The Best Advice About Camera Settings That I've Ever Heard

Look at any photography forum and by far, the most common question beneath any photo will be: "what were your settings?" By and large, that's the wrong question to ask, however.

Coming to you from Mike Browne, this great video talks about the issue of camera settings and their impact on a picture, particularly from a learning perspective. It's easy for beginners and seasoned pros alike to fall into the habit of thinking the basic camera settings are the code to an image, but the simple truth is that settings are a small part of all the aspects of a photo, and as Browne mentions, unless you're taking your shot in the exact same conditions as the one you're using the parameters from, you're unlikely to get the same image anyway. Instead, Browne advocates not just understanding the role settings play in a realistic fashion, but rewiring your thinking entirely: "settings don't make the picture; pictures make the settings." It's a good mantra to remember, as previsualization of the image you want to create leads to an automatic determination of the settings and creates a more purposeful process in general, as opposed to hoping to luck into the right combination of parameters. 

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31 Comments

I'll be honest: I do not understand Browne's point. I do understand that he is pitching his course, and promising to reveal even more "secrets" in his "Ultimate Beginner's Course".

Alex Cooke's picture

His point is that photographers often think of settings as the magic key to unlocking a photo, when they should be thinking about the picture they want to create, from which the necessary settings will naturally come.

Settings don’t “naturally come” from a given scene, though; they come from one’s understanding of how the settings work. Which, ironically, you can’t learn from a guy who says they don’t matter.

The problem with this conclusion is that learning is a gradual process and I think the people who think of the settings as “the magic key to unlocking a photo” are in a very different place than those who are capable of thinking about the picture they want to create. I agree with the latter premise but I don’t believe it’s the best way to teach people the basics about camera settings. It’s like telling somebody who’s just starting to learn an instrument to think of the composition they want to write in order to learn a scale. What? No, the scales come before the composition, and trying to teach that way is just going to confuse the bejeezus out of them.

Then just shoot Program Auto mode all the time, unless you want to mess with your depth of field, in which case pay attention to the aperture. This is not as profound as Mike Browne would have us believe. He is making something out of nothing.

Carlos Teixeira's picture

I usually ask for the aperture someone shot something, just to gauge were they are as a photographer, because that in the context of the photo tells me if he/she understands depth of field, hyperfocal, lens diffraction, etc. Or if the photographer says "I don't know" I just say "Pretty", and move on. jk. but I do.

Jon Kellett's picture

Lens diffraction is a principal that a lot of otherwise advanced photographers have a poor understanding of.

I'm always seeing photographers advising that they selected f22 (or other high value) to "ensure the sharpest image"...

Diffraction may become visible on a 5DMkIII @ only f/10. On a D850 it's only f/9 before it may become visible.

Of course, diffraction won't be visible on a print until much later, but if you're printing big enough to care about sharpness you probably already know the diffraction limited aperture for your camera.

Carlos Teixeira's picture

Exactly. But diffraction is just one, and a big one, but you can pretty much gather the level of a photographer by his choices. Picking up on you diffraction point, if you see someone using f11 to shoot a landscape, than maybe that says something about the photographer, a different thing from the guy who used f22, and different from the poor guy who uses 2.8...
Mainly I think it is a introduction to a conversation, I don't think it's as bad of a thing to ask this kind of questions. Worse is someone asking what camera you used, I think...

Mr Hogwallop's picture

"Worse is someone asking what camera you used, I think..." Why?

I think usually people are just curious and don't really have a lot to say, the easiest question to ask is about a camera. It's not an attempt to steal your soul or insult your creativity. It's just talking...More likely than not it is an awkward compliment than anything else.You have that camera for a reason either someone gave it to you, you found it or you bought it.

If you ask a dirt biker why she rides a KTM or a Husky or Honda she will most likely explain her choice without taking offense.

Carlos Teixeira's picture

I agree with you, I just used the meme, of asking your camera brand as a measure of quality that goes around and almost everybody seems to be annoyed by, for humor. I couldn't care less otherwise.

What do you ride?

Mr Hogwallop's picture

BMW R1200GSA, it sometimes a little too much bike but it works LoL

David Pavlich's picture

I sell my prints at a market twice a week and the most asked question is, "what camera do you use?" It's a natural question. If the person isn't a photographer, I tell them it's a Canon. If the person is familiar with cameras, I tell him/her it's a 5DIV.

And, I rode a 400 Husky and a 400 Penton (KTM) many Moons ago. :-) Also had a 250 CZ and a 400 Suzuki.

Are you kidding about the entire comment or the last part? If just the last part, what difference does it make "where they are as a photographer"? I don't understand.

