Set. Shoot. Review. Adjust. Repeat.
In a nutshell, that’s how I go about choosing my camera settings and it’s served me fairly well over the years. You start to develop a sense of feel for the right settings the more you go out and shoot and that’s a skill I think separates good photographers from great photographers.
I could walk out the door right now with my camera set at f/5.6, 1/160th, and ISO 400 and be fairly confident that I’ll have a solid exposure to start.
If I have more time to slow down, compose my shot, and think about my settings, or teach someone else how to control exposure, my process and rationale usually looks something like this:
- Set my aperture– aperture is almost always the first thing I adjust because it has one of the largest effects on what the final image looks like. It’s hard to get every single thing in the frame sharp at f/2, just as it is hard to get a blurry background at f/16. I asses the scene in front of my and determine how much of it I want in focus. If it’s a landscape and I want everything sharp, BAM, f/8. If I’m shooting a portrait or close-up where I might want a softer background, I’ll choose to start with something like f/4.
- Select my shutter speed– there’s a little more leeway when choosing your shutter speed because, unless the subject if moving very fast, there won’t be a huge difference in motion blur between 1/250th of a second and 1/4,000th of a second. When shooting landscapes when my camera is almost always on a tripod, I don’t have to worry so much about camera shake or motion blur in most scenes. If it’s a fairly static landscape I have no problem starting off at 1/30th of a second. If there’s a waterfall in front of me, 1/2 second is a solid place to start. Shooting sports outside? 1/500th is perfect to freeze motion.
- Balance everything out with ISO– I’ll see if my light meter is saying the current exposure is too bright or too dark and adjust accordingly. ISO is one of those things that doesn’t really change the essence of a photo and what it looks like, but if you boost your ISO way higher than it needs to be, your image will surely have unnecessary noise and grain in it. Unless I know I’ll have to raise my ISO up based on conditions, I’ll start with it at a low number around 200-400 because I know my camera will deliver its cleanest results in that range.
Once you have your settings dialed in, there shouldn’t be much trouble finishing the rest of the shoot with similar settings. The only time you might really have to change your settings is if you want to do something more creative to get a unique look to an image, but even so, you already know what settings deliver a properly exposed photo and readjusting them will be much easier to return the same exposure. No need to go through the guess and check process again!