Cropping? Better Drop Your ISO!

Let’s face it – sometimes we need to crop. However, when you’re faced with a photo in the viewfinder that’s gonna need an appointment with the crop tool, you gotta be careful. Noise is a tricky thing and it’s especially hard on images where cropping is required.

In this video, we’ll take a look at why your personal maximum ISO for your camera may be too high if the image in the viewfinder is destined for the crop tool. A must watch for every photographer!

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UPDATES / NOTES 

Exposure Note:

Please note that when I mention dropping your maximum ISO in the video, I don’t mean that you should keep your shutter speed and F/stop the same and allow the camera to underexpose. Underexposing will result in a situation where you need to bring the exposure back up in your RAW processor and your noise will look just like you had shot at the higher ISO. Instead, you’ll need to increase the amount of light hitting the sensor through either a wider F/stop or slower shutter speed.

Auto / Regular ISO Note:

Also, I’ve had people ask if this applies to Auto ISO or regular ISO. It’s both. The max ISO can be the maximum you set in your Auto ISO menu, or it can be the maximum you’re willing to dial in manually.

Lowest ISO Note:

Finally, I’ve had some people ask, “Isn’t everyone always using the lowest possible ISO all the time anyway?” My reply:

Not necessarily – it depends on the subject. For wildlife photographers (and many others I’m sure), we’re often faced with a range of options, not just a single perfect shutter speed, ISO, and F/stop. Here are just a few scenarios that came to mind:

For example, when I’m shooting macaws in flight in Costa Rica, I find that 1/3200th of a second is about the sweet spot – I very seldom have an image ruined by motion blur at that speed. However, if 1/3200th puts me at say ISO 6400 and I know there may be some cropping afterward, I’ll (begrudgingly) drop to 1/1600th and knock my ISO down to 3200. My keeper rate won’t be as high since more images will be ruined by motion blur, but they photo won’t be a complete loss because of noise overwhelming the detail either. Basically, I’m trading a higher keeper rate for the lower ISO.

Another scenario that comes to mind is hand-holding. Maybe you can hand-hold your given lens at 1/1000th (thinking telephotos here), but that puts you at ISO 6400 on an image you’ll know you need to crop. So, you grab a monopod or even a tripod so you can knock your shutter speed down to 1/500th or even 1/250th. In this case, you trade the flexibility of hand-holding for the lower ISO.

It can also happen with F/stop. Many BIF photographers will drop their lens down a stop to a stop and a half from wide open in order to gain a little extra DoF and keep the entire bird in focus (and have a little fudge factor for slight misses in focus). However, if the light is dim, you may be willing to trade that extra DoF for a lower ISO.

Finally, I think it’s good to just put it in people’s heads 🙂 In conducting my workshops, I often find people are so excited about what they are shooting they forget to double-check that they are using the best shutter speed and F/stop – often shooting a far faster shutter speed than they need. If this video reminds them to look at their ISO when they know they need to crop, I’m sure a lot of people will find that useful.

PS – If you enjoyed this post, I think you’ll REALLY like my e-books, Secrets To Exposure And Metering For Nikon, Secrets To Stunning Wildlife Photography, and Secrets To The Nikon Autofocus System. I’m sure you’ll also love my new Lightroom Library Module video workshop and of course my Noise Reduction video workshop. They’re filled with hundreds of tips, techniques and information just like this. Check ’em out – click here (hey, it’s free to look).

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This entry was posted in Techniques, Using Your Gear, Wildlife.

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David Springwater
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David Springwater

Steve: Thank you for all the information that you put out on wildlife photography. I am planning on attending one of your Costa Rico workshops in June and in preparation for it I rented the Nikon 500 mm PF and a 1.4 teleconverter. I have a Nikon D850. I had the lens for two weeks and got out and shot at every spare moment. It is a beautiful lens and I really enjoyed using it but I found it very difficult to get close enough to the subjects ie (Snowy Owl, Swans, Geese, Beaver) to fill the frame and get… Read more »

Sharon Evans
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Sharon Evans

Enjoyed the video and discussion very much! I truly appreciate all of the videos and podcasts you do for us and find them most helpful. I have learned so much from you! Thanks again!