Carlos Teixeira's picture

Just the last part. If you don't understand, than I don't think there's any explanation I can give you that will. But it's pretty much the same reason I will give you this short answer.
That and some Dunning-Kruger's perhaps.

The part I don't understand is, why does it matter to you, or anyone, where someone else is as a photographer or anything else?

Carlos Teixeira's picture

Why doesn't it matter?
Most people that talk to me about photography are beginners, and I prefer to understand were they are before starting mansplaining or talking about stuff that goes above their heads. Should I not try to make them comfortable talking to me? Maybe I should just show how much I know about photography without caring who is in front of me? Is me trying to understand who is talking to me just about me judging the other person? You make me wonder.

Richard Twigg's picture

I've thought this for a long time. Unless you're in the exact same spot at the exact same time, same composition, same gear, etc. settings are pretty useless. Yet many forums require them.

For exposure, sure, but I disagree that they're pretty useless for all cases. If you're learning how shutter speed affects a scene beyond just exposure, though (i.e. waterfalls, clouds, lights) it's a perfectly valid question regardless of whether you're going to the same location.

David Pavlich's picture

Settings for a scene that is similar will garner similar results. If asking my settings for a shot gets someone in the ballpark for their next shot under similar conditions, then it's up to them to tweak the settings. It certainly reduces the learning curve.

As an example, when someone asks how I obtained a Sunset that I shot, I tell them to set the camera on Aperture Priority, f8, and ISO100 (assuming that there's enough light to hand hold). Take a test shot and see what the camera has chosen as the proper shutter speed, say for this discussion, 1/250. I do mention that I use a tripod just about all the time I'm shooting Sunrise/Sunsets.

Then, set the camera on Manual, f8, ISO100, and double the shutter speed to 1/500....exposing for the highlights. This is a pretty good basis for a decent Sunset shot.

Of course, this person has to have some basic understanding of how this works in post processing. Regardless, this is an example of a basic setting that works the majority of the time.

I really do try to be open minded about how other people choose to explain ideas as well as how other people choose to gather content for the sake of education, but when an article titled "The Best Advice About Camera Settings That I've Ever Heard" is attached to a video that's less an explanation than it is a disjointed, rambling, incoherent, mess, I feel that a few things could probably be added.

Namely, this is a terrible explanation. Actually it's not really an explanation at all; it sounds more like a guy who's off his meds trying to get a thought out but can't.

"Settings don't give you pictures, pictures give you settings".

There's a deep thought in there somewhere, but in the context of how it's explained in this video, it's total nonsense. It means nothing. In the sense that there's a scene in front of you that contains a measurable level of light, yes, that will dictate the combination of the settings you need in order to capture a specific exposure. In that case, sure, you're reacting to the scene to get your exposure settings. But using it as a catch-all phrase just doesn't work.

At 3:00 - "Because I just want to show you, that generally speaking, it makes NO DIFFERENCE what settings you use, at all".

Really? Fine, roll that 1/200th shutter speed out to 30 seconds without changing anything else and see what you get. Oh, it's a giant white rectangle? I guess the settings matter a little bit after all. That could have been a good lesson on cases where small, incremental changes don't have a huge impact on the final image, but that's a far cry from "it makes NO DIFFERENCE what settings you use, at all."

I think the reason this is such a bad explanation is because it takes a common question, "What settings did you use?", and attempts to answer it in a way that's entirely unhelpful. The answer should never be "The settings don't matter"; it SHOULD be "These are the settings I used and WHY I used them". Huge difference.

To put it in other terms:

You're new to photography and you're trying to learn how things work. Which do you think is a more helpful answer to the question, "What settings did you use?"

1) A 15 minute rant about why settings don't matter even though he used examples where variation changes how the scene looks (focal length / distance to subject with the lobster)

2) One paragraph explaining that the reason f/5.6 vs f/8 might not have mattered so much for a specific picture is because everything was sufficiently far away from the camera to get it in focus. A greater depth of field simply wasn't required in that case (his church picture).

And when he says, "you've got to previsualize what you want to do in your head, and then take the shot"... ok, but I'm pretty sure that even if you have no idea what you want to shoot, if you dial the aperture out to f/1.8 you might get some foreground or background elements out of focus. Point is, it doesn't matter how you "previsualized" it, if you change the settings, there will be an impact... it's just a matter of whether the scene still falls within the realm of capturing it within these variations. HUGE DIFFERENCE from how he's explaining it.

