How a high ISO setting can be beautiful for your photos (with examples)

First published:
February 16, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

How a high ISO setting can be beautiful for your photos (with examples)

First published:
February 16, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

Travelling through Armenia by Philip Mowbray

Ever been told you should always use a low ISO setting, and that the less grainy or noisy the image, the better? Absolutely not!

Why go for a high ISO when shooting?

You’ve heard it before; to get the best images possible, you should work the lowest ISO you can get away with when shooting. That, in turn, will reproduce an image with less grain (or noise) and, therefore, sharper with more detail present. That may be true in some aspects–of course, a low ISO setting will give you more detail as there’s less noise to deal with in your image; however, whether that means it’s a better image or not, I feel, is entirely subjective.

Below are some images from 2009 - 2010, when I was at art school and predominantly working with film (going back into the archive and looking through my old work was a joy in itself - I would highly recommend it from time to time too)! I’d often worked with high ISO black and white film, usually ISO 800, 1600 or 3200. Remember, the higher the ISO the stronger the noise and grain amount. I think one time, I even worked with ISO 6400 (although that was harder to come by)!

In my opinion, what a high ISO setting, and more grain, can give you is a gorgeous, tactile photograph. Yes, you may lack detail in your images compared to shooting in, for example, ISO 100 (or even ISO 80 or 50 these days), but you more than make up for it with beautiful, gritty textures. Not to mention higher ISO can bring out much more natural contrast in your images, particularly for black and white photography.

"...what a high ISO setting, and more grain, can give you is a gorgeous, tactile photograph. Yes, you may lack some detail in your images... but you more than make up for it with beautiful, gritty textures."

That’s why I believe all photographers, at some point in their journey, should try working with high-iso settings, even once or twice, to see what you can do and how versatile it is when you’re looking to get creative with your photography. Almost all cameras will allow you to change the ISO in manual settings if you're shooting predominantly digitally. If you don’t know exactly where to do that, check your camera’s manual and give it a go!

While my style may have changed over time, these are some of my favourite images ever taken; all with high ISO settings. I hope these inspire you to try the same too! Forgive me, I can't quite remember film rolls I used but below I've tried to include the most relevant information.

Doorway in Tbilisi, Georgia
Doorway, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2009 - ISO 1600
Staircase in Belgrade, Serbia
Stairwell, Belgrade, Serbia, 2009 - ISO 800
Abandoned railway carriage in Belgrade, Serbia
Abandoned railway carriage, Belgrade, Serbia, 2009 - ISO 800
Interior of a train in Ventimiglia, Italy
The train to Imperia, Ventimiglia, Italy, 2010 - ISO 400
Looking across the Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey
Crossing the Bosphorus, Istanbul - ISO 3200
Black and white image of Szczecin railway station at night
Szczecin Główny, 2009 - ISO 3200
Road on the way to Yerevan, Armenia
On the way to Yerevan, Vanadzor, Armenia, 2009 - ISO 3200

How can I replicate the high-ISO effect in post-production?

It's very simple and straightforward to replicate the high-ISO look for any of your images by adding a grain effect. In Adobe Lightroom, for example, you can use the Grain Settings in the Presets Panel on the left-hand side in the Develop Module to add a grain effect. You can also use sliders to control the amount; see the screenshot below and a few digital examples. Again I’d urge you to give this a go with some of your digital shots. Perhaps even delve back into your library and see which of your older images could benefit from the high ISO, grainy makeover. You may well find the look very fitting for some of your pictures!

Lightroom screenshot on how to add grain to an image
In Adobe Lightroom go to the Develop Module > Presets Panel > Grain to add a grainy effect to your images to replicate a high-ISO look. You can control the amount of grain depending on how heavy you want it to be, and further refine the loo with sliders.
Grainy image of the interior of a railway carriage
Railway carriage, Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina, 2008 - High grain effect added in Lightroom
Downtown Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade, Serbia, 2008 - Medium grain effect added in Lightroom
Night image of Belgrade Central Station
Belgrade Central Station, Serbia, 2008 - Heavy grain effect added in Lightroom
Railway lines in Belgrade, Serbia
Railway lines, Belgrade, Serbia, 2008 - Heavy grain effect added in Lightroom
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