Why Asking What Camera Settings Were Used is Not as Helpful as You Think

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When you view an image that you love, do you find yourself asking, “What camera settings did the photographer use?” This is a common question, that overlooks other important aspects which would have helped to create that image, such as the lighting conditions, and any post-processing techniques involved. As you become more experienced, and progress in your journey as a photographer, you may begin to realize that the things you originally obsessed over, may not be as important as you once thought.

Fig 4

For this image I used a shutter speed of 1/5th, as this would blur out the background quite nicely, as I panned with the rider to make him pop out more. This meant I had to increase my aperture to f/10, and could also decrease my ISO to ISO 320, too. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

A topic that many photographers are caught up in, is knowing which camera settings were used; more specifically, aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Any photographer will tell you that these three elements of exposure are very important in creating the desired image. If you use the wrong combination of these in any given environment, you could very well end up with undesired results. Keeping that in mind, it is completely understandable why new photographers obsess over knowing exactly which camera settings were used.

In theory, this should help you to recreate that particular image, right? Unfortunately this may not be the case. Images are created from much more than just the correct combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. These three fundamentals do more than just control the exposure; they also give us a creative language to use in our images.

Fig 2

In this image, I wanted to show some motion in the gymnast’s movements, rather than taking another frozen frame. To do this I lowered my shutter speed from 1/1000th to 1/15th. This reduction meant I could also lower my ISO from ISO 3200 to ISO 500 and increase my aperture to f/7.1.

But before diving into this further, let’s explore the two different perspectives of this question; firstly from the point of view of a beginner, who would hope to replicate this imagine. They may assume that by knowing the exact camera settings, and dialling them into the camera, that they will somehow magically achieve the same result. Looking at this from an experienced photographer’s perspective, they may ask this question but with a different scope in mind. It may be when they are perplexed as to the techniques behind a particular image, or in relation to a very specific genre in photography, such as astrophotography, where knowing the settings may help provide a breakthrough.

So why is the question unhelpful?

This question will not always equip you with the knowledge you need, to recreate that image, or with your endeavours of becoming a more successful photographer. There is a lot more to creating an image than just the camera settings. By focussing on camera settings alone, you are missing out on a lot more information as to why those settings were used.

Settings are only a small part of what makes up that image. Lighting conditions, post-processing and the outcome the photographer wants to achieve, are just some of the factors that will dictate what settings the photographer uses. It’s akin to having the correct ingredients for a cake, but not knowing the method behind making it, or the reasons behind that method. Relying on camera settings alone does not tell you anything about the environment the image was taken in, nor does it give you an indication of what the lighting conditions were like.

To freeze the action here I used a shutter speed of 1/1000sec. To keep my ISO as low as possible, but still have a little more depth of field than what /2.8 would offer, I used an aperture of f/3.5. I then set my ISO to ISO 3200 to give me the correct exposure. Being indoors, the ISO is a little higher. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

To freeze the action here I used a shutter speed of 1/1000th. To keep my ISO as low as possible, but still have a little more depth of field than what f/2.8 would offer, I used an aperture of f/3.5. I then set my ISO to 3200 to give me the correct exposure. Being indoors, with low light conditions, the ISO is a little higher. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Deciding what camera settings to use is a result of knowing how you want the image to look. For the above image, if I told you that I used a shutter speed of 1/1000, aperture f/3.5 and ISO 3200, and you were to go out and dial in the same settings, it would be highly unlikely that you will get the same result. Why? Because the chances of the lighting in your environment, compared to where this image was taken, being the same is highly unlikely.

The reason I chose these particular settings was simple; I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, so I used 1/1000th of a second. I also wanted to use a wider aperture that would allow me to isolate the subject more. A bi-product of this, is that it allows me to maintain a fast shutter speed, but also helps me use a lower ISO. I then use whatever ISO needed to create the correct exposure – in this case it was ISO 3200. The settings you that you require could be 1/2000th, f/4 and ISO 800. The exposure may come out the same, but the settings used are different, and tailored to the specific lighting conditions.

1/160, f/2.8 ISO 100 © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

1/160th, f/2.8 ISO 100 © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Consider the image above. If you ask me what the camera settings for this image were, I will gladly tell you that this was shot at 1/160th, f/2.8 and ISO 100. But what this doesn’t tell you is that I had a speedlight on the ground, off to camera right, at full power. The majority of the light in this image is coming from the flash, with very little ambient (available light) influencing this image at all. Knowing just the settings will not help you to understand how this image was made. There is more to the image than just the camera settings.

