Why are we still asking: “What settings should I use?”

September 21, 2016  •  1 Comment

This question has been grinding on me for some time now, and it is predominantly one that I come across in camera clubs and casual meetup groups. For clarification, I’m not attempting to lessen the experience of photography for anyone, merely putting the idea out there that answering this question is potentially misleading for the person asking it, and I’ll explain why, soon.

I understand that not everyone wants to be a professional photographer, and, not everyone has the time to research every single genre of photography to learn where to start, but why are we handing across details like it's definitive?

I once had a person to tutor, let’s call him Kevin.

Kevin was interested in learning about composing a more-powerful photograph and had enlisted my help to show him how to think in the field when finding the right balance.

Kevin was well-off in life and had gone out and bought the top-of-the-range camera with all the bells and whistles. He was super proud of his gear, but something was missing; self-discovery. Kevin expressed some disappointment that even the top-of-the-range camera couldn’t beat the photos he was getting on his iPhone. So immediately, I knew something was amiss.

After an easy hike into a rainforest to shoot some very-safe waterfalls, we set up our gear and I began to show Kevin on my camera, the sort of shots that photographers often seek in these locations, and how to go about it. He went away back to his camera, on the proviso that I was there to help at any time he needed it. I did not want to hover over him, instead let him figure out his settings and work together to refine the final composition.

After a few minutes, it became clear that he was struggling. I walked over to his tripod and told him to talk out loud about what he was trying to do, while he did it.

He verbalized that he had been told that waterfalls needed X ISO and X Aperture in order to achieve a X- timed exposure. It wasn’t working. His exposures were too dark and not at all like the final product that he had envisioned. He showed me a photo on his phone and said, “(this photographer)” told me to use X ISO, X Aperture and I could get a shot like this.”

I looked at the photo, and then back at our scene.

It was clear that Kevin hadn’t fully understood the purpose of the meter in the camera.

“Kevin,’ I explained patiently, ‘forget what (that photographer) told you to use, it’s not going to work here, now, to get you the correct exposure. If I gave you a weather report for this day last year, what would you think?”

He looked baffled, before replying “Well that’s clearly useless.”

“Exactly. Camera settings are the same, the only close-to-reproducible scenario is in the studio, which, we are not.”

“But-‘ he began, and stopped.

“Kevin, those settings worked for (that photographer) because they were the true settings at the time, in that light, on that day, in that location, taken by that camera and that lens. None of these things are here now. We’re not at that same location, on the same day, using the same camera.” I tried to explain.

“Yes, but then how do I shoot this scene?” he asked honestly.

“Well, you need to…’ I paused, trying to figure out how to explain this, ‘ start by using one of the semi-programmed modes, like Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority. Pick one of those modes and see what your camera does to the other settings to adjust for the shot. Start there.”

So we started in Aperture priority mode, and I explained how he can use it to pick just one of the settings and let the camera do the rest.

I showed him how to look at the data in the image review, so he can glean the other details as a starting point. ISO, Shutter Speed and focal length.

As the shoot wore on and he became more confident with adjusting his camera settings, a wonderful thing happened. He began to experiment. He stopped going back to Aperture or Shutter priority modes and began trusting the meter. He began to slowly take a grasp on how the settings change minute to minute as the light changed and adjust for that. We were able to continue the session with adjusting our shooting angles for composition and really have some fun playing with different viewpoints.

In the end, while walking back to the car, he confessed.

“I’d never actually thought of it like that, Mel,’ He began, ‘that settings mark a point in time, a true moment to the image, but not to the habits of the photographer. I’ve been around so many meet groups where we get told where to start, we never actually discover it for ourselves. I wonder all the times I’ve deleted a shot because it didn’t fit the shape of the “right” exposure that I thought I was looking for.”

It was here that I realized that in fostering a sense of community within photography, certain groups may not really be letting photographers discover their own settings for themselves.


We have digital cameras. We have memory cards, we have image preview and we have time.

So why are we giving away the settings that may suit someone elses’ shooting styles? Why are we not encouraging more experimentation in meet groups and giving the power back to the photographer to determine what they like as the perfect exposure?

For those of you that will argue a starting point for any new location is needed, just do what I do, start with ISO 100 and move either up or down from there, depending on the style of image you are looking to come home with.

The merry Meter will do the rest for you, it’s your wingman on-location.

Look at the meter and look at your scene, constantly. As photographers, it’s what we do.

And for those of you who wonder where filters come into this mix of exposure times? Let’s just say you set up the camera, take a test shot, and ascertain your settings. Only then do you mount your filter adapters, and test one filter at a time until you have reached the desired exposure time for the desired image outcome.



Its really interesting to me to hear you say this, and explain how you use the camera technology to shoot intuitively for what the scene and the light is like. I downloaded ND grad apps but never use them, because like you, I start with the scene thats in front of me and work it from there. If it needs a 1.15 min exposure I might work my way up in 15 sec increments until I find whats working for me and the scene.

So many people seem to want to shoot by numbers like this guy - and it seems to be a guy thing in my experience - women are more likely to fiddle and experiment and be a bit more creative because they are less obsessed with the gear and the numbers (again my opinion based on experience).

I have always felt a bit like a fraud in some ways because I do shoot by the seat of my pants. But thats because every scene at any given point in time is different. You need to learn to use your camera properly so you CAN adapt it to the conditions with knowledge of what you are doing so you can achieve the final image you imagine or see in front of you.

So thanks for posting this :)
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