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How to nail exposure on location when you take photographs

Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium’s OneZero. Read more.

It sucks when, after a day or week taking photographs, you come home, look at your shots, and realize you’ve messed up the exposure. You might be able to fix things with a bit of work in Photoshop, but it’s not a situation you want to be in. Here’s how to get the right exposure every time, on location.

Shoot RAW

The easiest way to always hit a target is to make the target nice and big. Why shoot at a small bullseye when you can aim at a barn door? Shooting in RAW instead of JPEG basically does that for your camera.

RAW images contain all the data your camera can capture rather than just a small segment that gets saved as a JPEG. My camera’s RAW files are about 25 MB while the JPEGs are, at best, 5 MB. That’s a hell of a lot more data to work with.

By shooting in RAW, your camera can capture the full dynamic range of a scene—or at least come as close to it as it can—so you’re much less likely to blow out your highlights or crush your shadows. RAW images have to be “developed” using software like Lightroom or Photoshop before you can post them online or print them, but the small amount of work is worth all the extra data with which you have to work. You can see in the image above just how much I was able to brighten the photo without things looking weird.

Understand Your Camera’s Light Meter

Your camera has a built-in light meter that measures the amount of light being reflected from whatever is in front of it. This light meter works on one simple assumption: that everything, at least light wise, averages out to a middle grey. This is how your camera thinks the world looks:

This is a surprisingly safe assumption and works out well a good chunk of the time. However, you shouldn’t rely on it with blind faith. Instead, you need to consider how your camera’s light meter is going to interpret what you’re shooting. Is it a really bright day? Then it will probably underexpose the image. On the other hand, if you’re shooting in the blue hour just before sunrise, it will try to overexpose everything.

For more on your camera’s light meter and how to use it, check out our full guide.

Take Control of Your Camera

Hitting the shutter button and hoping is not a reliable strategy for taking good photos. You need to be making decisions about—or at least guiding your camera on—shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

You don’t have to control everything manually to be in command of your camera. I recommend that, in most situations, you use aperture priority mode. You can then use a combination of aperture, exposure compensation, and ISO to control how the image looks. As long as your shutter speed doesn’t drop too low, you won’t have to worry.

Check the Histogram

The best way to review your photos on location is using the histogram; it will give you a good idea of how your exposure looks even if you can’t easily review the whole image on the small screen.

Review your images and activate the histogram (if you’re not sure how, check your camera’s manual). Generally, you want to see a balanced histogram with no shadow or highlight clipping, although a histogram that’s slightly overexposed can be a good thing.

Another option is to turn on the “blinkies”, so your camera will show you when you’re overexposing your images without you having to check the histogram.

Shoot Some Safety Shots

Sometimes, because of difficult or changing lighting conditions, it’s a real struggle to nail the exposure of the shot reliably. The best thing to do in these situations is to shoot some safety shots. I recommend taking one photo one stop overexposed and one photo one stop underexposed. This way, you’re covering your bases. The worst case is that instead of the photo you thought you were going to use, you have to use one of the safety shots to get the best final image.

Reliably getting the exposure right on location, or at least to close to right as is possible, is an important skill to develop as a photographer. Like with most things to do with photography, it’s just a matter of thinking a little and taking control of your camera.

Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium’s OneZero. Read more.

“Stop” is a photography term that gets thrown around a lot. Someone will describe a photo as a stop under-exposed, or tell you to increase your shutter speed by a stop. The concept can be a little confusing for new photographers, so let’s look at exactly what a stop is and what it means when it comes to photography.

Stops, Shutter Speed and Aperture

When you take a photograph, the exposure is determined by the area of the aperture and the exposure time (also called shutter speed). Although exposure is basically quantity-less, there are a range of combinations of aperture and exposure time that will create a good photographic exposure. If the aperture is too wide or the exposure time too long, then all you’ll get is a white photo; conversely, if either of them is too low, you’ll just get a black photo.

Since exposure is valueless—you don’t look at a scene and describe it as a 12 stop photo for example—there is no way to talk about things in absolutes. Instead, stops are used to describe relative changes in aperture and exposure time. One stop is equal to a halving (or a doubling) of the amount of light let into the camera by that factor.

So for example, if you have the shutter speed on your camera set to 1/100th of a second, increasing your exposure by one stop would change the shutter speed to 1/50th of a second (letting twice as much light into the camera). Changing your shutter speed to 1/200th of a second (halving the amount of light let into the camera) reduces your exposure by a stop. As you can probably see, for shutter speed the rule is really simple: to increase your exposure by a stop, halve your shutter speed; to decrease your exposure by a stop, double it.

Photographers also talk about half-stops or third-stops. Third-stops are especially important as they’re the increment that most cameras use for their settings. These are just imaginary divisions in each stop. So, to decrease your shutter speed by a third of a stop, you reduce it by a third of the value necessary to decrease it by a full stop. Continuing with the example from above, to decrease the shutter speed of 1/100th of a second by a third of stop, you’d change it to around 1/80th of a second.

