Heads up mama, this one’s a long one. You may want to save if for later if you’re busy. 

When you’re just getting to grips with manual mode it can be hard to decide how to choose your camera settings. I often see new photographers asking other about their settings, and while this can be helpful, it’s not possible to simply copy their settings, unless your conditions are exactly the same as theirs. 

Instead of copying settings, ask yourself some questions to help you choose the settings that are just right for your situation. 

How To Choose Your Camera Settings – Ask Yourself these Questions


1. Set Your Shutter Speed – How Do You Want to Capture Movement

If there is movement in an image, whether it is from a waterfall, a child running or even a tree blowing in the wind, then you will have to decide how you want to capture the movement. 

Do you want the image to be blurry, such as this waterfall? Or do you want to freeze the movement, such as the child jumping on a trampoline?

If you want to capture the movement, you’ll need a slow shutter speed. If you want to freeze it (i.e. so your subject is not blurry), you’ll need a faster shutter speed. 

Learn more about shutter speed in my Beginners Guide to Shutter Speed

In this image, the photographer has chosen to capture the motion of the water, resulting in this soft, dreamy effect – Image by Poswiecie from Pixabay

In this image I have chosen to freeze the movement of her jumping so she is sharp and in focus

Use this guide to help you choose your shutter speed

Set Your Aperture – How Much of The Image Do You Want In Focus? 

Do you want the whole image in focus?

If you are taking a landscape shop or a large group of people you’ll probably want most of the image in focus.

If the background is uninteresting or ugly, you’ll probably want a shallow depth of field so you can blur the background.

Set your aperture depending on how much of your image you want in focus. 

Learn more about Aperture in my Beginners Guide to Aperture 

If you want to capture a starburst effect in your images, you’ll need to use a high aperture number such as F11. 

How Much Light Do You Have Available?

When deciding how to choose your settings, the amount of light you have available has a big effect. 

Think about choosing your settings like a shopping list:

You want

  • A wide depth of field, so you choose a wide aperture
  • To freeze motion, so you choose a fast shutter speed
  • No digital noise, so you choose a low ISO

Then, think about light like money. You may want a fast shutter speed and no digital noise, but if you don’t have enough light, you’ll have had to make adjustments to your shopping list because you don’t have enough light for these settings. Your images would be too dark. 

So let’s dial light into the equation…

Start with the setting you have already chosen, aperture and shutter speed. Set them into your camera. 

Now we need to final piece to get your exposure, your ISO. 

If you have enough light, you can set your ISO at 100. This is the base ISO, you don’t get noise at ISO 100. 

If there is is less light available, you’ll need to increase your ISO. Start with ISO 400 and work from there. 

When you increase your ISO you start to introduce noise, but when the light is low this is a compromise you’ll have to make. 

Lean more about ISO in my Beginners Guide to ISO

Once you’ve put your camera into your settings, check the meter to check the exposure. If it is underexposed, you can do one of three things

  • Decrease your shutter speed
  • Open your aperture
  • Increase your ISO

You can do one, two or all of these depending on how much more light you need. 

I’ve thrown a lot of information at you here, let’s break it down with some examples…


How to Choose Your Camera Settings – Example 1

How to choose Your Camera Settings

How to Choose My Shutter Speed

As you can see from her hair, she’s bouncing pretty fast, so I choose a fast shutter speed 1/640. This will freeze the motion and ensure I get her in focus. 

How To Choose My Aperture

It’s a busy day and there are lots of people in the background.

I want to blur them a little so I need a shallow depth of field. 

I choose a low aperture of F3.5.

(I could go lower as this lens opens up to F1.8, but at that aperture the depth of field would be much smaller and I may miss focus as she move back and fore. Since she’s moving so fast, I decide not to use my lowest aperture to increase my chances of getting more images in focus). 

How To Choose My ISO

It’s a very bright, sunny day, so this one is a no brainer. 

I set my ISO to 100 since I don’t need to ‘boost’ my light. There is plenty available already. 

Choosing ISO 100 means there will be no extra noise introduced. 

Testing the Settings

The meter is a little over 0, but I generally like my images brighter so that’s OK. I take a shot. 

I check the image, the histogram and the highlight warning lights tell me there are a few clipped highlight (overexposed images that cannot be recovered in post processing.)

They are not critical as they are small and now one my subject, but just to be on the safe side I increase the shutter speed to 1/800.

How to Choose Your Settings

Final Settings – F3.5                 1/800                  ISO 100

How to Choose Your Camera Settings – Example 2

How to Choose Your Camera Settings

How to Choose My Shutter Speed

She’s not moving very fast in this image, so I don’t need to have my shutter speed so fast. Ideally,

I’d like to go for a shutter speed around 1/200, but since the light is low, I choose 1/160. This is still fast enough to freeze her as long as she doesn’t move too fast. 

How To Choose My Aperture

I want the Christmas lights to be out of focus so it creates this beautiful bokeh, so I go with the widest aperture. That’s F1.8 on my 50mm lens. 

You can see that her hand is out of focus because the depth of field is so shallow.

How To Choose My ISO

This image was a little trickier because there is very little available light. 

I didn’t want to use artificial light because that would diminish the effect of the Christmas lights. 

I initially set my ISO to 2000, but that was too dark so I increased it to ISO 3200. 

This led to a lot of noise in my image, but I  was able to reduce some of this in Lightroom. 

I also fixed the white balance and some of the colour cast on her face in Light room and Photoshop. 

How to Choose Your Camera Settings


Final Settings         F1.8                 1/160                  ISO 3200