The look of your product photos has everything to do with how well your items sell. Therefore, you need to understand the integral camera settings to accomplish a professional looking image.
In this article we’ll be going over everything you need to know about ISO, including what it is, how it applies to product photography, and the situations you will need to adjust it.
Just like aperture and shutter speed, ISO is an integral exposure setting often overlooked by beginners. Mastering it will give your images an extra pop, in addition to avoiding unnecessary noise.
Strangely, ISO isn’t an acronym that is broken down to define what it does; rather, its meaning stands for “The International Standards Organization” whose members are responsible for creating standard ISO measurements in camera bodies.
Prior to digital photography, ISO was referred to as “film speed”. The higher the number, the more sensitive the film is to light. Nowadays, since most product photography is digital, we’ll be exclusively discussing ISO.
ISO works the exact same as film speed, in that the higher the number, the more sensitive your camera’s sensor becomes to light. Typically, the more ISO a camera body can handle, the more expensive it will be also.
ISO is primarily good for low-lighting situations, and for increasing your Exposure Value when you need your shutter speed and aperture to be set.
Different Shooting Modes
For most cameras you’re going to be able to set the ISO manually if you’re shooting in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual Mode. Those of you shooting in priority mode (p) will notice the ISO fluctuates between a high and low point, depending on how you set this preference under the menu settings (200-800 for example).
However, we recommend you always shoot in manual mode (m) for product photography. For an in-depth look at the camera settings we recommend, check out this post.
When it comes time to adjust your ISO, there are two main factors to consider:
1. How much light is available in the space where you’re shooting?
2. Are you going to be shooting with a tripod?
1. Light Availability
Light is everything when it comes to photography, and having enough of it available, or not, is the primary consideration when it comes to adjusting your ISO. If you’re shooting photos outdoors or in a well-lit studio there shouldn’t be a need to set your ISO very high.
My rule of thumb is to try and keep your ISO between 100-400, as any higher may begin to produce noise on lower quality camera bodies. If there isn’t enough light available to achieve your desired exposure, begin increasing the ISO gradually until the photograph is properly lit.
2. Image Stabilization
If you have the ability to shoot your products using a tripod, by all means do so. Often times in product photography we’re going to close off our F/stop to around F/16 to increase the depth of field, which usually requires a longer shutter speed to properly expose the photo. If your shutter speed drops below 1/80th of a second, and you’re not using a tripod, it’s very likely the photo will become blurred.
If you don’t have a tripod, this is when you’ll need to increase the ISO to keep your shutter speed at 1/80th or higher. The downside to increasing your ISO too high is that noise will begin to appear in the photograph, mostly in shadows and dark colors.
Notice how the photo with the low ISO is much cleaner than the photo on the right.
Dealing With Noise
The reason having image stabilization is so important, is that it allows you to avoid pushing your ISO beyond the point at which visible noise appears. Looking closer at the photos above, you can see in the photo’s pixels the Higher ISO leads to Higher Pixelation, which in layman’s terms is noticeable ‘noise’ or little speckles that tend to degrade the quality and appearance of your photographs.
Left: ISO 800, Right: ISO 16,000. The Canon 6D is full frame and can shoot at very High ISO before any noise begins to appear.
High Pixelation can lead to customers misinterpreting the quality of your products. In order to avoid this problem, it’s important to experiment with how well your camera handles ISO.
Fixing Noise In Post
It’s fairly simple to run noise reduction on your images in post-production. Noise reduction basically smooths out the grain by removing the speckles, which makes the images appear clear, but consequently makes the photo less sharp. In Photoshop this can be done by running a noise reduction filter, or by reducing noise in Camera Raw.
The photo on the (left) has noticeable noise. With noise reduction (right) the image appears far cleaner, but has lost some of it’s sharpness which may make your objects appear too smoothed over and inaccurate compared to how they look in person.
ISO is a tool that you only need to use when there’s not enough available light. Whenever possible keep your ISO between 100-400 as this range guarantees a much cleaner photo. If you haven’t invested in a camera body yet, it’s never a bad idea to spend a little more, to get a sensor that can handle high ISO.