With aperture, things are a lot more complicated. When we say we’re using an aperture of f/10, that means the diameter of the aperture is equal to the focal length of the lens divided by ten. If we are using a 100mm lens, that would give us a diameter of 10mm. The amount of light let into the lens through the aperture doesn’t directly depend on the diameter, however, it depends on the area: that’s calculated using πr² where r is the radius. This means that the ratios are a lot harder to calculate in your head. Closing your aperture down to f/20 doesn’t halve the area, it roughly quarters it.

Above, I’ve created a chart of common aperture values in third-stops. These should correspond to the values you can dial in on your camera. The simplest way to change your aperture by a stop is just to move the aperture dial on your camera three clicks.

The third exposure factor, ISO, is also measured in stops. Like shutter speed, the relationship between the values is simple. To increase your ISO by a stop, double the value, say from ISO 100 to ISO 200. To decrease it by a stop, half it, say from ISO 1600 to ISO 800.

Stops Are Approximate

There are two things worth noting about stops: first, the values on your camera are approximate and second, that at extreme values, other factors come into play.

On your camera, when you change the setting you are only adjusting it by about a third of a stop. For example, my camera’s shutter speed goes from 1/100th of a second to 1/80th of a second. That’s a little over a third of a stop (it should be about 1/83rd of a second). This discrepancy doesn’t really matter in the real world, but it’s worth knowing it exists.

When you’re working with extremely long or extremely short shutter speeds, other factors start to come into play. If you shoot a 30 minute exposure in a very dark room, doubling your shutter speed to 60 minutes won’t automatically make everything twice as bright. For most people, this won’t matter. Just know that if you’re working with extremely long or short shutter speeds, things won’t be as clear cut.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what stops are, you should see how they apply to your photography. If a photo looks a little too dark, you know that you need to increase one of your exposure settings by one stop (or, if you’ve already taken the photo, brighten the exposure in Lightroom by one stop).

Cameras turn light into data via a combination of three main variables known as the exposure triangle. Explore how these settings can help you capture correct exposures.

What is exposure?

Exposure is one of the most fundamental photography terms. When you take a picture, you press the shutter button to open a camera’s aperture, and light streams in, triggering a response from a sensor. Exposure is the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor, creating visual data over a period of time. That time period could be fractions of a second or entire hours.

The right exposure is a balancing act. Overexposure leads to overexposed highlights and faded-looking images. Underexposed images are dark and hard to see. Learn these basics to better understand camera exposure and discover how to get the right exposure for your work.

The exposure triangle.

There is no single camera setting for exposure. Instead, exposure is made up of three different data settings known as the exposure triangle. Those settings are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is the amount of time that the camera’s shutter is open, and measures the length of exposure. Modern camera shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second. Common shutter speeds for daylight pictures range from 1/1000 to 1/200 of a second. Appropriate shutter speeds vary depending on lighting conditions.

If there’s less light, you’ll likely want a slow shutter speed. You can still get well-exposed and well-lit pictures in low-light conditions if you set up your camera just right. Some nighttime photographers leave their shutter open for seconds. In long exposure photography, the photographer can sometimes keep a shutter open for minutes or even hours. Keep in mind that the longer you leave a shutter open, the more motion blur you’re likely to have. Tripods are great tools to help motion blur.

Faster shutter speeds are good to capture fast action. If you’re photographing an event and want to get candid expressions of people talking, you’ll want a shutter speed of 1/400 or faster. If you’re photographing something even faster-paced, like sports, you’ll want to use a very fast shutter speed. For instance, photographers who capture fleeting instances of athletes in motion might only have their cameras open for 1/1000 of a second to freeze the exact moment when a basketball player makes a slam dunk.

Aperture is the adjustable lens opening that controls the amount of light allowed into the camera. It functions much like the pupil in a human eye, which dilates to let in light and narrows in bright settings. Your aperture setting is measured in what’s known as an f number, also called an f-stop. The lower the f number, the wider the aperture, and vice versa. An aperture of f/8 would indicate a smaller aperture, whereas one of f/2 would open much wider and let in more light.

A food photographer might use a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field where the subject is in focus but the background is blurred out. Imagine a piece of cake that looks crisp and clear, but the edge of the plate right behind it is blurred. A greater depth of field would be used for something like landscape photography, where everything from nearby trees to distant mountains appear crisp, in focus, and well defined.

Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium’s OneZero. Read more.

It sucks when, after a day or week taking photographs, you come home, look at your shots, and realize you’ve messed up the exposure. You might be able to fix things with a bit of work in Photoshop, but it’s not a situation you want to be in. Here’s how to get the right exposure every time, on location.

Shoot RAW

The easiest way to always hit a target is to make the target nice and big. Why shoot at a small bullseye when you can aim at a barn door? Shooting in RAW instead of JPEG basically does that for your camera.

RAW images contain all the data your camera can capture rather than just a small segment that gets saved as a JPEG. My camera’s RAW files are about 25 MB while the JPEGs are, at best, 5 MB. That’s a hell of a lot more data to work with.

By shooting in RAW, your camera can capture the full dynamic range of a scene—or at least come as close to it as it can—so you’re much less likely to blow out your highlights or crush your shadows. RAW images have to be “developed” using software like Lightroom or Photoshop before you can post them online or print them, but the small amount of work is worth all the extra data with which you have to work. You can see in the image above just how much I was able to brighten the photo without things looking weird.

