Elma Family Kitty Photography Pip

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?

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  • Mandycharlie 12/01/2016 at 12:23 pm

    I’ve been manual for a while and am still making some clangers, don’t look too closely at the portrait on the 14th. But one thing I have been doing in the last week or so is putting my camera into auto ISO. That means I get the speed I want along with the aperture, but the camera chooses the lowest ISO available. It might not work if your looking for a certain look, but it might work really well in a fast children lead environment. Also the ISO being as low as possible stems from film cameras, digital cameras are no where near as susceptible to grain.

    • Carie 13/01/2016 at 8:48 pm

      Oh I shall have to try that, thank you. My lovely and somewhat battered little camera is 7 and a bit years old now so I do find I get more grain than I like at a high ISO, and I just don’t go that high – I’m saving my pennies for an upgrade 🙂

  • Donna 12/01/2016 at 6:07 pm

    This was really interesting to read and so helpful too! I am getting to grips very slowly with what my camera does and so this had me nodding along and going ooooooh! Love the new design too btw, gorgeous header and lovely colours x

    • Carie 13/01/2016 at 8:49 pm

      Well I’m so glad it helped – I did wonder whether everyone would read and just think “duh Carie, you think!” but they’re all lessons I’ve learnt and am still learning the hard way!

  • Alex Gladwin 12/01/2016 at 9:18 pm

    Great, interesting read! I’m very interested in photography and improving mine. You’re photos are stunning. I would love to fully understand shooting in RAW and get to grips fully with lightroom, but time is an issue at the moment for me. xx

    • Carie 13/01/2016 at 8:50 pm

      Aww thank you very much 🙂 And I know what you mean about time being at an all time low – still one day we’ll look back on these days and wonder how they all went so fast!

  • Caro | The Twinkle Diaries 12/01/2016 at 9:38 pm

    Yes to this!! I’ve been doing the same — making a note of what settings I’ve used — and always shooting raw on manual. It’s been a learning curve, that’s for sure!! I’m lucky that I’ve used photoshop my whole working life so I can adjust he shots of I need to. That said, it would be SO lovely to shoot and capture images *without* having to doctor the images too much. Although, ALL of the photographers I’ve ever worked with rely on post production techniques to better the images they’ve taken, so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself!!! LOVE the new look pet!!! LOVE it! I remember discussing this at the MADS with you. It’s perfect. Very you. xx

    • Carie 13/01/2016 at 8:52 pm

      I think with RAW you just accept that you will always need to tweak it a little bit and then that becomes part of the fun, but I’ve never been wedded to the idea of having perfect photos straight out of the camera just for the sake of it, I just aim for not needing much tweaking – it’s the camera tech plus the computer tech that makes the perfect photo. And thank you, I love how it’s turned out too 🙂

  • Jessy at Our Side of the Mountain 13/01/2016 at 11:34 am

    I haven’t. I haven’t even been using my DSLR at all. Not since June when I took 1000 photos for my sister’s wedding. I take quick snaps with my Android with a little editing through PicMonkey if I want. But my daughter has been giving me tips on composition and perspective. She always looks at things uniquely which makes regular every day thing seem much more interesting. I’ve been trying to be more creative in those 2 areas with my phone pics. Perhaps I’ll start using the DSLR again…Great photos! Sweet kiddos! Useful tips!

    • Carie 13/01/2016 at 8:53 pm

      Thank you – and you never know, maybe you’ll fall back in love with the DSLR!

  • Emma 13/01/2016 at 4:46 pm

    I have finally got to grips with manual on my camera, and now I wouldn’t shoot in anything else! It’s such an amazing this to learn to do and I really would encourage anyone with a dslr to try! Another thing I am getting to grips with is flash. it’s so scary and I just see it as always being too bright and making everyone look like a ghost, but I’m learning to use it properly now and in the winter, it’s just so useful if you can do it right! xx

    • Carie 13/01/2016 at 8:55 pm

      OK that’s got to be the next thing on my to do list then – roll on the you tube video binge!

  • Katie @mummydaddyme 13/01/2016 at 7:24 pm

    I loved reading this Carie, such helpful tips. I agree winter just royally sucks when it comes to photography. Most of the time I just give up and use my iPhone. x

    • Carie 13/01/2016 at 8:56 pm

      Oh it’s so frustrating isn’t it – the next house I buy is going to have an entire side of glass just so I can take lovely photos all year round – does such a thing exist outside of offices?

  • Bex @ The Mummy Adventure 14/01/2016 at 9:42 pm

    I haven’t ever recorded mine, but I only moved to manual last month so it is all really new to me and I am definitely still learning. I tend to use 1.8 as a standard but I am thinking I need to experiment more. I hate taking indoor photos, I just don’t get it and I got asked to take some at my cousins wedding reception recently where my iso went as high as 6000 as it was so dim I couldn’t get anything useable (a crowded room with busy walls and orange tissue paper over the lights on a December’s evening). I might try recording them this year as I battle on with manual and see what I find.

    • Carie 15/01/2016 at 9:55 pm

      Go for it – I was really surprised with how much I learnt from it – I’m still learning and always learning but it’s good fun along the way 🙂

  • Sally 20/01/2016 at 8:18 pm

    Well I’m afraid most of this went ‘whoosh’ over my head, having a point and click kind of camera! But the Winter being bad for photos – that one definitely resonates even with my basic, foolproof camera!