Photograpy Edinburgh

ISO Speed - Photography Explains

What is "ISO Speed" in photography?

Film speed is the measure of a photographic film's sensitivity to light, determined by sensitometry and measured on various numerical scales, the most recent being the ISO system. Relatively insensitive film, with a correspondingly lower speed index requires more exposure to light to produce the same image density as a more sensitive film, and is thus commonly termed a slow film. Highly sensitive films are correspondingly termed fast films.

Traditionally used to "tell the camera" the film speed of the selected film on film cameras, ISO speeds are employed on modern digital cameras as an indication of the system's gain from light to numerical output and to control the automatic exposure system. A correct combination of ISO speed, aperture, and shutter speed leads to an image that is neither too dark nor too light.

Current ISO system

The current International Standard for measuring the speed of colour negative film is called ISO 5800:1987 from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Related standards ISO 6:1993 and ISO 2240:2003 define scales for speeds of black-and-white negative film and color reversal film. This system defines both an arithmetic and a logarithmic scale, combining the previously separate ASA and DIN systems.

In the ISO arithmetic scale, corresponding to the ASA system, a doubling of the sensitivity of a film requires a doubling of the numerical film speed value. In the ISO logarithmic scale, which corresponds to the DIN scale, adding 3° to the numerical value that designates the film speed constitutes a doubling of that value. For example, a film rated ISO 200/24° is twice as sensitive as a film rated ISO 100/21°.

Commonly, the logarithmic speed is omitted, and only the arithmetic speed is given; for example, “ISO 100”

Applying Film Speed

Film speed is used in the exposure equations to find the appropriate exposure parameters. Four variables are available to the photographer to obtain the desired effect: lighting, film speed, f-number (aperture size), and shutter speed (exposure time). The equation may be expressed as ratios, or, by taking the logarithm (base 2) of both sides, by addition, using the APEX system, in which every increment of 1 is a doubling of exposure, known as a "stop". The effective f-number is proportional to the ratio between the lens focal length and aperture diameter, which is proportional to the square root of the aperture area. Thus, a lens set to f/1.4 allows twice as much light to strike the focal plane as a lens set to f/2. Therefore, each f-number factor of the square root of two (approximately 1.4) is also a stop, so lenses are typically marked in that progression: f/1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, etc.


Exposure index, or EI, refers to speed rating assigned to a particular film and shooting situation in variance to the film's actual speed. It is used to compensate for equipment calibration inaccuracies or process variables, or to achieve certain effects. The exposure index may simply be called the speed setting, as compared to the speed rating.

For example, a photographer may rate an ISO 400 film at EI 800 and then use push processing to obtain printable negatives in low-light conditions. The film has been exposed at EI 800.

Another example occurs where a camera's shutter is miscalibrated and consistently overexposes or underexposes the film; similarly, a light meter may be inaccurate. One may adjust the EI rating accordingly in order to compensate for these defects and consistently produce correctly exposed negatives.

John McKenzie Photography is a photographer in Edinburgh Scotland.