The many variables involved in image creation can make photography seem daunting, especially for a beginner.
To create a successful image, you’ll need to consider a variety of factors, such as light, composition, and camera settings. A subtle variation in any of these elements can alter the look of your image entirely.
Without experience, this could feel overwhelming and sometimes discouraging. Luckily, there are things you can do to maximize your chances of a successful photoshoot.
Besides showing up and having the right gear, you can come to a location prepared by studying ahead of time.
This guide is meant to give you a general knowledge of what camera settings to use in different photographic situations, as well as how and why you should use them.
Although the “best” camera settings for photography don’t truly exist, a standard practice for camera settings certainly does.
If you’re a beginner in photography and you’re confused about which camera settings to use when taking pictures, this guide is for you.
A Quick Review Of Relevant Camera Settings:
Before we delve into the specific camera settings, you’ll first need to understand some terminology.
Aperture is the diameter of the hole inside the lens of a camera. Your choice of aperture will determine the depth of field in your photo.
A large aperture will produce a deep depth of field with most of your scene in focus. On the other hand, a small aperture will create a shallow depth of field with the foreground in focus and a blurred background.
ISO refers to the camera sensors’ sensitivity. Increasing the ISO amplifies the data gathered by the camera’s sensor.
Camera sensors have a base level ISO, which is the sensitivity of the sensor without any amplification. For most cameras, this is ISO 100 or 200. At the base-level ISO, your image will have the least amount of noise and increasing beyond this will enhance the amount of noise.
A higher ISO will produce brighter images than a lower ISO. Unfortunately, a higher ISO also produces a more noisy image that a lower ISO.
Shutter speed is the measure of how long the camera’s shutter will stay open. Fast shutter speeds will produce brighter images while shorter shutter speeds will produce darker images.
Your choice of shutter speed will determine how motion is captured in your image and if there is any camera shake in your photos. Fast shutter speeds freeze motion while slow shutter speeds blur motion.
For handheld shots, you’ll want to set your shutter speed to 1 divided by your focal length (1/focal length) to avoid camera shake. If you are using a sturdy tripod, you can use slow shutter speeds without worrying about camera shake.
In manual mode, you are in full control of all the exposure settings: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. This mode gives you the most flexibility and artistic control over your photos.
In Aperture priority, you set the aperture and ISO, and the camera sets the shutter speed for optimal exposure. Use aperture priority if you wish to retain full control over your depth of field.
On a bright scene, your camera will increase the shutter speed to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor to achieve proper exposure.
Likewise, during low light, your camera will decrease the shutter speed to increase the amount of light reaching the sensor to achieve proper exposure.
In shutter priority, you manually set the camera’s shutter speed, and ISO and the camera will choose the aperture for optimal exposure. Use the Shutter Priority mode when you want to control the way motion is captured in your image.
If you want to freeze movement choose a fast shutter speed; to create motion blur, go instead for slower shutter speeds.
The meter is a built-in device in most cameras today that reads the light and determines the exposure settings necessary to reach a proper exposure. Metering is used when you are shooting in program, aperture priority, or shutter priority mode.
Matrix metering mode gives the entire frame equal weight when calculating exposure. This metering mode is good for wide scenes that are evenly lit or consist of primarily mid-tones. It also works well for close up images.
Spot metering uses a single “spot” of the frame to calculate exposure. Use spot metering if you want to make sure a specific element in your frame is properly exposed. This metering mode also works well if you’re going to use a particular location in the frame as a baseline for proper exposure.
Cente-weighted metering is a type of metering that places more weight at the center of the frame when calculating exposure. Use center-weighted metering if your subject is at the center of your frame or if most to ensure your frame is properly exposed.
Portrait Photography Camera Settings
Outdoor Portrait Exposure Settings
When shooting portrait outdoors as long as there is full light, the shutter speed won’t play a significant role in your photos.
I typically use a shutter speed of 1/100 when in good lighting conditions. If there is camera shake at 1/100, increase the shutter speed until the camera shake is eliminated.
To freeze motion in your portrait photos, you will need to use faster shutter speeds. The exact shutter speed will depend on how fast your subject is moving. I recommend starting at 1/125 and adjusting until you get the effect you are looking for.
