The great outdoors may provide an amazing background for your photography, but if you’ve never shot outside before, finding the appropriate camera settings for outdoor photography might be tricky.
Once you get a good grasp on what settings are best for what situations, you’ll be able to capture stunning landscapes and beautiful outdoor portraits with ease. Here is my guide on how to choose the best settings for photoshoots outside.
The Best Camera Settings For Outdoor Photos Are:
- Mode: Manual Mode (M)
- Shutter Speed: 1/80 or faster
- Aperture: F/4 – F/11
- ISO: 100
- Focus: Auto (AF)
- Focus Type: Continuous/Servo
- White Balance: 5600K
- Drive Mode: Single Shot
- File Type: RAW
Let’s explore these settings further with this framework in mind.
How To Choose Your Camera Settings For Outdoor Photography
The outside can quickly become your photography playground with the proper camera settings. Understanding the three components of exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) allow you to photograph any subject in the exact way you want. Let’s go through each setting with respect to outdoor photography.
Shutter Speed For Outdoor Photos
The shutter speed will either freeze movement or cause motion blur.
For handheld photography, ideally, you want to use a shutter speed of no less than 1/250 to mitigate camera shake, causing unintentional motion blur. For cameras placed on tripods or monopods, your shutter speed options expand tremendously on the slower side.
Generally, my shutter speed on bright days stays around 1/1000 and faster, sometimes going as high as 1/8000 in extreme cases.
If you want to do a long exposure during a bright sunny day, consider using an ND (neutral density) filter. This filter screws to the front of your lens and minimizes the amount of light that comes in, allowing you to use a slow shutter speed during a bright day.
Sunrises And Sunsets
For landscapes and outdoor portraits, adjust your shutter speed as needed to account for the aperture and ISO, which tend to be the more significant settings.
If you’re looking to capture wildlife or action photography, adjust the shutter speed relative to your subject’s speed – as minimal as possible to freeze the movement. This is because sunsets and sunrises have very dark moments within their cycle, which can cause darker exposures with higher shutter speeds.
For long exposures, such as making a waterfall look silky, you have a lot of freedom to play here because of the darker cycles within a sunset or sunrise. Go slow on the shutter speed, and the other settings will adjust well.
Overcast And Cloudy
Overcast and cloudy days are like blank canvases – the lighting is very even (with no harsh shadows or bright highlights), so you can essentially do whatever you wish here.
Remember that if you’re capturing portraits or a landscape in which you want no motion blur, you’ll still want a decent shutter speed. This is because overcast days often come with wind, and the wind can impact how steady your camera is (handheld or not).
Rain Or Snow
Rain makes everything rather dark due to the black clouds that surround this type of weather, while snow makes everything overexposed because the white is so reflective.
For rain, using a slow shutter speed can give the rain some motion blur, or a faster shutter speed will suspend the water droplets in mid-air. Whatever speed you decide will depend on how you want to portray the rain, but keep in mind that the darker clouds can underexpose with too fast a shutter speed.
Increase the shutter speed as much as you can for snow. To avoid having an overexposed blob, you want to be able to capture as much detail in the snow as you can.
Aperture For Outdoor Photos
Your aperture in photography controls the depth of field of your shot. A shallow depth of field keeps the subject in focus and the rest of the image blurred, while a deep depth of field has everything in focus.
When the background is less than ideal and detracts from your subject, shallow depths of field are appropriate. However, the shallower the depth of field, the wider the aperture, and the more light comes into the sensor – causing a brighter exposure.
Landscapes benefit from deep depth of field that has everything in focus. You want to ensure every little detail on your horizon is clear and sharp (especially if you plan to make a large print). Your shot will be darker the narrower the aperture you use to get a deeper depth of focus.
Regarding portraits, I prefer a shallow depth of field. I typically shoot with wide apertures. This can be a concern on sunny days due to how much light a wide aperture allows. Because of this, I usually keep my aperture at f/1.8 all the way to f/4.0 on sunny days to consider how bright the outside world is.
For landscapes, you want a much deeper depth of field. Sunny days make it quite simple to use any tight aperture, such as f/8.0 and f/16 if you wish to have more of the backdrop in focus.
Sunrises And Sunsets
For portrait photographers, you can shoot at extremely wide apertures to get the soft and ethereal quality that the “golden hour” is known for. As wide as f/1.2 is easily possible during the golden hour. This is because the light becomes dimmer with the sun setting on the horizon, allowing a wide aperture to be used without overexposing your frame.
For landscape photographers, narrower apertures tend to come out a bit darker during this time, so adjust your other camera settings accordingly.
Overcast And Cloudy
The beauty of overcast lighting is that you can use any aperture and get good exposure results.
Rain Or Snow
With the widest aperture your chosen lens can offer, you’ll perform best in the low light of the rain.
You’ll need to reduce your aperture if the earth is covered in snow and the sun is directly overhead (since snow makes everything far too bright).
