The Complete Wedding Training System is Finally Here!

Your content will be up shortly. Please allow up to 5 seconds
best-camera-settings-for Tips & Tricks

Why ‘What Camera Settings Should I Use?’ Is a Pointless Question

By Max Bridge on December 10th 2015

best-camera-settings-for

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.

[REWIND: 6 ARTISTIC PHOTO EFFECTS USING TRIPODS]

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?”

what-camera-settings

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!

[REWIND: HOW WE SHOT IT – LONG EXPOSURE ENGAGEMENT PORTRAIT]

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.

what-camera-settings-are-best

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.

understanding-exposure-with-the-exposure-triangle-1

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)

what-are-the-best-camera-settings

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.

[REWIND: PHOTOGRAPHY COURSES: 5 ESSENTIAL COURSES FOR EVERY BEGINNER]

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
Instagram: Follow Author

Q&A Discussions

Please or register to post a comment.

  1. Easton Reynolds

    Great article. Love your approach. Some really great alternative ideas to the dreaded question.

    | |
  2. Peter McWade

    I would assume if someone asked me what my settings were that they were actually asking how I did the shoot and not just camera settings. I see no reason for someone asking. But be aware that they may not be asking the whole question they really want. Im sure you can assume that they want it all. I’d hope you”d be willing to help them. I would. I also ask. So far they have assumed I wanted more than what I had asked.
    Pete :)

    | |
    • Andy & Amii Kauth

      Really good point, Peter.

      | |
    • Max Bridge

      Hey Pete. Thanks for commenting.

      I agree. They are almost definitely trying to find out how the shot was accomplished. However, as I briefly mentioned in the article, I think there are two levels to the question. On one hand you have people with some knowledge / experience whom are genuinely trying to find things out (for whatever reason) and on the other you have some amateurs who believe it is the settings that “make” the shot . I can’t tell you how many people have asked me “what are the best settings for …”. They are the kind that, through a fundamental lack of understanding, cling to camera settings as though they will allow them to replicate a shot when there are so many other factors.

      Regardless, I am always happy to help and educate anyone. An attribute I tend to find is shared by most, with differing amounts of patience.

      Thanks again Pete

      | |
  3. Ralph Hightower

    Besides the exposure triangle, there’s exposure compensation to figure if it is wanted, and with digital, there’s color temperature to also consider. When I’m photographing sunrises or sunsets, my personal preference is to use -2/3 stop as a starting point for both film and digital.

    | |
    • Bob Clough

      Exposure compensation is not an additional item . It is part of the exposure triangle.
      When you choose exposure compensation you are adjusting either aperture or shutter speed depending on what your camera decides.
      Or you can just shoot full manual and decided for yourself.

      | |
  4. Andrew Leinonen

    “What camera settings should I use?”

    “Wide open, but with a slower lens to get the same depth of field so that the left side of the frame isn’t cluttered with distracting 7-sided polygons”

    | |
  5. Barry Cunningham

    Much more interesting to ask the photographer about their intent when making the image.
    What was their purpose? What effect were they trying to achieve? What were they trying to communicate?
    What are the most important points about the photograph in their mind?
    Then, what were the technical challenges?

    | |
  6. Jean-Francois Perreault

    Very good points!
    I’ve never really cared much for camera settings, so glad to know I’m doing something right :)
    I’m much more interested in the choice of composition, color and lighting.
    When looking at a portrait, for example, I’ll pay much more attention to lighting and sometimes the eyes, trying to get a glimpse of the lighting that was used.
    The only camera setting I will sometimes look at is the shutter speed when the image is about movement, just out of curiosity.

    | |
    • Max Bridge

      Agree 100% Shutter speed is the most interesting of those settings but once you’re comfortable knowing what speed is required, you’ll stop looking.

      Oh and I’m always looking at the eyes trying to figure out what lighting was used.

      | |
    • Gabriel Rodriguez

      Both me and you, Jean! I try to find hints of lighting techniques or so. Not worried about the settings, but mainly the composition that went into the shot.

      | |
  7. Joseph Cha

    great article max! I think camera settings can be useful, but lighting is the real mvp.

    | |
    • Max Bridge

      Thanks man. Completely unrelated but I need to hurry up and change my profile pic so I’m in line with the rest of you!

      | |
    • Joseph Cha

      you’re practically there hahaha

      | |