 200 film was a bad choice because it provided no obvious advantage over 400. It had more noise than 100 and was slower than 400.

What's up with ISO 200 these days on a digital camera? Can same rules with 100 and 400 still be applied to DSLRs or have times changed considerably and nowadays even 200 gets used lots?

Disadvantagaes/advantages in terms of colours, contrast, noise and any other factors. What ISO settings do you usually use?

And I'm talking here about cropped sensor DSLRs (Canon and Nikon brethren).

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@Jerry, @mattdm: Added the last sentence to my question that should make it clear enough which cameras I'm aiming at. –  Robert Koritnik Mar 28 '11 at 0:22

6 Answers 6

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I think it's still generally true that one tends to either use lowest-possible ISO in bright lighting, or else higher-than-200 ISO settings in darker situations. But I wouldn't say I'd avoid ISO 200; it just often doesn't seem to be convenient. If I'm in the sun, there's usually no need for it, and if I'm indoors, I'd often rather get a little more depth of field or a faster shutter speed than worry about keeping ISO down. But if ISO 200 fit the exposure and aperture+time I want, I'd not think twice about using it.

One reason is that changing ISO is trivial now; I can choose ISO 200 for a particular shot with the press of a button and flick of a dial (or going into a menu), rather than committing to it until I change film. I can even let the camera automatically use it whenever it fits best.

Another other consideration is that modern digital SLR cameras, especially of recent vintage, have really very good high-ISO capabilities. The noise might not be attractive as film grain sometimes can be, but there's much, much less of it. So rather than going to ISO 400, one might not think twice about ISO 800, 1600, or beyond. I think you're right, though, that ISO 200 is still left in an awkward spot — if ISO 1600 looks great, why not use that instead?

On some cameras, though, there is a reason where ISO 200 is actually technically preferred over ISO 100. This is because on these cameras the base iso of the sensor is 200, and going below that is actually worse, since it reduces dynamic range.

Or, one might want to use a highlight-preserving mode, if your camera offers it. Because digital sensors clip highlights in an ugly way rather than the graceful analog response of film, having blown-out bright areas is particularly bad. Some cameras offer a mode where they actually underexpose by one stop and the adjust upwards — you get more protection for highlights at the cost of increased shadow noise. And since each shot is really exposed one ISO step down, the bottom of the scale — ISO 100, on my camera — isn't an option. So, when I turn that on, ISO 200 becomes the lowest setting.

So, overall: I don't think there's a special problem with ISO 200, but I do think it falls in a less-used middle point. If you're using a camera which, for technical reasons, makes ISO 200 a good choice, don't be afraid of it. If you're using a small-sensor point & shoot camera where ISO 200 is worse than 400, there may be times when it still makes a good compromise setting, but on cameras which exhibit less noise at higher levels, you'll probably just use those instead.

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I use ISO200 as my first choice. On my EOS400, shooting exclusively in RAW, I notice no more noise than with ISO100 so I'm increasing my freedom (shutter speed/aperture) by an extra stop for free - especially handy when using a non-IS lens like the 50mm 1.8 II. –  Poldie Apr 10 '13 at 8:08

These days, digital sensors are far exceeding the capabilities of film when it comes to light sensitivity. Some of the newest sensors, such as the one sported by the Pentax K-5 or the Nikon D7000, are essentially noise free to ISO 1600, unheard of in film. So, what does that really mean to you? Well, the major camera brands offer some form of automatic ISO selection with various shooting modes and, for the most part, you can safely select that and feel confident that the image itself will show little to no noise within the range of ISO that film was generally available in. Get beyond that, it varies to some degree, but even then it's becoming less an issue and you can always do a little work to clean it up, like this ISO 20000 (yes, 20000) shot of mine:

enter image description here

So, in my humble opinion, I wouldn't hesitate to shoot ISO 200 in the slightest... Heck, at this point (since I do use a Pentax K-5), I don't hesitate through ISO 6400. Beyond that, it's just down to get the shot or no, as that one was, and work on it. I'll just decide if it's worth it, as it was for this one. However, I'll do all that through setting the shutter speed I want and the aperture I want, and then letting the camera do the ISO selection. I only go totally manual in a studio set up.

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ISO 20000? Nice. I'm jealous. –  D. Lambert Mar 28 '11 at 2:24
    
@DLambert - The newest sensors are awesome. You'll hit it on your next upgrade I'm sure. –  John Cavan Mar 28 '11 at 15:55

With the addition of this applying only to cropped-sensor dSLRs, the answer is pretty simple: at least for any that's even reasonably close to current, ISO 200 is about as close to noise free as the camera can manage. At least in most cases, dropping to a lower ISO (e.g., 100) doesn't reduce noise much, but often makes exposure more critical (i.e., you're more likely to get clipping with even minor over-exposure).

One minor note: Though it has limited relevance in the case of ISO 200, some cameras (e.g., many with Sony sensors) apparently have two separate amplifiers, one of which works only in full-stop sizes, and the other in fractional stops. The fractional-stop amplifier seems to be much lower noise, so (for example) there's very little change in noise going from ISO 100 to 160, but then a substantially larger jump going from 160 to 200. Again, going from ISO 200 to 320 adds very little more noise, but going to 400 adds quite a bit more noise again. As such, with these cameras you almost always want to use a setting that's 1/3rd stop under the "obvious" settings (so you generally want to use 160, 320, 640, etc., rather than 200, 400, 800, etc.)

