Photography is something I’ve always loved but, to be honest, I’ve never considered myself much of a photographer until recently. I just never found the time to really sit down and learn. I spent a lot of time just using my DSL-R on auto mode which kind of defeats the purpose. When I did have something I wanted to try, I always ended up doing frantic internet searches for camera settings. Looking for blog posts with photography cheat sheets to tell me what to do for a night shot vs for a self-portrait because, at the time, the terms ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed were all gibberish to me.
Well, thankfully I’ve taken the time to actually learn how to use my camera (though I now shoot on a mirrorless). I’m by no means an expert photographer but I’ve received plenty of compliments on my photography. I’ve come a long way from the girl frantically searching for Wi-Fi so she can try to find what settings to use to best photograph a sunset. However, I know that there are a lot of people out there who still do that.
So, if you are someone who is just learning photography, or someone who hasn’t gotten around to learning yet and is looking for a quick and easy instructions on how to photograph stars or take beautiful travel portraits. Well, this photography cheat sheet is for you. In this post, I’m sharing what I think are helpful camera settings to have on hand as a traveller. Basically, this is the kind of information I always wanted on hand before I actually learned.
Quick Notes to Start
Before I dig in, there are a few quick notes I want to start with. This post is meant for those with manual cameras. If you are using a cell phone camera check out my post on smartphone travel photography.
I also often get questions on what I use for my camera gear. I don’t have a lot and nothing too fancy. I went for a mid-line mirrorless camera (the Nikon Z50) that would be light and easy to travel with but worked with my old DSL-R lenses (I did buy an adaptor). You can find the list of the camera and photography equipment I use here.
The following tips are from my own practicing and playing with my camera as well as advice I’ve taken from some online photography classes.
With that in mind, let’s get started. Here’s my cheat sheet version of camera settings and tips for travel portraits, travel landscapes, and night photography.
Portrait Camera Settings
Portrait style photos were the first thing I focused on learning because, as a solo traveller, I spend a lot of time trying to take photos of myself.
For portrait photos I shoot on aperture priority. This means I customize aperture and my camera determines the shutter speed and the ISO based on what I choose as an f-stop.
Aperture effects two different aspects of the photo: depth of field and exposure.
A low f-stop means the lens is open wide. This allows more light to get in making the photo brighter, and also lessens the depth of field so your subject in the foreground will be clear and in focus while the background is a bit more blurred.
If you have a higher f-stop, the subject and the background will both be sharper and in focus. High f-stops also mean less light being let into the lens though, so your image will be a bit darker.
For both, you’ll have to play a bit with the f-stops to get your desired focus but also decent lighting. Too low an f-stop may make for a really blurry background, but depending on the setting it may be way too bright and wash out your subject. Similarly, too high a f-stop may create an appealing evenness to the entire photo, but could be too dark.
Personally, I love taking photos of myself or people/animals with a lower f-stop because I prefer the contrast of having a sharper subject and softer background (like the photo of my dog, Stella, above). I’m also a big fan of the bokeh effect which is achieved with very low f-stops. However, especially in travel photography, you don’t want always want to lose the background. In this case, you want to make sure you do some photos using a higher f-stop as well.
Landscape Camera Settings
For the longest time I was very much as point-and-shoot landscape photographer. Sure my pictures were nice but I always knew there must be some sort of trick to make them better. So during my 2020 lockdown time I took online photography classes and spent a lot of time watching classes about landscape photography. Here are the main tips I learned.
For landscape photography, it’s best to shoot on aperture priority. Use a higher f-stop though (start at 11 and go up). Two ‘magic’ f-stop numbers according to professional photographers are 16 and 22. You can play with both (and in-between) to see what you like best.
Lighting is key, which we already know. Dawn and dusk are the best times of day to shoot landscapes. To help with your lighting, make sure to adjust your white balance which you can do directly on the camera. The instructor for one of the classes I took suggests keeping your white balance on the cloudy settings for all outdoor landscape photography, even when it’s full sun. This gives your photos a warmer glow which is especially desirable if you are taking photos during the golden hour.
At the end of the day, however, the biggest part of good landscape photography is composition. Have a foreground, middle ground, and background. Remember the rule of thirds, and don’t be afraid to move around and get high or low to take your photos from different angles.
Fun tip: If the sun is in your photo, try a higher f-stop. This will give you a sun flare effect.
Astrophotography Camera Settings
Astrophotography is, as I have recently learned, is a lot of fun but can be pretty finicky. I’ve spent hours down on the dock at my cottage with my camera pointed to the night sky trying to perfect shots of the milky way or the stars twinkling above the trees. Some turn out, but most don’t. Getting the right focus can be pretty tricky and involves a lot of trial and error.
My biggest tips:
-Set your camera and lens both to manual mode
-focus the lens on infinity to start, but then, on the screen on your camera, focus on a bright point (brightest star), then move your lens a bit until the bright point looks as tiny and clear as possible. If it’s a star, you want it to look like a pin prick, not a small bright blob. Once it looks like this, that’s your ‘true infinity’.
-Put your f-stop as low as you can. Mine will drop done to 3.5
-Set your ISO somewhere between 1600-3200 (play around and see what works best)
-Use the 500 rule for shutter speed
The 500 rule says to divide 500 by your lens’ focal length. Supposedly, this is the longest shutter speed you can use before your photos get blurry. My lens was set at 18mm so it should have been 27.8 seconds according to the rule so I use 30 seconds.
I should also note that you absolutely need a tripod for night photography and a remote may come in handy as well so you don’t shake the camera. I don’t have one but my camera has Bluetooth and can connect to my phone so I can shoot from there. I’ve also done it manually by setting a timer so I don’t risk bumping the camera when pressing the shutter button.
Travel Photography Cheat Sheet
|Type of Photo||Camera Mode||Camera Settings||Extra Equipment|
|Portrait||Aperture Priority||Low f-stop for sharper subject and blurrier background (best for focusing on model)|
High f-stop to keep everything in focus (best for showing model + background scenery)
|-Tripod and remote (mandatory for self-portraits)|
|Landscape||Aperture Priority||f-stop should be 11+ (16 and 22 are photographer favourites.|
Set white balance to shady to keep warm tones
High f-stop will give you sun flares
|-Tripod and remote are optional|
|Astrophotography||Manual||f-stop: Keep as low as your camera will let you|
Shutter Speed: Rule of 500
-Shoot in RAW for best post-processing
Final Tips on This Travel Photography Cheat Sheet
One thing that you may have noticed I did not mention is whether I shoot in RAW or JPEG format. Most photographers shoot in RAW. It’s a much bigger image with a lot more detail and information. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. It’s only better if you enjoy and are good at post-processing, aka editing your photos.
Personally, I don’t love editing photos. I’m slowly getting better at it but I am by no means an expert. Therefore, I shoot in both RAW and JPEG. A lot of my stuff is JPEG to be honest, but the night photography definitely is better to shoot in RAW.
Hopefully this travel photography cheat sheet comes in handy! The more you practice and play around the more you will learn what style you like and what settings work best for your camera and lens so get photographing!