Give a man a fish...
Posted 1/31/2013

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

I'm frequently asked what camera settings I used for a certain shot, and I'm usually reluctant to divulge them as those settings were born of the moment rather than being gospel for that kind of shot.

It makes a lot more sense to learn how to figure out what direction the settings for a certain type of shot should take, so in this article, I'll give an overview of the approach I take to camera settings (and in the example images, I'll detail the camera settings used, to illustrate how they change for different situations).

First things first, I shoot with the camera in manual mode (in terms of White Balance, ISO, aperture and shutter speed - I do use autofocus). Sure, I miss a shot or two here and there in changing lighting conditions, but I nail the exposure so many more times in light that the camera's auto modes have difficulty with that it's so worth those few missed shots.

I shoot a few test shots of the local scene when I arrive and then use the camera's histogram feature to fine tune my settings, making sure I'm not blowing out highlights or burying everything in shadows. In Big Sur, I've typically got surf at the edge of the ocean as a known bright white to help dial everything in. I'll repeat this process if the light changes during the day (as it always does).

For my typical condor in flight shot, I want the whole bird to be sharp. Even though I'm panning with the bird (so its position relative to my image/view remains somewhat constant and therefore doesn't need that short of a shutter speed), other parts of the bird (the wingtips, steering movement in the bird's tail etc.) are moving in all different directions through my view, so if I want to freeze everything, I need a fairly short shutter speed. I'll typically aim for around 1/1000th of a second.

I'll also want to have just enough depth of field on the aperture front so that the extremities of the bird are within the depth of field too.

The amount of available light also influences settings, but most of it is based around a shutter speed and aperture combination that tries to get the whole bird (and typically, only the whole bird) sharp.

Camera Settings:
ISO 400
1/1000 sec
f7.1
130mm

At other times (mainly when I'm going for "artsy fartsy" shots), I'm looking for lots of motion blur and relying on my ability to pan to get any part of the bird sharp. It's a real work in progress for me (still haven't got the shot I want), but as I'm tracking the bird through the viewfinder, the background is moving relative to my view, and therefore will blur over a longer exposure in the direction the bird is traveling. I'll also get blur in the parts of the bird that are moving within my view, for example the wing tips if the bird is flapping. Only parts of the scene that stay stationary relative to my view will be sharp in the image.

One important thing to remember with this kind of shot is that like the first example, the whole bird is actually in focus, it's purely the bird's movement within my frame that causes the blur.

For these kinds of shot, the slower the shutter speed, the more blur in the image, and the less chance I was able to keep any part of the bird stationary in my frame during the exposure - it's all about finding a balance around my panning skills to where some part of the bird is sharp, but the rest is not. I'll typically take some shots, then lengthen the exposure, take some more etc. until it's fairly obvious the time of the exposure is too long for my skills to keep up with.

Camera Settings:
ISO 100
1/50 sec
f20
170mm

In the final example, environmental factors other than the amount of light hitting the scene play a role. When you're shooting night sky scenes you have to be cognisant that the earth is spinning. For the focal length I was shooting here, 20 seconds is pretty much the maximum shutter speed that allows the stars to still look like dots as opposed to streaks as they move across the night sky.

With that established, I opened the aperture as much as possible for the lens I was using and ramped up the ISO all with the hope that the moon was casting off enough light to illuminate the bridge and the hills within my 20 second window.

Camera Settings:
ISO 5000
20 sec
f3.5
10mm

I'd highly recommend anyone reading this who shoots in auto mode to find some time and go out and play with their cameras in manual mode. Try different combinations of shutter speeds and aperture settings and see how they produce different effects and learn how to use the histogram to ensure settings are correctly exposing the scene.
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