If you are shooting in low light conditions and you decide to use flash, you will need a shutter speed of about 1/200th of a second. At this speed, the flash will sync with the shutter speed, eliminating the chance for lag and uneven lighting.
Keep in mind, if your shutter speed is too fast, your flash and shutter will not sync. If this happens, the shutter will close before the flash is exposed to the entire sensor, causing uneven lighting in your photo.
For example, a flash and shutter that are not synced may cause only a portion of your subjects face to be illuminated while the rest remains dark.
You may be able to get away with using slower shutter speeds if you are using a tripod or if you have lens stabilization or camera stabilization.
A portrait image is typically shot with a shallow depth of field, with an aperture of around f/4 to f/5.6. Photographers prefer to use this wide aperture to blur out distracting elements in the background and emphasize the subjects face.
You may stop down as wide as f/2.8 but pay special attention to where you place your focus within the frame. At wider apertures, the area in your image that will be in sharp focus is very narrow. If you’re not careful, important elements such as your subject’s eyes will come out blurry.
In general, the best place to set your focus point is directly on one of the eyes of your subject. This will keep the eyes sharp, while the skin around the face will be slightly softer.
If you’re taking a portrait of more than one person, you will need to increase your aperture. I typically use an aperture of f/8 when I am shooting two people. If your group is larger, then you may need to use an even larger aperture to place everyone in focus.
A good rule of thumb to always use the lowest ISO possible to produce images with the least amount of noise. I try to use an ISO of 100 or 200 when shooting outdoors or in decent lighting.
That said, in certain situations, it will require you to increase your ISO when shooting portraits.
One example is when in low light conditions, such as when shooting at night. Another example is when your subject is moving, which requires faster shutter speeds to avoid motion blur.
I would avoid increasing your ISO above 1600; you may find a high amount of noise at this ISO level.
Indoor Portrait Exposure Settings
You may use the same shutter speed recommended for outdoor portrait photography for indoor portrait photography.
That is, use a shutter speed of 1/100 if there’s enough light available. If there is less light, and your subject is perfectly still, you can experiment with slower shutter speeds.
Remember, if you are shooting without a tripod, a shutter speed less than 1/100 may result in camera shake.
Also, if your subject is in motion, you may have to use a shutter speed faster than what’s recommended.
Like outdoor portrait photography, using a shallow depth of field is ideal. An aperture around f/4 to f/5.6 is a good place to start.
When shooting indoors, there are typically two scenarios.
The first is that you are using artificial lighting to control the exposure. In this case, you should be able to use your camera’s base ISO, typically 100 or 200.
The other scenario is that you are using natural lighting, such as light from a window. In this case, you’re likely to have less light available to you than if you were shooting outdoors. If so, you will need to use a higher ISO.
The lighting conditions of your scene will dictate how much you need to increase your ISO. If necessary, don’t be afraid to use an ISO of 800 or even 1600.
When shooting indoors never compromise your shutter speed to reduce or prevent noise, especially when you are shooting moving objects. An image is useless if it has minimal noise, but it’s blurry.
In most cases, the best shooting mode to use for photographing still portraits is manual mode.
Manual mode gives you the most control and consistency, despite it being more difficult to use than other shooting modes.
If you are not comfortable using manual mode, try using aperture priority. Aperture priority allows you to set your preferred aperture and ISO while your camera automatically sets the shutter speed.
If you are taking moving portraits, I suggest you use shutter priority. Shutter priority will allow you to control how motion is captured in your image. Whether you want to completely freeze or add a slight blur to the motion you are trying to captured, shutter priority.
For portrait photography, I recommend using spot metering. Spot metering allows you to select a small “spot” or area of an image and treat it as the baseline for proper exposure.
Spot metering works well for portrait photography because it allows you to use your subject as the baseline for metering. This enables you to ensure that your subject is properly exposed.
If your not using flash, set the “spot” on your subjects face. If you are using flash, set the “spot” on the background to prevent overexposure. The flash will account for any underexposure caused by metering for the background.
When shooting indoor or outdoor portrait photography, I recommend using autofocus. Set your autofocus to single AF or center point will ensure that your image stays focus even if you recompose.
