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.
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.
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.
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.
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