Understand Your Camera’s Light Meter

Your camera has a built-in light meter that measures the amount of light being reflected from whatever is in front of it. This light meter works on one simple assumption: that everything, at least light wise, averages out to a middle grey. This is how your camera thinks the world looks:

This is a surprisingly safe assumption and works out well a good chunk of the time. However, you shouldn’t rely on it with blind faith. Instead, you need to consider how your camera’s light meter is going to interpret what you’re shooting. Is it a really bright day? Then it will probably underexpose the image. On the other hand, if you’re shooting in the blue hour just before sunrise, it will try to overexpose everything.

For more on your camera’s light meter and how to use it, check out our full guide.

Take Control of Your Camera

Hitting the shutter button and hoping is not a reliable strategy for taking good photos. You need to be making decisions about—or at least guiding your camera on—shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

You don’t have to control everything manually to be in command of your camera. I recommend that, in most situations, you use aperture priority mode. You can then use a combination of aperture, exposure compensation, and ISO to control how the image looks. As long as your shutter speed doesn’t drop too low, you won’t have to worry.

Check the Histogram

The best way to review your photos on location is using the histogram; it will give you a good idea of how your exposure looks even if you can’t easily review the whole image on the small screen.

Review your images and activate the histogram (if you’re not sure how, check your camera’s manual). Generally, you want to see a balanced histogram with no shadow or highlight clipping, although a histogram that’s slightly overexposed can be a good thing.

Another option is to turn on the “blinkies”, so your camera will show you when you’re overexposing your images without you having to check the histogram.

Shoot Some Safety Shots

Sometimes, because of difficult or changing lighting conditions, it’s a real struggle to nail the exposure of the shot reliably. The best thing to do in these situations is to shoot some safety shots. I recommend taking one photo one stop overexposed and one photo one stop underexposed. This way, you’re covering your bases. The worst case is that instead of the photo you thought you were going to use, you have to use one of the safety shots to get the best final image.

Reliably getting the exposure right on location, or at least to close to right as is possible, is an important skill to develop as a photographer. Like with most things to do with photography, it’s just a matter of thinking a little and taking control of your camera.

What’s with that weird graph with all the peaks and valleys? You’ve seen it when you open Photoshop or go to edit a camera raw file. But what is that weird thing called a histogram, and what does it mean?

The histogram is one of the most important and powerful tools for the digital imagemaker. And with a few moments reading, you’ll understand a few simple rules can make you a much more powerful image editor, as well as helping you shoot better photographs in the first place. So what are you waiting for? Read on!

What Do I Need to Know About Histograms?

While it may be intimidating looking, histograms are nothing really all that complex. What they represent are the distribution of tones throughout the image—a simple algebraic graph, when it all comes down to it.

The horizontal line represents the various values in your image. The leftmost side stands for pure blacks and dark shadows. The right side are your highlights, and pure whites. The values between the two fall much the way you might imagine them, with dark tones transitioning to midtones, then on unto brighter and brighter highlights.

The vertical axis represents how much of any corresponding value, whether light or dark, appears in the image. Higher peaks represent high concentrations of that particular value. In our example, we can see that the image this histogram came from has a high concentration of brightest highlights, with the concentration falling sharply, as we look to the slightly dimmer highlights.

Digital images don’t have unlimited tones. They only have 256 (that’s 8-bits of information). On a Histogram, black is 0 and white is 255. The dark tones all have low values and the bright tones have high values.

Okay, But What Do I Use It For?

Histograms are great tools for photography because they allow you to do two key things. First of all, a histogram tool on a DSLR will allow you to see how balanced the composition you’re shooting is before you shoot it. Is it too heavy on the darks, or are the darks lost in the composition? Are the whites too bright—all the detail washed out of them? An in-camera histogram can give you a rough idea of how your image will take or has taken.

In addition to this, histograms can tell you what’s wrong with an image, as well. Sometimes, a potentially great shot gets exposed wrong, and you don’t have the time to bracket or recreate the moment. By looking at your photo’s histogram in an image editor after the fact, you can find out how to best bring your ruined exposures back from the brink, and get a decent, or possibly even a great image out what might have originally been a poor one.

Let’s take a minute to see a few of these badly exposed images, and how we can read a histogram to make them into better photographs. All of these images were shot in RAW by the author, and are processed and improved in Adobe Camera Raw. If you prefer not to use Adobe, there are usually free Raw Editing tools with DSLR cameras, as well as very good freeware programs like Raw Therapee. Adobe Lightroom is another program Adobe offers, this one a stand alone from Photoshop, often considered the new standard for Raw file editing and digital image developing.

For those of you shooting your images in JPG, and not Raw, you can definitely learn about histograms from this article, and pick up a few tips on how to improve your images, but you may learn more by learning how to adjust contrast like a pro specifically for non-Camera Raw files. All other readers, keep on going to pick up some simple tips on how to improve your photos.

The Shape Of Bad Histograms, and How to Improve Them

This shot is a complete disappointment. Obviously this was exposed to get detail in the sky, which it does, but it has ruined the shadows in nearly all of the image. Let’s take a look at the histogram to see what we should change to improve the image.

