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This post was most recently updated on September 25th, 2022

Professional photographers each have their unique methods to achieve their look. It’s what sets them apart in some ways. Settings can be seen as part of the creative part of photography. Depending on what you are shooting can depend on what settings you use.

If you’re shooting a personal passion project you essentially have total freedom to be creative with settings. On the other hand, if you are working for a commercial brand the settings have to be more perfect for the situation creating that commercial look.

There are also two different ways to look at settings on a camera. Firstly you have overall camera settings, also known as ‘modes’, and then you have fully manual settings. In this article, we will look at both.

Camera Settings / Modes

Before you start shooting you can select what mode you want to shoot in. Each mode offers different shooting options.

Mode 1 – Automatic

The automatic mode is self-explanatory. In this camera mode, the camera automatically adjusts the settings to suit the environment you are shooting in. The shutter speed, aperture and ISO all adjust automatically to create the ideal exposure for the image.

Although automatic is useful for beginners who want to get started without worrying about settings, this mode can be problematic for professional photographers because better image quality can be achieved by using manual settings.

Mode 2 – Av (Aperture Priority Mode)

This mode gives you manual control over the aperture setting. As you adjust the aperture to your desired preference, the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to suit the light to achieve ideal exposure. Note that you will have previously set your ISO but are still able to adjust it if you need to.

This mode is particularly useful for close-ups, portraits and landscape photography. This mode is commonly used by professionals if they are working very fast and don’t have time to be fiddling with the fully manual mode.

Mode 3 – Tv (Shutter Priority Mode)

With this mode, the photographer has control of the shutter speed. As you adjust the shutter speed the camera automatically selects the ideal aperture to correctly expose the image. This mode is useful if you want to create images with a creative motion.

If you are shooting ‘motion blur’ images or shooting crisp and sharp action images. This mode is useful as it allows you to simply focus on this whilst the camera takes care of the rest.

Mode 4 – M (Fully Manual)

This mode is probably used the most by professional photographers. This mode does what it says on the tin. It gives you full manual control of the camera’s settings. You have to adjust the aperture, shutter speed and ISO for every shot you take.

So every little movement in camera direction will require slightly different settings to perfectly expose the given light for that particular moment. At first, this can be daunting, but as you gain more experience adjusting the settings as you go becomes second nature.

The benefit of shooting fully manual is it gives you total creative control for the look you are trying to achieve. It also allows you to get the most out of the camera’s capabilities.

The Pro’s

The Pro’s

Fashion Photography: Setting – Indoor, Consistent Lighting

You’ll find professional photographers mostly shoot fully manual unless the shoot is under huge time pressure. As mentioned above, this is because you are using the cameras full potential and gives you full creative control.
For commercial fashion photography, you want the image to be crisp and perfectly exposed. When you walk into the location you first assess the lighting and adjust the ISO accordingly. For argument’s sake, let’s say the lighting was suitable for an ISO of 200.

As the shoot is indoors and the lighting should remain consistent, you can be fairly confident to leave this on 200 throughout the shoot. Now you only have two settings to focus on, aperture and shutter speed.

A general rule of thumb when shooting sharp images is you don’t want the shutter speed to go below 200. Anywhere below this and you risk getting blurry images due to the shutter being too slow. If you are shooting portraits and you want a nice depth of field effect, you may choose to select an aperture of 2.8.

Once you have selected 2.8 you now want to adjust the shutter speed accordingly to get the correct exposure. When this has been achieved you are ready to shoot. A professional will do this for every shot.

Sometimes a professional may want to under or overexpose a shot slightly to achieve a certain creative style. This will be done by determining the light levels on the light meter, and either adjusting the aperture or shutter speed to achieve the desired exposure.

Flash Photography: Setting – Wedding, Nighttime

In this scenario, you have limitations with shutter speed due to the flash. In simple terms, the shutter has to be slow enough to allow the flash to light the subject. If the shutter is too fast the subject will be half-lit. You will know if this is the case because the photo will be half exposed and half dark.

