Choosing the best outdoor camera settings can be hard–which is why we’ve written this practical, results-focused guide.
In it, you’ll discover a brief overview of the different camera settings, as well as specific advice for when and where you should use them for stunning outdoor photos.
Let’s get started.
The Key Outdoor Camera Settings: What Do They Do?
Your camera settings control every aspect of your photos, including exposure (brightness), color, sharpness, the areas that are in focus, the extent of the background blur, and the level of noise (grain).
In other words:
If you know how to select the right outdoor camera settings, then you’ll have complete control over your images.
But if you don’t know how to choose the right settings…
…then you’ll end up with images that are too-dark, that are blurry, that are out of focus, etc.
Fortunately, this guide will tell you everything that you need to know about outdoor camera settings!
So now let’s take a look at the different camera settings you need to know–and how you select the perfect outdoor photography settings for stunning results.
Selecting the Best White Balance for Outdoor Photography
White balance refers to the process of adjusting for unwanted color casts in your images.
You see, all light exists along a blue-yellow spectrum. So some natural light (such as shade) is very cold (that is, blue).
Whereas other natural light (such as the setting sun) is very warm (that is, yellow).
Whenever you look out over a scene, there are going to be natural color casts of some sort.
But our eyes are very good at compensating for color casts, which means that we rarely notice them–and 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, without any compensation.
If the light is very blue, you’ll get an image that looks blue, like this:
And if the light is very yellow, you’ll get an image that looks yellow, like this:
The problem is that we don’t see scenes this way, which means that too-blue or too-yellow photos tend to look very unnatural.
So what do you do? How do avoid creating shots that are consistently blue or yellow?
You use your camera’s white balance setting.
You see, white balance is 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.
Now, 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.
Selecting the Best Camera Mode for Outdoor Photography
Cameras generally offer five key modes:
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.
So if you use Auto mode, your camera decides all three of these settings for you.
Whereas if you use Program mode, you dial in the ISO, but your camera selects the aperture and shutter speed.
If you use Aperture Priority mode, you choose the aperture and the ISO, while 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.
By the way, you might be wondering:
Why do these settings matter?
When considered in concert, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all affect the exposure (i.e., the overall brightness) of your image.
But they each have separate effects, which I’ll consider in the remaining sections of this article.
How do you choose the best camera mode for outdoor photography?
It depends heavily on your preferred genre of photography. But first note that I never recommend you use Auto mode, because 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 a beginner and you’re trying to learn the camera settings one-by-one.
Instead, I recommend you use Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual mode, in response to different subjects and conditions.
Specifically, I recommend you 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 use Manual mode when doing macro photography, as well as landscape photography. After all, both macro and landscape photography require very little speed, and instead require careful, thoughtful shooting. You might also use Manual mode when shooting portraits, as well; 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 for keeping their subject sharp throughout (more on that later!), without compromising on speed.
Third, I recommend you use Shutter Priority mode when shutter speed is all that matters, but when 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 change the aperture to compensate for changing light.
So Shutter Priority works well if you’re shooting wildlife on the move (such as birds in flight), as well as sports.
Now, even once you’ve chosen your camera mode, you’ll still have to dial in the perfect shutter speed, and/or aperture, and/or ISO.
Which is where the next three sections come in handy:
Selecting the Best Aperture for Outdoor Photography
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:
Now, when it comes to choosing aperture, the first of these considerations–the brightness–matters little.
The reason is because, 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.
That’s why aperture matters for one big reason:
Depth of field.
Select an aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4, and you’ll have a shallow depth of field, which gives you one effect.
Select an aperture such as f/11 or f/16, and you’ll have a deep depth of field, which gives you another effect.
So which is best?
That depends, of course, 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 probably even narrower, such as f/11 or f/13 (going further than this causes blurring due to diffraction, so be careful). 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.
Selecting the Best Shutter Speed for Outdoor Photography
As with aperture, 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:
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.
(You’re free to experiment, though! These are just guidelines, and they won’t be perfect for every situation.)
Second, you may find yourself wanting a deliberately slow shutter speed for an interesting artistic blur effect, like this one:
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-quality blur depending on your choice (I tend to start at around 1/20s for moving water and then go up or down based on test images).
Note that this blur technique is very commonly used by landscape photographers, but you can also see it used by macro photographers, sports photographers, street photographers, and more.
Selecting the Best ISO for Outdoor Photography
As with aperture and shutter speed, ISO technically 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, which is why 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.)
That said, 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 but 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 offers another key effect, however:
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 or narrow the aperture (as I described above), 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:
Different genres of outdoor photography are more forgiving of high-ISOs–and the resulting 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.
Whereas street photographers and sports photographers can get away with noise, because it lends a gritty, realistic appearance to photos.
The Best Outdoor Camera Settings: Conclusion
Choosing the best settings for outdoor photography may seem hard–but it doesn’t have to be!
With the advice from this article, you should now be well-equipped to create tack-sharp, well-exposed, beautiful photos, whenever you shoot outside!
This depends on your intentions! If you want a shot that has a very deep depth of field, that’s sharp from foreground to background, you’ll need a very narrow aperture (such as f/8 and beyond). But if you want more of a shallow depth of field look, then the opposite is true: go for a wide aperture, such as f/2.8.
This depends a lot on your scene. If you’re working with fast-moving subjects, you’ll want a shutter speed of around 1/1000s or more. But if you’re working with still subjects, you can easily get away with a shutter speed of 1/160s, and much lower if you’re using a short lens that has image stabilization.
I recommend choosing the lowest ISO you can afford, but don’t compromise image quality in other ways. So start with an ISO of 100, but then boost it if you need to keep your images sharp (via a fast shutter speed), or if you need a deeper depth of field (via aperture).
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.