In this case, we see that our biggest spikes are in our leftmost (darkest) areas. These biggest spikes represent the majority of the tone in the image. There are some spikes in the midtone to highlight range, but they pale in comparison.

Some serious RAW file editing later, and our photograph has changed from unusable, to reasonably nice. Let’s see how our histogram has changed.

Because the exposure was bungled, our histogram is not quite a textbook perfect example, but it’s pretty decent for a completely botched shot. You can only push one image so far. There aren’t any incredibly obvious problems with the image at this point, anyway. We have succeeded in that we have a full tonal range from dark to light, and have managed to keep detail and color throughout most of the image. In case you were curious, we have achieved the majority of this dramatic change by adjusting the “Fill Light” slider to a dramatic, and extremely high setting. While many adjustments have been made to the image, that was the key to bringing out out detail in the shadows.

A second image, this one apparently exposed to grab the shadows has bleached this girl’s skin, ruining detail in highlights, and taking all the dark details down nearly to mid-tone range. Let’s look closer at the histogram.

Yikes. There are absolutely no darks (left side) and there are a large concentration of highlights (right side). The image also seems mostly flat. We should try and add a better range of value, and see if we can’t bring out the some beauty of this pic.

With some work on our RAW file, we’re able to bring out full, rich darks while keeping good detail in our highlights. The shadow from the umbrella feels more cool, and the light from the sun is still creating great highlights on her pale skin. The only difference is now she isn’t glowing!

A good first step with a camera raw file that is overexposed like this, lacking detail in highlights, is to first adjust the exposure slider. In this example, we first reduced by a whole stop (typing –1.0 into the exposure box). This begins shifting our entire value range toward the darker end of our histogram (toward the left side). From there, we can tool around with contrast (we’ve removed quite a bit of it here) and added lots and lots of black to the image to get a rich, dark color out of her hair without completely losing details.

We are, in this case, concentrating our tones in the darker areas for a reason. These darks really make the white highlights pop, and create great focal points along the face and neck. There’s a lot of room for personal choice with and artful decisions to be made.

Taking a Good Exposure One Step Further

While it may not have a perfect histogram with a wonderful range of light, dark, and midtones, this image is reasonably well exposed. But with a glance, we can improve the harsh qualities of the shadows and add detail quite simply, even though the image is more or less alright.

Adding a half stop to the exposure improves the somewhat underexposed shadows, and adds great highlights to the skin, providing the look of bright daylight. Adjustment to the “blacks” slider allows us to bring our shadows to the point of just barely touching the black on the left side of the histogram, while keeping the detail intact in all of our various shadow areas. With some minor artistic changes to “contrast” and “clarity,” our image is improved over what was already a reasonable, decent image.

For more than 30 years, I tried different camera settings for my landscape photography. With the settings I use today, I don’t only feel more flexible, but they allow me to nail each of my photographs technically.
In my latest YouTube video, I answered one of the questions I get asked a lot of the time: which camera mode and which settings do I use when I am out on location, photographing a fantastic landscape scene? Let me give you more insights here about how I came to the settings I have tried in the past and how I work today.

Having Eyes for the Scene

When I was 12 years young, my dad allowed me to use the family camera to take some photographs of the beautiful architecture in Venice. This was one of the best days I ever had in my life, and it was the start of a big passion. Back then, I had no idea about photography, but I fell in love with it from the first moment. My dad just told me to use the “P mode” on his Minolta SLR, which was the automatic mode. He said I should just think about the nice scenes around me and forget about all the buttons and settings the camera would offer. I didn’t understand that advice back then, but today, I know that it is indeed a fantastic way to get into photography. It is not difficult to use a camera to learn about all the different settings. Of course, it is important to know how to use your camera, but first of all, we should engage with what we want to photograph. This is why I think that it is not the worst idea to start with the P mode. The camera measures the light, and depending on that, it chooses a suitable aperture and shutter speed and possibly an ISO. This makes it easier for beginners to shoot in low-light situations freehand.

Lord of Your Camera

As I lived in a place surrounded by mountains, I learned to love nature through a lot of hiking tours. We tend to photograph what we love, and so, it was not random that I stumbled immediately into landscape photography. I still used the “P mode” in the beginning, as I wanted to engage with nature and work on compositions and not think about technical settings.

But I faced some problems.One of them was that I didn’t know what to change on my focusing to get the entire image sharp. It ended up that I shot a whole roll of film with different focus points, just to find out how it matters where I focused. This was an expensive project, especially because I had to repeat it multiple times, as the camera seemed to have its own behavior. The P mode simply didn’t give me control over the depth of field.

As my grandfather was a painter and professor of art, I engaged with composition since I was a little boy. But there was no photography club in the village in which I lived. One of my classmates was also a photographer, and he was lucky to have a camera around him. My friend seemed to know everything about cameras and settings. And so, we brought each other’s photography mutually to the next level. My classmate told me to forget the P mode and to use the M mode instead. I learned how to master depth of field by using the right aperture, and I started to play around with different shutter speeds to get motion blur into my images, at least as much as my pocket money allowed me.

