Outdoor photography – whether of landscapes, posed portraits, street scenes, or city skylines – is an exciting pursuit. You get to experience the beauty and commotion of the wider world, not to mention the gorgeous natural light.
But while photographing outside offers plenty of enjoyment, ensuring that your images turn out sharp, detailed, and natural can be a real challenge. Several essential settings must be carefully balanced, and while most cameras do offer a decent auto mode, if you’re serious about getting great results, you’ll need to take control and make certain decisions on your own.
I love outdoor photography of all kinds, and over time, I’ve developed straightforward settings recommendations for a variety of shooting scenarios. Below, I delve into the best outdoor camera settings, and I offer specific advice for when and where you can use each adjustment for stunning photos!
Outdoor Camera Settings Guide:
Selecting the Best White Balance for Outdoor Photoshoots
Natural light tends to exist along a blue-yellow spectrum, so some light (such as shade) is very cold (i.e., blue), whereas other light (such as the setting sun) is very warm (i.e., yellow). As a result, whenever you look out over a scene, there is going to be some sort of color cast.
But our eyes are very good at compensating for color casts, which means that we rarely notice them. We tend to see scenes as neutral rather than very blue or very yellow.
Cameras, on the other hand, record the scene as it is. If the light is very blue, you’ll get an image that looks blue:
And if the light is very yellow, you’ll get an image that looks yellow:
The problem is that we don’t see scenes this way, which means that too-blue or too-yellow scenes tend to look very unnatural – unless you apply a carefully chosen white balance.
White balance is a setting designed to compensate for these color casts in your images. White balance literally balances out your colors by adding yellow when the scene is too blue and adding blue when the scene is too yellow.
Your camera’s default white balance setting is Auto. If you use Auto white balance, then your camera tries to identify the color of the light on its own and then compensates for it. It generally does a good job, but it’ll occasionally fail (especially in situations where the scene is naturally very blue or very yellow, such as when photographing water or the setting sun, respectively).
That’s where more complex white balance settings come in. For instance, you can use a custom white balance setting, where you bring a gray card into the field with you and set the accurate white balance right then and there. Or you can choose one of the white balance presets, which allow you to identify the type of light you’re working with (e.g., overcast light) and dial it in.
However, that’s not really what I recommend. Instead, for outdoor photography, I recommend you keep your white balance set to Auto. (Make sure you’re shooting in RAW because this will give you complete flexibility when adjusting your white balance later!)
Then, when you get home, pull up your photo in a program such as Lightroom and correct any white balance mistakes with the available tools. That way, you don’t have to spend much time thinking about white balance in the field (set it and forget it!), but you also don’t have to sacrifice accurate colors.
Choosing a Camera Mode
Cameras generally offer five key modes:
- Aperture Priority
- Shutter Priority
These modes determine how much control your camera has over the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO versus how much control you have over the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. (Note: When considered in concert, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all affect the exposure – that is, the overall brightness – of your image. But they each have additional separate effects worth remembering.)
If you use Auto mode, your camera decides all three of these settings for you, but if you use Program mode, you dial in the ISO while your camera selects the aperture and shutter speed.
If you use Aperture Priority mode, you choose the aperture and the ISO but your camera chooses the shutter speed. If you use Shutter Priority mode, you choose the shutter speed and the ISO while your camera chooses the aperture. And if you use Manual mode, you gain complete control over all three settings.
Unfortunately, choosing a camera mode is somewhat complex because the best option depends heavily on your preferred genre of photography. But first note that I never recommend you use Auto mode; your camera just isn’t going to give you the results or control that you want. I also don’t really recommend Program mode unless you’re an absolute beginner and you want to learn the camera settings one by one.
Instead, I recommend you switch between Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual mode in response to different subjects and conditions.
Specifically, you should use Manual mode when you’re doing slow, deliberate photography, and you want complete control over your shooting process. This is because using Manual mode, while effective, is very slow, and if you try to shoot in Manual when the light is changing rapidly or your subject is moving from sun to shade and back again, you’ll get lots of failed shots.
That’s why I almost always use Manual mode when doing macro photography and landscape photography. Both macro and landscape photography require very little speed and instead require careful, thoughtful shooting. You might also use Manual mode when shooting portraits; it really depends on the type of shoot you’re doing and your photography style.
Second, I recommend you use Aperture Priority mode when conditions are changing rapidly, but you want to control your aperture as much as possible. For instance, you might use Aperture Priority mode when shooting street photos because people are frequently moving in and out of shade and sun. Many wildlife and bird photographers also use Aperture Priority because they can choose the perfect aperture to keep their subjects sharp throughout (more on that later!) without compromising on speed.
Third, I recommend you use Shutter Priority mode when the shutter speed is all that matters, and you’ll be shooting subjects with different shutter speeds and at a relatively fast pace.
For instance, if you’re doing outdoor race car photography, you might want to try different shutter speeds for different cars depending on their position along the track. But you definitely won’t want to take the time to carefully set a shutter speed, aperture, and ISO using Manual mode, which is why Shutter Priority is a good option; you can set your ISO in advance, set your shutter speed, and let your camera adjust the aperture to compensate for changing light. Therefore, Shutter Priority works well if you’re shooting wildlife on the move (such as birds in flight) as well as sports.
Selecting a Wide or Narrow Aperture
Aperture affects your photos in two key ways. First, the wider your aperture (represented by a low f-number, like this: f/2.8), the more light your lens will let in, and the brighter your photos will be (all else being equal).
