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Mastering Light and Exposure: Photography Camera Settings for Lighting

Hey there,

Today I am giving out some information that took my photography from basic to beautiful. Trust me, this is where the real magic happens. Photography literally means to capture light. Let us uncover the secrets of turning ordinary scenes into breathtaking images, just by taming the power of light.

(This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I have recommended.)

Golden Hour Lighting

Natural vs. Artificial Light: Camera Settings and When to Use Them

There are several different lighting situations you may find yourself in the photography world. We are going to cover the main types of lighting and the camera settings for lighting all situations.

Let's start on the captivating world of light sources. Imagine the warmth of the golden hour just after sunrise and before sunset. This magical time bathes your subjects in soft, flattering light that adds a touch of enchantment to your photos. It's an ideal time for portrait and landscape photography.

Camera Settings for Golden Hour:

  • Aperture: Use a moderately wide aperture (e.g., f/2.8 to f/5.6) to create a shallow depth of field and achieve a dreamy background blur in portraits or emphasize the beauty of the landscape.

  • Shutter Speed: Keep the shutter speed fast enough (e.g., 1/125s to 1/250s) to avoid camera shake when handholding the camera. If using a tripod, you can use slower shutter speeds for creative long exposures.

  • ISO: Start with a low ISO setting (e.g., ISO 100 to ISO 400) to maintain image quality in the well-lit conditions.

And then there's the blue hour, when the sky is drenched in serene shades of blue—perfect for creating cityscapes with a dreamy atmosphere.The blue hour happens just before sunrise and after sunset when the sky takes on a beautiful blue hue.

Blue Hour Camera Settings:

  • Aperture: Use a moderately narrow aperture (e.g., f/8 to f/16) to ensure both the foreground and background are in sharp focus, especially in cityscape or landscape photography.

  • Shutter Speed: As the light dims during the blue hour, use a tripod and longer shutter speeds (e.g., 2 to 10 seconds) to capture the serene ambiance of the scene without introducing camera shake.

  • ISO: Keep the ISO low (e.g., ISO 100 to ISO 400) to minimize noise and maintain image quality during long exposures.

On cloudy or overcast days, the clouds act as a natural diffuser, softening the light and reducing harsh shadows. It is suitable for shooting portraits and objects with even lighting.

Overcast lighting during blue hour

Overcast Camera Settings:

  • Aperture: A slightly wider aperture (e.g., f/4 to f/8) can still provide a shallow depth of field for portraits or isolating subjects from the background.

  • Shutter Speed: Overcast conditions may require a slightly slower shutter speed (e.g., 1/60s to 1/125s) to compensate for reduced light. Use a tripod or stabilize the camera to avoid camera shake.

  • ISO: Choose a moderate ISO setting (e.g., ISO 200 to ISO 800) to maintain a balance between image quality and sensitivity to the available light.

On the other side, artificial light lets you have a little more control. Continuous lighting offers a constant source of illumination, which can be ideal for video and portrait sessions.

Continuous Lighting Camera Settings

  • Aperture: Choose an aperture setting based on your creative intent. A wide aperture (e.g., f/1.4 to f/2.8) can create a shallow depth of field, while a narrower aperture (e.g., f/5.6 to f/11) can increase the depth of field.

  • Shutter Speed: Adjust the shutter speed according to the movement in the scene. Use faster shutter speeds (e.g., 1/125s to 1/500s) for subjects in motion or slower shutter speeds (e.g., 1/30s to 1/60s) for static subjects or to convey motion blur intentionally.

  • ISO: Start with a low ISO setting (e.g., ISO 100 to ISO 400) to maintain image quality in well-lit situations. Increase the ISO as needed if shooting in low light, but be cautious of introducing noise.

Flash photography allows you to freeze motion or add dramatic effects with bursts of intense light.

Flash Photography Camera Settings:

  • Aperture: Choose the aperture based on the desired depth of field and how much you want to control the background blur. A mid-range aperture (e.g., f/5.6 to f/8) is often a good starting point for balanced results.

  • Shutter Speed: In flash photography, the shutter speed often synchronizes with the flash, typically set to the camera's maximum sync speed (e.g., 1/200s or 1/250s). However, some cameras offer high-speed sync (HSS) allowing you to use faster shutter speeds with flash.

