ISO Versus Shutter Speed

As photographers we often have to make trade-off decisions such as choosing ISO versus shutter speed when we’re out with our cameras. There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to these decisions, as personal skills and preferences often come into play.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/250, ISO-2000, cropped to 3925 pixels on the width, subject distance 18.9 metres

With bird photography, when it comes to ISO versus shutter speed, I almost always choose shutter speed. I would much rather deal with potential noise in post using a higher ISO, rather than risk a soft image caused by using a ‘too slow’ shutter speed. Photographing birds at slow shutter speeds is something that I only do if I have no other option.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/100, ISO-1600, cropped to 3994 pixels on the width, subject distance 13.8 metres

For other subject matter like landscapes, I would typically choose ISO over shutter speed as dynamic range can be more of a factor with this type of image. I’ve come to rely on the IBIS performance of my E-M1X camera in these situations. It is interesting how each of us may approach the same image opportunity somewhat differently.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/80, ISO-640, cropped to 3432 pixels on the height, subject distance 10.2 metres

I seldom practice using slow shutter speeds with birds. Today I decided that this would be my morning objective. So, I stood by our kitchen window and waited for birds to come within reasonable range.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/100, ISO-640, cropped to 4093 pixels on the width, subject distance 6.6 metres

I purposely used my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS zoom fully extended with my M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter. This gave me a focal length of 560 mm, or an equivalent field-of-view of 1120 mm.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/100, ISO-200, cropped to 4260 pixels on the width, subject distance 17.8 metres

I started my test using a shutter speed of 1/250, and shot as slow as 1/80 of a second. The bulk of my morning images were captured handheld using a shutter speed of 1/100. For most of my photographs I had the IS on my lens turned off as I found the IBIS in my E-M1X was more effective at an efov of 1120 mm with a shutter speed of 1/100, than the IS in the lens.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/100, ISO-320, cropped to 4464 pixels on the width, subject distance 6.2 metres

I used my typical Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking settings, with a frame rate of 18 frames-per-second. I fired off short image bursts in an attempt to catch the subject birds when they were reaonably motionless. Some modest success was achieved.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/100, ISO-320, cropped to 4794 pixels on the height, subject distance 5.1 metres

After reviewing the resulting images I arrived at the same conclusion I had come to some time ago. When it comes to ISO versus shutter speed for bird photography… my preference is to ensure that I’m using a fast enough shutter speed whenever possible. For me, that’s typically a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 to 1/640 when photographing small perched birds at an efov of 1120 mm.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/100, ISO-200, cropped to 4540 pixels on the width, subject distance 6.5 metres

I know many other bird photographers try to keep their ISO values as low as possible and they routinely photograph birds at quite slow shutter speeds. As long as I don’t have to underexposure a bird image, I’m quite comfortable using ISO values as high as ISO-5000 without even giving it a second thought. Same subject… different approaches. That’s the beauty of photography!

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are noted where applicable.

How you can help keep this site advertising free

My intent is to keep this photography blog advertising free. If you enjoyed this article and/or my website and would like to support my work, you can purchase an eBook, or make a modest $10 donation through PayPal. Both are most appreciated. You can use the Donate button below. Larger donations can be made to tom@tomstirr.com through PayPal.

As a reminder to our Canadian readers, you can get a special 5% discount when ordering Tamron or Rokinon lenses and other products directly from the Amplis Store.

Word of mouth is the best form of endorsement. If you like our website please let your friends and associates know about our work. Linking to this site or to specific articles is allowed with proper acknowledgement. Reproducing articles, or any of the images contained in them, on another website or in any social media posting is a Copyright infringement.

Article and images are Copyright 2021 Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaptation of any kind is allowed without written consent. If you see this article reproduced anywhere else it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Posting comments on offending websites and calling out individuals who steal intellectual property is always appreciated!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *