I was curious to know how the term "ISO" was coined for referring the image sensor's sensitivity. Is there any reason or circumstance that contributed for terming "ISO"?

Also, does ISO has a literal expansion?

If it refers the ISO organisation, why is sensitivity called just "ISO"? Is there any other formal name for referring sensor sensitivity?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a note. When it comes to digital sensor "sensitivity", the term sensitivity in that context is actually a bit of a misnomer. A digital sensor is a fixed, linear, analog device. It always has the same real sensitivity. When you adjust the ISO setting to a higher level, all that really does is reduce the maximum saturation point. The sensor does not detect more light...it detects the same, so its still just as "sensitive". Its just that instead of pure white occurring at say 40,000 electrons in a pixel (ISO 100), it occurrs at 20,000 electrons (ISO 200), or 10,000 electrons (ISO 400), etc \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Sep 13, 2012 at 17:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ On @jrista's point: How is ISO implemented in digital cameras? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Sep 13, 2012 at 19:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ The Wikipedia article on this subject has an interesting overview of the history of film speed measurement, as well as discussion of how the speed is actually defined by the modern standards that is sufficiently detailed to eliminate my temptation to pay $66 for a copy of ISO 6:1993 which apparently only has about 24 pages of content inside the covers. \$\endgroup\$
    – RBerteig
    Apr 11, 2013 at 21:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh the memories, i miss ASA. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaska Man
    Apr 11, 2019 at 18:17

4 Answers 4


ISO is the short name for the International Organization for Standardization.

The applicable standard for colour print film speed is ISO 5800:2001, and for the digital still camera imaging equivalent it is ISO 12232:2006. The numbers used in the linear system (there is also a logarithmic equivalent) and procedures used are nearly equivalent to the former ASA (American Standards Association) values for film; the logarithmic system (seen rarely now) is equivalent to the old DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung) values.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nitpick: ISO is not the International Standards Organization, the correct name is the International Organization for Standardization. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 5, 2012 at 16:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ To add to @Ward's comment: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO#Name_and_abbreviation \$\endgroup\$
    – Nivas
    Aug 5, 2012 at 17:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Stan Rogers ASA takes me back! +1 for nostalgia. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 13, 2012 at 20:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ A lot of international standards have their governing bodies in France and Switzerland. In French, the order of nouns and adverbs are switched from English. Back in the early 90s before TCP/IP was everywhere, folks often talked about the OSI/ISO model, with the three letters the initials in either French or English. I thought that the ISO numbers were exactly the same as the old ASA film numbers. Are they the same, or "nearly equivalent"? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 14, 2012 at 3:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PatFarrell - the ISO standards are defined slightly differently, but they come out to the same numbers as ASA did for the same film, and are "nearly equivalent" for digital (since the response characteristics of digital sensors and film aren't quite the same at the toe and shoulder). \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Sep 14, 2012 at 3:50

The name "ISO" is the official logo of the International Organization for Standards. The French version of the name, Organisation internationale de normalisation, arranges the words in a different order for proper syntax in french. The letters "ISO" correspond to neither arrangement.

From Wikipedia:

The three official languages of the ISO are English, French, and Russian.[3] The organization's logos in two of its official languages, English and French, include the word ISO, and it is usually referred to by this short-form name. The organization states that ISO is not an acronym or initialism for the organization's full name in any official language.[citation needed] Recognizing that its initials would be different in different languages, the organization adopted ISO, based on the Greek word isos (ἴσος, meaning equal), as the universal short form of its name.[4] However, one of the founding delegates, Willy Kuert, recollected the original naming question with the comment: "I recently read that the name ISO was chosen because 'iso' is a Greek term meaning 'equal'. There was no mention of that in London!"[5]

The ISO has written many technical standards, technical reports, technical specifications, etc. Each of these is assigned a number by the ISO. Three standards that apply to the sensitivity of photographic film are ISO 6, ISO 2240, and ISO 5800. Over time, a film's speed was referred to as its "ISO" because the number used to describe the film's speed was in compliance with these ISO standards.

With digital cameras, "ISO" has continued to be used as a way of expressing a digital camera's sensitivity to light at various amplification levels of the analog electrical signals coming from pixel sites on the camera's sensor. The International Organization for Standardization has released new standards for light sensitivity in digital sensors. In theory, an ISO setting of 400 on your digital camera should result in an exposure equivalent to one on ISO 400 film. Film sensitivities varied slightly from one film manufacturer to the next. A film that had an actual value of, for example, 388 based on the ISO standards would be marketed as "400 speed". Likewise, most digital cameras vary slightly at different ISO settings from the exact standard. At least one company, DxO, publishes test results for many cameras. If you go to the link and select the "measurements" tab you can see that the actual ISO can vary by as much as 1/2 a stop for the three entry level camera bodies I selected.

The primary thing regarding ISO you should be aware of when taking pictures is that, in general, the higher ISO number you select, the "noisier" your image will be.¹ Noise is an electrical signal from a pixel that was caused by anything other than light falling on it. When the signal from a sensor is amplified to increase ISO this noise is amplified as well. As your camera (or processing software on your computer) processes the signals from your sensor, certain measures are applied to smooth out the noise. Most cameras have settings that allow you to select how much noise reduction you want applied to the images you shoot. The downside to heavy use of noise reduction is that it also reduces the sharpness of the image at the pixel-to-pixel level. Because of this, it is best practice to shoot with the lowest ISO number that allows you to select the aperture and shutter speed combinations you desire. On the other hand, a blurry image due to a too slow shutter speed can't be fixed in processing. A noisy image that stopped the motion of your subject can be dealt with to a degree.

¹ This generalization is based on the assumption that as one increases the ISO settings, one decreases the amount of light allowed into the camera in order to avoid overexposing the highlights in the scene.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "Over time, a film's speed was referred to as its "ISO" " \$\endgroup\$ Feb 7, 2013 at 6:05

It is really just another word for "gain" (a ccd/cmos sensor has gain), but it is then normalized according to the ISO standards, which makes camera makes comparable regarding "what pixel value (in the raw) results from a certain amount of real world light, at a certain shutter time and aperture". Gain also boosts the noise, unfortunately.


ISO stands for "International Standards Organization". It is more accurately called ISO speed.

The International Standards Organization was established to provide voluntary standards for products. More information here and here.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The official name in English is "International Organization for Standards". In French it is "Organisation internationale de normalisation". Neither version orders the equivalent English words the same as "ISO". There has been some talk that "ISO" is short for the Greek word "isos" which means "equal". \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Feb 7, 2013 at 5:29

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