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Understanding Your Camera Settings

If you’ve ever shot a wedding, you know how much time, attention, and practice you need to keep on top of all the crazy lighting situations you find yourself in. The last thing we want is for you to forget your ideal camera settings for a sparkler exit just as guests pass around the lighters. It’s totally out of the question to request a re-do of the first dance, of course... and that salsa-dip on a dimly lit dance floor would probably lose its sparkle without the spontaneity. It’s a high-pressure situation for sure, but it’s on you to keep it cool and stay on top of all the different lighting scenarios The Big Day holds. That’s why we’ve crafted a quick, go-to reference and we’ve made sure it covers some of the most common lighting scenarios so you can set your camera to the optimal settings and be ahead of the game and ready to capture the perfect snap as it happens. From full sun to open shutter reception lighting, you’ll never be stuck again. Feel free to just glance at the reference and call it a day--we know it’s a pretty handy thing to have in your pocket. But once you learn a little more about the reasons behind the settings, you’ll be unstoppable. In this guide, we’ll dive into the logic behind it all, so you’ll know exactly what to do, with confidence.

Before we start, here are some crucial things to keep in mind:

Getting the exposure right requires you to balance three variables: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

  • Aperture is how open or closed the diameter of the lens is. It controls the amount of light entering the camera. A wide aperture (low f-number) creates a shallow depth of field for perfect portraits, isolating subjects, and blurring backgrounds. Narrow apertures (high f-number) offer greater depth of field ideal for landscapes and architecture. Use wider apertures for low-light conditions or to emphasize a subject. Narrow apertures are suitable for landscapes or situations where you want everything in focus.


  • Shutter speed indicates how fast the shutter stays open. Faster shutter speeds freeze motion, while slower speeds create motion blur. High shutter speeds (1/500s and above) are great for sports, action shots, and freezing fast movement. Slower speeds (1/60s and below) can capture motion blur or work well in low-light conditions, but require a steady hand or tripod.

  • ISO determines the sensor's sensitivity to light. Higher ISO settings amplify sensor sensitivity, but they can introduce noise/grain in the image. Lower ISO settings maintain image quality but require more light. Use lower ISO (100-400) in well-lit environments for better image quality. Higher ISO (800 and above) is suitable for low-light conditions but be cautious of introducing noise.

Don’t forget to prioritize the setting you want to manipulate the most. If you’re hooked on that buttery background bokeh, you’ll want to prioritize a wide aperture and figure out what the widest aperture you can achieve is without too many of your subjects fading into blurriness. Here’s an easy tip: f/1.8 for one person, f/2.0 for two people, f/3.0 for three people, f/4.0 for four people (and so on and so forth). The more people in front of your lens, the wider the aperture so you keep all those sets of eyes in focus. 

Mastering camera settings is a continuous learning process that evolves with experience and experimentation. Understanding these components - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, metering modes, and focus modes - will allow you to control exposure, capture motion, and convey emotions effectively.

Do NOT be discouraged if, when starting, your images do not produce how you expect them to. Experimenting with these settings in different shooting scenarios, coupled with practice and patience, will elevate your photography skills and enable you to express your creative vision through stunning imagery.

Below is a visual chart on the effects of every setting and what they control.

If you’re after the motion of the ocean (or a waterfall), look at where your shutter speed is. Either Aperture or Shutter Priority mode will help you get to your desired setting the fastest when learning, although Manual mode is still the preferred choice when looking for a desired overall outcome. Lots of professional photographers choose prime lenses for their wide open apertures and their ability to render drool-worthy portraits featuring crisp faces and beautiful smooth backgrounds.

Some of our favorite prime lenses are:

  • Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Series

  • Canon L series 85mm f/1.4 IS US

  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 G

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