As you become more experienced with photography, you realize that things you used to obsess over are not that important. Something that I used to obsess over, and many photographers currently do, are camera settings. Specifically, the exposure settings, ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. All too often, I see the following question when there are much better ones to ask:

“What camera settings did you use?”

It can’t be disputed that those settings are important. If you dial in the wrong ones in your given situation, you may just ruin your photo. With that in mind, I completely understand the obsession that amateur photographers have with knowing what camera settings were used. However, in my opinion, it is one of the most pointless questions you can ask.

Before I launch into this, let me preface it by saying that I see two levels to this question. You have an experienced photographer who is asking as they are perplexed by a particular technique or is attempting a specialized type of photography – astrophotography, for instance. Then you have the photographer who believes that by imitating the same settings their camera will magically produce the same photo, forgetting every other aspect that goes into the creation of an image. I’ve even seen people say things like “I used the same settings but I just can’t get it to look like that.”

creative-photographyCamera Settings | Why Is The Question Pointless?

I do not want to discourage the asking of questions. Let me make that very clear. Asking questions is how we learn and I would never shoot someone down for asking a question like this. That being said, a photographer trying to advance their knowledge is doing themselves a huge disservice by asking questions like this.

So why is it pointless? Take the photo above. If I tell you, it was shot at with a shutter speed of 1 sec, at ISO 400 and with an aperture of f8 (those are guesses by the way), do you think you can re-create it? Does that info tell you very much at all? On the other hand, what if I tell you it was shot on a tripod, with an off camera flash set to first curtain sync freezing the people, and a slow shutter speed to add the movement. That may confuse you far more than the camera settings, but I’ve just told you how to re-create that photo. The camera settings told you very little.


The camera settings that we use (in terms of the core three mentioned above) serve two main purposes. Firstly, they allow us to create the exposure we desire and secondly, create the effects we want. If you fully understand what Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture do, and the creative effects they can have on your photos, you do not need to ask the question, “What camera settings did you use?”


Camera Settings | Learning To Read A Photo

One of my biggest lightbulb moments was understanding what made a photo great. Hint, it was not camera settings. Location, time of day, lighting, subject, posing, framing, composition, editing and so on. Those are just some of the things that go into the creation of a photograph. Every single one must be considered and accomplished to a decent standard to produce something good. It was a lightbulb moment that also led to a realization – a whole load of education was needed!


As you progress in photography, you will acquire a skill I call “reading a photo.” You’ll be able to look at a photo and say “that was shot with this aperture, at this time of day, the height of the camera was…and an additional light was used and placed here,” etc. This skill is something that you will constantly develop and build upon. When we first start, every photo looks like magic. As we progress more, the magic dies (sadly). We’re able to understand the mechanics of each photo we see; to mentally dissect it.


The first step on your journey to reading photos is to fully understand the exposure triangle. Not only how those settings help you achieve the desired exposure, but also what creative effects can be had by manipulating them. In doing so, you’ll be able to look at a photo, like the one above, and say “I know what camera settings were used,” or at the very least you’ll have a good idea.


Camera Settings | What Are Some Better Questions?

Alright, at the moment you are illiterate. You cannot read photos. So what do you do? Well, you first need to get some good education but in the meantime, here are a few good questions which you can use as a replacement for “what camera settings did you use?”

  • What time of day did you shoot this?
  • Could you describe your lighting setup for this shot?
  • What was the focal length of your lens and why did you chose that?
  • How did you get/cause that reaction?
  • Could you describe the post-processing of this photo?
  • How did you accomplish….(add whatever aspect you like)


As a final example, take this photo of the Lin and Jirsa team. What does “what camera settings did you use,” tell you about how this photo was accomplished? Replace that question with, “could you describe your lighting setup for this shot?” and you’ll be well on your way to understanding the mechanics of that image.

Camera Settings | Where Do I Go From Here?

We’ve established what not to ask and what to ask but where do you go from here? Answer: most likely you need some additional education. If you are in the position of obsessing over camera settings, that tells me you’re at the beginning of your journey. Acquiring the right education will stop you needing to ask that question and allow you to grow as a photographer.

There are tons of good, free education out there, but my advice (if this article describes you) is this: purchase Photography 101. It’s the perfect way to get going on your photographic journey. It’ll teach you all you need to know to begin reading photos yourself. Once you’re finished with that, move on to one of our other more advanced videos to help you progress even further. You can find everything in the SLR Lounge Store here.

Best of all, all our photography courses are now 30% off until the 12/26/2015! Enter happyholidays30 at the checkout.