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Going Manual With Auto ISO

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Bill Sharpsteen
  By Bill Sharpsteen
Going Manual With Auto ISO www.sleeklens.com

Sometimes it just pays to read the camera manual. In there is a nifty little item that I’m not entirely certain is a well-known feature of most decent cameras. Auto ISO. Admittedly, I had read articles about this for years and perhaps I was just skeptical of the way proponents spoke of Auto ISO as if it was photography’s unicorn. So I never cracked open the manual to find out how to use it.

And then finally, I understood. Here’s how that happened.

Jason rappelling down a 320-foot wall in an explored canyon near Death Valley. With a manual setting of 1/750 at f/11, the auto ISO plugged in 1250 for the speed. I got what I needed—some depth of field to keep the background moderately in focus and enough shutter speed to freeze the canyoneer.

Shooting Without Auto ISO—Not Always Great

One of my favorite subjects to photograph is canyoneering, not the easiest sport to record because the participants are traveling through deep canyons that can be cave-like in darkness or blasting bright under direct sunlight or both at the same time. When I first started, I held to old habits and set my camera for aperture-priority. In other words, I selected—usually f/8—as my operating lens aperture and just let the camera choose the shutter speed based on the ambient light.

(Why f/8? For starters, most of my canyoneering images require a wide angle lens because the spaces are relatively tight, so that aperture gives me decent depth of field while not compromising too much on shutter speed. That is, to stop down more would mean a slower shutter speed. Also, f/8 tends to be one of the sharpest settings for my lenses. Now, I’m not a fanatic about such things, but to go past f/11 usually gets me into lens diffraction territory where the image begins to degrade a bit. Again, I don’t lose sleep over such things, but if I can, I will use that f/8 sweet spot. Lastly, f/8, when employed on close-ups or longer lenses, has a nice, middle-of-the-road shallow depth of field that I like.)

Here’s what I discovered rather quickly: I was constantly fiddling with the camera settings despite the supposedly effort-saving quality of something as semi-automatic as aperture-priority. I had to quickly raise the ISO beyond my favorite 400 whenever the action went into dim shadows or open the lens to its widest, f/2.8. Suddenly, I wasn’t getting that f/8 look I valued so much.

Second, with the quickly changing nature of capturing people rappelling down ropes or down-climbing over obstacles, I sometimes didn’t see that my shutter speed was too slow and I came back with a lot of blurred messes.

Lastly, more often than I like to admit, I would pump up the ISO to some astronomical number in order to shoot in low light, forget the camera was set for that and take the next pictures in bright sunlight. Somehow, engineers haven’t quite figured out how to make ISO 12800 look good under the midday sun.

While I expect most people reading this don’t go canyoneering, no doubt you’ve been in similar circumstances where you don’t want to manually set the camera for every shot, but at the same time want more control because of the changing light conditions.

Little Santa Anita Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. I had set the camera for 1/250 at f/8, enough to hold Annette in focus. The ISO set itself to 2500. Noise is totally acceptable versus the canyoneer blurring.

Try Auto ISO

I make it simple and nearly foolproof. For my Canon cameras—a 1Dx and 5DMIII—I push the ISO setting button on the top plate and go downward beyond 100 to A. Yeah, that’s right. A for Auto ISO. Next, I set the Mode to manual and select the shutter speed and aperture that I want to use for the day. For canyoneering, that’s most often 1/500 at f/8. Except in the dimmest of conditions—deep in a canyon or early/late day—I don’t worry about the exposure and can concentrate on the action. The camera maintains the manual setting and merely adjusts the ISO up or down to meet my needs.

Yes, that’s right, for those who find heavy noise in a picture repugnant, that potentially means really, really high ISOs. Five-figure ISOs. And the chunky noise that comes with them. I’m probably the least sympathetic person when it comes to this. My attitude is simple: I need to come back with action shots that aren’t blurred, period. So noise is better than nothing.

I still need to monitor my lighting conditions. For example, if it’s an exceptionally dark place, Auto ISO will crank up to the maximum I set for my cameras—25600—and if that still isn’t enough, will simply let the picture go under-exposed. In bright conditions, it will first set to ISO 100 and if that doesn’t work with the manual exposure, then I’ll get over-exposed pictures. Nothing’s perfect.

Vendor, Rosarito, Mexico. I had set the camera for 1/500 at f/8 for grab shots (in other words, guerilla-style shooting where I was literally shooting from the hip) and the auto ISO set the camera to 400.

Works Great For Travel Photos

On a recent trip to Rosarito, Mexico, I employed Auto ISO to the fullest. While we rummaged through the market there, I was able to shoot both indoors and outdoors without fiddling with the camera once. The high ISO pictures still looked great and were sharp. Later, we went boogie-boarding in the Pacific Ocean where I set the camera for 1/1000 at f/8 and shot from the beach with a long lens or in the surf with a wide angle packed safely inside a water-tight housing. Didn’t lose a single shot due to the action blurring.

Jerri on a boogie board while Reid gets crushed by a wave, Rosarito. I set the camera for 1/750 to freeze most action and the 15-35mm lens was set at f/6.7. ISO went all the way down to 100.

One last note: With the 5DMIII, manually setting the exposure with Auto ISO locks me out of using exposure compensation. (Dear Canon: This is stupid!) With the 1Dx, I can dive into the custom settings where I’ve assigned the SET button to the task. I press SET and dial in the compensation I need. Check your manual to see if your manufacturer allows this sometimes important function.

Bust of Poncho Villa, Rosarito, Mexico. Not a lot light here, so the auto ISO went all the way to 12800. Short of setting up a tripod, I wouldn’t have been able to get this picture with any other, slower speed.

I’m not saying Auto ISO is for every occasion. It makes no sense for shooting landscapes where you usually want a low ISO and are using a tripod. But after using it a few times, you may realize there really is a photographic unicorn, and it’s going manual with Auto ISO.


(Note on the opening photograph. One of the nice things about auto ISO is knowing the camera is already set. I was able to knock out a couple of shots of a friend’s dog without worrying whether the shutter was fast enough for the kind of picture I wanted to get. Nailed it.)

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Bill Sharpsteen
Bill Sharpsteen has seen photography evolve from the primitive days of film (his first camera was a cheap metal box with plastic lens and a hundred light leaks) to digital sophistication (he now works with a Canon EOS-1D X). Not once has he ever uttered the words, “Real photographers only use film.” He's a freelance photographer and writer; his first book project, Dirty Water: One Man’s Fight to Clean Up One of the World’s Most Polluted Bays, was released in 2010, and his next book, The Docks, about the Port of Los Angeles was published in 2011, both by University of California Press. His latest book, self-published in 2015, is a collection of essays and photographs about the sport of canyoneering called Canyon Deep: Descents Into Hidden Landscapes. His photographs have appeared in Washington Post, Entrepreneur, Emmy, Westways, Washington Journey, Outdoor Photographer and Photo Techniques. He has published more than 60 articles for such publications as Los Angeles Times Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Washington Post, TV Guide, Entrepreneur, Photo Techniques, Outdoor Photographer and Alaska Airlines Magazine. The topics covered a wide range of interests including business, television, the environment, personalities, travel and entertainment. Sharpsteen also worked during the early 1980s as an award-winning documentary director covering Alaska Natives and the social issues facing them. Those shows garnered such awards as a silver medal in the 1983 International Film & TV Festival of New York, the Lincoln Unity Award and Alaska Press Club awards for best documentary and best video photography. He lives in the Los Angeles area.

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