The Biggest Variable in Landscape Photography

I was quite happy with using the M mode, as it allowed me to have one hundred percent control over my camera. For years, I was convinced that this would be the only exposure mode a professional photographer would use as well. Who needs modes with automation when they are able to handle all the settings?

Now, the depth of field was not the only problem I faced in my first years of landscape photography. I massively struggled with getting the right exposure when I was photographing towards the light. I was a child of the 70s: my dad told me always to photograph with the sun on my back and I would never have trouble with underexposed images. This worked indeed, but the dilemma was that the landscape looked so much better in the other direction.

I learned that the only way it works was to measure the light, and based on that, I decided on the right aperture and shutter speed. The light is the biggest variable we have in landscape photography. However, around sunrise or sunset, the amount of light changes so rapidly that there is not seldom a difference of a whole stop within just a few seconds.

The Best Exposure Mode

This brought me to think about the other exposure modes on my camera. The S mode, which is known as the shutter priority mode, is useful if the shutter speed is the most important stylistic instrument for my photo. This can be quite useful in sports photography, for instance. But it is useless for most situations in landscape photography, in my experience.

In landscape photography, the aperture was always the most important stylistic instrument for me, because it allows me to nail the depth of field. In most cases, we usually want to get the entire scene sharp.

This is why I finally thought about the A mode, which is aperture priority. With that, I can define the aperture for my scene and have control over the depth of field. Whenever the light changes, the camera goes for a longer or shorter shutter speed. And I have to say, using this mode helped me a lot to nail most of my images, at least from the technical side. I just had to use exposure compensation for adjusting the amount of light that hit the film, and today, it is even easier: digital photography allows me to use the ISO as a configurable component for every single exposure. So, whenever I need a shorter shutter speed, but I can’t open the aperture more, I simply choose a higher ISO. If I need a longer shutter speed, I use a neutral density filter and compensate for the shutter speed with the ISO again. I can’t remember when I ruined a photograph with the wrong settings.

How I Work Today

This is why aperture priority is my preferred exposure mode. I have still used manual mode for waterfall photography for some years, as shutter speed is elementary, and I usually prefer overcast or rainy weather there. But in weather like that, the amount of light always changes a bit. My Sony a7R IV supports a zebra function, which shows me if there are parts in my composition that are overexposed. But to be honest, this was never conspicuous enough for me, and sometimes, there are just small areas that get overexposed.

Generally, I have to say that there is no right or wrong. Other modes will lead to fantastic photographs. I know a lot of good photographers who use manual mode. I prefer aperture priority because of the mentioned reasons. Leave me a comment below on which mode you prefer for your landscape photography. To learn more about my camera settings, feel free to watch the video above.

What are the absolute best settings for portrait photography? In other words, what settings can you consistently use to create stunning portraits?

In this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about portrait photography settings. I’ll cover both natural light portrait shooting and flash portrait shooting. And whether you’re brand new to photography or a seasoned pro, you’re bound to benefit from these tips.

Let’s dive in, starting with portrait photography in natural light:

The best camera settings for portrait photography using natural light

While it isn’t a requirement, I do suggest you start by setting your camera to Manual mode. That way, you’ll have more creative control over your exposure – and sure, it might take a little extra time to capture your images as you fiddle with your settings, but you are a much better judge of how you want the final image to look than your camera, so you’ll get superior results.

As for your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture:

The best ISO for portraits

I recommend you pick your ISO first, mostly because it’s easy to set and forget. For natural light portrait photography, your ISO should almost always be your camera’s base option (ISO 100, ISO 160, and ISO 200 are three of the most common base values). That way, you avoid excessive noise and capture the best possible image quality.

When shooting in low light, you may need to boost your ISO, but do it conservatively – only bump up the ISO after you’ve widened your aperture and dropped your shutter speed.

The best aperture for portraits

Next, I recommend you decide on the perfect aperture. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach; instead, you’ll need to determine whether you want a blurry background or a sharp background.

If you’re after a blurry background, use an aperture such as f/1.4. But if you’d like more of the background in focus (or you’re hoping to maximize image sharpness), stop down by two or three stops to f/4, f/5.6, or f/8.

In general, portrait photographers prefer a blurry background approach (and all of the images in this article use it, as well). So if you like that style, then a wide aperture is the way to go.

Be careful not to go too wide, however. You don’t want to use such a shallow depth of field that your subject’s nose is out of focus!

The best shutter speed for portraits

At this point, you’ve set your ISO based on image quality considerations, and you’ve set your aperture based on aesthetics.

So what’s the next step? To choose your shutter speed. Here’s what you do: Simply check your in-camera meter, and adjust your shutter speed until you get a center (i.e., well-exposed) reading. Then take a test shot and have a look at your camera’s LCD screen and histogram.

Make sure your histogram is as far to the right as possible without blowing out the highlights. If highlights are blown out, then go ahead and increase your shutter speed. If the image is too dark, go ahead and lengthen your shutter speed.

Once you’ve nailed the exposure, consider the shutter speed duration. And ask yourself: Is this fast enough for a sharp shot? After all, a well-exposed image is worth nothing if it turns out blurry.

A general rule is to set your shutter speed at twice the focal length of your lens (or faster). For example, if you’re using a 100mm lens, then you would set a minimum shutter speed of 1/200s to avoid camera shake and image blur.

