Why do you use 800 ISO and shoot jpegs?


Q. Why do you use 800 ISO and shoot jpegs, when on so many websites for beginners everyone says to shoot raw, and to keep the ISO down? – Pam Thorburn, Edinburgh UK

A. Hi Pam, Firstly, many photography websites are written by very technical people, who give you general instructions on photography, often without regard for the kind of subject you are shooting. Many give you the same advice for shooting people as they would for shooting landscapes for example.


The reason they tell you to keep the ISO down is because a lower ISO usually results in a less grainy picture. The grain (or “noise” as it is now known) will be much less at 200, than at 800 ISO. However, you would have to be using a tripod to shoot at 200 ISO in the UK, because 200 ISO will mean you have a much lower shutter speed than you would at 800.

The ISO directly affects the shutter speed – the higher the ISO, the higher the shutter speed will automatically go – so you are less likely to blur the photo.

Many landscape photographers will put the camera on a tripod, use a very low ISO, like 50, and keep the shutter open for several minutes to get as much light and detail as they can into the picture. They are usually shooting at F32 to get everything in focus too – the complete opposite end of the scale from the way I photograph people.

When you are shooting a naughty 2 year old it’s just not practical to use a tripod, or set your camera at a low ISO and shutter speed – if they move, the shot may blur. So when shooting people (in my style) you need a higher shutter speed, which means a wider aperture (F5.6 for example) and a higher ISO (400 or 800).

Digital cameras today are amazing, and there is usually no noticeable grain at 400. At 800, on some cameras, it gets a bit noisy, but you can reduce the noise in Lightroom later – using the luminance slider on the right hand side.

I shoot most things in the UK on 800 ISO but I am using a Canon 1Ds mark 3 and a Canon 5D mark 2 – both of which don’t have a huge amount of noise at 800. In sunnier countries I usually shoot at 400, because I am still shooting in the shade, not the direct sunlight. If I lower the ISO I may forget to put it back, then move into the shade and have lots of blurred pictures because the ISO is too low.

If the picture is underexposed, the grain will look stronger too. So you need to shoot in soft light and correctly expose when using 800 ISO. Check out: Set up your camera the easy way…

Remember – photographing landscapes is not the same as photographing people. You need different settings if you want everything in focus from the mountains to the sea – it’s different working with little children, and in fact any age group – you need the flexibility of working without a tripod, and using apertures which throw the background out of focus. I find for my kind of photography, 800 ISO and a wide aperture just does the job!

Jpegs V. Raw

There is nothing wrong with shooting jpegs! The header image on this blog was shot as a jpeg at 800 ISO. I shot jpegs for years, right up to the moment I started to use Lightroom! The reason being that before Lightroom, it was difficult and time consuming to convert raw files, and work quickly and easily with them. Now it’s easy – so I shoot raw.

Raw images store more information than jpegs (because jpegs are compressed) so if you need to sort out an underexposed shot, for example, you can. Or if there are blown out areas in the shot you can bring back the detail in Lightroom or Photoshop. However, if your image is correctly exposed then you rarely need to sort it out, and therefore jpegs are perfectly acceptable.

However, now that Lightroom is available, you have an easy way of using raw images if you want to. They no longer take hours to download like they used to. The only problem is storage – as raw images are big and they take up loads of space on your computer. I solve this by working on separate hard drives. I download all my images to a hard drive (not to the computer) and then work from that, through Lightroom on my computer. This way your computer is not slowed down by data overload. I use a 2TB hard drive in my office, and several 1TB portable hard drives when I am away from the office.

You will also need large flash cards in your camera – at least 8GB or 16GB, otherwise you will fill them up very quickly.

You need to set up a system to make sure you always know where your images are – but if you think of your hard drive as your image bank, and your computer as just the process of working on those images, then it works fine.

I download the images to a portable hard drive – and then back them up again to the big hard drive in the office, so I always have two copies of everything, just in case I lose a portable, or a hard drive breaks down.

So to recap – if you take photos for fun and don’t want the hassle of storing all those raw images – set up your camera so you expose correctly and shoot jpegs! If you have Lightroom and lots of hard drives, work out a system and enjoy shooting raw. It’s really personal choice in the end.

I hope all this helps.

Annabel x


Annabel, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question so thoroughly. I find your blog so refreshing because it takes away all the techy stuff, and I am reassured that I can trust my gut instincts, and that’s OK. I always feel a bit intimidated by those with expensive gear! Thanks again – you’re an inspiration – Pam

Images: Pam Thorburn

Images: Pam Thorburn

Note from Annabel

With beautiful shots like these – you have no need to feel intimidated! It’s all about what you see – not how much your camera costs, as you’ve proved here. Keep up the good work!

Annabel x