If you are shooting at night or inside a very dark building, you may need to switch to manual focus. Autofocusing systems can sometimes have a hard time focusing in the dark. Before you switch, test your autofocus system, if you can’t focus try again using manual.
Remember, in portrait photography, focus on your subjects’ eye for sharp and appealing photos. Focusing on the eye will cause your subjects face to be in focus while the area around it will be out-of-focus.
Street Photography Camera Settings
When shooting street photography, a good starting point to set your shutter speed is between 1/100 and 1/200.
If you want to freeze this motion, you may need to use faster shutter speeds, especially if your subjects are moving fast.
The exact shutter speed will depend on the speed of your subject and the amount of available light.
For subjects that are traveling relatively quickly, such as people on bicycles, start with a shutter speed of 1/150. If your objects are moving extremely fast, you will need to start at much faster shutter speeds such as 1/250 0r even 1/500.
If you are looking to add a creative flair to your photos, consider using slower shutter speeds. Leaving your shutter open between 1/4 and 1 second will enable your sensor to record people as they move across your frame. The result is traces of beautiful colors smeared across your image.
If you are using longer shutter speeds on sunny days, remember to decrease the size of your aperture. Adjusting the aperture will ensure that you don’t end up with an overexposed image.
The general rule of thumb is to set your aperture to f/8 when shooting street photography. Using f/8 will give you a wide depth of field and place most of your image in focus.
That said, when deciding which aperture to use, always consider the lens you are using. If you are using a wide-angle lens, set your aperture to f/5.6. On the other hand, if you are using a 50mm, set your aperture to f/11.
When shooting street photography, start with your ISO at your cameras base level. In most cases, this is between ISO 100 and ISO 200.
You will need to increase your ISO if you find yourself in low light conditions. A higher ISO is typically necessary at night, or at locations in the city where the sun is obstructed such as narrow alleys.
Don’t worry about noise too much. It’s always better to have a bit of noise than to have an underexposed or blurry image.
Unless you’re trying to capture motion, Aperture priority is usually the best choice when shooting street photography.
This will allow you to prioritize your depth of field, which is crucial for blurring out distracting elements in your background.
If you are trying to capture motion, it’s often best to use shutter priority. Using shutter priority will allow you to freeze or blur motion, depending on your preference.
When shooting street photography use matrix metering mode. Matrix metering is a good choice if you are taking wide-angle shots with a deep depth of field. This will ensure you expose for your entire scene and capture all the necessary details.
If you are shooting a more subject-centered photo, consider using spot metering. Spot metering will allow you to expose specifically expose for your subject.
When shooting street photography, I recommend using zone focusing. Zone focusing is a method of pre-focusing your camera based on a specific distance and your aperture.
Using the zone focusing technique gives you the speed and flexibility necessary to take photos in fast-paced environments.
To use zone focus you will need to set your camera to manual focus. Once in manual focus, determine the hyperfocal distance of your aperture. The hyperfocal distance can be easily determined using apps such as Photopills or using physical charts.
After you set your focus to the hyperfocal distance, the manual focusing meter on your lens will give you the range of your depth of field. As long as your subjects fall between this range, they will be in focus.
Landscape Photography Camera Settings
The correct shutter speed to use for landscape photography will depend on the amount available in your scene and the effect you’re trying to create.
For example, say you want to go out and shoot coastal photography.
If you want to photograph the movement of the waves, you’ll need to use slower shutter speeds. Using a shutter speed between 1/4 to 1 second is an excellent place to start.
If, on the other hand, you want to freeze the motion of crashing waves, you’ll need to use faster shutter speeds. Depending on the quality of waves and the quality of light, you may need to go as fast as 1/250.
Remember to bring a tripod if you intend to use long shutter speeds. Shooting long exposure handheld will result in camera shake.
In most cases, you will want to use a deep depth of field when photographing landscapes. A deep depth of field is often preferred in landscape photography because it allows you to capture a scene with a high level of detail.
For my landscape images, I typically use apertures between f/8 to f/16.
A great way of choosing your aperture for landscape photos is using your lenses aperture sweet spot. At a lenses aperture sweet spot, your camera will produce the sharpest images with the widest depth-of-field.