The camera settings here are geared more toward the speedlight, as it is quite a distance from the rider. The slower shutter speed is just below sync-speed, which allows for more power of the flash to affect the image (high-speed sync decreases the flash output range) and it also adds a slight blur to the wheels, which gives a nice sense of speed to the image. I used f/2.8 again to aid in the power of the flash, because my ISO was low to reduce the amount of ambient light. The flash is also freezing the majority of the action here.

Knowing why those settings were used, is far more important than just knowing the settings by themselves. It’s knowing the why, that will help you in your journey as a photographer. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same principle is at work in photography. Even if I was with you, and told you the settings to use, what will you do when you are alone? You need to understand why those settings have been used.

Reading an image

When looking at an image, understanding what and why you like it, will be of great benefit to you. This is something that you will develop more and more, as you mature as a photographer. Just a hint, it’s not the camera settings that made an image great. It could be the location, the lighting (time of day is very important), composition, perspective, focal length, any editing techniques used, etc., that all worked together to make the final piece. Each one of these is no more or less important than the next, and they all need to be considered.

For me, moving from obsessing over camera settings, to these other factors that influence a photo, was somewhat of an epiphany for me, and made me realize that photography may not be as simple as I once thought it was!

With this image, I used 1/160sec, f/4 and ISO 400. I also have two flashes fired remotely; one camera-right just behind the model giving the rim light on her front side and arms etc. I also have my key light placed at camera left and at ~ 45-degree angle facing the model. Both lights are un-modified (bare-head, or bare-bulb).

With this image, I used 1/160th, f/4 and ISO 400. I also have two flashes fired remotely; one camera-right just behind the model, creatng the rim light on her front side and arms. I also have my key light placed at camera left and at approximately a 45-degree angle, facing the model. Both lights are un-modified (bare-head, or bare-bulb).

As you advance in photography, you will slowly develop a skill that is often referred to as reading an image. This is were you look at an image, and begin to work out how it was created.

For instance you will be able to have a rough idea of the position of the camera, any lighting setups that were used, etc. This is something that you will build upon as you become more experienced. Unfortunately, this is where the magic of photography seems to end. At first, you are in awe of what you captured, when you didn’t quite know how you got it; it all seemed to work like magic. But as you begin to read images, and dissect how they were crafted, that magic can seemingly disappear.

Here I used 1/1000sec to freeze the action, f/3.5 to give less depth of field and ISO 6400 to fill in the exposure gap. The ISO is quite high as this is at a night game. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Here I used 1/1000th to freeze the action, f/3.5 to give less depth of field, and ISO 6400 to fill in the exposure gap. The ISO is quite high as this was a night game. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

But before you being to to read photos, you must first be very comfortable with not only the three exposure elements (aperture, shutter speed and ISO), but also how they visually affect images. Once you fully understand each element, you will be able to look at an image and say, “They’ve used a fast shutter speed for this” or, “The aperture used was very wide”.

You may not be able to determine the exact camera settings, but you will be able to put yourself in a much better starting point than when you first begun, when you had no idea where to begin! This illustration gives a very quick visual representation of how shutter speed, aperture and ISO affect the look of an image.

This illustration gives a visual guide to how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect an image. *this is just an illustration and does not necessarily give exact representation for each.

This illustration gives a visual guide to how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect an image. *Note: this is just an illustration and does not necessarily give exact representation for each.

Conclusion

So you now know why asking, “What camera setting did you use?” is not the most helpful. But rather than leave you there, let’s look at some alternative questions you can ask, while you develop your image reading skills, and get some education under your belt:

  • How did you create this image?
  • What post-processing methods did you use?
  • How did you achieve (whatever part you are most intrigued about)?
  • What camera/lens combination did you use?
  • Why did you use that specific camera/lens combination?
  • Why did you use those particular settings?
  • What was the lighting like?

Now you are armed with some alternative questions to ask that will give you a better insight to how it was made, when you see an image you like.

With this in mind, what questions would you ask about this image? Would you still ask for the camera settings, or how this image was created?

Fig 9

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Daniel Smith is originally from Melbourne, Australia, but now resides in the UK. He specializes in sport and editorial photography and is a photographer with the worlds leading digital content suppliers. You can see more of his work at Carbon Photographics, and by following him on Instagram.

  • Very glad to see this article. At times I feel reluctant to share settings because I’d like others to go beyond that, yet also feel pressured to include them as they now seem to be expected.

  • Thanks for for the feedback Jeremy! I wouldn’t feel too reluctant to share settings, but I feel it’s an empty piece of information for most people.
    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this post! Thanks!

  • Thanks for for the feedback Jeremy! I wouldn’t feel too reluctant to share settings, but I feel it’s an empty piece of information for most people.
    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this post! Thanks!

  • Paddy

    Good information for sure. It’s always about the lighting and that can change minute to minute. Thanks Daniel.

  • J Public

    I hear what you’re saying Daniel, but still like to get the info on pictures used in tutorials etc. And the focal length as well since that changes things. Maybe it is to keep hammering into my skull the relationships between shutter speed and motion, fstop and focus, and what Iso you can get away with. Those are also the four things I check when reviewing my own files. In the case of your badminton player, for example, if you told me the shutter speed was 1/60 I would guess he’s lying on the floor and you are taking the picture from above … instead of risking your life on a court somewhere!

  • hazitroll

    Very good article, thanks for writing it! On most pictures I like (for example on flickr) I miss the flash etc. settings. You are absolutely right in that after a given level the good exposure is a basic “must” to do for a good picture. But for a great picture all the other factors come in – and these are much harder to formulate, even if you are willing to share.
    For the tennis player I’m guessing a flash placed left behind the model and ambient light from right OR sun from left behind and two flashes from right.

  • pete guaron

    ?? – I still gain by the sharing of information. I recently had occasion to ask a friend what his shutter speed was on a particular photo – purely to stockpile the information in my mental “information bank”, because it was of interest to me. Not to enable me to mimic his photo. And I think we all gain by this sharing.

    I would however agree that it is quite inappropriate for people to imagine they can duplicate someone else’s photo by seeking a detail set of meta data relating to how it was taken.

  • Exactly! The settings are just a product of the lighting environment and what the photographer wanted to achieve. Thanks for the feedback!

  • Exactly! The settings are just a product of the lighting environment and what the photographer wanted to achieve. Thanks for the feedback!

  • Hi J Public. I see what you are saying here, however, knowing the settings without the lighting is, in my opinion, empty information.
    Using your suggestion with the badminton player – also consider their pose. Is that a pose that could be done with them laying on the ground? I’m not sure how much you know about flash photography, but this photo could be taken at 1/60th shutter speed, and still remain sharp. This would happen as the flash duration (how long the burst of light from the flash lasts) would be fast enough to freeze any action in the frame (FYI, flash durations are much faster than what any cameras shutter speed can achieve). So in this instance, I could tell you the camera settings, but that would still be empty information as you may not be aware of the lighting scenario used. Hope this makes sense?

  • Hi Hazitroll! Thanks for the comment!
    Good attempt at guessing. It was quite a heavy cloudy day (hence no harsh shadows) so the sun isn’t really giving any directional lighting here. I used one flash to camera left help on a monopod – a simple one-light scenario.
    Cheers!

  • Hi Pete,
    Oh sure…if you are there with your friend at the time of the photo then knowing which settings are used can be helpful as you already know what the lighting is like. After you knew what the shutter speed was, did you understand why your friend used it? You really need to know both sides of the equation; the settings are just one side. The lighting and what the photographer wants to achieve are the other sides and that directly influence the settings. Hope this helps.

  • Roque Fabular

    I learn a lot from Flickr and check metadata of a particular photo I like but I’m checking on camera and lens being used not the exposure setting although sometimes I check on the exposure if I’m curious about action and the mixing of ambient light and flash.

  • Hi Roque – thanks for the comment!
    There are many great places to learn and see inspiring images. Do you find knowing the camera/lens combination helpful, or is it something that you just like to know out of curiosity?

  • pete guaron

    not really – you’re talking about something quite different

  • Roque Fabular

    You can get the same exposure in many deferent settings. But the question is what result are you trying to achieved? Like DOF Motion blur etc. example 50sec f8 iso 1600 might be the same exposure as shutter speed 200 f2 iso 100. But it’s going to give you a totally different results

  • Roque Fabular

    Hi Daniel- good article. Sorry I’m a little bet off the topic you were writing. For beginners as I am it is helpful knowing how the photo was taken from the camera settings but not because you wanna do the same exact exposure to create photo and expect to get the same result but instead it gives you the idea of why the picture turns out to be like that based on that camera setting. im still learning but 50% of what I learn is from this site and the rest is me and my camera.

