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Five things I learned from writing down my camera settings


Last year I started the 52 Project; a portrait of each of my children every week for the whole of 2015.  It was an amazing project to complete, a lovely community to join, and resulted in some of my absolute favourite pictures of my little trio. But as well as taking the pictures I also committed myself to writing down the camera settings that went with each one.  I’m not sure exactly what I hoped I’d gain from it, I think I thought it would be interesting to see how my settings changed across the year with the different seasons and light conditions and I’ll admit I do like a good geek at statistics.

But to my surprise it’s taught me a lot.  Writing down the data each week makes you pay attention to it, and that awareness means that when I look at my photos and see the flaws or the shots that I really truly love I’ve got half an idea what I need to change or replicate in my settings.

So here are the top five things that writing down my data taught me:

  • Winter is dark.  Properly properly dark. It’s amazing how much my ISO settings change across the year, from happy 100s in the bright light of summer, all the way down to the 800s in December. And even that might have been a bit low.  No wonder I’m longing for snow, it makes everything so bright and clean and beautiful. And that means knowing when it’s not going to work.  I think I’ve got a much better feel for the point at which it’s not worth getting out my big camera because it’s just too dark to get the kind of shots I want and I’ll get a better result from my phone and that saves a lot of frustration.

Space for the Butterflies - an eclectic handmade family life

  • Shut the door a little.  Before I started this project my default setting was to shoot wide open, right down at f1.8, and I do love photos with deliciously blurry backgrounds. What I don’t love so much are blurry noses. And while shooting wide open means that you can shoot in low light, when capturing a head and shoulders ish portrait of one of the children, f1.8 is not a deep enough field to get sharp eyes and sharp noses.  Over the year my settings have been creeping higher and I’ve settled at a happy medium of around f3.2-f4, only dipping lower as the winter has got darker.

Space for the Butterflies - an eclectic handmade family life

  • High ISO is not a dirty word.  I like to shoot all my pictures in natural light, which for most of the year means being outside, but when we get to the dark days of winter, and all this interminable rain, sometimes the only way I’ll get pictures of the children outside with by giving them a snorkel and it’s just not going to happen.  I’m horribly guilty of leaving the ISO as low as possible, and probably too low, to avoid grainy winter pictures.  The problem is that I then have to have a very short depth of field and usually underexpose or push my luck on the stillness of pre-schoolers. Result: blurry pictures not grainy ones, and the latter are much to be preferred. So when it’s gloomy outside I’m trying to remind myself that just because ISO is the last thing you should adjust it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adjust it at all!

Space for the Butterflies - an eclectic handmade life

Space for the Butterflies - The 52 Project

  • RAW is awesome. It’s slightly tangential to recording my settings I know but bear with me.  Ages ago I used to shoot in RAW because I’d heard it was easier to manipulate when you were processing the photos.  The problem was that I didn’t really know what I was doing when it came to processing and didn’t have that much time in which to do it so I gave up because I could use the JPEGs straight out of the camera or with a tiny tweak or two. Fast forward several years and a couple of good courses on Lightroom and I now I totally get it.  When I didn’t get my settings right, and I know I didn’t, or I just picked up the camera to snap a candid shot of one of the children and I’ve got to roll with wherever I left it then RAW means that I can put my settings pretty much back where I want them in post processing.

Space for the Butterflies - The 52 Project

  • It makes going fully manual easier. When I first started to shoot in fully manual I think a lot of the problems I had stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t fast enough.  I had to do a few trial and error shots to work out what it was that wasn’t quite right, and then tweak it, and then tweak it again and it’s just not a very practical way to shoot unless you’re taking pictures of a still life that won’t move.  Tiny running around sort of people tend to have moved out of the frame by the time you get the settings right.  But when I found myself writing the same settings down week after week for my favourite photos, I got a feel for where I like to be in my settings; f3.2, at least 1/100 shutter speed (1/80 at a pinch) and then as low an ISO as I can get away with.  Knowing that, I can flick the settings into place quite quickly and tweak from there looking through the viewfinder.

Space for the Butterflies - the 52 Project

I’m keeping up the practice this year and who knows where it will take me. But I’m curious, do you ever keep track of your camera settings? And do you find it’s changed how you take photos?