Here are my favourite camera settings for each possible scenario in travel photography. These will provide a good starting point for you to create your own list of favourite settings.
It will partly come down to your personal taste but also your camera’s capabilities.
General Travel Photography Settings
Before getting into the best camera settings for specific scenarios, here are some general settings that will apply to all travel photography.
This controls how white light is recorded in images. Our eyes automatically adjust so we don’t notice the different tones in natural light.
Cameras don’t. So for example, you notice that images taken in bright sunshine have a slight blue tint to them.
There are two ways to tackle this issue. You can either set your white balance when taking the photo or adjust it in post-production. If you intend to do this in post-production, make sure you shoot in RAW format.
I always set my camera to auto white balance and only change it in extreme scenarios.
Unless you are very quick and efficient with manual focus, I would recommend setting your camera to autofocus. For the vast majority of occasions, this will work fine and give you sharp photos. If you find that it isn’t quite right, then switch to manual focus.
If your camera has various focus point when you look through the viewfinder, test these out to see if there are any that don’t focus as sharply as others. The outer ones will sometimes not focus as sharply as the centre ones.
The only time that I always use manual focus is when my camera is mounted on a tripod. I can zoom into specific sections and make sure that it is as focused as I want it to be.
You should always aim to keep your ISO as low as possible. The higher it is, the more noise will appear in your shots which will affect the sharpness.
Whilst some people might recommend using the auto ISO setting on your camera, I would avoid it. Sure, the camera will try to keep the ISO as low as possible, but often that will end up being higher than you actually would want.
Instead of using auto ISO, learn how to manually move your ISO up quickly. Most DSLRs will allow you to change your ISO using a button and a dial.
Try to get into the habit of adjusting your camera settings and ISO throughout the day. So for example, as you move from a shaded area to sunshine, tweak your camera settings.
Typical Settings for Different Scenarios
The important thing to remember is that these camera settings are just a guide.
So here are my favourite camera settings for 10 travel photography scenarios.
1. Traditional Portraits
Photographing people is always an essential part of any travel photography portfolio. There are two types of people photography.
The first is the traditional head and shoulder portrait. These shots are pretty easy to capture if you have a willing model but will need a little bit of art direction.
The first thing you need to consider is the background. Keep it simple and a neutral colour to ensure the focus is on the subject. The most important part of a head and shoulder portrait is the person’s eyes. You need to keep these sharp.
Keep your depth of field shallow to blur the background slightly to draw the focus onto the person’s face. As the person will be standing still, your shutter speed doesn’t have to be too fast.
Try to position your model in the shade to avoid harsh shadows on their face. And remember, only raise your ISO if you have to.
- Shutter speed: 1/100th sec
- Aperture: f/4 to f/5.6 (you can use a wider aperture i.e. f/2.8 but make sure you are focusing correctly)
- Aperture priority mode
- ISO: 100 unless you need to raise it to ensure a fast shutter speed
2. Environmental Portraits
The other type of people photography is environmental portraits. This is when you capture a wider view to show what the person is doing. For example, this could be a market vendor making a sale.
If the person is outdoors then the above settings for portraits should still be enough. But you may have to increase your shutter speed slightly if they are doing something fast.
Usually, these will end up being in low light conditions such as markets or even in shops and buildings. This makes things a little trickier and means you have to be more careful about your shutter speed.
If the person is standing still you can aim for around 1/100th sec. But if they are moving around you may need a faster speed such as 1/125th or even faster. This often means raising your ISO.
Keep your depth of field not too shallow as you want to show what the person is doing. So you need their surrounding area in focus too.
It is also worth shooting in burst mode when taking environmental portraits. This will make it more likely to capture the perfect moment of interaction or when the person has their eyes open.
- Shutter speed: 1/125th or faster
- Aperture: f/5.6
- Shutter priority mode (you want to make sure that your image will be sharp)
- ISO: 400 (possibly higher if working in very low light conditions)
- Burst mode
Settings for landscape photography are easy to work out and utilise. The key setting when it comes to landscape photos is your depth of field. The majority of the time you will need to keep as much of the scene sharp as possible.
You will need to have a small aperture (high f/number). Start at around f/8 and work your way up to achieve the desired depth of field. But avoid going too high such as f/18 or higher as this can have a negative impact on the sharpness of your photo.
If you are using a tripod then shutter speed won’t be an issue. So keep your ISO as low as possible (i.e. 100 or even 50 on some new models).
But if you are going to be shooting handheld then you may need to bump up your ISO to allow you to take photos at a speed which isn’t going to cause camera shake.
Generally, I will aim for a minimum speed of 1/100 sec for handheld shots to be safe. Test how steady you can hold a camera so that you are aware for future shoots.
- Aperture: f/8 – f/16
- Shutter speed: at least 1/100th sec if shooting handheld
- ISO: as low as possible
4. Photographing at Sunrise or Sunset
The perfect times of day for outdoor photography come with their challenges. To make things easier for yourself, use a tripod. This will allow you to have more options to execute the shot.
For example, if you want to show movement in people or cars, use a slow shutter speed. Using a tripod will also mean your ISO can be low and you can choose your depth of field.
Whereas without the tripod you will need to work under the constraints of how steady you can hold a camera. Generally you won’t be able to go slower than 1/60th sec handheld. So start with your shutter speed and then your depth of field.
Once you have those your ISO will need to be increased to allow you to take the shot.
Your camera settings for sunrise or sunset when using a tripod will depend on what you are photographing. So it will be a compromise between depth of field and shutter speed. If the importance rests on shutter speed (i.e. you need to freeze the action) choose that first.