There are exceptions to this rule. If you are using a tripod, you have in-camera stabilization, or you are using a lens with built-in stabilization, then you can photograph at slower shutter speeds without issue. Otherwise, however, make sure your shutter speed conforms to this “double the focal length” guideline (and always take a test shot or two, then zoom in on your LCD to make sure everything is sharp).

By the way, if your shutter speed is too slow, then as you raise it, you’ll need to either widen your aperture or boost your ISO to compensate for the loss of light. Either can work, so you need to determine which value you can sacrifice.

The best camera settings for portrait photography using flash

Portrait flash photography might seem overwhelming – but the basic settings are actually quite simple.

Note that these generally stay the same regardless of whether you’re using an on-camera flash, a small speedlight, or a studio strobe setup. Make sense?

Also, for this portion of the article, I’m going to assume you’re using only studio light to illuminate your subject, not a mixture of studio light and ambient light.

Let’s get started.

The best shutter speed for flash portraits

In flash photography, the shutter speed matters little.

Simply set your shutter speed to the flash sync speed, which is generally 1/200s (if you go over the sync speed value, you’ll end up with a dark band running across the edge of your images).

You’re free to go below the sync speed, but I generally recommend sticking to it for your entire photoshoot.

The best aperture for flash portraits

The aperture is one of three variables you can use to control the exposure of a flash portrait (with ISO and flash power as the other two).

Technically, you can select your aperture based on depth of field considerations, but the wider the aperture, the lower the necessary flash power for a good exposure, so you’ll need to be careful not to go too wide.

A good starting point is f/8 or so, but feel free to adjust this depending on your aesthetic (or exposure) needs.

The best ISO for flash portraits

As with natural light portraits, you should keep the ISO as low as possible for optimal image quality.

So set the ISO to your camera’s base option and forget about it. You might consider raising the ISO if you need to boost the exposure but don’t want to adjust the aperture or light power, but in general, the ISO should remain untouched.

Strobe power

When working with flash, you’ll have one more variable to contend with: flash power.

This is where you’ll want to spend most of your time, and you can use your strobe’s variable power settings to achieve proper exposures when shooting portraits.

So first determine your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Then adjust the strobe power until you get a good result.

One more portrait settings tip

Here’s one last tip: Set your camera’s LCD screen brightness level to 4 or 5 and leave it there. Make sure your LCD screen brightness is not set to Auto. It will be difficult for you to gauge your exposure level if the brightness is constantly changing.

So check your camera’s settings, set your LCD screen brightness level manually, and keep your camera on the same setting for future photo outings.

The best portrait photography camera settings: final words

Well, you should now know exactly what kind of settings to use for beautiful portrait photos. And with a little practice, you’ll be shooting like a pro.

So head out with your camera. Have fun. And practice your exposures!

Now over to you:

Do you have any portrait photography settings advice? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

W ith so much new technology coming out seemingly every year, many people are finding themselves drawn to analog technology. Vinyl records are making a comeback, Polaroids have regained popularity, and bell bottom jeans might just be considered “in” again. Add to this nostalgic list film photography. Film photography is becoming more popular among professional and amateur photographers alike. If you are among the latter and want to start taking film photos but don’t know how to start, this article is for you.

35mm film photography

Borrow or buy a film camera

The obvious first step to shooting film photography is to get your hands on a film camera. This might mean borrowing a friend’s camera, buying your own, or maybe, like many others, you’ve found your parents old film camera.

Analog photography • Film Cameras

Odds are, you’ll find yourself using either a used 35 mm SLR film camera or a new point and shoot style film camera. Both are great for beginner film photographers.

Deciding between the two will come down to whether or not you want to graduate to using manual settings or automatic. Many 35 mm cameras will have manual setting options often with automatic exposure.

The Best Cameras to Start Film Photography

If you want to rely more on automatic settings, get your hands on a point and shoot style camera. With film photography becoming more popular, there are new reloadable point and shoot cameras on the market such as the Lomography Simple Use Reloadable Camera. Worst case scenario, grab a disposable camera from your local drugstore or convenient store.

Photography film development

Choose your film stock

Once you have your camera, it’s time to choose your film. Generally, there are three types of film stock: color negative film, color positive film, and black and white film. Rolls will also have 24 exposures or 36 exposures.

If you are just starting to shoot film photography, color negative film will be the most forgiving.

Film photography • Color Negative Film

It’s important to note that different film stocks and brands will inherently have different qualities to them. The best way to find the rolls you like are to experiment and try different rolls yourself.

To get started though, check out this video guide to different types of color film and the varying qualities of each.

Analog photography • Which color film should you buy?

The next thing to consider when choosing your film stock is ISO. Higher ISO film stocks like ISO 800 are better for low-light photography. If you’re normally shooting in bright daylight scenes, reach for a film stock at 100 ISO.

setting up film photography

Load the film

Once you’ve chosen your film, it’s time to load it into your camera. How you load your film will depend on what type of camera you have. The process for most will typically be similar. Take a look at this video tutorial by Pushing Film to learn how to properly load film into a 35 mm camera.

Beginner tips for loading film: Avoid blank rolls!

