The Best Camera Settings for Outdoor Photography


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The Best Camera Settings for Outdoor Photography

So you’re going on the hiking or camping trip of a lifetime and you’ve splashed out on a high-quality travel camera or  dslr camera that will help you to capture it.

But you’re feeling like you’ve got all the gear and no idea. Don’t worry.

We’ve pulled together a basic guide to the best camera settings for outdoor photography.

Kiss goodbye to blurry shots or overexposed images – it’s time to nail those images that will do justice to your extraordinary time in the field!

Mode

The majority of cameras offer five key modes:

  • Auto
  • Program
  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Manual

These modes (other than Manual) allow the camera to exercise some control over the aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

If you know how to select the right outdoor camera settings, then you’ll have complete control over your images.

Although it’s tempting, we’d recommend never falling back to using Auto mode, because letting the camera choose the aperture, shutter speed and ISO won’t provide the results or control that you want.

White balance is one of the few settings within these modes that should be left in Auto.

The camera balances out colours in your image, by adding yellow when the scene is too blue (in shadows for example), and adding blue when the scene is too yellow (like at sunset).

Once you’re feeling a bit more confident, Manual is by far the best setting for slow and deliberate photography, as you’ll be able to capture everything you can see.

Aperture Priority mode is good for changing conditions, such as shadows or people moving.

Shutter Priority mode should be used when shooting subjects that are moving.

You can preset your ISO in advance, set your shutter speed, and let your camera change the aperture to compensate for changing light.

For anyone that likes capturing birds in flight or other wildlife on the move, this will be a go-to mode.

Once you’ve chosen your mode for shooting, you’ll need to tweak the settings.

Aperture

Aperture affects your photos in two ways.

The wider the aperture (a lower f-number), the more light the lens will let in, and the brighter the photos will be.

A wider aperture will also create a shallower depth of field, creating a much smaller plane of focus – i.e. very little of the scene looks sharp.

On the flip side, a deep depth of field will allow you to produce an image where the entire scene is sharp.

On the whole (unless you’re using Manual mode), you won’t need to worry about the brightening effects as your camera will compensate for any brightening or darkening.

Therefore you can use aperture to focus solely on depth of field.

When you’re outdoors and shooting landscapes, a deep depth of field is better.

Choose an aperture setting of at least f/8, right up to f/11 or f/13. Beyond this you may have blurring issues.

If you do want to capture wildlife, use a wider aperture to help the subject stand out from the background.

If and when you are using Manual mode, then aperture will affect image brightness, so use the on-screen exposure meter to balance your settings for the best results.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed can also affects the brightness of your photos, as a longer shutter speed lets far more light in.

Once again though, the camera often makes adjustments for this, so you can focus on the other impact of shutter seed – image sharpness.

A faster shutter speed delivers crisper photos.

This is important if you’re aiming to capture flying birds, moving wildlife or other hikers scrambling down hillsides.

As a guideline, a shutter speed of at least 1/500s will be needed to capture people on the move, whereas 1/2000s is more appropriate for fast-moving wildlife.

If you’re really into landscape photography and ready to get a bit arty, you may deliberately choose a slower shutter speed to get a blur effect on water or clouds.

In these instances, keep your shutter speed down between 1/20s and 1/60s. More on this one later.

If you’re only going to be working with still subjects, you can get away with a shutter speed of 1/160s or even lower when using a short lens with image stabilisation.

ISO

We’ve come to this one last as you’ll hardly need to fiddle around with this setting at all.

ISO can influence other settings on your camera.

When using Aperture Priority you can raise the ISO to force the camera to bump up the shutter speed in response.

When using Shutter Priority, you can raise the ISO to force a narrower aperture.

But the key thing that ISO affects is noise levels.

Noise is also known as grain, and you’ll recognise that noisy photos are far from desirable.

The higher the ISO, the grainier your images will appear.

Have a play around, do some Googling and figure out your camera’s native ISO setting.

Usually this is around 100, and once identified, leave the ISO setting there to make sure you end up with clean, noise-free photos.

Depending on what you’re shooting, opt for the lowest ISO you can afford without compromising image quality.

Landscape photography is not particularly forgiving of noise, so try to avoid tampering with this setting when you’re out on the trails.

Special Situations

Sometimes you need to change your approach slightly.

Below are some examples of when you might need to tweak the above approaches and how to do it.

Sunrises and sunsets

Above we talked about white balance settings and auto white balance (AWB).

In AWB the camera guesses how the colours should look and filters in the necessary colours to balance them out.

Most of the time this is great, but during sunrises and sunsets you don’t want those orangey hues removed.

Try switching your camera to the daylight white balance preset, which has a subtle warming effect.

If you don’t have a daylight preset, pick the shade or cloudy presets as these are also designed to accentuate warm tones.

  • Exposure mode: Manual
  • Drive mode: Single shot
  • Aperture: f/11
  • ISO: 100
  • Shutter speed: Dependent on the situation but for anything slower than 1/30th seconds, put the camera on a tripod or boost the ISO.
  • White balance: Daylight, shade, or cloudy

Running water or moving fog/clouds

When capturing movement, shutter speed is the most important setting, so switch to Shutter Priority mode then choose an aperture and ISO value accordingly to get a well-exposed shot.

A slow shutter speed will create an artistic shot where everything in the photo will be crisp and sharp, but the moving subject (e.g a stream or crashing waves) will be blurred.

Always use a tripod for best results.

A good idea of settings would be:

  • Exposure mode: Manual
  • Drive mode: Single shot
  • Aperture: f/16
  • ISO: 50 or 100
  • Shutter speed: 1/4th seconds
  • White balance: Varies

However, these will need some fine tuning.

For example, a fast-moving waterfall might only need a 1/4th seconds shutter speed to get good blur, whereas a slow-moving stream might require one second or more to get a blurry effect.

Another top tip is that if you don’t have a camera remote, use your camera’s self-timer when shooting in slow shutter speeds.

By setting a timer of up to three seconds, any vibrations caused by pressing down on the shutter button will dissipate by the time the shutter fires.

Campfire photos

To capture a long exposure photo of the fire, the shutter needs to be open long enough to let in plenty of light and blur motion.

Switch to Shutter Priority mode and play around with different shutter speeds then let the camera do the rest.

If you choose a shutter speed of five or six seconds, you’ll be able to capture interesting flame shapes and lots of spark trails.

A good idea of settings would be:

  • Exposure mode: Shutter priority or manual
  • Drive mode: Single shot
  • Aperture: f/11
  • ISO: 100
  • Shutter speed: 6 seconds
  • White balance: Varies

These will let in plenty of light and allow you to capture subjects (such as friends and family) surrounding the fire.

If you just want to snap the fire itself and keep the surroundings black, a shutter speed of one second will be better suited.

Once again, a tripod and shutter release or self-timer will improve the end product.

Recap

In summary, there is no right or wrong approach to camera settings and modes.

That said, avoid Auto mode if possible, leave ISO and AWB and focus on changing the shutter speed and aperture.

When shooting landscapes and still objects, an aperture of around f/8 to f/11 and shutter speed of 1/160s should serve you well.

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