5 tips for incredible high ISO color photography

  • high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

This month, we’re going to shoot images at ISO 3200 or higher.

If your camera doesn’t go up to ISO 3200, then shoot at the highest ISO available. If your camera happens to handle high ISO remarkably well (I’m talking to you, fellow D4 owners), embrace the spirit of the exercise and push yourself outside of the comfort zone with ISO 6400, 12800, and beyond.

And remember – high ISO doesn’t have to be confined to low light work; set a high ISO in standard lighting, then incorporate extreme depth of field or a very high shutter speed. You might find that it opens up some new creative opportunities!

high iso color photography creative exercise tutorial

Lisa Benemelis – ISO 10,000

Seems like a pretty simple challenge, right? I know what you’re thinking – and you’re planning to convert to black and white, aren’t you? Monochrome is a popular choice for high ISO processing, partly because the inherent artiness of black and white seems more forgiving, and partly because black and white conversion tends to unify and minimize noise. For the purposes of this month’s exercise, however, not only are you to shoot at high ISO settings, but you are prohibited from converting your images to monochrome.

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Erin Wagnild – ISO 5,000

With that in mind, consider these tips when shooting high ISO color images:

1. Expose to the right

The richest digital image data is captured in the right side of the histogram, which is why (as long as you don’t blow any channels) you can always deepen your exposure in post processing without sacrificing image quality, but once you have to increase your exposure in post processing, the quality degrades. You might be surprised how clean high ISO images can actually be if you pull down – rather than lifting – the luminance of the photo. If you’re not familiar with ETTR, a quick search on Clickin Moms or Google will yield a host of tutorials and discussions.

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Keely Owendoff – ISO 4,000

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Mabel – ISO 6,400

2. Nail your white balance

Nailing your white balance in camera is always helpful for consistently beautiful color photography, but even photographers who do fine with color in daylight often have a hard time with artificial light at night. If you are planning to work in after-hours low light, odds are that your light source consists of artificial light bulbs, which commonly produce light at a color temperature of about 3000K. Set accurate white balance in camera accordingly before you begin shooting.

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Danielle – ISO 3,200

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Dana Lauder – ISO 6,400

3. Remove color noise only

Applied skillfully, noise reduction can be very helpful in polishing the appearance of a high-ISO image, but overaggressive noise reduction can yield a muddy, painterly effect. Instead of general NR, try removing the color noise only; this will greatly improve the photo’s appearance without significantly smudging the details. In Lightroom, color and luminance noise are controlled by two different sliders and can easily be applied separately; in Photoshop, there are number of methods, but my favorite (and perhaps the simplest) is this: duplicate your photo on a new layer, run a Gaussian Blur just strong enough to blur out the noise, and change the layer’s blend mode to Color.

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Samantha Covert – ISO 2,500

4. Add grain in post processing

As mentioned previously, film grain is regarded as vastly more appealing than is digital noise. Film grain can, of course, be applied during post processing to any photo, but I find it particularly helpful in masking and improving the appearance of digital noise in high-ISO photographs. Both Lightroom and Photoshop have grain filters that emulate the appearance of film grain.

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Aimee McNamee – ISO 4,000

5. Consider the mood

High ISO images often seem grittier, moodier, or more raw than their low-ISO counterparts. How can you use that to your advantage? Would certain subjects, emotions, or stories be captured more effectively if presented in this way?

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Kristen Ryan – ISO 10,159

high iso color photography creativity exercise tutorial

Corinne Tristram – ISO 12,800

What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!

Clickin Moms editors choice award for creative photography exercise

And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!



About the Author:

Sarah Wilkerson is the CEO of Click & Company and also provides mentoring services, teaches advanced Click Photo School courses on composition & creativity, and authors the “Why It Works” series in CLICK magazine. She specializes in low light photography, everyday documentary, and tilt-shift work. A former attorney and Duke graduate, Sarah resides in northern Virginia with her Army JAG husband, four children, and three dogs.


  1. Megan Dill May 07 2013 at 11:29 am - Reply

    Beautiful images, ladies! <3

  2. Courtney Kirkland May 07 2013 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    gorgeous photos!! You ladies rocked this challenge!

  3. Mabel May 07 2013 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Honored to be chosen among such talent! Congrats everyone.

  4. Crystal May 07 2013 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    Such lovely photos from everyone!

  5. Melissa Stottmann May 07 2013 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    Wow!! Gorgeous shots, ladies!!!

  6. Kristin Dokoza May 07 2013 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Wonderful images ladies!

  7. alana May 07 2013 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    well done everyone!

  8. Keely Owendoff May 07 2013 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    Shoot. Nothing makes me feel better than recognition from you fabulous ladies. I’m honored and thrilled!

  9. celeste jones May 07 2013 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    these are amazing!

  10. Jennifer B May 07 2013 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous images! Nice work ladies!

  11. valerie May 07 2013 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    Beautiful Ladies!!!! <3

  12. Jess Harms May 07 2013 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Oh, I looooooove these all. So much.

  13. Danielle M. May 07 2013 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    I feel so honored to have my photo in there among so many gorgeous photos!! Great job ladies!

  14. Meredith May 07 2013 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    Great stuff, ladies! Yay!

  15. Lisa Benemelis May 07 2013 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    These images are all so beautiful. I really loved this exercise, Sarah. Thank you for choosing one of my images. <3

  16. Kat May 07 2013 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    What an awesome collection of beautiful images! Congratulations ladies!

  17. Aimee May 07 2013 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    All of these are really beautiful. Thank you for including mine! <3

  18. Kristen R May 07 2013 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    Such a great exercise and such beautiful images…thank you for including one of my favorite images <3

  19. Samantha Covert May 07 2013 at 8:05 pm - Reply

    So many amazing images were submitted for this challenge!! I feel so honored to have one of my images selected…it is a very special one to me indeed <3

  20. Ray Tapajna May 07 2013 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Aimee – Nice work, you got everything in there in lights, darks, shape, distance and sharpness with colors that are not that easy to work with.

  21. Phani Morgan May 09 2013 at 6:00 am - Reply

    Thank you for this fabulous post! I decided to try it out tonite! I followed the Photoshop steps. I duplicated the layer, applied Gaussian blur but when I changed the blending mode to color, it seemed that all of the Gaussian blur was removed as if none was ever applied. Am I missing a step? I think I must be doing something wrong?

  22. Carla Bagley May 09 2013 at 9:31 am - Reply

    lovely images!!

  23. Kelly R May 09 2013 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Wow! These are seriously amazing images!

  24. Ashley Maple May 10 2013 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    wonderful tutorial! I’ve pinned it and and am anxious to give it a try….and upgrade my camera with an iso higher than 1600 😉

  25. Jessica Reischel Jul 31 2013 at 1:19 am - Reply

    Amazing images! I’m slightly late to this great article but need to try using higher ISO’s….. 😉

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