Another thing to consider is that it's also possible that the person asking "What settings did you use?" isn't looking to just plug your settings into their camera; maybe they already know what they're looking for (is it possible to take that shot at a specific aperture, or shutter speed, etc). Ranting about why it doesn't matter is pretty dense if you just assume you know the reason they're asking. I find that most of the time the question is really just a mask for a different question altogether, it's just that they don't always know how to ask the right question ("Why" instead of "What"). Or maybe they have another reason in mind for asking altogether. Either way, I think this video is a pretty good example of how not to teach this issue.

"Get creative, that's all you've got to do".

Oh ok, thanks for the tip.

Sheesh.

Jon Kellett's picture

I'm sorry I could only give you one thumbs up!

I didn't read his comment but gave him another thumbs up for you. :-)

I thought this was a fairly good video, even though I may not agree with everything he said. It emphasizes how settings are important only in the context of the unique constraints of what one is trying to artistically achieve. It, then, by definition not relevant or applicable to reproduction by another photographer.

The guy misunderstand completely why people ask settings. People ask settings to understand how to get a result (Aperture to depth of field, or shutter speed for motion, and so on).
He thinks people ask settings to use all the exact same settings in various situations, with a complete disconnection of the rendering of a scene.

This guy simply don't understand why people ask the question. He's the fool looking for the finger when people show the moon.

Mark James's picture

When I was first starting out I liked to find out the settings used. Not to copy it, but to learn what f2.8 at 85mm looked like from a DOF standpoint, as an example. Keep in mind I was very new and these were broad generalizations to help me wrap my mind around these aperture numbers and how they affected the image. You gotta start somewhere.

Ansel Spear's picture

I made it as far as 4 minutes in. His entire premise is just plain wrong. If he finds his message in the last 11 minutes, I apologise.

Matthias Kirk's picture

It is probably a good idea to study some settings before going on your first astro-photography shoot.
Since test shots come free in the digital era there isn't much to gain from knowing another photographers settings. Figure out at which shutter speed you personally can handhold your lens, how aperture affects DOF and which ISO amplification you are willing to tolerate and things will click together naturally.

Some educators provide cheat sheets which their students learn by heart slavishly (sunlight: ISO100, mild overcast: ISO200...) while they completely miss the point.

Mike Browne's audience is fresh beginners with limited technical understanding to whom this whole exposure thing is scary stuff. Makes sense to me to encourage them not to worry about other peoples settings and just take a test shot and adjust to taste.

There's a good reason why even quite experienced photographers might ask someone what settings they used to capture a particular photo. The settings tell a reader what the scene was probably like in person, for example how much light was available, how much motion was present in the scene. The settings give an experienced reader a way of reverse-engineering a scene from the photograph.

Let's say we're looking at a photograph of a city street in the evening. The street is empty and the shadows are well exposed. If the settings revealed the photo was taken with a high ISO, wide aperture and fast shutter speed, we would know that the photographer actually captured a moment when the street was empty. If the settings revealed a low ISO, small aperture and a very slow shutter speed, we would guess that the street was actually busy but the long exposure removed the moving elements from the photo.

Understanding how the actual scene was captured as a photo not only helps us understand how to capture similar scenes in similar ways; it helps us understand the photographer's intent. If we know that the photographer deliberately used a very long exposure to remove people from a scene to produce an empty, still photograph, that tells us something about what they wanted to achieve and say with the photo.

Colin Shawhan's picture

Beginners: use "A" or Aperture mode, try to stick to f5.6-9 unless you need smaller (for intimate portraits or astro) or larger (for landscapes, and I find 11+ is useless anyway, 11 is my max.) Next, set your ISO such that the shutter speed is in the 1/60-1/320 range, keeping in mind that >800 is probably worthless. Mine is. Lower shutter, higher ISO each have disadvantages; motion blur and noise, respectively. Work them both until you have something like: 1/50 and 640 ISO for a low-light shot. Beyond that consider flash, or re-think your shot. Can you use motion? Creep the speed down to 1/15 and use a tripod (you should anyway). Want to freeze time? You might be out of luck in low light. Sorry.

I have shot an afternoon focused at 20ft-infinity, f9 and 1/125 without touching a thing. Everything turned out fine. Landscape shots, cyclists, architecture.. These settings are probably close to what a disposable camera would have had in the film days, though I've never used one.

Settings ARE important, but start at the following and adjust accordingly: f9, 1/125 at 200 ISO. If you are somewhere interesting-looking and something cool happens, chances are you will have a cool photograph. Refine your technical details as you go, and have fun! Finally, know there are things you probably shouldn't even bother with yet: wildlife, weddings, etc.

Focus on being somewhere cool and not messing up too badly. Being somewhere boring means you will hardly have any interesting photographs anyway, so go and do cool stuff!!

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