  • Mr K

    People ask because they want to learn. It gives them a starting point in their quest for knowledge. If they want good bokeh, then asking what aperture was used will help them know why (if they have a slow kit lens) they can never get their bokeh to look like a 1.4 lens does or panning at 1/5th sec will give them a better background than at 1/60th sec etc etc

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    I disagree with your statement “So why is the question unhelpful?” Certainly, there are a lot more questions that should be asked, as you point out in your conclusion. And yes, lighting is a very important parameter. But not knowing the camera settings that go with all the rest is a big gap, especially for learners. This is, after all, a school – aimed at those who may not know, amongst other things, the technicalities of exposure.
    Take for example photographing flowing water. Knowing the lighting, lens used, post-processing etc still doesn’t enable a learner to apply that knowledge to get the effect of frozen droplets, or the opposite – silky smoothness. It is much better to accept that camera settings are often important alongside the main information about how the shot was made

  • Gib Goff

    Thanks so much for the aperture, shutter speed and ISO graphic! I’ve printed it out and put it up over my desk as a constant reminder until I commit it to muscle memory. Clear, concise, great teaching graphic. Thanks again

  • I love this phrase: “…a creative language to use in our images.”

  • J Public

    Ah, but then it would have to be dark or else you’d get a drag on the shutter. See – the settings get the conversation going. Flash could become part of the unwinding. Anyway, I ain’t complaining, these DPS articles get you thinking!

  • Hi Mr Km Thanks for the comment!
    I agree with you, but to a point. If you know what settings were used on a particular photo, that alone wont help you. Yes, you may discover that they used 1/1000, f/4, ISO 1600. But that’s all you know…you don’t know the reasons why those settings were used, which is why I made the suggestion at the end of the article to ask just that; why those settings were used. You also don’t know if there was an post processing involved. What this article was aiming at was when people just leave the question at ‘what settings did you use’. Hope this makes sense?

  • Hi Bob!
    That’s great that you disagree – makes for conversation!
    Yes, learners may think that not knowing the camera settings is a big gap, but in reality, I believe it isn’t. The exact settings are pointless really, as it all depends on the lighting etc which you alluded to in your comment and can easily render the settings used by another photographer unhelpful.
    To use you example of photographing flowing water, all a beginner needs to really understand is the concept of shutter speed. The shutter speed will vary depending on the rate of which the water is flowing and if any filters (such as ND, polariszer) and the extent to which they want to blur the water. If they know that a slow shutter speed blurs motion, that will help them more than knowing 1/5th was used.

  • Hi Gib! You’re welcome….I’m glad it’s helped you!

  • Thanks for the kind words, Cindy!

  • Leyden

    I’m slightly more than a beginner and your point that knowing *just* the camera setting is not enough is well taken, however it is also a ‘touchstone’ to knowing what else you need to consider and/or a starting place to create on your own, i.e. ‘I like this because…..but I’m going to try for more DOF and less background exposure-that didn’t work…maybe aux lighting??

  • Mark

    I think you are missing the point slightly. When users, like myself, want to know what settings were used it is not because we want to put those exact parameters into our camera (which is likely of a different capability – FF, exposure latitude, native ISO etc) it is because we want to know the ball-park starting point. Moon photos are a very valid case in point. Fireworks are another. Another example might be to know exactly how high an ISO setting someone went to in order to capture a travel shot where a tripod may not have been available. It also helps to know that, for example, camera X was able to give an acceptable image at ISO 1600 to get a shot inside Grand Central but my model (Y) starts to look too noisy and so I might have to accept carrying a tripod. Core skills are always required, but knowing your starting point in the ISO, shutter, aperture triangle is valid information too.

  • Whilst I see where you are coming from here Mark, if beginners have a basic understanding of the effects of aperture and shutter speed, then they should be able to look at an image and notice if there is substantial amount of motion blur a slower shutter speed was used. Likewise, if everything is frozen, a faster shutter speed was used. What the shutter speeds were exactly isn’t important; but knowing if it was fast/slow is as that will give you a starting point. The same can be said for aperture.
    I agree with your comment on ISO, but there is no reason why beginners cannot experiment with their equipment and learn its’ limitations for themselves.
    I am very much the kind of person that will help people find the answers for themselves, rather than just telling them outright. Why? Because they will remember it much better than people just giving them the answer.