To recap, you’ll first want to open up your camera by pulling the rewind spool upward from the camera. This will open up the back of the camera where you will load your film.

Next, drop your roll of film into the roll slot. Then push down the rewind spool so that it goes all the way down and connects to your roll of film.

Next, pull out the “leader” from the film which is the tab at the end of the roll. Feed the leader into a slot in the take up spool opposite the roll. This is where the film will be winded and pulled for every shot. Advance your camera to ensure that your film leader is properly loaded. Close your camera up, and you’re almost ready to shoot.

35mm film photography

Set your camera’s settings

When it comes to camera settings, most 35mm cameras will have automatic exposure settings. Shooting on this auto setting will be a beginner’s best bet to getting properly exposed photos.

If you want to dabble in your manual settings, make sure you have a clear understanding of the exposure triangle. Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all greatly affect an images exposure and characteristics.

Exposure Triangle Cheat Sheet

When shooting film, you will be locked into an ISO value based on the film stock you use. Your shutter speed will also be dependent on this ISO with a general rule of matching your ISO value. For example, if you are shooting with a Fuji ISO 200 roll, set your shutter speed to 1/125.

This means that your aperture will be the setting you manipulate the most for varying your exposures.

Learn more about aperture in our video breakdown below.

Star Photography

My favorite type of personal photography is taking night shots of the stars (long exposure pictures). I am often busy shooting pictures of people at weddings, or apartments, or models, and it’s important for me to make sure I take pictures for fun regularly. Taking pictures for no one other than myself is highly rewarding, soul filling, and fun! I also love taking travel photos and HDR photos, in this article we will take a close look at exactly how you can take your own epic star photographs.

What you need to take jaw-dropping pictures of stars

To take your star pictures, you only need three things:

  1. a full-frame camera (for better ISO capabilities)
  2. a fisheye lens (for the widest view of the sky)
  3. a tripod (for stability during 15 second photos)

(Note: You can do this with a cropped sensor camera, without a tripod, and without a fisheye lens. It will just be a little harder and slightly less jaw-dropping)

Camera settings

You can nail this shot almost every time with these settings: 25 second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 1600

If your lens doesn’t open up to f/2.8 you can try 30 seconds at f/4 with ISO 1600.

Note: this kind of photography won’t work if there is a full moon out (or even a half moon). D on’t compete with large light sources, the stars will be over powered. The best location for star photography is way out in nature, away from city lights that cause “light pollution.”

13.0 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 1600

Why to use these settings

The most important component of these settings is the 25-second exposure. An exposure longer than about 25 seconds will start to show star trails. Photographing star trails is a legitimate type of photography on its own, but not the type of photography you are trying to do here. Since you are limited to about 15-25 seconds max shutter speed, you still need to let in more light.

The largest aperture you can find on a fisheye lens is f/2.8, and still, your picture might not be quite bright enough to look stunning. So this is where the ISO comes into play. On a full-frame camera like the 5D Mark III or the Nikon D800, you can bump the ISO up to around 2000 without seeing much noise.

You’ll learn how to reduce noise in Lightroom in the next section for a super clean photo.

Editing in Lightroom

I do extensive retouching in Lightroom after I take my photos. I’ll usually boost the exposure up by a stop or more, and I’ll use Noise Reduction under the Detail section to reduce any unwanted “noise” (those pesky extra white, red or blue pixels that show up when you push the ISO too high).

Here is a standard star photo of mine and the Lightroom settings I used to create it:

25 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 1600

Here are the Lightroom settings I used to edit the above photo:

1) You can see in the first panel that I bumped the whites up to +46 and brought the blacks down to -52. I really wanted to emphasize the stars against the dark sky and this is a good way to do that. Pushing the clarity up to +55 also helps define the stars against the sky, making them nice and crispy. I boosted the saturation to bring out any colors that are in the sky.

2) In the second panel, you can see that I sharpened up the image a bit, also to emphasize the stars. At the same time, I brought up the noise reduction to 33 to smooth out some of the noise that might show up, and I brought up the color to 25 for the same reasons.

Pro tips

Here is where you can have fun with the editing. Play around with the split toning sliders to make the colors in your sky appear magical. In the photo above you can see a little bit of turquoise in the lower part of the sky, and that comes from boosting that color in the Shadows of the Split Toning slider here:

You can also affect the color of the sky by playing around with the temperature and hue sliders to get some pretty magnificent looking star photos. Take a look at this one photo rendered three different ways:

Another pro tip that you may have noticed in all of the photo examples I gave here is this – shoot your stars in context. It really tells a great story to see a silhouette of a pine tree or a house in the background, and it shows the magnitude of the scene when you have an object in the foreground to compare to the stars.

Lastly, make sure you know which direction the Milky Way is. You can use an app like Sky Map to see exactly what stars are in the sky above you.

Have fun shooting, and please share your pictures below!

Still Making These Photo Mistakes? If So, “You’re a Beginner” (VIDEO)

In the world of photography, as with other artistic pursuits, the term “beginner” isn’t a dirty word. It just means there are a few things to learn if you want to take image making to the next level.

In fact, most experienced shooters consider their pursuit of photographic excellence a never-ending learning experience as they evolve their work. In the video below from Swedish pro Micael Widell, you’ll see what he considers the key mistakes to avoid—along with several great tips for fixing them.

