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Collecting & Shooting Reference Photos Part III

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Adjusting your Camera Settings

You may be thinking, "I'm no photographer. Can't I just set my camera to auto?" Yes, of course you can; you can do whatever you want. A basic knowledge of your camera's features, however, goes a long way to producing stellar reference photos. Take a bit of time to get to know your camera, and experiment with the effects of changing your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture settings. A little 'fooling around' beforehand will help you immensely in the editing process later. Here are some settings I like to manipulate. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully there is enough info to help you achieve better results. After all, a painter is only as good as his reference!

For a more comprehensive list, see my post of camera settings definitions here.


Camera Settings

Aperture: I tend to want everything in focus, so a shallow aperture is what I usually use. (That's a higher f-stop.) Honestly, I don't mess with it much.

Shutter Speed : I want the fastest speed the light will let me use while keeping my ISO at least 400 or 800 (or lower, if I can). A tripod helps with image stabilization, so I usually shoot from 1/30 to 1/100 of a second.

ISO Speed: ISO 100 is about right for sunny outdoor shooting; ISO 400 to 800 is good for shooting indoors with a single light source; and ISO 1600 is the highest I will ever go when I am forced to shoot something in extremely low light, say with a candle or a dim bulb.1600 does produce incredibly noisy (grainy) pictures, though, so I try to avoid it if I can.

White Balance: I mostly shoot with daylight bulbs or use sunlight, so I just use the Daylight WB setting. Sometimes I want warmer lighting, so I purposely use tungsten light with the Daylight setting. White Balance is pretty easy to manipulate post-production, so I don't worry too much about it during the actual photoshoot.

AF One Shot/AF Al Servo vs Manual Focus: I've found that the camera can see if something is in focus better than I can these days, so in general, I let the camera do the focusing on AF One Shot; I don't do a lot of action shots (best with AF AI Servo), and sometimes I move stuff around after getting the initial depth of field, so this setting works great. Often I focus the camera and then switch it to Manual Focus, so I don't mess things up as I work.

RAW vs JPEG files: I always shoot in RAW. You get the most data to manipulate later and the highest quality images. Watch your memory, though!

Flash vs. No Flash: I rarely use the flash. If I need more light, I move to a window or get another lamp or go outside. Frontal lighting is the hardest to paint, so I rarely want reference lit from my camera's flash.

Camera Timer: You may have noticed a button on your camera that looks something like this:

Pressing this button will open up a menu that will give you some choices as to what happens after depressing the shutter completely. Common options are: Single Shooting (one picture taken per shutter depression); Continuous Shooting (the camera will take multiple shots when you press and hold the shutter); Remote Control Self-Timer (you can use a remote to 'press' the shutter); 2-Sec Self-Timer (the picture will take 2 seconds after pressing the shutter); and Self-Timer + Continuous Shots (one shutter depression will take from 2 to 10 pictures in succession). I often use the delay timer because it allows me time to get into my pose after pressing the button. Using a remote control is also extremely helpful when I am acting as both model and photographer, which I frequently do.


Time for Some Application

"Waiting on the Lord" Photoshoot

To take this image, I used a tripod, a remote control, and set the picture to take after 2 seconds. My light source was a single Lightbox with an 18 W/120 VAC/60 Hz daylight bulb. I took the diffusing cover off of my Lightbox and also had additional light streaming in from a south-facing window. The settings for my camera were as follows:

Aperture: f/3.5

Shutter Speed: 1/30 sec

AF One Shot

ISO: 800

White Balance: Daylight

Photo Reference for "Waiting on the Lord" sans Edits

"She Found it in the Woods" Photoshoot

This image was a bit trickier because there was a lot less light. The only light came from the small lamp in my hand plus an additional lamp indirectly lighting the room from the floor. I also had to shoot this sans remote control, so I set my camera timer to go off 10 times over the course of a couple of minutes. This gave me the chance to get into position and also try a few different poses.

It's a bit difficult to focus on a subject that isn't in front of the lens yet. To combat this I have a bust of a monkey mounted on a mic stand with a graduation robe draped over it. (I know, weird, right? But he works.) I simply placed him about where I was to stand, focused the camera mounted on a tripod, switched the lens to manual focus, so it wouldn't change, and moved the monkey. I was then able to take my images, relatively confident that if I stayed on my mark, I would be in focus.

Here are my camera stats for this image:

Aperture: f/3.5

Shutter Speed: 1/50 sec (I wanted it to be fairly dark because this was for a nocturne painting)

AF One Shot

ISO: 800

White Balance: Daylight (I did this to accentuate the orange-yellow of the light source)

Photo Reference in 'low light' sans Edits


"Peppermint Cottage" Photoshoot

This image was taken outside in full sun. It was a lot easier to shoot because I wasn't the model here. I did not use a tripod because I was moving around my model with each shot and because the light was bright enough that I didn't get a whole lot of blurring from just holding the camera. I set the picture to take immediately on depressing the shutter.

Camera Stats

Aperture: f/4.0

Shutter Speed: 1/1600

AF One Shot

ISO: 100

White Balance: Daylight

Photo Reference for "Peppermint Cottage" taken in full sun sans Edits

Final Word

I'm sure there is a scientific way to calculate exactly what you're settings should be for each shot. But unless you have fancy atmosphere-light-reading tool things or an assistant, the best way to get satisfactory settings is just to experiment. When you're on location, take a few shots before you get your model in position. Manipulate your shutter speed, white balance, and ISO until you get close to what you want. Doing this before you have a model staring at you allows you to concentrate on getting your settings locked in. Then you don't have to worry about that while dealing with the nerves of involving someone else in the creative process.

And don't stress too much. If it's not exactly right, there is some wiggle room to tweak things in the editing phase. Just do the best you can, and over time you'll find you get better and better.

For more information about your camera, I've found the camera manual is actually quite informative. I know, shocker. Go dig it up. If you're less of a reader (which means you probably aren't reading this), you can always take an introductory photography course. I have found that to be quite useful, too.



For this post I used a Canon T2i for reference. Your camera (which is probably way less ancient than mine, which, I realize on writing this, is nearly 10 years old!) may not be exactly the same. If you have some kind of DSLR (or a fancy point and shoot), the principles of Aperture/WB/ISO/Exposure are, regardless, widely applicable.

Stay tuned for Part IV where we will discuss tips and tricks when doing the actual photoshoot.

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