Once upon a time the meaning of ISO was quite clear. It was a standardised sensitivity rating of the film stock you were using. If you wanted more sensitivity, you used film with a higher ISO rating. But today the meaning of ISO is less clear and we can’t swap our sensor out for more or less sensitive ones. So what does it mean?
ISO is short for International Standards Organisation. And they specify many, many different standards for many different things. For example ISO 3166 is for country codes, ISO 50001 is for energy management.
But in our world of film and TV there are two ISO standards that we have blended into one and we just call it “ISO”.
ISO 5800:2001 is the system used to determine the sensitivity of color negative film found by plotting the density of the film against exposure to light.
ISO 12232:2006 specifies the method for assigning and reporting ISO speed ratings, ISO speed latitude ratings, standard output sensitivity values, and recommended exposure index values, for digital still cameras.
Note a key difference: ISO 5800 is the measurement of the actual sensitivity to light of film. ISO 12232 is a standardised way to report the speed rating, it is not a direct sensitivity measurement.
Within the digital camera ISO rating system there are 5 different standards that a camera manufacturer can use when obtaining the ISO rating of a camera. The most commonly used method is the Recommended Exposure Index (REI) method, which allows the manufacturer to specify a camera model’s EI or base ISO arbitrarily based on what the manufacturer believes produces a satisfactory image. So it’s not really a measure of the cameras sensitivity, but a rating that if used with a standard external calibrated light meter to set the exposure will give a satisfactory looking image. This is very different to a sensitivity measurement and variations in the opinion as to what is a satisfactory image will vary from person to person. So there is a lot of scope for movement as to how an electronic camera might be rated.
As you cannot change the sensor in a digital camera, you cannot change the cameras efficiency at converting light into electrons (which is largely determined by the materials used and the physical construction). So you cannot change the actual sensitivity of the camera to light. But we have all seen how the ISO number of most digital cameras can normally be increased (and sometimes lowered) from the base ISO number.
Raising and lowering the ISO in an electronic camera is normally done by adjusting the amplification of the signal coming from the sensor, typically referred to as “gain” in the camera. It’s not actually a physical change in the cameras sensitivity to light, it like turning up the volume on a radio to make the music louder. Dual ISO cameras that claim not to add gain when switching between ISO’s typically do this by adjusting the way the signal from the sensor is converted from an analog signal to a digital one. While it is true that this is different to a gain shift it does typically alter the noise levels as to make the picture brighter you need to sample the sensors output lower down and closer to the noise floor. Once again though it is not an actual sensitivity change, it does not alter the sensors sensitivity to light, you are just picking a different part of it’s output range.
Noise and Signal To Noise Ratio.
Most of the noise in the pictures we shoot comes from the sensor and the level of this noise coming from the sensor is largely unchanged no matter what you do (some dual ISO cameras use variations in the way the sensor signal is sampled to shift the noise floor up and down a bit). So the biggest influence on the signal to noise ratio is the amount of light you put on the sensor. More light = More signal. The noise remains the same but the signal is bigger so you get a better signal to noise ratio, up to the point where the sensor overloads.
But what about low light?
To obtain a brighter image when there the light levels are low and the picture coming from the sensor looks dark the signal coming from the sensor is boosted or amplified (gain is added). This amplification makes both the desirable signal bigger but also the noise bigger. If we make the desirable picture 2 times brighter we also make the noise 2 x bigger. As a result the picture will be more noisy and grainy than one where we had enough light to get the brightness we want.
The signal to noise ratio deteriorates because the added amplification means the recording will clip more readily. Something that is close to the recordings clip point may be sent above the clip point by adding gain, so the range you can record reduces while the noise gets bigger. However the optimum exposure is now achieved with less light so the equivalent ISO number is increased. If you were using a light meter you would increase the ISO setting on the light meter to get the correct exposure. But the camera isn’t more sensitive, it’s just that the optimum amount of light for the “best” or “correct” exposure is reduced due to the added amplification.
So with an electronic camera, ISO is a rating that will give you the correct brightness of recording for the amount of light and the amount of gain that you have. This is different to sensitivity. Obviously the two are related, but they are not quite the same thing.
Getting rid of noise:
To combat the inevitable noise increase as you add gain/amplification most modern cameras use electronic noise reduction which is applied more and more aggressively as you increase the gain. At low levels this goes largely un-noticed. But as you start to add more gain and thus and more noise reduction you will start to degrade the image. It may become softer, it may become smeary. You may start to see banding ghosting or other artefacts.
Often as you increase the gain you may only see a very small increase in noise as the noise reduction does a very good job of hiding the noise. But for every bit of noise thats reduced there will be another artefact replacing it.
Technically the signal to noise ratio is improved by the use of noise reduction, but this typically comes at a price and NR can be very problematic if you later want to grade or adjust the footage as often you won’t see the artefacts until after the corrections or adjustments have been made. So be very careful when adding gain. It’s never good to have extra gain.