Camera Settings Explained
Which camera settings do you need for fireworks, landscapes, portraits, weddings, food, travel…? It’s so easy to think the right camera settings will give you great pictures. Sadly that’s not the case, which is counter intuitive and a real bummer to get your head around when you’re starting out as a photographer.
When learning photography we all want nice easy rules so we can have some degree of certainty about the results we can expect. I know I did.
You saw in the video how the shot of the church didn’t change at all so it’s even more confusing and frustrating that in the majority of cases the settings used won’t have any creative impact on the photo. They’ll only affect how bright or dark it is, the exposure.
Manual exposure settings are the first step
Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are exposure settings and knowing how to make an accurate manual exposure is the first step. But shutter and aperture also behave as creative settings. Shutter speed controls movement and aperture is the primary control for depth of field which gives us sharp or blurry backgrounds.
The ISO is a way to achieve the exposure you need when you’ve chosen a shutter speed or aperture for creative purposes. ISO compensates for the effect a wide / small aperture or fast / slow shutter will have on the exposure.
Camera settings don’t work in isolation. They work together and which you choose will depend on how you want your photo to look. You don’t take photos, you make them!
So if you’re a beginner what I’m about to say will seem like madness.
Camera settings don’t give you pictures. Pictures give you camera settings.
It might help you understand that there are no settings for fireworks, landscapes, portraits, weddings, food, travel etc if you think about these questions in terms of driving a car.
Q. Which gear do I need to drive up a hill?
It depends on how steep the hill is, how fast you want to go and how powerful your car is.
Q. How much do I need to turn the steering wheel to go round a corner?
It depends on how sharp the corner is.
Q. When do I need to press the brake pedal if I need to stop?
It depends on how fast you’re going and how quickly you need to stop.
So the question. “Which settings do I need for fireworks?” becomes…
- It depends how much available light there is
- How bright the fireworks are
- How fast they’re moving
- How many are going off at the same time
- How many sky bursts you want in the same shot…
Q. Which settings do I need for landscapes?
It depends how much available light there is
- If you want to freeze or blur movement like a waves on the sea, a waterfall, branches swaying in the breeze
- On the amount of movement blur you want - if any...
- Whether or not there’s foreground - and how sharp or blurry you want it
- If you’re using a long lens to isolate a feature or a wide lens to capture a vista…
Q. What settings do I need to photograph a wedding?
- It depends how much available light there is
- It depends if you’re shooting a group or a close up
- If you want to isolate a group or portrait with a blurry background or not
- Whether you’re shooting fast action candids or posed
- If you’re indoors with flash - or using available light…
Other people’s settings won’t work for You
When I was learning photography it bugged the hell out of me that no matter how carefully I copied someone else's settings from their great photos, mine always looked crap! No one explained any of the above to me and so it was a while before I realised someone else's settings are useless.
I do post my settings because the only value they might have is as a rough guide to the kind of focal length used, wide or small aperture, fast or slow shutter. But that is all. The exact settings have to be worked out back from the image you want.
How to know which settings to use
First you must learn what the settings do, then how to apply them harmoniously to make your photo.
If you don’t do this, it’d be like a chef trying to create a gourmet dinner from some wonderful ingredients - that don’t work together. Chocolate, homemade organic jam, fresh prawns and pickled walnuts. You’ll be continually stuck and wondering why your mates never accept your invitations to dinner!
If you were going to climb Mount Everest for the first time, going to see African wildlife or visit an historical city like Venice, you’d hire a guide to make sure you got the very best from the experience. So why not do the same with mastering your camera and passion for photography?
I have saved hundreds of photographers months of confusion and frustration by being their guide on their initial journeys into photography and I can do it for you too. If you’re fed up with buying more gadgets that don’t make any difference and trying to figure it out alone, for less than the cost of an old second hand lens I’d be delighted to help you.
Let me replace your confusion with clarity by enrolling on my Ultimate Beginners course. It’s 100% guaranteed so there’s nothing to lose and you can even try a free sample first so you know what to expect….
7 Blocks of Photography is highly recommended. I spend a lot of time in the outdoors and this course has taught me to think like a photographer, which of course helps my photography greatly, but also taught me how to "see" and this point is useful in my outdoor activities such as hiking and backpacking, appreciating the outdoors more than ever.
I enjoyed your video about adding the settings used to get the shot posted. And I agree that just transferring these setting to my camera to take the shot is unlikely to produce the same shot, even if I'm standing in the grooves you left when you took yours. (Alright, I know you didn't actually leave grooves behind, but I'm sure you get my drift.) However, I have been reading photography magazines for decades and they all seem to print the settings of the camera alongside each image they publish and sometimes, rightly in my humble opinion, the photographer's name to ensure everyone know who took it.
However, I propose that the settings can impart some useful information to other photographers. The image may have a look about it that is not obvious to the observer, and a glance at the lens focal length, the aperture and the image itself can reveal that the image has a slightly shallow depth of field that produces a subtle softening of the background that produces a 3D look. If the aperture is set to f/2 or f/2.8 the effect will not be subtle, it will be obvious but sometimes obvious is not the aim. Also if the whole shot is not pin sharp a look at the settings can indicate camera shake if the shutter speed is a bit low compared to the lens focal length (i've had this myself, and sometimes it's not possible to reshoot), or if it is shot with a really small aperture if could be the lens a bit soft when it is used wide open, etc. Then there is noise in the image, a look at the iso setting can indicate that the low light shot needed iso 128000 or something extreme. In fact I have taken shots in black & white that I intended to have noise for an effect.
So there are always things to learn from the settings, even if they are not directly transferable. They can provide a different insight into what the photographer was thinking (even if he wasn't thinking) and what the external environment had imposed on him/her. And looking at the image for the lighting can also provide clues as to how the shot was taken (not just the settings but the light direction and strength and colour and mood), but of course this is not a camera setting unless the white balance has been tweaked deliberately. I hope this point of view is interesting if nothing else. Keep posting your videos, I really enjoy your matter of fact style of production.