What are the best camera settings for taking bright photos?

You just bought a shiny new camera, but something is wrong: all the photos look too dark for your liking. Most digital cameras come with a mode that automatically adjusts the exposure, however, changing the settings yourself gives you full control over the appearance of your images.

Creating well-exposed photos can be tricky if you don’t really know how the settings affect the captured image. Here we are discussing the best camera settings for taking bright photos.

What is the exposure triangle?

Before we dive into the fun part, let’s quickly go over the elements that determine the brightness of a photo. In photography, there is an expression called the exposure triangle. This refers to the following:

  • ISO: This is the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. The higher the sensitivity, the brighter the image. The downside is that with a higher ISO you get more digital noise.
  • Shutter speed: This is the length of time your shutter remains open. The slower the shutter speed, the brighter the image will be because more light will enter and hit the sensor. However, a slower shutter speed can result in “smeared” images because the camera is affected by movement for a longer period of time while waiting for the shutter to close.
  • Opening: This is the width of the camera lens opening. The wider the opening, the more light will enter. There is a sacrifice, however: a large aperture means you’ll have shallower depth of field (a smaller focus point and more blur in the background).

The best camera settings for bright photos

Exposure can be a difficult thing to master when starting out as a photographer. Different lighting conditions will require different settings.

Note that the following settings may vary from camera to camera. We are based on our Nikon D5000 with an 18-55mm lens, so you might not get exactly the same results. But, these recommendations will allow you to move in the same direction, and we also recommend that you do your own experiments.

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Our goal is to obtain a well-lit image with varying depths of field and to minimize digital noise. Let’s get straight to the point!

Sunny conditions

woman holding camera

The sun is better than any LED panel you can buy. If you’re outside on a sunny day, you won’t have to play around with the ISO too much and can keep it relatively low.

For a bright photo with a medium depth of field (where the background is out of focus to a certain extent but slightly out of focus), you can keep your ISO at around 200, with an aperture of f / 11 and a speed of d. 1/500 shutter (see photo 1-1).

If you want a shallow depth of field with a very blurry background then you’ll want to widen the aperture. For a very blurry background, we set the aperture to f / 5.6 (the widest aperture may be different for your camera), with an ISO sensitivity of 200, and to compensate for the added light, we we pushed the shutter speed up to 1/1000 (see photo 1-2).

To keep the background sharp with a wide field of view, we set the aperture to f / 32. This will make the image much darker, so to compensate we increased the ISO to 640 and lowered the shutter speed to 1/250 (see image 1-3).

Related: Zoom Lenses Versus Primary Lenses: What’s The Difference?

Under the shadows

Photographer standing in the shade

Unfortunately, you won’t always have bright sunshine for your photos. Taking pictures in the shade means that you will be working in reduced light. For this reason, your settings will need to be changed accordingly.

For a medium depth of field, we used a slightly higher ISO of 320, with an aperture of f / 9, and a shutter speed of 1/200 (see photo 2-1).

For a shallow depth of field, we pushed the aperture to f / 5.6, with a shutter speed of 1/200, and an ISO of 400 (see photo 2-2).

For a wide field of view, this time we reduced the aperture to f / 22 because we didn’t want to darken the photo too much. Then we set the ISO to 1000 and the shutter speed to 1/100 (see picture 2-3).

You should play around with ISO and shutter speed and see what happens. However, increasing the ISO can introduce noise into the image. If you see noise, you can lower the ISO a bit and choose a slower shutter speed.

Just keep in mind that you may want to use a tripod if you slow down the shutter speed to more than 1/100, as even the slightest movement of your hand can blur your shot. If you don’t have a tripod, check out these alternatives.

Related: How to Take RAW / DNG Photos with Your Galaxy Phone

Low light and indoors

Person holding camera

As the light dims, additional equipment becomes necessary. First off, you’ll definitely want a tripod, as we’re going to be reducing the shutter speed, which means the motion blur will become evident if we do it by hand.

We also used an LED light panel for one of the shots. You will need an additional light source to help fill your image and reduce your reliance on a higher ISO; it will help reduce digital noise. However, we did not use an LED panel for the first two shots.

Starting from the medium depth of field, we set the aperture to f / 9 and the ISO to 1000. We then lowered the shutter speed considerably to 1/2 second (at this point we used the tripod). We were able to capture a good amount of light and keep a lot of detail (see photo 3-1).

In order to get a nice shallow depth of field, we opened the aperture to f / 5.6. Since it was a bit open, we were able to increase the shutter speed to 1/8 of a second and keep the ISO at 1000 (see photo 3-2).

Now, if you want to get a wider depth of field, you can use an additional light source. As stated before, we used an LED panel for additional lighting. The reason you might need more light is because the opening is much narrower. We also didn’t want to increase the ISO more than necessary, as the digital noise would overtake the photo.

The LED panel provided enough light that we could keep the ISO at 1000 and increase the shutter speed to 1/10 of a second. We didn’t want to completely close the aperture, so we opted for f / 22 to bring out some background detail (see photo 3-3).

Take beautifully bright photos

Breaking away from automatic modes on cameras can be a tricky business, but it’s necessary if you want more creative control. These recommended camera settings can help you brighten up your photos and finally get the perfect exposure level. But you should still experiment with the levels to see what works best for you.


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