I'm trying to understand the difference between gain and ISO in today's photo/video cameras, and haven't found a good explanation even after heavy googling. I know that both ISO and gain are used for adjusting the sensor's sensitivity to light, with higher ISO/gain resulting in a brighter picture, but with more noise. However, I do not know what the physical process behind ISO/gain is. Does both mean analog/digital amplification of the signal at the sensor? Is gain just another term for ISO?

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ISO stands for the International Standards Organization. They standardize all kinds of stuff, including film stock for photography, cinematography, and digital video. If you're using a digital camera that uses ISO instead of gain, then it should conform to the specifications they've outlined in ISO 12232:2019, which is available for purchase here.

There's a very good wikipedia article on the subject here.

Gain is just the amount of amplification in decibels that the camera applies to the signal from the sensor before it gets recorded to the image. Some cameras apply gain before analogue to digital conversion, some apply it after, and some, such as the BlackMagic Pocket cinema cameras do both, to achieve what they call, "dual-native ISO."

So, in short, Gain is a measurement of amplification, and ISO is a standardized measurement of film/sensor sensitivity. Gain does not necessarily correlate consistently to exposure across different camera makes, models, and manufacturers. It's just a "volume knob." ISO is designed to correlate to exposure universally (but it does not consider some variables and imperfections, which is what EI does, similar to the difference between "T stop" and "F stop" measurements for aperture).

  • Thank you! So are different ISO levels in a camera just different, preprogrammed levels of gain?
    – Brikowski
    Feb 24, 2020 at 10:36
  • I guess you could think of it that way if all you need is a heuristic for getting correct exposure, and your camera only uses one or the other, but it's not technically accurate. Reducing your ISO by half (from 800 to 400) is a one-stop light reduction, and compensating with a one-stop increase in shutter angle (going from 1/60th to 1/30th at 30 fps aka 180º to 360º) should hold the exposure level constant. The same is not necessarily true for gain. Feb 24, 2020 at 19:23

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