Why Don't You Tell Us Which Settings To Use? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Why Don't You Tell Us Which Settings To Use?

by David Peterson 16 comments

Hey guys. I just want to start by thanking you so much for your feedback on all of my articles. I’m excited that they’re helping you out as much you say they are. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten a bunch of fairly common questions. More than one of you has wondered why I don’t give out specific camera settings in my articles. By that I mean telling you exactly which aperture, shutter speed, or ISO speed setting to use to get a certain photo. Hopefully I can clear things up by explaining why I can’t do that. Rather than just being a nay-sayer, I'll also tell you how YOU can find the appropriate camera settings to use for your photos.

Light, dark, and all of the shades of grey in between

What is photography, really? I like to think of it as painting with light. Other artists apply paint to a canvass, but we apply light to a sensor. To do that, we have a wide array of “brushes” and other photographic tools at our disposal. Each of these tools controls the light in one way or another, ultimately giving us our final image.

Painters have a rather nice luxury. They can directly control their paint by mixing it with other colors, diluting it with water, or using some other combination of chemicals to get what they want. If only it were the same in photography. The light outside is always changing with the time of day, the weather, the season, and even the intensity of the sun itself.

Now we can control this by using our photographer’s tools. We can change the shutter speed to allow more light in (or to shut it out). We can open the aperture or close it. We can even adjust the speed at which the camera processes light (the ISO) to get a little more brightness out of a scene that would have otherwise been dark. But for all of this, we still cannot control the light outside with 100% precision.

Yes, we have flashes, studio lights, L.E.D. lights, and other tools too. They control light, but there is a bigger setup time, and you still have to factor in the light from the surroundings (something that will always be different). They work very well. They just aren’t that convenient for most shooting situations.

Light Will Never Be The Same

Here’s my big point. Light is the variable. It’s never the same. Because it’s always different, every shooting situation (even ones that are very similar to one another) demands it own unique camera settings. I never show up to a shoot knowing exactly which aperture, shutter speed, or ISO speed I’m going to use. What's worse is only a small range of settings will result in your image not being too bright or too dark (correctly exposed is the term), or even worse a whole image filled with white (or black).

Fortunately, with digital cameras and their inbuilt light meters, my camera is always going to tell me when I'm close to the right settings. I also fire off a few test shots to see which image looks best in my camera’s LCD.

The light changes with the weather. Another reason why exact settings won’t always work.
Photo By: Doug Wertman

Here's how to know the approximate settings to use:

  • Set your camera to Automatic mode, and fire off a test shot of whatever you want to photograph.
  • Open the image you just took in your camera's LCD screen and choose the menu to show you the EXIF information.
  • The EXIF information will tell you the exact settings your camera used to take that shot. For instance, the ISO might be 400, Shutter speed 1/30sec and Aperture 5.6.
  • These are your starting point settings.
  • Choose Manual Mode on your camera, and enter those exact settings. If you take another shot now, it should give you the same result as the one you took in Auto mode. A correctly exposed image
  • Here's where you start to have some fun! Stay in manual mode and make some changes to the settings. Change the Aperture or the Shutter Speed a few notches and take another photo.
  • You'll notice the image is slightly brighter or darker than your first test shot. That could be exactly what you want. This is where you get to experiment.

If your camera has a light meter on-screen, watch that as well, as it will tell you if your image is going to be too bright or too dark.

A Canon Light Meter. The arrow will move more to the left if your image will be under exposed (too dark)

I also highly suggest using your camera's histogram function if you have it available to you. The histogram will quickly show you whether your image is too bright to or too dark. It will even show you which tones you might be missing out on (or which ones you’ve gotten perfect). I like to use the histogram because I shoot a lot of photos outdoors, and the competing light from outside makes it difficult for me to see exactly what’s going on in the LCD screen.

Other Starting Points

Sometimes it’s not just about getting the correct combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. In fact, many combinations will give you a picture with the right brightness. But is that all there is to photography? Nope. Not at all. Not even close. Remember, we’re painting with light here. We want to use photography to capture a certain feeling in a scene.

Sometimes you want to eliminate distractions in your photo by focusing in on one part of the image. That’s where the aperture becomes very important. If I’m doing portrait photography, and I don’t want the background to conflict with my subject’s face, I always pick a wide aperture value like F2.8 or F4. Big apertures like these limit the depth of field, keeping a smaller part of the image in focus. Read more about this in my Depth Of Field Secrets course.