A good rule of thumb for finding your lenses sweet spot is that it is typically 2-3 stops below the maximum aperture. You can also find your lenses aperture by going online or testing for yourself.
Resource: Sharpness vs. Focus
Similar to other types of photography, the ideal ISO for landscape photography is typically ISO 100. However, there are circumstances where using a higher ISO is a better choice.
For instance, using a higher ISO may be ideal if you are shooting your images handheld. As mentioned, shooting handheld will require you to use higher shutter speeds, limiting the amount of light that enters your camera. To achieve a brighter image with higher shutter speeds, you’ll need to increase your ISO.
Another reason you may need to increase your ISO is when you are shooting at night. Shooting with a high ISO is one way you can compensate for the lack of lighting available at night.
Shooting Mode: Aperture Priority
When shooting landscape photos, I prefer to use aperture priority.
Aperture priority is preferable in landscape photography as it enables you to capture most of your scene in sharp focus. Since most landscape scenes are static, controlling your shutter speed using shutter priority is rarely needed.
Metering Mode: Matrix
Matrix or evaluative metering modes are typically the default setting on most DSLR’s. They are also one of the most common settings used by photographers.
In matrix mode, your camera gives equal weight to the entire frame of your photo. This mode will take all the brightness of all elements in your scene into consideration when adjusting for proper exposure.
Matrix mode works best in evenly lit scenes. Since the matrix mode weighs exposure across the entire frame, it does not always produce a correctly exposed image.
In particular, landscape photos with a lot of tonal contrast will often be inaccurately exposed. In such cases, I suggest exploring other avenues such as bracketing, exposure compensation, or spot metering.
Remember that if you are shooting in manual mode, the light meter and metering mode will not have an impact on your photo. It will only work if you are shooting in auto-mode or a priority mode.
In landscape photography, the ideal focus setting to use will vary depending on the situation.
That said, from my experience, autofocus is usually the best option for landscape photography. The main reason being that autofocus is often faster and more efficient than manual focus.
Of course, some photographers can manually focus their cameras at incredible speeds. But, anomalies aside, I find autofocus is the clear winner as far as speed is concerned.
Cameras do vary in autofocus speed, but most of them perform well enough. Plus, since landscape scenes are usually static, the speed of the autofocus has minimal impact on the quality of your image.
That said, manual focus is not to be ignored in landscape photography. There are plenty of situations where using manual focus can be highly beneficial.
For example, in night photography, manual focus is your best option. Most autofocus systems tend to underperform in low light and trying to use them for night photography will often be flat-out disappointing.
Also, in situations with low contrast levels, using manual focus will allow you to focus on the scene with more precision.
Don’t get stuck using one method, if your autofocus is not working switch to manual.
Architecture Photography Camera Settings
Similar to landscape photography, the ideal shutter speed to use for architecture photography will vary per situation.
In particular, your choice of shutter speed will highly depend on the amount of light available in your scene, and the visual effect you’re trying to create.
For instance, you may want to use cloud streaks for a backdrop to your buildings. In such cases, depending on how fast the clouds are moving, you may need to use shutter speeds between 20- 30 seconds.
The same is true if you’re shooting light trails at night. For this scenario, you will typically need to use a shutter speed that is at least 10-15 seconds.
Keep in mind depending on if you are capturing long exposure or freezing motion, you may need to rethink your shutter speed.
Similar to landscape photos, you typically want to capture architecture photos using a narrow aperture, between f/8 to f/16.
If you know your aperture sweet spot, you can use that as well. As mentioned, at your lens’s sweet spot, your camera will produce the sharpest images with the widest depth of field. This is typically 2-3 stops down from the maximum aperture.
When shooting Architecture photography, stick with your camera’s base ISO. This is usually ISO 100 for most cameras.
If you shoot at night, you may need to increase your ISO, but in most cases, the light surrounding buildings provide sufficient light to keep your ISO at 100.
Use aperture priority if you are trying to capture vast scenes of architecture. Aperture priority will give you control over your depth of field. This will allow you to quickly decide which elements need to be in focus and which do not.