As a general rule of thumb, a professional will shoot below a shutter speed of 200 to achieve the best results and avoid half exposure issues. You also have a degree of control over the flash in terms of its speed and brightness to comply with the camera.
As a result, you tend to have to shoot with a higher aperture than normal to achieve the right exposure. A professional can get very creative with a flash by drastically reducing the shutter speed to create motion blurs with flash, where the subject remains sharp, the background blurs making all the colours pop.

This can be a very cool style for party photos creating a vibrant atmosphere in motion. Don’t share this tip with too many people, it’s one of my favourites!

Lifestyle Photography: Setting – Daylight With Shadows

In this setting, a professional will first determine the basic light level and adjust the ISO accordingly. Bright daylight usually means an ISO of 100-200. Once this is set, you won’t have to worry about it for the rest of the shoot.
In terms of aperture and shutter speed, you have to think about two things. How much of my subject do I want in focus, and how much motion is happening.

If the subject is moving fast, running, jumping etc, and you want a sharp image, you have to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to make sure the image is sharp when they are in motion.

If you also want the entirety of the subject to be sharp (from head to toe) then you want to make sure your aperture is high enough to do this. For argument’s sake, let’s say this is f4. All that’s left to do is to make sure your shutter speed is right for the light and fast enough to keep the image sharp.

And that’s it, you’ll have your perfect shot. But what happens if the subject suddenly moves into a shadowed spot? Professionals will see the light change, and quickly adjust the settings to expose for the light change. This may simply be a case of bringing the shutter from 600 to 300. Leaving the aperture as is.

Night Sky Photography: Setting – Dark

This is fun photography. You get to play with long exposure and marvel at the beauty of the night sky. A professional night sky photographer will use a tripod and a wide-angle lens. The camera setting will be fully manual with a delayed shutter timer to avoid camera shake when pressing the shutter button.

If you think about it logically, the aim is to have as much light enter the camera as possible to expose the night sky.

To get the most light you’d want a wide aperture, 2.8 is a good base point. As a general rule of thumb, a professional night sky photographer will use an ISO of 1600 or more, depending on the camera’s capabilities. If your camera allows, you can slow the shutter down to 30 seconds.

This means the shutter will be open for 30 seconds allowing all the light to enter for that time. The issue with having the shutter open for this long is the rotation of the earth. As the earth spins and the shutter stays open, you’ll see motion blur in the stars as the planet spins, creating star lines.

To avoid this you will want to shoot with a slightly faster shutter. Usually, between 6-15 seconds to get the sharp night sky image we all love to see.

Sunset Lifestyle Shoot: Setting – Low light

Shooting in low light is probably a professional photographer’s greatest challenge. Especially if trying to avoid using flash. This is a beautiful light, but it’s short-lived and the light changes quickly. In this light, you’d want to set your ISO higher. Around 800 would be ideal for this time of day.

This simply allows you to have more room to play with other settings like aperture and shutter speed. If your ISO is too low you’ll be putting the other settings on the limit, making the camera struggle to get enough light.

Once this is set up it’s important to have a slower shutter speed to expose the image correctly. If there is a lot of motion in the subject this is where it can become tricky. Due to the slower shutter speed, you are likely to get blurry images.

To battle this you can make sure your aperture is as wide as possible, f2.8 for example. As the light quickly fades this becomes more of an issue.

To counter this as much as possible a pro will keep the aperture wide and adjust the ISO if necessary, but not too much to where you make the image noisy (this happens if you put the ISO too high, and this point depends on your camera).

Noise is essentially the digital equivalent to grain, also known as digital grain. If you find yourself on the camera’s limit and you still have more images to shoot, this is when a professional will contemplate using a flash.

Final Thoughts

A professional photographer will constantly be adapting to the environment they are shooting in, assessing the light, the subject and the motion involved.

A pro will be very comfortable with adjusting settings manually in any situation and be able to adapt very quickly when necessary… You may find in some situations a pro will use a priority mode when shooting portraits for example.

But in general, it’s seen as professional to have total manual control over the camera’s settings. Settings give you full creative control, and can be a way of showing your uniqueness as a photographer by using a configuration of settings that sets you apart, creating ‘your style’.

Like I always say, photography is art, and art is subjective to the viewer. Even though a pro will be getting the fundamental settings right to take a photograph, anything they do after this to make it original is what creative photography is all about.