  • sue

    Excellent post.Thank You for this!

  • Thanks for writing this article! As an experienced photographer, I fully agree that prodding for exposure settings misses 95% of what it took to create an image…or more. I can’t encourage people enough who are serious about photography to get into shooting RAW and postprocessing their work in something like Lightroom because seeing what you can do in post really helps you understand the limits of your camera and know how and where to push them to get specific results. Perhaps exposure settings are a critical place to start learning how to create an image, but learning all the other aspects a bit at a time will dramatically improve your photography. I’ve been shooting and selling my work for years now, and I am always learning new things and experimenting…because the mistakes and crazy things you try sometimes yield spectacular results you can use purposefully to get the same effect again and again. It’s what makes photography so much fun! So thanks for pushing people out of strict how-to and on into the whys of photography!!

  • Side point: Its not uncommon that a novice gets on a forum and says, “I’m shooting a ____ tomorrow, what settings should I use on my camera?” There is no good way to answer this question, and any answers given may be rendered useless by lighting conditions. It is, as you said, mostly empty information. It is extremely difficult to explain this to someone who has to ask this question, but they eventually hopefully learn by experience and experimentation, and progress to the next plateau. When one has mastered exposure, the process repeats in that you know people are doing something that gives better results than what you’re achieving, but it goes well beyond simple exposure settings—but you have no idea what it is, and this you start with what you do understand, which is straight up exposure settings. Getting beyond the intermediate level of understanding what else affects an image besides exposure will greatly help someone understand what this article is talking about. It’s REALLY cool when you get past manipulating just exposure! There are so many possibilities to consider, but initially they are beyond immediate grasp—so my best advice to those of you who are first and foremost curious about settings used to create images is to dive in and learn how another aspect of photography works. There are lots of cool tricks that can be used with lighting and postprocessing, and learning those will get the creative juices flowing toward thinking outside the exposure triangle and really expand your skill and improve your results in photography.

    Never expect to learn it all and always be prepared to feel stupid because you’ve never even imagined you could manipulate whatever thing in some weird way. Once it clicks, it will seem easy. But until then, keep asking questions and be open to the idea that exposure (ISO, shutter speed and aperture) may only be 5% of what created the image you see, and feel free to ask auxiliary questions that take you beyond exposure settings—something may one day click for you and you’ll have a breakthrough!

  • Thanks for the comment, Lee! It’s great to hear others have the same view!
    Although, I’m not one to push people to shoot raw over JPEG; I encourage them to use whichever format suits their workflow and requirements best. Me, for one, shoot JPEG for 90% of my work!

  • Fiona Russell

    This is the most helpful tutorial I’ve read in a long time. I’m a beginner and I do exactly as you’ve suggested here in trying to work out settings that might have been used. Until I read this, I’ve understood that different conditions produce differing results but couldn’t take it a step forward. Now that I have a better idea of the right questions to ask, it will help me achieve something closer to the results I’m looking for when I plan a shot. Thank you so much!!!

  • Egil Sæbø

    Settings are essential to beginners! They need to know the photographer’s main tools and how they basically influence the DOF and the expression of movement in the picture. Every single image in the world is taken with a certain aperture, shutterspeed and ISO determining some basic features in it, even for professionals. So the settings are actually very interesting, both in them selves to the beginner, and to the more experienced in the sense that they can be related to the actual scene. But of course, the settings make even more sense when DOF and the expression of movement also is related to focal length and other factors. The exposure settings do not explain everything but they nevertheless constitute much of the basic expression in an image.

  • Amulraj S

    I am a beginner,I have a doubt about taking images of Marriage photography

  • Clarke Warren

    VERY good article. You’re Conclusion is right on.

  • I understand that there are plenty of reasons not to go RAW, but I do suggest RAW to novices since it gives them lots more room to under/over expose, and plenty of leeway in editing. Once they’ve mastered white balance and exposure enough, it’s great if they want to shoot JPEG again, but I find it much easier to learn and understand fundamentals and the limitations of a camera when shooting RAW. There’s a lot that goes unseen in RAW files under certain conditions…and it’s great to have that in the treasure chest when you need it, especially when it comes to drawing out more dynamic range without having to resort to bona fide HDR photography.

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