If you plan on including motion in your architecture photos, use shutter priority. Shutter priority gives you control over the appearance of motion. This will allow you to freeze or blur motion exactly as you want.
Similar to landscape photography, I use autofocus for taking architecture photos. This allows me to work faster and more efficiently than using manual focus.
For architecture photography, I typically use matrix metering. Since architecture photography typically uses a wide field of view, matrix metering is beneficial as it ensures that the entire frame is properly exposed.
Food Photography Camera Settings
Outdoor Food Photography Exposure Settings
When taking photos of food, shutter speeds between 1/60 and 1/100 are generally a good place to start.
Beware of camera shake when shooting handheld. A general rule of thumb to avoid blurry images for a handheld shot is to set your shutter speed to 1 divided by your focal length.
If you are using a tripod, there’s no need to worry about camera shake; you can set use a shutter speed slower than 1/60.
When shooting food photography, I typically use a shallow depth of field, starting with f/4 and adjusting if necessary.
The scale of food photography can be much smaller, so you can have your entire frame in focus even when using a shallow depth of field. Starting with a wide depth of field is a good idea since it will allow more light to enter your camera, minimizing the need to use a high ISO.
If you are taking food photography with a wide view, you may need to use a larger aperture for a deep depth of field. This will allow you to capture the details in the food even at a distance.
In general, an ISO of 100 will work great for bright, sunny days.
On overcast days you may need to increase your ISO to 200 or 400, but anything over is likely to produce an overexposed image. If you are using flash due to the low light conditions of night, I recommend setting your ISO to 400. Adjust if necessary to reach the proper exposure.
Indoor Food Photography Exposure Settings:
For handheld shots, start with shutter speeds between 1/60 and 1/100 and adjust if necessary. Check if there is camera shake in your image, and adjust to a faster shutter speed if necessary.
One technique you can use to prevent camera shake is by setting your shutter speed to 1 divided by your focal length.
When using a tripod choose your shutter speed based on your preferred aperture. Since subjects in food photography are usually static, your choice of shutter speed will likely have minimal impact on the quality of your image.
Unless you’re using artificial light, you’ll likely have less light available to you when shooting food photography indoors. Thus, you may need to use a wide aperture to account for the lost light.
I typically start with an aperture of f/2.8 and adjust until I get my desired result.
As mentioned, because the field-of-view in food photography is much smaller, you’re usually able to use wide apertures while keeping most of your frame in sharp focus. Thus, experimenting with wide apertures to reach proper exposure is ideal.
If, however, you are taking food photography with a wide field-of-view, you may need to experiment with a larger aperture starting at f/8. This will allow you to capture the details in the food even from a distance.
Remember to avoid using flash when shooting indoor food photography. It can be tempting to compensate for poor lighting, but, often, it will only to reduce the saturation of your photo.
Use the lowest ISO possible, the ideal being ISO 100. That said, don’t be afraid to increase your ISO if necessary.
The amount of natural light available indoors is typically limited, especially at night. So, unless you’re using artificial light, you’ll likely need to use a higher ISO.
Sometimes, you may need to increase your ISO to 600 or even 1200 to get a proper exposure. Although this means your image will experience more visible noise, this is preferable than taking an underexposed or blurry image.
I recommend using shutter priority if you’re shooting a zoomed-in photo where the food takes most of the frame. As mentioned, when taking images with narrow field-of-view, controlling depth-of-field is not as important as controlling camera shake. And using shutter priority enables you to select a shutter speed that minimizes camera shake.
If you’re composing an image with a much broader view, I suggest using aperture priority. Aperture priority will give you control over the depth of field, which is essential when shooting an image with a wider field of view.
Use manual focus when shooting food photography. Manual focus will give you the flexibility and control you need to capture excellent food photography.
Also, since controlling the conditions of food photography is much easier than any other type of photography, there is less of a need for quickness. Rather in manual focus, you can take your time and focus on whatever you want.
Metering Mood: Center Weighted
When shooting a zoomed-in photo, you will want to use center-weighted metering. Center-weighted metering will put a high emphasis at the center of the frame when determining the exposure. This is the best way to properly expose your zoomed-in food photographs
On the other hand, if you are shooting a scene that is more vast, you should use matrix metering. Matrix metering will ensure that your background, as well as the food, is properly exposed.
