What Camera Settings Should You Use?

Categories: Photography
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Published on: 2010.02.19

This is one of the most commonly asked questions by beginning photographers. I see it on online forums every day.

There is no simple answer.

Just in case you missed it, I’ll say it again in a different way: No one can answer this question for you.

In fact, the very question itself shows a basic lack of understanding of how photography works. There is no “magic number” or “perfect setting” for sports, or for weddings, or for portraits. If you asked this question and someone answered you with a specific list of settings, that person was either being sarcastic and mean, or they understood as little as you do.

Though there are differences between film photography and digital photography, the basic principles remain the same, and it all depends on the light. In addition, it all depends on what you want to achieve.

I’m known as a sports photographer, so many beginners will see one of my sports photos and ask: “What settings did you use to get that shot?”

It really doesn’t matter, because those settings won’t work for you unless you’re in the same gym with the same lens (and assuming the gym’s lights haven’t changed).

The image that is produced in your camera depends entirely on the light where you’re shooting.

You can adjust four settings on your digital SLR camera to react to the light in your location: (1) exposure time, (2) aperture, (3) ISO, and (4) white balance.

1. As expected, a longer shutter time allows more light into your camera, producing a brighter photo. But if anything’s moving — like a basketball player, for instance — then a long enough exposure will make the image blurry. (More on shutter speed here.)

2. Also as expected, a wider aperture will let in more light, producing a brighter image. (It also affects the depth of the focal plane.) This is usually limited by the lens. If you’re a beginner, you probably don’t own a lens with a wide enough aperture for dark venues. (More on aperture here.)

3. ISO sensitivity can also allow more or less light. A low number, like ISO50 or ISO100 isn’t very sensitive, whereas a high number, like ISO800 or ISO1600, is very sensitive to light (but also produces grain/noise).

4. White balance settings should be adjusted as well, because different light sources can seriously affect the color cast on your images. Even if you shoot in RAW, having a correct white balance can save quite a bit of post-processing time.

Again, it depends on the light where you are, and what you want to achieve.

For more tips on trouble-shooting images, visit this page:
Troubleshooting Your Digital Photos

And happy shooting.

(This entry is part of my growing Photography FAQ. The wording above may change at any time.)

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