Second, the wider your aperture, the shallower the depth of field, where a shallow depth of field results in a very small plane of focus so that very little of the scene is actually sharp:
And a deep depth of field results in a very broad plane of focus so that the entire scene is sharp:
When it comes to choosing aperture, the first of these considerations – the brightness – matters little. Unless you’re using Manual mode, your camera will shift the values it controls (e.g., shutter speed when you’re working in Aperture Priority mode) to compensate for any brightening or darkening effects caused by your aperture changes.
And if you are using Manual mode, then your camera will display an exposure meter, one that allows you to carefully balance your settings for the best possible results.
Therefore, the aperture is primarily important for its control over the depth of field. Select an aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4, and you’ll have a shallow depth of field; select an aperture such as f/11 or f/16, and you’ll have a deep depth of field.
The best aperture setting depends on the situation. Landscape photographers love to create a deep depth-of-field effect, which is why I recommend shooting at an aperture of at least f/8 (and sometimes even narrower, such as f/11 or f/13). That way, you’ll be able to pull the viewer straight into the frame.
I also recommend using a narrow aperture if you’re shooting architecture; that way, you can show the entire building in crisp detail.
On the other hand, if you’re doing any sort of portrait, street, or wildlife photography where you want the main subject to stand out, it often pays to use a wide aperture. That way, you’ll be able to emphasize your main subject and ensure that it pops off the background.
Picking the Perfect Shutter Speed
As with the aperture, your camera’s shutter speed affects the brightness of your photos. The longer your shutter speed, the brighter your photos will appear, all else being equal.
However, remember how brightness doesn’t really matter so much when choosing aperture because your camera compensates for any aperture changes? The same is true of shutter speed. So don’t worry so much about brightness; instead, think about the other key effect of shutter speed: sharpness.
Because the faster your shutter speed, the sharper your shots. (Up to a certain point, that is. Once your shot is tack-sharp, it can’t get any sharper, and increasing the shutter speed won’t have any real effect on sharpness.)
This matters for two key reasons. First, if you’re photographing fast-moving subjects, such as birds in flight, wildlife on the move, dancers, fast-moving cars, street subjects, or sports players, you need a fast shutter speed so that you get crisp images.
The specific shutter speed you choose will depend on your subject, but I recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/500s for walkers, 1/1000s for runners and people moving quickly on the street, 1/1600s for sports, and 1/2000s for race cars and quick wildlife. (Feel free to experiment, though! These are just guidelines, and they won’t be perfect for every situation.)
Alternatively, you may find yourself wanting a deliberately slow shutter speed for an interesting artistic blur effect:
In such cases, you’ll want to keep your shutter speed down below 1/60s or so. Make sure to experiment with different options because you’ll end up with different blur depending on your choice (I tend to start at around 1/20s and go up or down based on test images).
Note that this blur technique is very commonly used by landscape photographers, and it’s also used (more sparingly) by macro photographers, sports photographers, street photographers, and more.
Choosing an Effective ISO
As with aperture and shutter speed, ISO adjusts the brightness of your photos. A high ISO, such as ISO 1600, will give you a brighter photo than a lower ISO, such as ISO 200, all else being equal.
But the truth is that all else is rarely equal because your camera compensates for ISO changes. Therefore, I don’t recommend you get hung up on this aspect of ISO unless you’re shooting in Manual mode. (If you are shooting in Manual mode, you can raise the ISO to brighten up your shot and drop it back down to darken it.)
However, it does often make sense to raise your ISO in order to force your camera to change another setting. So if you’re using Aperture Priority mode and you want a faster shutter speed, you can raise the ISO to force the camera to bump up the shutter speed in response. Or if you’re using Shutter Priority but you want a deeper depth of field, you can raise the ISO to force your camera to narrow the aperture.
ISO also adjusts another key element of your images: noise levels. The higher your ISO, the more noise (also known as grain) that will appear in your images. And noise generally looks very, very bad – so bad that photographers spend a lot of time obsessing over it, and camera companies work constantly to improve the high-ISO capabilities of their cameras.
That’s why I recommend you figure out your camera’s native ISO setting (which is often ISO 100) and just leave your ISO there. Only if you absolutely need to raise the ISO – in order to bump up the shutter speed, narrow the aperture, or adjust the image brightness levels – should you touch it. Otherwise, just set it at ISO 100 or so and forget about it. That way, you’ll end up with clean, noise-free images as frequently as possible.
One thing to bear in mind is that different genres of outdoor photography are more forgiving of high-ISO noise than others. Landscape photography doesn’t allow for much noise at all, which is why you should avoid raising the ISO when shooting landscapes as much as possible. But street photographers and sports photographers can get away with more noise because it lends a gritty appearance to photos.
Also, while it’s best to prevent noise from becoming an issue in the first place, there are quite a few powerful programs that reduce noise.
Capture Sharp, Well-Exposed Outdoor Photos!
Choosing the best camera settings for outdoor photography may seem daunting, but it’s not as tough as it first appears. Pick a camera mode and white balance to get started, then pay careful attention to the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Remember that the ideal settings depend on the subject you’re photographing and your artistic intentions. Don’t get into the habit of using the same aperture, shutter speed, and ISO time and time again. Instead, make adjustments depending on the situation, and when you’re not sure how to approach a new scenario, feel free to experiment and see what happens.
Pretty soon, controlling your camera will be second nature, and you’ll be capturing tack-sharp, well-exposed outdoor photos on a regular basis!