If the depth of field is more important (i.e. when photographing a cityscape) then set your aperture first. Once you have done this, you can set other settings accordingly.
Typical Settings for Freezing the Action
- Shutter speed: 1/200th sec
- Aperture: f/5.6 to f/10
- ISO: set depending on the above
Typical Settings for Depth of Field
- Aperture: f/8 – f/16
- Shutter speed: 1/60th or below (using a tripod)
- ISO: as low as possible
The good news about photographing buildings is that they don’t move so you don’t have to worry about a fast shutter speed. The main issue when photographing buildings is converging lines.
That’s the effect where buildings look like they are falling backward.
The best way to avoid this if possible is to move back and photograph the building from further away. But that might mean that you need a telephoto lens.
Sometimes this won’t be possible as you can’t get far enough back to be able to capture the building without converging lines.
In this scenario, you will need to fix the issue in post-processing. This is done by distorting and tilting the image until it is straight.
But, this will mean cropping into the photo so try to capture the shot with room around the main building. Otherwise, you will end up cropping into the main subject.
- Aperture: f/8 (if the building or multiple buildings are all in one line, you could go for a wider aperture)
- Shutter speed: 1/100 sec for handheld
- ISO: as low as possible
- Make sure you leave room around the main subject to be able to straighten out in post-production
6. Outdoor Food Photos
Photographing food outdoors is the ideal way to photograph food when travelling. Try to place the dish in the shade to avoid harsh shadows. Cloudy or overcast days are ideal for food photography outdoors.
You can get away with a pretty shallow depth of field but make sure you focus correctly on the part of the dish that you want to highlight.
Keep your shutter speed at a minimum of 1/100 sec (unless you are sure that you can hold a camera steady slower than this).
But don’t go below 1/60th sec as you’ll get camera shake and will end up with a blurred photo.
- Aperture: f/4
- Shutter speed 1/100 sec (minimum 1/60th)
- ISO: you shouldn’t need to raise your ISO too high if photographing outdoors (max 200-400)
- Cloudy or overcast days are ideal
7. Indoor Food Photography
Photographing food outdoors is straightforward. But trying to capture good photos of food indoors can be tough. Your first issue is the amount of light.
Restaurants and even markets tend to be pretty dark and so it means you’ll have no choice but to raise your ISO.
Different cameras will have different results when it comes to high ISO. So it would be best to test your camera beforehand to see the acceptable level of noise you can work with. Typically I wouldn’t go above 1200 ISO as there will be too much noise in the photo.
Your aperture will usually have to remain pretty wide to be able to keep your shutter speed fast.
One thing not to do is to use a flash. All that will achieve is washing away the colours and tones, leaving you with a flat image.
- ISO: 800 – 1200
- Shutter speed 1/80 sec (or faster if possible)
- Aperture: f/2.8
“Never work with children or animals” is the famous saying. Capturing good wildlife photos takes a lot of practice. The big problem you face is the animal moving.
Animals will usually not hang around in one spot for long especially when startled by humans.
So the key setting to manage for wildlife photos is your shutter speed. You might need to set this at 1/250 sec if the animal is stationary with minimal movement. But don’t be surprised if you need to go much faster for something that is moving fast.
For example, capturing a cheetah in full sprint or eagle in mid-flight might need a shutter speed of something like 1/2000 sec!
It is best to set your camera to shutter priority mode so that you can choose the speed and let the camera set your aperture. For wildlife photography, you might also consider setting your ISO to auto as well and shooting in burst mode.
The other useful camera setting is the automatic focusing of moving subjects (in Canon cameras this is called AI Servo).
This useful setting will track the moving subject continuously, focusing as long as the shutter release button is pressed down halfway.
But one thing to be careful with is that you are focused on the right thing. It is easy to accidentally focus on the long grass that the animal is sitting in rather than the animal itself.
- Shutter speed 1/250 sec for animals that are standing still, 1/1000+ sec for ones that are moving
- Aperture: Auto
- ISO: Auto
- Focus: AI Servo for Canon (equivalent for other brands)
- Burst mode
9. Action Photos
Photographing anything that moves can be difficult. Being able to capture the perfect moment, whilst focusing correctly and making sure your image is sharp can be hit and miss.
The first thing to do is set your camera to burst mode so you have a better chance of capturing the right moment. If the action you are photographing moves fast consider using the automatic AI focusing of the camera like in wildlife photos above.
Finally set your camera to shutter priority and set your shutter speed accordingly based on the speed of movement. Then use the auto ISO and aperture settings to allow the camera to set these for you based in shutter speed.
- Shutter speed 1/250 sec – 1/500 sec (faster for faster-moving action sequences)
- Aperture: Auto
- ISO: Auto
- Focus: Auto AI
- Burst mode
10. Night Photography
Photographing at night is straightforward if you are using a tripod. Shutter speed can be set to whatever you want and ISO can remain as low as possible. Your aperture will usually determine the above two.
If you want most of the image sharp start your aperture at around f/8. But if you want a shallower depth of field then you can go lower but make sure you focus on the right part of the image.
If you are not using a tripod, then, unfortunately, you will find that your image will have too much noise in because of the high ISO that you will need to set. So the best bit of advice for photographing at night is to use a tripod.
Typical Settings (Using a Tripod)
- Aperture: f/8 or higher
- ISO: 100
- Shutter speed: depending on aperture
- Use a tripod
This list should help get you started when choosing your camera settings. But it is important to remember that every scenario is different.
Try to practice and learn what works best for you in each scenario. Keep track of what worked and what didn’t so you can improve on your mistakes.
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