Taking photos in dim lighting is a problem pet photographers face continually.

Whether you’re taking photos on your early morning walk before work or trying to capture some cute indoor shots of your sleeping pet in a dimly lit room, getting quality photos in low light can be really challenging.

Thankfully we live in the age of digital photography where we can change our ISO setting on the fly and compensate for poor lighting without stress.

What is ISO?

When it comes to pet photography ISO is one of the most important elements in your control. ISO (International Standards Organization) is the standardized measurement of light sensitivity applied to a digital sensor or a roll of film.

Your ISO setting basically determines how much light a digital sensor can absorb.

ISO is measured in doubling increments beginning at ISO 100 and continuing ISO 200, ISO 400, ISO 800, and onward. As these ISO measurements increase in number the sensor in your camera becomes more sensitive to light.

Meaning the higher the ISO, the more light the sensor can absorb, the brighter the photo ends up being.

Great, but what does that mean?

Similar to widening your aperture or slowing your shutter speed, increasing your ISO will improve your cameras performance in low light. This allows you to use a higher shutter speed to stop action or close your aperture for a wider depth of field without making the image too dark.

This is especially useful when you already know how you want your photo to look and don’t want to make compromises.

ISO and Phone Photography

When taking photos on your cell phone it can be difficult to set your ISO because it’s not obviously labelled.

In order to control your ISO on your phone camera make sure you select ‘night mode’ or whatever the low light setting on your phone camera is called. This setting lets the camera know that you’re trying to take a photo in very poor lighting. In order to compensate the camera increases the sensitivity of the sensor by increasing the ISO. Pretty easy.

As long as you let the cell phone camera know what you’re trying to do it will automate the rest, leaving you with nothing to worry about besides framing the photo of your pet!

The low light capabilities are especially impressive on newer cell phones, some of which can take DSLR rivalling low light photos, which 4 years ago would have been unheard of.

How do I use ISO?

Your ISO setting should be the first thing you choose when picking your exposure because it will determine your shutter and aperture settings. For bright outdoor photography ISO 100 – 400 should be sufficient. For lowlight or indoor photography ISO 800 – 6400+ is recommended.

Lets say you want a large portion of the photo to be in focus so you choose f/8, and you want there to reduce the blur of your quick dog so you increase the shutter to 1/500 but it’s the end of a cloudy day so you’re not getting any of those nice bright orange rays of golden hour. How do you still get the shot you want without sacrificing the look you’re going for? You increase the ISO.

In the above situation increasing the ISO is the best way to compensate for the lack of light while still having firm control over the exposure settings. In this case Increasing ISO allows you to get the photo you want, despite the challenging lighting, but ISO does have its limitations.

The Limits of ISO

On most cameras ISO 100 – ISO 1600 have respectable image quality, but when you start to get into extreme low light ISO stops being the solution to your lighting problems.

Have you ever taken a photo in the dark and it ended up looking all pixelated and reddish-green? That’s because your sensor was probably functioning at its highest light sensitivity which strips the image of all the little details and nuances in colour that gives a photo its depth.

The higher the ISO setting, the worse the image quality. When you’re taking photos at ISO 3200 or ISO 6400+ your sensor has to work a lot harder to read the light information in front of it. This degrades the quality of your image and leaves you with a fuzziness referred to as noise.

Noise and How to Deal with it

Every camera sensor handles low light differently and some sensors have a lot of noise at high ISO, while some have very little. To some extent you can fix noisy images by using the ‘sharpening tool’ found in many photo editing apps. VSCO, Snapseed, Instagram Photo Editor are all free photo apps that allow you to sharpen your image.

If you’re looking for something a little more advanced Adobe Lightroom’s app and desktop software both feature a high quality sharpening tool that seriously minimizes image noise.

If you’re looking for a way to minimize image noise straight out of camera, well you’re going to have to make some compromises. At a certain point it’s a better idea to widen your aperture or slow your shutter than to increase your ISO.

Anything above ISO 3200 is typically where most camera sensors start to let you down and you have easily noticeable photo degradation in colour and detail. If you are at ISO 3200 and your aperture and shutter are already as low as they can reasonably go then this is where you would want to use a flash and create your own light.

Give it a Try

When taking photos of your pet in good light, low light, or no light at all it’s really helpful to remember the role ISO plays in creating the look you want. So next time you reach for the leash and your camera make sure to play around with your ISO settings to make sure you’re getting the best photo possible.