Widell specializes in macro, portraiture, and floral photography, and he’s also a popular instructor. He says, “Over the years I’ve looked at hundreds of thousands of photos shot by beginners, as well as some of my own early images.” After methodical review, he’s created a list of the eight most common photo errors so you don’t make them yourself.

At the top of Widell’s list is something we’ve all fallen victim to on more than one occasion; namely, failing to understand the quality of light in a scene. This is particularly true when attempting to replicate an image you’ve seen of a popular location that was shot under different conditions.

That’s why it’s particularly important to consider time of day, prevailing weather, and your position relative to the sun, before framing a shot and setting your camera. In fact, for best results, it’s often necessary to do some serious editing or return later if you want optimum results.

Other pitfalls to avoid are unbalanced compositions, failing to “isolate shapes,” making images without clearly defined subjects, and a few other easily correctible mistakes.

Widell says that great photographers take just as many bad photos as beginners, but pros know the difference and get rid of the clams. In other words, it’s important to “self-edit” your work, and ruthlessly trash images that don’t make the grade.

You can find more helpful advice on Widell’s YouTube channel, so be sure to pay a visit and subscribe.

We also encourage you to check out the tutorial we posted last week from another pro, explaining how to shoot beautiful spring macro photographs.

Learn the tools, techniques and thought processes for creative photography.

Wish you could take amazing photos every single time? Now you can!

  • The dream: To take photos that your friends and family won’t believe you shot because they’re so incredibly good. Photos that have the ‘wow’ factor.
  • The myth: You don’t have what it takes. You need better gear, you don’t have the ‘eye’ and you’ll never understand the skills needed to take amazing photos.
  • The REALITY: If you think amazing creative photography is limited to artistic types – think again. Great photography CAN be learned and this all-new dPS course will show you how!

The second in our series of Photo Nuts video courses, and complementing our best-selling ebook of the same name (and author, Neil Creek), Photo Nuts and Shots will teach you the craft of photography – so you can take evocative photos that truly connect with viewers and reflect your creative vision.

Stream or download, watch when you want

In this new watchable format, you’ll see Neil demonstrate and break down creative photography concepts step-by-step. It’s super-easy to go through at your own pace and replay any video as many times as you like.

Gain real skills in 10 practical lessons

In 10 practical video lessons, you’ll learn the tools, techniques and thought processes for producing amazing photos and gain real skills that you’ll use in every shot you take:

  • Learn to harness light to convey emotion
  • Understand the impact of great composition and how to achieve it
  • Take the sharpest possible photos
  • Discover how to adapt your camera’s exposure to produce the shot you want
  • Master the concepts of shot perception, planning and execution – in any setting
  • Know when to break the rules for creative effect
  • Tap into your creativity to select and apply practical techniques that create amazing photos

Best of all, Neil’s tips are easy-to-understand and immediately actionable – so you’ll see an instant improvement in the quality of your images.

Modules in this course (click titles to expand for more details)

    1 Introduction (03:03)

Find out what’s in store for you in this course, as well as some priceless advice no photographer should forget.

Video Preview:

Discover the two key feedback tools that can help you accelerate your learning. See Neil demonstrate exposure and light distribution, then analyze camera settings to identify areas of improvement.

Great photos aren’t just a result of technical skill – having an ‘eye’ for it helps, too. In this module, you’ll learn all the basics of how to see when shooting.

Light is your most useful tool as a photographer. Neil explains how to get the look you want by understanding how light works and using it effectively in its different forms.

Neil takes a look at the different kinds of lens flare – including how to avoid or embrace it for maximum impact.

Great composition is one of the fastest and most lasting ways to transform the quality of your images. In this module, you’ll learn how to put it to good use with essential composition techniques.

Blur can ruin great photos. Neil explains the many possible causes and provides a thorough guide to beating blur, for the sharpest possible photo every time.

Knowing the exposure triangle is one thing, but choosing the right creative exposure settings and adapting to changing light is another. This module addresses these challenges and the decisions you can make to produce the shot you’re after.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the moment and miss creative photo opportunities if you’re not focusing your attention where it’s needed. In this module, you’ll learn how to think flexibly on location to achieve the creative output you desire.

In this final module, Neil leaves you with one last piece of advice for expressing your creative vision. Happy shooting!

This video course is for you if.

  • You look at other stunning photos and think to yourself, “Why don’t mine look like that?”
  • You want to nail the shot, every single time
  • You know how to use your camera but want to learn the craft of photography
  • You long to take more emotive, expressive photos that truly connect with viewers
  • You want to tap into your creative drive to take amazing photos

Get started instantly

Instant access allows you to get started straight away – with all purchases backed by a 60-day money-back guarantee. So you have nothing to lose!

Take amazing photos, starting today, with Photo Nuts and Shots.

Neil Creek is a professional photographer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Digital photography has been his passion for over 10 years, combined with an enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

As well as being a staff writer for dPS and sharing his experiences on his blog, Neil has authored five ebooks and two video training courses – all designed to share his expertise and help others with their photography.

You can view Neil’s folio on his website and check out his educational resources here.