The Importance of ISO Standards in Photography

Without ISO standards and the rigorous process that goes into assessing and updating them, the photography industry would be a jumbled mess! Learn more here.

These days anyone can be a photographer.

Whether it’s snapping a quick photo of an amazing lunch, capturing the highlights of a hike, or shooting a fantastic portrait, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone not taking advantage of the incredible camera technology that’s sitting at our fingertips. Whether you’re using a smartphone, point-and shoot, DSLR, or even a medium format camera – excellent imaging systems have never been more accessible.

While most of us don’t look at the inner workings of our camera’s technology too closely, the industry wouldn’t be where it is today without the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

What is the ISO?

The International Organization for Standardization is a non-governmental international organization that develops the international standards for a wide-ranging array of manufacturing and technological products and services.

The ISO is a network of national standards bodies, each representing the ISO in their prospective country. To date there are 165 nations participating, each helping the ISO bring together experts from around the globe to create international standards that help keep the world’s technology and manufacturing industries on the same page.

To date the ISO has created and maintain 23,363 different international standards in the technology and manufacturing fields. Digital photography is, thankfully, one of these.

What are the Current ISO Standards for Cameras?

One of the currrent ISO standards for digital cameras is ISO 12232, which specifies how digital camera manufacturers determine the exposure index, assign ISO speed ratings, determine ISO speed latitude ratings, and report output sensitivity. ISO 12232 also defines how exposure is recorded in the metadata recorded in the image file.

The ISO 12232 standard applies to both color and monochrome digital still cameras and get updated fairly frequently. The last revision took place in 2019 to address the increasing sensitivity of today’s cameras.

Other digital camera standards set by the ISO include measurements for resolution (ISO 12233), noise (ISO 15739), tone reproduction (ISO 14524), shading (ISO 17957), geometric distortion (ISO 17850), chromatic displacement (ISO 19084), image flare (ISO 18844), shooting time lag (ISO 15781), low light (ISO 19093), and image stabilization (ISO 20954-1). There are also standards for color characterization test procedures (ISO 17321-1) and camera testing guidelines (ISO/TR 19247).

The ISO creates these standards by means of technical committees (TC). In these TCs, industry experts from all over the world come together to decide everything from whether a new standard is needed to creating the definitions for all the technical content.

The photography technical committee, ISO / TC 42,  includes experts from all over the world and has representatives from all of the main camera manufacturers.

Together they help ensure that any camera you buy will have specs that are measured against a common benchmark.

What do ISO Standards have to do with you as a photographer?

For example, ISO 12232 gives camera manufacturers a benchmark for setting exposure in digital cameras. It also dictates just how cameras should record exposure in terms of metadata and even provides a standard method for comparing the sensor sensitivity of different digital cameras and smartphones.

Without these standards, each manufacturer would have to use their own process to determine a camera’s specifications. As a result, these specifications wouldn’t mean much relative to other cameras, as each manufacturer would be measuring according to a different benchmark.

Having a common, international standard prevents this from happening. It ensures that ISO 100 on a Sony is the same as ISO 100 on a Canon, which is the same on an Olympus, etc.

Not only does this help you know which camera to buy, it helps the manufacturers make a consistently sound product. It also makes it much easier for different photography products to work well together.

On the metadata side, having everyone follow the exact same ISO standards means that when we see the camera settings someone used, we can then recreate the exposure conditions without a lot of guesswork.

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Images credit: Eduardo Gorghetto

One thing that makes the ISO’s standards so effective is that they take input from both consumers and businesses, as well as from manufacturing companies.

As a consumer you can comment on current drafts of new standards. If you’re an industry expert, you can join the technical committee for photography – ISO/TC 42.

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ISO/TC 42 creates and maintains the standards for still picture imaging – both film and digital. Its scope is pretty far ranging, from how to test, rate, and label an imaging system to the recommended practices for storing the information recorded by the sensor and how to maintain its security and integrity.

The image quality measurement standards created by ISO/TC 42 are used by a wide array of camera manufacturers, from medical imaging systems to the cameras used in autonomous vehicles to the camera in your smartphone or DSLR.

To date, ISO/TC 42 has published 206 standards so far, with 14 participating member countries and 18 observing countries.

While neither individuals nor companies can become ISO members themselves, they can participate through their national standards organization.   Getting involved with the technical committee can be very rewarding work.

Ken Parulski, who chairs the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO/TC 42 and has served as project leader for ISO 12232 since the first edition (published in 1998), says “participating in ISO standards is a rewarding experience. I’ve developed friendships with digital photography experts from around the globe, as we’ve worked together to create and update standards that help make photography successful. – Ken Parulski

Interested? The first step is to contact the national standards body of your country – they’re the ISO member. Contact details can be found here.

ISO in Photography FAQs

How does ISO affect a photo?

When you increase the ISO, you increase your camera’s sensitivity to light. Or in other words, raising the ISO will make your photos brighter and lowering it will make them darker. This gives you more flexibility with your other settings (e.g., increasing the ISO means you can use a faster shutter speed and still get a good exposure).

What happens if ISO is too high?

If the ISO is too high, your images will start to show visible noise or grain. Additionally, if you have the ISO set too high in a situation with plenty of light, your image may be overexposed.

Is lower ISO always better?

A lower ISO generally results in better quality images because they will be less noisy. However, there are situations where using a higher ISO is necessary to get the correct exposure. For many newer camera models, this won’t be a problem as they’ve been developed to work well in low light.

Why is ISO so important in photography?

ISO is important because it’s part of the exposure triangle – one of the three key camera settings that determine how your photos are exposed. Adjusting the ISO allows you to increase your sensor’s sensitivity to light and thus capture a detailed image even in low light situations.

Final Words

Without commonly recognized international standards and the rigorous process that goes into assessing and updating them, the photography industry would be infinitely more difficult to navigate. Each manufacturer’s measuring system would differ from the next, and each camera specification would only be comparable to other cameras of the same brand.

We already have plenty of diversity from brand to brand – different lens mounts, different operating systems, etc… imagine the confusion if something as simple as the exposure settings were different from camera to camera!

So, hats off to the ISO and all the work they do ensuring that consumers can make informed purchasing decisions, enabling products from different manufacturers to operate seamlessly with one another, and making it far easier for new technology to be created that fits into internationally agreed upon specifications. Without them we’d never know what we were really getting when we bought a new camera.

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