ISO For Outdoor Photos
ISO controls the sensor’s sensitivity to light. Although this isn’t accurate on a technical front, all you need to know as a photographer is that the camera is less “sensitive” to light the lower the ISO value (making your image darker) and more sensitive with a higher ISO value (making your image brighter).
Depending on the amount of light you have, you modify this. Your ISO will be low on a bright, sunny day, around 100 ISO. You should use a higher ISO number for a sunset or a day with dark clouds to brighten the shot.
That said, the higher the ISO you set, the more noise your photograph will have (how much noise depends on your camera).
On bright sunny days, your ISO setting will likely be between ISO 50 (only accessible on mirrorless systems) and ISO 100 (the lowest a DSLR can go), with ISO 400 being the highest setting. In an ideal world, you should set the ISO as low as you can to reduce noise and consider the wider aperture.
ISO 50 will likely be used if you’re capturing portraits with a wider aperture and shallow depth of field, with ISO 400 being used for much narrower apertures and deeper depths of field.
Sunrises And Sunsets
With sunrises and sunsets, the sky goes from light to dark or dark to light. Depending on how far into the sun’s motions you are, this is the point where your ISO will start to change.
You may often use the same ISO at the beginning of the sunset as you would on a sunny day. You’ll raise the ISO as the sun descends lower in the sky. At the very end, my ISO often rises to 800, if not more, depending on whether or not the mountains have obscured more of my sunlight. For sunrise, just do this in reverse.
Overcast And Cloudy
How dark or light your clouds are during an overcast day will alter your ISO. Based on how much light your aperture allows, you’ll likely use an ISO in the 200 and above range if the clouds are white.
The world around you will appear considerably darker if the clouds are completely black (like before a big storm), which will cause your ISO to rise significantly. The typical range for overcast ISO is 200 to 800.
Rain Or Snow
Don’t be shocked if your ISO begins to enter some “danger zones” in rainy situations (where noise may start coming out, depending on your camera). Your ISO will rise over 800, possibly all the way up to 1600.
Keep your ISO as low as you can, ideally ISO 100 when possible, if your scene is bright due to the sun reflecting off of the snow.
White Balance For Outdoor Photos
Red, green, and blue light emissions are measured by digital and mirrorless cameras using their sensors (RGB). The way the camera sensor picks up these colors can cause a color cast to your image (unintentionally), altering colors away from their natural appearance. Colors that should be warm might look blue and vice versa.
While you can fix these color casts in post-processing, that’s an extra step you can avoid. To put it simply, white balance remedies this problem and modifies colors to make them appear more realistic to the environment. Luckily, most cameras have preset white balance modes for outdoor photography.
Auto is the white balance set on your camera by default. If you choose Auto white balance, your camera will attempt to determine the color of the light on its own before making a correction. Although auto works well often, the camera can make mistakes and not keep your white balance even throughout the photo shoot. As such, a preset might be a better choice.
Your camera likely has a Sunny, Overcast, Shadow, and similar white balance presets already built in. Choose the one that matches the lighting scenario you are working with.
You can always make one if you can’t find a good white balance. Purchase a set of white balance cards and follow your camera’s directions on how to create a custom white balance for the scene you are capturing.
What Are The Best Camera Settings For Outdoor Portraits?
Outdoor portraits can be a great way to connect humans (or animals) to the natural world. But, your settings will be different than that of capturing landscapes. Portrait photography is heavily oriented on the subject, with the background and foreground simply adding context to the portrait.
As such, portrait photography focuses more on using the correct aperture than anything else. You’ll want to set your aperture first and foremost for outdoor portraits. Likely, you’ll be working with shallow depth of field, so lenses with apertures ranging from f/1.2 to an f/4.0.
With this, the wider aperture lets in a lot of light, so you can keep your ISO reasonably low to reduce noise. Your shutter speed is only important in ensuring your subject has no motion blur, so raise it high enough to account for potential camera shake from your hands or your portrait subject unexpectedly moving.
What Are The Best Camera Settings For Landscapes?
As landscapes aren’t bound to run away from you like a living subject, your settings will be slightly different here.
Landscape photographers are heavily focused on ensuring that the whole scene is in the frame and focused, so deeper depths of field come into play here. This is especially prevalent in landscape photographers who print their photos because they certainly don’t want the little house on the hill out of focus due to a wider aperture.
The deeper the depth of field, the darker the shot. As such, landscape photographers tend to place the camera on a tripod and shoot with a slow shutter speed to account for how dark the photo gets at apertures such as f/16. Often, landscape photos are taken at f/11 through f/22.
Landscape photographers tend to like water looking silky from its natural movement, so using a slow shutter speed is common here. Plus (again), it aids with exposure.
ISO is kept as minimal as possible to prevent noise from seeping into the shot and make it less sharp in appearance.
Which Camera Mode Is Best For Taking Photos Outside?
As a golden rule, the best camera mode is the one that works for you. That being said, the consensus is that it depends on what you’re capturing.
