With conventional cameras your camera had a maximum shutter speed ( typically 1600 ), and the film you used had an ISO speed rating at which it was meant to be able to get a proper exposure under "normal" lighting conditions. Essentially this was a way of rating the sensitivity of the film. While you can push a given film to a higher than rated speed, unless you have lots of light, the quality of the picture is going to suffer due to being underexposed.

Why do digital cameras not seem to be given an ISO rating? It looks like the manufacturers are trying to misrepresent the maximum shutter speed as an ISO rating and make ludicrous claims with very high numbers for the sake of specsmanship, but trying to use those high speeds invariably results in terrible, underexposed pictures ( due to the very small dynamic range that has to be highly amplified to get anything at all ).

One manufacturer could have a terrible sensor but push the maximum shutter speed to 100,000, and you're not really going to be able to use anything more than 200 in lower light conditions, while another could only have a maximum shutter speed of 3200, but you can actually use it at 1600 in low light and not get underexposed pictures. How can you tell the difference?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you browsed the ISO tag here at the site? photo.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/iso Namely the existing questions: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/6615/… and photo.stackexchange.com/questions/2946/… ? This might be a good primer if you are quite unfamiliar with it: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/37898/… \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 1:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Digital cameras have an ISO setting. Sensitivity is variable and the maximum ISO is always clearly indicated in the specifications. There's a tradeoff when you increase sensitivity: the picture will have more noise. This is one reason why they don't have the sensitivity fixed at a permanent high value. Also see here cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/camera-exposure.htm and here cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/image-noise.htm \$\endgroup\$
    – Szabolcs
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 1:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @psusi, yes, iso settings and shutter speed are of course different things! \$\endgroup\$
    – szulat
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 3:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I understand what you're getting at with your point about shutter speed, but, first, there actually is a "second setting on digital cameras" which affects actual light reaching the sensor: aperture! So that makes your point kind of confusing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, digital cameras actually implement higher ISOs with amplification very early in the process, making it (in most cameras) have an actual, practical effect on noise. (See the various questions @dpollitt linked above.) \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 4:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @psusi where have you seen "everyone conflating the two"? I've never seen that before your question. Are you sure you're not conflating them when listening, while the speaker wasn't? \$\endgroup\$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 5:47

1 Answer 1


Digital cameras do have an ISO rating. In fact most of them have many ISO sensitivities at which they can shoot. There are even third party sites that measure how accurate those sensitivity settings are in a lab.

Here, for example, are the results for selected versus actual ISO for three of the top cameras currently on the market. (Click "Measurements-->ISO Sensitivity)

enter image description here

As you can see, the base sensitivity of the Canon & Nikon appears to be ISO 100, while that of the Sony looks to be lower. Higher sensitivities are obtained by amplifying the analog signal from each pixel well. This can be done either before or after the analog signal is converted to digital data. Since the data from each pixel well is a monochromatic luminance value based on how much light was allowed to pass through a red, green, or blue filter in front of the sensel, the data must be demosaiced to provide color information (or tonal values if the data is converted to a monochrome image).

This ISO setting is totally different than the set shutter speed. None of them have a shutter speed setting that exceeds 1/8000 second, yet all of them have ISO ratings well above ISO8000. The quality of the pictures obtained at those very high ISO settings are not that much unlike what you would have gotten if you had shot film at such high ISO settings. And for cameras with a focal plane shutter, even shutter speeds such as 1/500 second take longer than that to expose because the transit time of the two shutter curtains crossing the sensor (or film) is longer than that. As the first curtain moves across the sensor to uncover it the second curtain chases behind it to cover the sensor back up. How wide the slit of exposed sensor between the two is, along with how long it takes each curtain to move completely across the sensor, determines how long any specific point on the sensor is exposed to light coming through the lens.

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    \$\begingroup\$ mind that these "ISO" settings are actually "ISO Equivalent" definitions created by each camera manufacturer to indicate which film rating their camera mimics when it shoots at a specific setting. \$\endgroup\$
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 7:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, those charts actually provide exactly the information I was looking for. \$\endgroup\$
    – psusi
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 20:15

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