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What Settings Did You Use?

When someone sees a great image and wants to be able to emulate it they sometimes ask the photographer who shot it what aperture, shutter speed and other settings they used. Seems natural enough in a sense, but the more I think about it it's my contention that they're focusing on the wrong thing.

The camera and lens are the basic tools of the trade as a photographer. Learning to use those tools well does seem like a means to get better images. If one person shot a mountain sunrise with particular settings and got a good result, wouldn't those settings form a good starting point for someone else presented with a similar situation hoping to get similar results?

Whatever settings they may have been, they must have worked well in that situation to produce such a great image, but what if the lighting had been slightly different, or the wind blowing a bit more, or some other variable in the natural world had a different value? What then? That particular image may have been shot at 1/125 second, but not every image is. Rather than copying camera settings by rote from one situation to another, it makes more sense to understand the quot;whyquot; behind the selection of those particular settings. Memorizing quot;1/125 secondquot; means far less than learning to evaluate a scene and pick a good shutter speed even if it comes out to be something other than 1/125 second.

But are those camera settings even the most important thing to worry about? Here's another way to think of things. There are a lot of considerations and choices that go into producing good photography. There are technical choices such as aperture and shutter speed, and then there are creative choices regarding subject matter and composition. Of these two broad categories, your camera can handle the first one on its own, at least to some degree. It may not be perfect and choosing camera settings for you, but it can at least produce a competently exposed image in most situations. But they haven't devised a camera yet that can compose an image for you. Set your camera on a rock and press the shutter release with it set on fully automatic exposure and you'll get a reasonably well exposed image of something — whatever it may have been that it was pointing towards — even if there does happen to be a fantastic view behind it. Face it. Your camera is totally useless at composing images on its own. Even if it can hold its own against many aspiring shooters at picking exposure and other camera settings, it needs your help desperately in choosing a subject to shoot and composing an nice image of that subject.

Given this, which area do you think is most important for you to focus on? You may well be able to get an even better image if you take control of those camera settings too, but your first priority has to be the subject. When presented with a great subject in perfect light, your window of opportunity is often brief. Either the subject will change, or the light will. Either way, the best images are quite often a record of a fleeting moment, preserved for posterity. And in that brief window, it's important to make the best use the time you have. You can't do everything. Every second you spend focusing on your camera is one less second you have available to focus on your subject matter and composition.

When I was first learning, I struggled with learning the settings. Back in the days of film, you never really knew what you had until you got the developed images back from the lab. It was hard to repeat your successes as it was to learn from your mistakes unless you had been carefully recording everything you did as you shot. Like many beginners back then, I carried a small notebook sometimes to write down all the settings for each shot, but when things were changing quickly I often forget about the note taking routine in the heat of the moment, realizing only after the fact. I even tried at one point to use a small hand-held tape recorder since I could operate it one handed. That worked great when I was out in the woods alone, but proved quite awkward the first time I used it at a state park when there were other people around. I felt like a ridiculous secret agent imposter taking into my hand incessantly. I'm not sure anyone else really cared or even noticed, but I felt more than a bit silly I remember. I went back to fumbling with my little notebook instead when I could remember to do so. Eventually I learned to let go of the exact settings and pay attention to the moment more. If I set the meter correctly each time, it didn't really matter what the exact values where last time.

Digital cameras pretty much all tag the image they take with the relevant camera settings. If you ask a photographer today what settings they used, most of them could tell you if they looked it up. But many experienced photographers know better. Obsessing over the exact setting is a distraction from what really matter. Photography is first and foremost about the images not the camera used to record them.

Pay attention to first things first. Learn to look through your camera, not just at it.

Date posted: June 29, 2014


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Technical Skills versus Composition
Learning to Drive Your Camera

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