  • ISO: Begin with a low to moderate ISO setting (e.g., ISO 100 to ISO 800) depending on the ambient light and the power of your flash. Adjust the ISO as needed to control the overall exposure.

And for the ultimate control, studio lighting lets you shape light to your creative vision—key, fill, rim, you name it.

Studio Lighting Camera Settings:

  • Aperture: Use different aperture settings depending on the desired effect. A wider aperture (e.g., f/2.8 to f/5.6) can create a more dramatic look with shallow depth of field, while a narrower aperture (e.g., f/8 to f/16) can capture more details in the scene.

  • Shutter Speed: The shutter speed in a studio environment is generally not a significant factor, as the flash duration becomes the effective "shutter speed." Use a standard sync speed (e.g., 1/125s) or slower if desired for creative effects.

  • ISO: Similar to other artificial light scenarios, begin with a low to moderate ISO setting (e.g., ISO 100 to ISO 800) and adjust as needed to achieve the desired exposure.

Personally I try to avoid artificial light and work with the situation at hand but direct flash is definitely trending.

Lastly lets talk about a scenario we've all been lured into—shooting in bright sunlight. It seems like a dream, right? The sun's out, the day's vibrant. But guess what? The sun, as magnificent as it is, comes with its own set of challenges. You'd think those sunny beams would gift us perfect pictures, but that is not the case. They often bring along harsh shadows that turn our subjects into bizarre patchworks of light and dark. This makes post editing complicated, especially if you are shooting multiple subjects in one frame. Some may have shadows over them while others are shining from intense highlights. And here's the kicker for portrait lovers: asking your model to stare into that blazing ball of light? Not the most comfortable situation. So, while sunlight has its charm,I highly recommend finding some neutral shade if possible.

Golden Hour Play: Challenge yourself to capture portraits during the golden hour. Your subjects will practically glow with warmth and radiance.

Blue Hour Lighting after the sun has set

Achieving Proper Exposure

Time to balance the exposure equation. Your shutter speed is like a time traveler, freezing motion or creating artistic blur. Aperture is your creative magician, deciding how much of the background gets that dreamy blur. And ISO? It's your camera's sensitivity to light. Low ISO for the sunniest days, and higher ISO for those cozy low-light moments.

  • Aperture Practice: Experiment with taking shots of the same subject with different apertures (f-stops).

Controlling Exposure in Different Scenarios

Now, the real adventure begins with real-life challenges. Think low light situations, where your artistic soul wants to capture the ambiance. Open up that aperture wide (yes, low f-stop number) to let the light flood in. And give your camera a boost with a slightly higher ISO—it's like giving it night-vision goggles. Don't forget your tripod to keep things steady, or you will get blurry photos.

Backlit scenes? It's like a puzzle waiting to be solved. Your subject against a blinding background? Exposure compensation to the rescue! Give it a +1 or +2 boost to bring out those gorgeous details. Oh, and don't forget about the fill flash—it's like having a pocket-sized sun to light up your subject.

  • Flash: Challenge yourself with fill flash. Capture a subject against a bright backdrop (sunset) and watch your photo come to life.

And then we have high contrast scenes, where the light plays games with your camera's sensor. Say hello to HDR photography. Snap multiple shots of the same scene at different exposures and blend them into one. Or say hi to graduated ND filters—these babies help balance the extreme lighting differences like a pro.

  • HDR Adventure: Try your hand at HDR photography. Capture a scene with both super bright highlights and deep shadows. Merge them to reveal a perfectly exposed image.

Harsh backlit photo during golden hour sunset

As you get into this world of photography, remember: your camera is your canvas, light is your brush, and exposure is your palette. Don't be afraid to explore, experiment, and dive into post-processing. Shoot in RAW—your ticket to editing magic later on.


  • Low Light Expedition: Venture out during the blue hour and capture the serenity. Use a tripod to play around with long exposures.

As you come to the end of this post on mastering light and exposure, you're equipped with some powerful tools to enhance your photography skills. Remember, photography is all about finding the right balance, whether it's between natural and artificial light or among shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings. Armed with these techniques, you're ready to tackle various lighting scenarios and create images that truly capture the essence of your subject. So, go out there and enjoy the process of learning, experimenting, and refining your craft. Every shot you take is a step closer to becoming the photographer you aspire to be. Keep shooting and exploring the world through your lens!

Interested in learning more beginners photography tips? Check out this published guide here!


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