Camera settings are like a puzzle. Once you’ve got one piece in place, the others immediately fall in line too. If I want to blur out the background, I set the aperture to F2.8. To find the other setting, I just need to adjust the shutter speed until I like the brightness levels. You can use the light meter built into your camera, or you can fire off a few different test shots at different shutter speeds until you’re happy with the result. I use the light meter to get into ballpark range, and then I take 2 or 3 test shots and pick the best one once I get back to my studio.

You could start at the same end of the puzzle, only this time with the shutter speed. Let’s say you want to freeze some action. That’s easy. Just pick a fast shutter speed like 1/400, and then fire off a bunch of test shots at different apertures until you like the result.

A difficult image to capture. John not only had to get the colors right,
he had to freeze the motion of the birds mid-air. Great job!
Photo By: John Fowler

You’ll notice that I’m not telling you all of the camera settings. I’m giving you half of the puzzle because you'll need to figure out the other half once the big unknown variable (light) enters the scene. You’ll use your light meter to get within range, and the rest is up to you.

Besides, if I were to give you all the settings, I'd need to be eerily specific. I’d have to tell you to show up in Wanaka New Zealand at 9 A.M. on June 23rd on a sunny day while setting your camera to X shutter speed, Y aperture, and Z ISO Speed with no filters on your lens, and so it goes on and on. Suffice it to say, being that specific probably wouldn’t help as much.

I’d rather give you the tools so you can figure it out on your own. You’ll become a much more dynamic photographer that way.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Mary Whipple says:

    LOVE this article, Dave! You must have been reading my puzzled mind.

  2. Boye says:

    Thank you Dave for this detailed and easy to follow instructions. Indeed you are a good teacher. I find the piece very useful.

  3. Neil Michaels says:

    Excellent info on how to learn your camera settings to master lighting on your subject.
    Yes, there is a but, painters have all the time they need to get there subject correct on canvas. Photographers don't have that luxury. Some great photo opportunities you only have a few seconds or less. No time to play with settings. So you know my question, how do we apply what you just explained in a situation when timing is critical? Please email me your professional opinion. I am offen in the mentioned position.
    One of your best fans,
    Neil Michaels

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Neil,

      Thanks for your comment.

      You are absolutely correct. Sometimes you don't have time to spend to fiddle with settings. In those cases, it's absolutely fine to use Auto Mode on your camera. It's much better to get a shot that's not perfect of a one-of-a-kind situation, than not to get a photo at all!


  4. Gnana Cormaty says:

    Hi David

    Thank you for some invaluable tips.
    Thank you also for sharing your knowledge and your experiences. I do learn a lot from your articles. As Brenda above mentioned, it definitely would be useful if the settings are mentioned along with the photos so that they become the starting point - we can look at the images and we can learn from them - though the shooting conditions are not going to be the same.

  5. Teresa says:

    Very interesting and informative. Makes a lot of sense. Now just need to put it into practice, great fun

  6. daniel onoja says:

    Sir, infact you are a great teacher. After going through answers to my question, I discovered that all bad shots I have taken before was as a result of lack of knowledge on my chosen profession - photography.
    From. this moment on I can boldly call myself a pro and can stand any photography challenges.

  7. Cynthia says:

    Thanks so much David for pointing me in the direction of this post. This answered my question perfectly.

  8. John says:

    Hi David. i agree with Lynford - sharing what settings you used would give most a good starting point. I of course would like experiment which setting is right, but it would be of great help to know where to start from.
    People always say practice practice pratice...luckily with digital that is easier done now...and with practice one can sometimes "know" what settings to start from...
    It would also help if you could show examples of say, the first shot you took with your "test" setting. and then what setting changes you did to achieve the shot you wanted. and why you wanted that particular look.
    It would also be nice to see what is a technically "perfect" shot versus a perfect shot based on your own taste.


  9. Lynford says:

    Great information shared. I don't get your premise for not sharing settings, however. There is a difference between "tell me what settings to use" and "what settings did you use to get that shot?". There's no reason that you can't see someone's settings, understand their decision process and learn from that. It doesn't mean you'll try to duplicate the shot, just understand and learn from the photographer's mindset. Thanks for starting the discussion. Good stuff!

  10. linda says:

    excellent information David thank you for sharing...

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.