Train leaving the stop

The Game Called ISO – Taking Advantage of the EV System for Better Results – By Vlad Serebryany

For as long as I was shooting film, I have had the same nagging problem: I wanted to shoot in the dark. My Dad – who gave me my first and his only camera Zorkiy with 3.5/50 mm Industar-22 – taught me not to even bother shooting at 1/30 sec or slower as the pictures would come out blurry. Given that the only film available to me was Svema’s Foto 65 (ISO 50), that meant that whenever we went anywhere, at about 5-6 pm, the camera would be stashed away and we continued our wandering without having a picture taken.

A few years later, I would struggle with the same film to take pictures at the parties, concerts and dark alleys. I was trying to push film 3-4-5 stops, but that rendered even beautiful faces to look like those of white-faced mimes. The pictures were horrible,  and more than once they would be torn into shreds after being shown to the subject.

Fast forward to the year 2000. A friend of mine gifted me an Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 for my birthday – I have dozens of cameras but I will never refuse another one. I thanked him profoundly, but inside, I was laughing. I graduated to SLRs something like 25 years prior and felt that shooting with a P&S was certainly beneath my dignity. Anyway, I loaded some color film and started poking around. I discovered a completely different world in which the camera makes all the decisions short of my pressing the shutter button. The size of the camera and the fact it did not need any protective case made it a favorite with my wife. I was satisfied with the results when it was casually shooting on the street, on a subway or anywhere else where I would not carry any of my SLR’s too.

But the old problem continued to pop up: the light and its quantity. Then I asked myself a question: what film should I use given my shooting style? Given that I did not have enlarger or lab space anymore, I was sentenced to use C-41 film and develop it at a pharmacy store. Then I thought: How fast should my film be? I did not care about grain or anything, but just how nimble my film would be about the light.

Family portrait taken with Olympus Stylus
The family portrait in natural light. Taken with Epson Stylus Eric on FUJI  ISO 800 film under available light.

I started my calculations with the shutter speed I wanted my camera to fire to be no longer than 1/20-1/30 sec. That would give me some chance to capture the action where ever I went.  Certainly I did not have any control over the automatic program that camera uses, but playing with the camera I could see that it would open aperture wider rather than risking longer shutter speed.

Okay, with that set, I knew my Olympus have the max aperture around f/4.5. What is the brightness of the scene in reasonably well lit space – say subway car, restaurant, city at dusk? From all my practical experience I knew that with ISO 100 film I need to go for 1/4-1/2 sec shutter speed and use a tripod or hoist the camera somewhere and use a cable release. I did not want any of that so I needed extra 3 stops. That brought me to ISO 800. I was not concerned about shooting in bright light – I knew camera will handle that and in the worst case scenario overshooting couple of stops on any negative film would still produce acceptable negatives.

The Value of “Exposure Value”

Taking a bit more of sophisticated approach, a f/4 and a shutter speed of 1/30 has Exposure Value (EV) is about 9 on ISO 100 film. At that EV the camera still produces acceptable, non-blurred images of still subjects when used hand-held. Let me now see what lighting conditions I can afford. Quick look up at any of the published “EV for Light” charts delivers the message that at EV 9 one can afford  “ice shows, floodlit; sports events, stage shows; fires and burning buildings; just after sunset”  (see .

These aren’t  the conditions I really want to shoot at, so I looked up my scenario in the same chart: “Home interiors; Night vehicle traffic; Night street scenes and window displays” are more what I am aiming for, along with their very approximate EV value of 6. That is 3 stops difference between what camera can do and what my artistic vision desires! But hold on, all of the above is true for ISO 100 because that’s how all these charts are designed. Can I get a film which will effectively make my camera be at EV 6? Of course, I can! 3 stops from ISO 100 is ISO 800! ISO 200 will be 1 stop, 400 will be 2 stops, 800 will be 3 stops, 1600 will be 4 stops. And so here we are again talking about ISO 800 film to be used with inexpensive cameras in fair lighting conditions.

The Film

And indeed there was inexpensive Fujifilm CZ 135-36 Fujicolor  800 Color Negative Film (ISO-800) which was retailed at something like US$3 at the time. So that was the film I would routinely load in my Olympus when I was going out and making of “true art” was not in the calendar for the day. That’s how I preserved many sweet memories shot without any pretense and without torturing my dear ones with the setups the SLR would call for.

Cartridge of Fuji film

2001 – blast from the past

All images in this post are taken from the same roll of film Fuji ISO 800 shot in December 2001-January 2002 with Olympus Stylus Epic. The shots  are provided as-is : as they came from which processed and scanned film at hoping (1024×1536) – 1.5 MP. The greenish tint was apparently given by a scanning software. I did not want to fix any of that to preserve the look and feel of the shots.

Mom and kid enjoying snow at night
Streetscape  at snowy night. Shot hand-held at available light.
Mom and kid enjoying snow at night
Kid is enjoying the snow. Scene is illuminated with the street light only. Shot hand-held at available light. Theoretically one can asses the camera-set shutter speed by analyzing the length of strokes left by snow flakes. Let’s keep it as a homework.
Man reading book on subway
They did read books once. Shot on the NY subway while car was running above ground using available light. I suspect now that having aperture about f/4 on point&shoot cameras was not only the matter of the lens cost, but also the easy way to have some rather large depth of field (DoF) , so even in the absence of the precise focusing the shots would come sharp enough.
Cards sold in NY depicting 9/11
That how streets looked for a few months after September 11. Disaster cards ruled newsstand across Manhattan. Shot on the go with the available light.
Newspaper kiosk at dusk
Another newsstand in Manhattan shot apparently at 4-5 pm in January, 2002. Note how warm colors at news stand give scene a pop-up against the background lit with vanning daylight . Note the pitch black darks – the hallmark of the film.