David Springwater
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David Springwater

Thanks Steve: I’ve been to the Galapagos Islands and those animals are amazing how close you can come to them. I’m excited about the trip. Looking forward to meeting you. David

Steve White
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Steve White

Good point. I was out photographing bison at the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie last weekend — ISO 1000, 1/2500, f/8. Guess what — bisons don’t move much. They stand there and eat grass, or they lumber slowly from one spot to the next. I could have dropped my ISO to (say) 400, dropped the shutter to 1/1000, and still had a proper exposure, and much less noise. So good point, and I need to remember it when I’m in the field.

Cheers!

Dick
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Dick

Recently I had plenty of light with low ISO and shore birds starting to fly. When I got home I discovered I should have increased my shutter speed because of the heavy crop. I am thinking the same applies here. That is cropping requires a faster shutter speed. Any guidance here?

The video was great! I had never considered lowering ISO because of cropping. Thank you for another great video!

stephen friebert
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stephen friebert

Have you tried the AI products from Topaz? the combination of Topaz sharpen, denoise and gigapixel will improve any “off” shots, many time taking somewhat “off” pics all the way to really fine.

Winston Shaw
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I don’t know where Steve eats lunch but here in Coastal Maine his book on metering and exposure is a heck of a lot cheaper than lunch! Better yet Steve’s book represents a much greater gain to a photographer than sliced bread meant to the chef preparing your lunch! I own and frequently read all Steve’s books and have long considered them the best investment I’ve made in photography!

Gary
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Gary

Hi Steve
arms not long enough, pockets not deep enough, almost always cropping, D4s is helping with the noise but find I’m always shooting in low light and cropping,
Even @ 600mm, Im still cropping, I guess faster glass is the way to reduce the ISO

Dave Berry
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Dave Berry

Hi Steve, Thanks for another very helpful video. This confirms my experience of using the D500 with the Nikon 200-500. After watching your video about Manual with auto-ISO, I set my maximum ISO to 4000 (which I think you suggested at the time), but whenever the light drops to the extent that I have to work with 4000 ISO, the results are extremely noisy. I think I’ll now go down to max 3200, but I was wondering what you thought of Topaz Denoise. Can that compensate for the levels of noise you get at ISO 4000 on the D500? Thanks.

Shanti
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Shanti

Hi I use topaz denoise almost all the time,it really helps,as am cropping slot on myD500,D850, 500mm pf. Not many options when doing action @ 1/2500 and light is not so good. I use denoise 1st, then LR or PS, and on minimal settings. Also topaz sharpen is great for certain subjects, just watch backgrounds

Norman Dean
Guest

Hey Steve, Once again another aweson video. I am a wild life photographer an I frequently take guest to Africa to photgraph wild life, everything that you said in you video i am already aware of BUT how often we forget the simple things. Thanks again, love your work.

Dennis Wert
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Dennis Wert

Hi Steve, Thanks for another great video. I never gave any consideration to the crop/ISO situation explained. I am sure this will help me get sharper images in the future. I have found your Exposure, Autofocus and Wildlife books to be extremely valuable and well worth the minimal cost. The method of presentation is excellent and easy to understand for all levels of photographers.

Dale Elliott
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Dale Elliott

Steve thanks again, I read my e-books but these video really help me a lot with my e-book reading!!!

Richar
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Richar

Steve, Since I use Auto iso it is my last concern. In manual I’ll set my shutter speed first based upon the subject matter and how much movement I can expect. Difference between a resting animal versus a action image, running or flying (shutter speed could quadruple). Next is F stop for depth of field, same rule applies. With action shoots I’ll go F8 or higher, F2.8 to F5.6 to start blowing out the background. Auto ISO sets the overall mid range for me. Only thing I need to pay attention too is the sensor being fooled with a bright… Read more »

Stuart Walker
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Stuart Walker

Hi Steve, can you share what focus target you are using (without the feather:))

Andrew Rorke
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Andrew Rorke

I’d like to know that also. Thanks.