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It seems ISO 160 is often implemented by exposing at ISO 200, and then doing a digital pull. This gives you 1/3rd stop less noise, but also drops dynamic range by 1/3rd stop. –  Evan Krall Mar 28 '11 at 8:10
    
@Evan Krall: on the cameras I'm talking about, that's not the case. On these, the noise gain from 100 to 160 is (maybe) .2 stops, and from 160 to 200 gains .8 stops of noise (seriously). –  Jerry Coffin Mar 28 '11 at 8:26
    
Evan: there used to be ISO160 film, which required just standard E61 processing (so no push/pull). –  jwenting Mar 28 '11 at 11:59

What ISO you choose should be based on your camera and how large you plan to print. If you never print your pictures larger than a standard 4x6", it probably won't even matter. I have a canon Rebel XSI, and have printed several pictures of dark scenes with lots of solid blocks of color (areas where noise shows strongest) shot at ISO 1600 and you can't even see the noise. My camera is almost three years old, and is a very low end DSLR. A D7000 has easily double, maybe triple the usable range of ISO.

When out shooting I will use 400 without concern if necessary, but I tend to carry a tripod and just use 100. For non-serious pictures of friends or at parties I just set it to 800 or 1600 and ignore it. I know the largest they will ever be printed is perhaps 8x10, and that is pushing it. It also depends on if you shoot in RAW and process them, or shoot JPG. If you shoot raw, you can probably get at least one more stop of no noise.

If you're trying to print large - 13x19" or larger - then yes it will will become a factor. But at that point you should probably be on tripod for maximum sharpness, unless its bright daylight, in which case you wouldn't need high ISO anyway :)

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Given that entire generations of digital cameras had EI200 as the lowest value they could use, and create quite good images at that setting, I seriously doubt you can consider it a bad choice :)

As to film, I used to normally use either 50 or 200, rarely 100 and 400, and never regretted it, until Fuji released Velvia 100 which is the last film I used in bulk, and never regretted the choice. Knowing your chosen film inside and out is more important than minor differences in characteristics (of course that goes for shooting hundreds of rolls of the same film per year). Knowledge can compensate for those, and more than. And the same is true now for digital cameras and their sensors. Those using a camera for years and getting to know how to exploit its strengths best can get far better results with a 5-10 year old camera than those buying a new one every few months because "it's better" and never getting to know it at all.

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Digital Photo Pro had an article based on a YOUTUBE video that suggested that ISO in YOUR camera may be very different than in another camera( and under 1600 may not even matter). They suggested that you take photos with the cap closed on manual at a set aperture and shutter speed and every ISO setting that you have. Then mod them on Photoshop or what you have to give you the higest grain you can see, and do this same for every photo.

I did this. It was astounding. On my Canon 50D, I couldn't find nearly any noise at all until I got up to above 1600 ISO, even enlarging the black photos to 500%. On real pictures it was even more difficult to see noise. There were differences in color rendition at 1600 as opposed to 200 ISO, but there was not even color rendition that I could tell at 100-800. Even so the color rendition issues could be modified in photoshop easily.

The bottom line is that with any DSLR since 2008, shoot at whatever you want from 1600 down. Oddly I did find that I should not be shooting at 640 ISO because at just this setting, on just my camera; ISO 640 had as much noise as ISO 2500. This is a good reason for checking: some settings may have a problem with just your camera.

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Welcome Zarathu to photo.SE. If you're pixel peeping at 500% and don't see noise at 1600 on real pictures, you or your camera has probably turned on some aggressive noise reduction. (Unless we're talking about the very newest sensors, which may be almost noise free at 1600. But certainly not all the way back 3 years without any caveats). –  rfusca Jun 22 '11 at 7:49
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All you will see from that experiment is the dark current / electrical noise your camera generates. High ISO settings don't generate noise, they only reveal noise already present, noise in low light arises primarily from a lack of photons so taking photos with the lens cap on is not giving you the full picture! –  Matt Grum Jun 22 '11 at 7:54
    
he is right though in that there are major differences in what one camera calls "ISO200" and what another calls "ISO200". ISO is applicable to film only, and on cameras is just an indication and approximation of what the sensor will do. The technically correct term should be EI, or Exposure Index. –  jwenting Jun 22 '11 at 8:59
    
Neither of the two noise reductions were turned on. However, the bottom line is that when printed the the sizes that people purchase as a wedding photographer, meaning 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 with an occasional 11 x 14, noise on anything from 1600 ISO on down is negligent. Printers simply aren't good enough to show it. And when I was a wedding photographer only one person ever purchased a 16 x 20 when I was using MF, and that person was me. –  Zarathu Jun 22 '11 at 13:50
    
But: Image noise is the random variation of brightness or color information in images produced by the sensor and circuitry of a scanner or digital camera. Image noise can also originate in film grain and in the unavoidable shot noise of an ideal photon detector. –  Zarathu Jun 25 '11 at 12:58

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