The Bottom Line: Ace the ISO

Suppose you do want to shoot film, suppose you’ve got some traditional vintage camera and you want to buy some film having a very vague idea what you will be shooting. Now also suppose that camera has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/30th.  Now, for that camera to be suitable for shooting indoors you have to use film with ISO at least  800 – for reasons we just discussed. If you happen to get a camera with an f/2 lens you may get away with ISO 200 film  (though I would still go for 800 as now I would be able to use much more shake-proof 1/100 sec.)

Understanding Exposure Value shows you how to select film’s ISO  for your specific camera and your shooting scenario. All this talk of latitude and pushing and pulling people seem to do these days is all well and good, but I do think that with all the choice of film out there it’s good to understand that your film has one and only true ISO and the better you expose for that ISO the better images will come out. And don’t worry, the film’s latitude will be fully utilized just to correct inevitable exposure errors. Either you will make the wrong measurement or camera’s automatics will ‘misunderstand’ your intentions. If this happens, the film latitude will come to the rescue. In short, I personally believe that having right sensitivity film for the job is the most important choice you do as a photographer.

For more on this subject, see Hamish’s review of the Olympus AF-10 Super

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About The Author

8 thoughts on “The Game Called ISO – Taking Advantage of the EV System for Better Results – By Vlad Serebryany”

  1. Nice photos! I especially like the one in the snow where you mention calculating shutter speed from snow flakes. (how do you know how fast the snow flakes are falling? Lovely atmosphere.

  2. I think it’s worth saying that the rule that says ‘no slower than 1/f for focal length f on 35mm hand-held’ is more what you’d call a guideline than an actual rule(*). It is easier to break it with a digital camera of course, and it is also easier to break it if you don’t need the image to be clinically sharp. But what shutter speed you can get away with depends on how steady your hands are, your grip and whether you can find something to lean against.

    I have a set of pictures which I need to scan taken on Ektachrome at night in London. I was using a lensbaby which helps and is cheating. But I also have a set of pictures I took recently in really pretty dim light with exposures down to maybe 1/8s with a 45mm (-equivalent) lens. Not all of them are fine, but many were.

    I happen to know I have quite steady hands (I used to be quite good at target shooting) so I’m comfortable at slower speeds. But the speed you can get away with is something you only discover by experiment.

    (*) And I will not hear criticism of that film

    1. But the speed you can get away with is something you only discover by experiment.

      That’s certainly true, Tim. It would be actually an excellent topic to discuss – how do you shoot in low light hand-held. There so many techniques – from how you press the trigger button, to your posture, to your breathing, to the position of your arms and head. I think a good photographer would gladly take a risk of stopping their heart if only that helps taking a sharper picture 😉

  3. A good set of observations- I think we consider film-speed less that shutter-speed & aperture when fine tuning exposure, out of that magic triangle of parameters. I used to use a Voigtlander Vito B loads before I left my example on a train (about which I’m still furious with myself) and that tops out at 1/300 s so other end of the problem- you can’t really use 400ISO film on a sunny day. I’ve recently been teaching a friend to use film cameras and it’s been really useful to formalise the kind of relationships that have become instinctive.
    By the way, does your name mean ‘silvery’, or something like that? That’s marvellous for a film-wrangler…

    1. Michael, You got it right! In the-language-not-to-be-mentioned these days ;-), ‘Serebryany’ means either covered with silver or made of silver. And on my birthday I used to offer the single toast “To the light sensitiveness of silver!”. Folks in the past and now are routinely scared of high ISO and roll their eyes and say “… but grain!”. For me – today – well developed grain is the blessing in disguise. With digital we look at an image and the closer the look, the more often we see digital artifacts and it seems that picture is either overprocessed or not that sharp and… we are forgetting about the picture itself. When we see classic grain we know where the image stops and the medium begins and we just step back and enjoy the picture.

  4. Hi Vlad! Thanks for a nice and thought provoking article. It’s a great topic for discussion. For me the key is in your question, “What film should I use given my shooting style?” That’s the key for me – its a personal decision based on style. Whenever I see someone commenting, “you need a tripod” or “that is not sharp enough” or, “you can’t shoot 100 ASA at night” or whatever, I usually think, “Oh really?”
    For instance I like to shoot landscapes handheld at dawn and dusk, which often means well over 1 second on the 160 ASA films I like with an f2 lens. But for me that’s fine. I like to play with the limits of what films and lenses can record – how blur can create mood, how long exposures change how the films render; all that stuff. But that’s done with an awareness of what the grain will be and whether I’ll like the results. And yes, if shooting a compact I’ll always look up its specs to see what the minimum shutter speed is to work out whether it will give me what want. But – again it’s personal – film for me lives in that 100 – 400 ASA range and that’s where my empathy with it lies, I guess. I’ve not ever wanted a film faster than 400 for personal work. All the best, David.

    1. Thanks David! You are right, 99% of the pictures we are taking is to learn stuff, understand how camera and film and developer work. All of that is just to be ready to capture the instant when some profound event or light or mood reveal itself and give you just one chance to press the shutter button. Your pictures on your web site are just mesmerizing! The best thing about them – they cannot be described with the words! Hope to see more of your work!

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