Generally, most photographers prefer using Manual Mode when capturing outdoor photographs. This is because the camera’s automated settings are disabled in manual mode, giving you complete control. Here, you control all of the more minute settings, such as the autofocus settings, white balance, and the full exposure equation. ISO, shutter speed and aperture is all at your discretion.
Manual mode ensures that you, not your camera, make all the decisions. This helps you utilize the outdoor light in whatever fashion you desire, such as underexposing during a cloudy day for a moody look or keeping an overcast day looking light and airy. This feature also mitigates the chance of your camera malfunctioning in any automatic mode, causing you to miss a critical shot.
Manual mode is also the hardest to utilize because the photographer needs to adjust the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to achieve the exposure. However, the secret to this is to make one of your settings a baseline, and then you only have to adjust two.
The aperture is the one I always maintain steady. I always set my aperture to be as wide or narrow as I like for my shot because the aperture determines your depth of field. Then, all I have to do to expose the picture correctly is change my ISO and shutter speed.
The camera’s priority settings are known as semi-manual modes. In these settings, you may alter one component of the exposure equation, and the camera will adjust the other components (again, in accordance with the sensor and programming of the camera) to expose the image appropriately.
You may choose the aperture in Aperture Priority Mode, and the other settings will change to ensure that the aperture you choose will maintain the appropriate exposure. Use this when you believe that your shot’s depth of field is more significant than anything else. This is great for portraiture or landscapes where you need to maintain a specific aperture and want the camera to do the rest.
This mode is also suggested if you find that the lighting is changing very quickly, such as during a storm or throughout the sunset. That takes the need to make quick, stressful adjustments out of your hands.
Similar to Aperture Priority, you choose the shutter speed here, and the other parameters adjust accordingly. Shutter Priority Mode isn’t utilized much for outdoor photography unless you capture wildlife or action shots of living subjects. In that case, the shutter speed does make an impact (especially in action photography).
This can be especially important when capturing wild animals whose movements tend to be fast and erratic, and the priority is ensuring your shutter speed is up to par.
To learn more about each of these camera modes in depth, see my guide to choosing camera modes for beginners.
Tips For Taking Better Outdoor Photos
Alongside the above, these four tips can help improve your outdoor photography.
1. Use A Sun, Sky, And Weather Tracker
For landscape photographers especially, using a sun, sky, and/or weather tracker can provide invaluable information. How the light hits those beautiful mountains can make the difference between a great photograph and an okay one.
Using a tracker can tell you the best time of day to go out to your shoot, what direction the sun will be rising and setting, and how the weather will impact your location. This also helps avoid long unnecessary drives if the weather or light is not conducive to what you want to capture.
I personally use an app called PhotoPills, but there is a free app called Photographers Ephemeris you can try on your desktop computer for free instead.
2. Don’t Be Afraid To Manipulate Natural Light
Although most photo shoots in the outdoor world require you to work with what is available, it is more than okay to manipulate natural light if you’re capturing portraits. Tools such as reflectors, scrims, and flashes are here to help.
A reflector is a straightforward sheet with a shiny side that refocuses existing light. A reflector only lets you control the existing light; it doesn’t create any new light. Reflectors come in various sizes and forms, but they all have a strongly reflective surface on one side (hence the name).
Reflectors are frequently utilized in outdoor shoots to fill shadows. You position the reflector in front of your subject, and it’ll bounce the sun’s natural light onto all the dark spots on your model.
A scrim is like adding a diffuser to the sun. Scrims are very large white stretched sheets on a frame. This frame is attached to a tripod and placed above your subject, effectively creating a diffuser for the sun’s light. A scrim’s function is to soften the light, significantly reducing the stark contrast caused by strong sunlight. This results in really attractive skin tones.
Finally, flashes are frequently used by fashion and model photographers in the outdoor world. The flash will illuminate your subject in the same brightness as the background, making exposures easier to achieve. This is especially prevalent in sunset photography, where your subject would otherwise be a silhouette against the sunset.
When utilizing flash, you’ll notice that your ISO stays much lower than without it, the flash limits your shutter speed, and you may set your aperture as you choose. It dramatically simplifies your photoshoot settings.
3. When In Difficult Lighting, Underexpose
As much as it’s a good idea to get the shot as right as possible straight from the camera, you and I know that isn’t always possible. Editing comes into play frequently when it concerns photography. As such, if you find yourself photographing a scene that is splotchy with light or features some very heavy whites, underexpose your shot.
The reason for this is that when a highlight is overexposed, the details are (quite literally) burned out of the shot. Even though RAW mode can save some details, you can’t see, not all of them can be fixed.
Because there is frequently still information in the darker areas that can be brought forward by altering the exposure slider in an editing tool, it is considerably simpler to restore shadows and lighten them in the editing room. However, overexposed highlights have lost information that cannot be recovered. So whenever you are shooting in bright situations, make sure your highlights are not too bright and lift the shadows in post!