Wildlife Photography Camera Settings
The shutter speed you use when shooting wildlife will highly depend on the degree of movement in your frame.
If you are shooting animals on the ground and they are static or walking slowly use a shutter speed of 1/400 to 1/800. To freeze the motion of running animals use a shutter speed of 1/1000. If you prefer shooting flying birds, use shutter speeds of 1/1600 to 1/2500 to freeze larger birds midflight. Use a shutter speed of 1/3200 to freeze small, fast birds in midair.
When shooting wildlife, most photographers use a shallow depth-of-field to place the focus on the animal and eliminate any distractions in the background. The ideal aperture will depend on your image, but anywhere between f/4 and f/7 will is a good place to start.
Just like most photography, using the lowest ISO often works best when photographing wildlife. You will likely need to increase your ISO to account for the fast shutter speeds or to compensate exposure in lowlight conditions.
For wildlife photography, my preferred shooting mode is shutter priority
Being able to have full control of your shutter speed is crucial in wildlife photography. Shutter priority will enable you to choose how to capture the motion of your subject, whether freezing them in place or capturing their movement across the frame.
Similar to landscape photography, matrix metering mode is often the best option for shooting wildlife. This is especially true for evenly lit scenes.
Since matrix metering averages the exposure of the entires scene, it will produce an exposure that captures maximum detail from the entire scene.
If you are shooting a scene with a high level of contrast or uneven lighting, it may be better to use spot metering. Spot metering will allow you to expose your subject correctly despite complicated lighting.
I recommend using autofocus due to its speed and various modes. There are two modes you should consider using when shooting wildlife: single shot and continuous.
Single-shot autofocus will detect your focal point and then lock in place as you take your photos. This autofocus mode works well if your wildlife subject is not moving or only moving sideways. Continuous autofocus also known as Al-servo tracks the movement of your subject (focal point) and adjusts to ensure you are always focused on your subject. Use continuous autofocus if your subject is moving towards you or away from you, especially if they are moving rapidly.
Night Photography Camera Settings
For portrait photography, the best option is to use a flash to compensate for the low light conditions. If you are using flash at night start with a shutter speed of 1/30 and adjust if necessary.
Shooting at night will require much longer shutter speeds than those needed during the day. For landscapes and architecture, 10-second shutter speed is a good place to start.
If you want to shoot stars or light trails, you will need to use much longer shutter speeds.
For star trails, I typically start between 30 and 60 seconds. You will likely need to use a longer shutter speed depending on the visual aesthetic you’re trying to create.
For portrait photography, the best option is to use a flash to compensate for the low light conditions.
If you don’t want to use a flash you can start with a shutter speed of 1 /5. This typically works for scenes with some background light. If there is no light you may want to start at 1 second and increase if necessary.
If you are not using flash be sure your subjects stay still for the duration of the shutter speed or you will experience some blur.
In most cases, you’ll need to use the widest aperture that your lens allows when shooting at night. A wide aperture will help compensate for the limited light available, minimizing the need to use a high ISO.
If you need to use a narrow aperture, you will need to compensate for this by adjusting your shutter speed or ISO.
For night photography, I usually start with ISO 800 and increase it until I reach the desired brightness. To get the best results, test multiple ISO settings before settling on a final image.
Depending on what you’re photographing, you may need to raise your ISO much higher than 800.
Although this results in more noise, using a high ISO is always better than taking an underexposed image, especially at night. You can take a relatively clean photo at an ISO of 1600 with most DSLRs. But you will not be able to recover lost details from an underexposed image.
The best shooting mode to use at night is manual mode. Manual mode will allow you to select each exposure setting with complete freedom. Often, using automatic mode at night result in underexposed images.
The metering mode you choose does not matter when you are using manual mode. Since you will be selecting all the exposure settings, the meter has no impact on your settings.
When shooting at night, using manual focus is often best.
Taking pictures in low light using autofocus is rarely effective. This is true even with the best available autofocus systems in the market. Focusing on autofocus in low light conditions will likely take longer or not work at all.