Your Guide to using ISO for Hockey Photography

ISO is the last piece in the puzzle that brings your final exposure together.

Your knowledge of aperture and shutter speed from the previous posts should give you a firm foundation for understanding how to get the picture you want. Your ISO can then be set as needed to make sure your pictures aren’t too dark or too bright.

What is ISO?

As you might expect, ISO is an acronym.

What you might not expect is that it is an incredibly boring and mostly unhelpful acronym.

International Standards Organisation.

Wow, that’s boring. The guy who gives things cool names like “aperture” and “digital single lens reflex camera” must have been asleep on the job that day.

Well, there’s actually a pretty decent explanation for the boring name. ISO is a holdover from the days of film cameras. Film was made with different amounts of sensitivity to light. In order to guarantee what kind of result you’re going to get, it’s important to have a good standard.

Thus, ISO.

If you were out in bright sunlight, you would use film with a low ISO sensitivity. If you were in the dark, you would use film with a high ISO sensitivity.

When the digital age came around, the name stuck. In simple terms, turning up the ISO on a modern digital camera gives a “boost” to the image sensor, allowing it to capture more light.

But, this comes at the expense of more digital noise, which makes colours more dull and reduces sharpness.

Equal crops of unedited images taken at ISO 1600 (Left) and ISO 100 (Right). Notice that the high ISO in the left image has caused lots of noise in the dark areas of the image, as well as dull colours.

ISO is one of those areas where having a better camera really does matter. Top of the line, full-frame cameras can deliver exceptional pictures at ISO 6400, while the quality of a picture on your pocket camera will start to fall apart around ISO 800 or sooner. That’s a significant benefit when you are shooting in low light.

With that said, you acceptable ISO also depends on where you are going to use your image. If you’re planning on print your picture for a billboard, using a low ISO might be pretty important. On the other hand, if the image is just going on social media, ISO noise won’t cause you much trouble.

Using ISO at the Rink

Yes, you will be shooting with high ISOs at the rink. No matter what kind of gear you have, you will not be able to shoot a hockey game at ISO 100.

(Unless perhaps you have some seriously powerful flash or video lights. The players might not appreciate being blinded like that though)

Once you have your shutter speed and aperture set, it’s just a matter of dialing in an ISO that gives you a nice, even exposure.

When shooting hockey, your histogram should look something like this. The big peak on the right side is because of all the white ice and boards. Notice that nothing is touching the right side though, as that would mean parts of the image are going full white and the highlights are being clipped.

ISO is one of those rare areas where having a better camera really does matter. Top of the line, full-frame cameras can deliver exceptional pictures at ISO 6400, while the quality of a picture on your pocket camera will start to fall apart around ISO 800 or sooner. That’s a significant benefit when you are shooting in low light.

With that said, you acceptable ISO also depends on where you are going to use your image. If you’re planning on print your picture for a billboard, using a low ISO might be pretty important. On the other hand, if the image is just going on social media, ISO noise won’t cause you much trouble.

Using ISO at the Rink

Yes, you will be shooting with high ISOs at the rink. No matter what kind of gear you have, you will not be able to shoot a hockey game at ISO 100.

(Unless perhaps you have some seriously powerful flash or video lights. The players might not appreciate being blinded like that though)

Once you have your shutter speed and aperture set, it’s just a matter of dialing in an ISO that gives you a nice, even exposure.

1/500, f2.8, ISO 1600

When is your ISO Too High?

 There will be different opinions about whether or not a picture is “beyond saving” due to ISO grain.

It’s possible that you’ll like what comes out of your camera at ISO 1600, even though the same shot makes your friend vomit. That’s just what it is. If this happens, stay proud of your photos and maybe consider getting some new friends.

 

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