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Photo 103: My Settings

I’m not a professional photographer and would never claim to be one. But chances are you aren’t one either. But maybe you want to get better at making images, and you don’t know where to start. This is for you, fam.

Where were we again? Oh. Right. I’d just overwhelmed you with WORDS about PHOTOGRAPHY and now you regret learning how to read, not to mention wanting to get better at photography. That’s cool. I get it.

So let’s simplify and talk about the settings that actually matter to you. (And if you want to get to something even simpler, skip to the bottom where I list the actual settings I use.)

Remember the part where you read the manual for your camera? This is where that comes in handy.

Look for the PASM dial or menu setting. Those letters stand for: Program, Aperture, Shutter Speed, and Manual. Program typically means full auto—the camera chooses all your settings for you. Manual is the complete opposite—you specify your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO according to your whims. (Now, the exact abbreviations/terminology may differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, but rest assured, these settings exist.)

Given our level of experience, we know we want a little more control than P, but M is probably a little too overwhelming. That’s why we have A and S. Those settings give priority to aperture and shutter speed adjustments, respectively. When in aperture or shutter priority, we only change one setting. The camera is smart enough to fill in the blanks and adjust the shutter speed and ISO to give you what it thinks is a good exposure.

Another handy setting is called exposure compensation. When in aperture or shutter priority modes, this setting is typically accessible via a programmable or dedicated dial. Remember, the camera is interpreting what it believes to be the proper exposure for a scene. (There are settings where you can tweak how the camera interprets a scene, but let’s leave that out for now.) That doesn’t mean it’s always the right exposure. Full manual mode is always an option, but a much more efficient way to get our desired result is to use exposure compensation.

With exposure compensation, we’re telling the camera to take the exposure it thinks is best, and add or subtract light to give us our preferred exposure. We’re basically overriding the camera’s judgment. In aperture priority, that means the shutter speed gets tweaked first to reflect our preferred exposure; the reverse is true for shutter priority.

So what are my go-to settings when I just need to pick up a camera and shoot?

I spend 90% of my time in aperture priority. This is because it’s easier for me to gauge how much light is available in a scene, and I prefer to control my depth of field. I don’t shoot a ton of action where shutter speed becomes a tremendous concern. Not to mention shutter priority—which mucks with the aperture—can alter the depth of field, which ends up changing the kind of “look” I get out of a photograph.

I leave my camera in auto ISO mode. In a modern camera, noise isn’t as big of an issue anymore. Most cameras will also allow you to set an upper ISO limit, as well. That way, if you are concerned about the noise above ISO1600, the camera will stop at that point instead of bumping it to ISO3200. However, within that range — ISO200-1600, for example — the camera will still automatically choose what it feels is best for the scene.

And that’s it. Go shoot.


Originally published on the [Brains on Fire blog] on November 15, 2016.