Stuart Walker
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Stuart Walker

Hi Andrew, looks like Steve isn’t gonna reply. It seems they are from Vitamall. Buyy them on ebay: https://www.ebay.com/itm/Complete-Set-of-High-Resolution-Test-Charts-for-Canon-Lens-Camera-by-Vitamall/281208916003?epid=1131541469&hash=item41795b8823

Andrew Rorke
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Andrew Rorke

Thanks Stuart!

Mark Slifkin
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Mark Slifkin

Great explanation on crop size vs ISO. Suggestion can you relate MP cropped to print size as well.

Francois Petit
Guest

Dear Steve ! Perhaps you remember. I am the guy from France who has got a D5 and was a bit shocked from the pressure that all the medias dit about the arriving of the mirrorless.and i wrote you a letter for this question. You answered it in the last post cast. this video is again like the two books i have got from you, about the af-cnikon and about the metering: wonderfull!! very clear exposure of your ideas, wonderfull details in the explanations, and always a bit of humor!!! i really don’t know someone who is as good as… Read more »

Phil Colwill
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Perhaps including some discussion on exposing to the right to improve the noise in high ISO photos would help many.

Phil Colwill
Guest

Perhaps a point to be included in this discussion is how much exposing to the right helps when using higher ISOs.

Nick
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Nick

Thanks for the vid Steve. Sometimes with my D500 the best thing I can learn is when to drop the camera and not beat myself up over “missing” a shot that just wasn’t possible. I find myself throwing out most of my intended crops. Speaking of cropping, I’ve always wondered your thoughts on these super high megapixel cameras coming out now, namely the AR7IV at 61 megapixels (still 10FPS shooting, less of a buffer). The thought of being able to mildly crop and still have 40+ megapixels in reserve seems like a very good tool to have. Thanks again for… Read more »

Gary Haigh
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Gary Haigh

You are Correct when you say that this topic is not about Fx versus Dx, My D500 is maxed out at 2000 ISO in low light. I fail to see the use of extended ISO as a wildlife photographer, pehaps if you are a lanscape shooter or indoor Theatre or Live band photographer then noise can sometimes be forgiven or even enhance the image. For me though its all about detail, I do crop images even with a D500 and 600 f/4 there are times when reach is till an issue, especially with small birds, etc. Sadly there are no… Read more »

Gilles
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Gilles

Thanks, Steve
As always another great and informative video.
Quick question: Where did you get the Focus Target?

Bruce
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Bruce

First thing I do with any new camera is test its high ISO capabilities by shooting at successively higher settings using unbalanced artificial light and a dark subject. I can see at which point the images go from a level of noise that can be readily fixed in post with auto NR and at which point the image is not going to be recoverable at all or not without significant degradation of the details and tonality of the image. One thing I noticed with the D800e was that I could enlarge a JPG nearly as much as a Raw file… Read more »

Shutterbug Sue
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Shutterbug Sue

Great info, as usual, Steve. I have struggled with ISO through the years & am probably much more conservative than I need to be. After viewing your video, I will give higher ISOs a try & will likely have more keepers due to the ability to shoot at higher shutter speeds. Thanks very much for another well done video!

Liana
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Liana

Hi Steve, Great topic and post! My current setup: D500 + 300mm PF + 1.4 TC III. I use manual + auto ISO. Max ISO is set to 3200. I edit in LR, use Topaz Denoise as needed. I mainly do bird/wildlife photography. I crop to some degree almost all of the time. After watching this clip, and knowing that I crop often, I’m wondering if I should reduce my max ISO setting to 1000-1600. I use my histogram and ETTR. I imagine reducing my max ISO will cause me to increase my EV settings (I typically range between 0.3… Read more »

Richard Smith
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Richard Smith

Yet another great tip–this time on ISO–from our friendly expert. Thank you Steve.