• Wilson Haynes

Photo Settings 101

So as a photographer I often get asked about which settings to use for certain scenarios and while there are always changes you have to make depending on lighting, setting, and the overall situation. There are several basic settings and things that are important to know before starting to take pictures. I hope that this gives you the tools to get going and start getting awesome shots!


One of the first things that I recommend you do is make sure that the file format that the camera is shooting in is RAW. This is very important because when you shoot in RAW you have more data to work with when editing later on and it gives you a bigger file size so it will look better when printed, which I highly recommend. Pictures are made to be displayed on walls, not iphones.


When I am shooting I am 90% in full manual mode. This allows me the most control of the camera and I can create the shot exactly how I want to. This is sometimes intimidating to some people so they tend to put the camera in auto, while there is nothing wrong with this I think that there are better ways to get the shot you want without having to go full manual. Cameras have two programmed settings which are for this exact purpose. They are shutter priority and aperture priority.



Shutter priority, usually labeled S or TV, allows you to chose the shutter speed and the camera will chose the aperture depending on the amount of light that the sensor can collect. This is a great setting for sports photography when the lighting is constantly changing or you are moving around a lot. This then ensures your shutter speed stays the same.


Aperture priority, usually labeled A, works the same way except that it allows you to chose the aperture and the camera picks a shutter speed depending on the lighting. Aperture priority is best when you are shooting in natural light or when shooting using continuous lights.


When I am doing surf photography in the water I usually put the camera on shutter priority because it is harder to adjust settings on the fly when the camera is in the housing and it ensures my image is properly exposed without sacrificing sharp images since I have my shutter speed dialed in.


So the two big parts of taking a picture are the shutter speed and aperture. This next part is great to know whether you are shooting in one of the priority modes or full manual.


Shutter speed is the speed at which the shutter closes, a fast shutter creates a shorter exposure whereas a slow shutter creates a longer exposure. For action photography it is good to be 1/500th of a second. This will ensure that you capture all the action and there not be any blur. Obviously the faster you have it the better chance you have of nailing a clean shot.


Depending on the lighting that you have available, you can’t have it too high because you don’t want the shot to be underexposed. If I am trying to show motion blur in an action shot I tend to shoot at 1/30th of a second, depending on the subject, for a car it might be faster.


Here is an example of a fast and a slow shutter speed:




Aperture is the opening of a lens diaphragm where light passes. Lower f/stops give more exposure because they represent the larger apertures, while the higher f/stops give less exposure because they represent smaller apertures.


There is a phrase in photography, sunny 16, and this essentially just means that if it's bright and sunny out, put the aperture at f16. This is a great aperture for landscape as well because it makes sure the whole scene is in focus. You can bump it up all the way to f22, but the same principle about lighting applies because if you go too high then it could be underexposed.


If I am trying to isolate a subject then I’ll use a low f/stop such as f2.8 or f4. This creates a nice bokeh which basically just blurs out the background and only your subject is in focus. This is perfect for portrait work.


Here is an example of a low f/stop and a high f/stop:




ISO is something you will see on your camera and it is very important to be aware of because it is the sensitivity—the signal gain—of the camera's sensor. A simple way to think about it is the more you increase it, the brighter the image gets. The drawback of having it super high though is the buildup of noise in the image. Noise is a grainy look that can sometimes ruin an image and is frustrating, especially if you want to have the shot blown up and put on the wall.



I usually try to shoot as low of an ISO as possible to avoid the noise because I want every picture I take to have the potential to be printed big. If it is super bright out then you can probably stick to ISO 100, but if it's a dark setting or you're shooting indoors you might need to go up to 800-1600. Once again this all depends on the situation.


One thing you will quickly realize with photography is that you always need to be making adjustments and one set way will not always work. But that is one of the great things about it, and it definitely keeps it interesting.


A big part of photography is composition. To put it into simple terms, composition is how elements in a photo are arranged. There are a few different styles of composing an image and this is left up to the photographer of how they want to do it.


The most basic composition and the one that is probably always taught first is the rule of thirds. What you do is divide the frame of your photograph with two equally spaced vertical lines and two similar horizontal lines. These lines and the four points at which they meet create areas on your frame for placing subjects and essential elements.


Here is an example of the rule of thirds:



Another great composition is using leading lines. The idea of lead lines is that the photographer arranges these elements in the photograph to lead the viewers' eyes to the subject. Once you start shooting like this you will begin to see leading lines all around you.


Here is an example of leading lines:



An important way to compose a shot with a subject is to give them room to move. If the subject is leaving the frame, it leaves the viewer with a sense of wonder, "Where is it going?" If you position the elements of a photograph so that it is moving into the frame, you are telling a story.


Here is an example of giving subjects space to move:



One type of composition that is great for landscape photography is layering elements. Instead of just taking a shot of a mountain far in the distance, look to see what's in the foreground and include that in the shot so there are layers of multiple elements stacked up on top of eachother to create a dynamic image.


Here is an example of layering elements:



The last thing I want to talk about is the importance of lens choice. There are so many times when I see pictures and think that it could be a great shot if the lens more suited for that situation was used. Unfortunately lenses are expensive so most people just have one that they use for everything and one lens is not good for everything.


Here is a great image I found online which displays the difference in lens choice:



If I am shooting a landscape then I will use my 16-35 or my 24-70. If I want more compression and want to bring the elements in a little more I’ll grab my 70-200.


This first image was taken with my 16-35 and the second was taken with a 100-400 that I rented for the trip.




What I want you to notice is how everything is much more spread out in the first shot and the mountain looks so far away. In the second shot the background of the bison looks close. It was not though, that is just the lens doing its job and compressing well.


When shooting portraits or even wildlife I like to use the 70-200 because it is a very flattering lens and it does a nice job of creating bokeh and isolates the subject well.


Here is an example of that:



I hope that these tips are useful and that they give you the knowledge to get out and start shooting. The best way to learn is by doing so give these a shot, make mistakes, learn from them and I have no doubt you will get better.



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