Don’t ask me about my camera settings

When you start out it sometimes feels like other photographers are deliberately hiding the details of their craft from you. It takes a little time to realise that the most important feature of the camera is the viewfinder.

We’ve all done it. You know, seen a nice image and asked the photographer how she had set her camera to take it. Or complained that the photography magazine didn’t publish the shutter speed and aperture for some images. To start with, you feel like the photographer is trying to hide some of the arcane secrets of the mystic rite from you. Especially when they aren’t particularly forthcoming with the information about their camera settings when you ask.

A good while later I realised that most of the time the information wasn’t actually worth anything.

It made things even worse when someone said to me “if you don’t know how to work the camera settings out, just leave it on Auto”. She sounded so superior and dismissive but actually there was more than a grain of sense in the advice. But at the time I felt I needed to understand all the ins and outs of the camera. I certainly failed to see the value in what she said.

Carham Church with exhaustive list of camera settings
Carham Church, Northumberland. Taken with a Canon 5Dmkii and a 17-40mm f4 lens set to 19mm. 1/180 sec at f6.7 ISO100. Time of shot 15:28 on 11 January 2016.

Let’s try an example

Now here’s a picture. In the interests of full disclosure I’ve given you all the camera settings relevant to the taking of the picture.

Even though every camera setting has a specific reason, I have absolutely no idea what you are going to do with the numbers. None of it is relevant to the finished picture, not even the name and location of the church!

And here’s why all that data is entirely useless:

Focal length

In the first place you may not have a full frame camera like the 5D. You may have a camera with a smaller sensor in which case knowing the lens length I chose will be of no use to you. You might stand in the same spot as I did with a Fuji for example. However, you’ll need a wider lens than 19mm to capture all the detail I did. Unless of course you have one of those very nice  medium format cameras. In that case you’ll need a longer lens than 19mm!


Next the light. Even if you get to Carham at the same precise time and date as I did, the light WILL be different. Darker or lighter but definitely different. The exposure details (1/180 sec at f6.7) will therefore be different. There’ll be no benefit even using my settings as a start point – your camera’s meter WILL complain!

ISO Settings

You may even find yourself needing a higher ISO setting because you forgot your tripod. Oh, did I not mention I nearly always use a tripod? – sorry! Anyway to keep your handheld camera steady you may well have to ignore what I said about the ISO setting. It will improve your chances of getting a steady shot.

You can’t even rely on the location for information about the picture. It IS actually Carham Church. However the picture is of something else entirely and some other church would have done.

And it gets worse.

Image processing

What you’re seeing is an image that has been heavily processed in Lightroom. You would never be able to capture in camera this precise distribution of tones without some assistance after the event on your computer. All of which of course makes a complete mockery of providing the technical details in the first place.

I suppose I could provide a list of the steps I took in Lightroom and give it you as a preset to plug into the software, but unless you’re starting in the exact same place with your raw file, it won’t get you very far.

Time's Arrow. Image of churchyard and gravestones as metaphor for time
Time’s Arrow

All you need to know

This is the picture as I intended to display it when I took it. The title is “Time’s Arrow” and that’s all you actually need to know. If pushed I would talk about the line of the gravestones leading the way to the door of the ancient church with the oldest nearest the door, all reflecting the concept of time only moving in one direction, and the irony of this picture looking backwards across time.

But, I hear myself whine from years ago, I still need to know…. Well, maybe, but not just yet.

What do I do instead?

If you’re asking me the question, that tells me you still have some learning to do, and the lesson is not just about the camera.

I would still advise using the Programme setting (P on a Canon) to fully automate the selection of settings. What you then should do is examine the picture and the settings the camera has chosen. Compare pictures that have similar subjects but different settings. Work out why the camera has selected the way it has. (Actually that’s a better question to ask your more experienced friend.)

Then reduce the automation a touch. Set the camera to Aperture priority (A on a Canon), choose a subject with interest close by and far away and take a series of pictures focussing on the same  nearby thing, each time selecting for yourself a different aperture. Examine the pictures for differences, especially the blurred elements.

Then finally, the last step, tape over the Manual setting (M on a Canon) because you really don’t need the added complication. Not yet anyway. Don’t let any camera nerd tell you otherwise. You’ll know when you’re ready for a fully manual camera: it really will be obvious to you at the time.

So, why did I choose those camera settings?

 Eventually you will piece together the workings of your camera so it does your every bidding. You’ll then have muttered conversations with yourself like I had in front of that church:

Focal length: OK there’s a picture to be had here. I’ll just twiddle* the zoom lens a bit – I want that tree in on the right but I want to leave out the telegraph pole on the left. (I didn’t know I had settled on 19mm until I got the images onto the computer.)

*twiddle – a highly skilled technique that only experienced photographers use …

Aperture: I want everything sharp so I need to close the aperture down a bit – f8? No, its a wide angle lens on a full frame camera so a bit less will do.

Shutter speed: the camera is set to aperture priority so let’s just check the shutter speed the camera has chosen for me is short enough for a sharp picture. Shorter than 1/60? Fine.

ISO: I’m using a tripod so I can leave the ISO where it usually is at 100 for minimum noise.

As you can see the numbers themselves are fairly arbitrary and knowing them won’t be too helpful but the thought process may be. However its not the short snappy answer you were maybe looking for.

So what should you be doing instead of feeling intimidated by the complex interplay of shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings?

Simple. Look at the compositions you are creating and make as sure as you can that they are compelling in their own right. It’s far, far better to take interesting but technically imperfect pictures than to take boring photographs that are sharp, well exposed etc etc.

The most important feature of the camera is the viewfinder not the knobs and buttons.

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