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I recently purchased a Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm pancake lens. It's by far the nicest camera I've ever owned and I'm really excited to learn the basics of digital photography (primarily street photography) with it. It comes with all sorts of "scene" modes (which I guess are just preset iso, aperture, shutter speed values... is that right or is that totally oversimplifying things?). It also has the ability to define 2 custom modes... so, while I'm having fun experimenting with various combinations of these settings I'm finding it to be kind of overwhelming. There are so many different combinations of iso, aperture, and shutter speed that can be set I'm wondering if there are some good "base" values to start with? I think I'd like to setup one of the settings to work in b&w and the other to work in color, but am open to any and all suggestions.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Your tripod of settings, iso, shutter, and aperture, all work together to create an exposure. That level can change every second, based on whether a car is driving by, a street light is flickering, the moon goes behind a cloud, your subject puts on a hat, etc.

Heres my oversimplified two step approach:

  • Learn how each of the three legs affect a picture other than in terms of light adjustment
  • Set your camera to automatic, see what it records, switch it to manual, renter those exact settings, then play around.
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Good call on setting to auto and recording the settings it uses... simple approach (clearly I'm a little slow) and should give me a good "base" to start from. Thanks! –  heavilyinvolved Jul 16 '10 at 0:30
1  
No problem, and keep in mind that the aperture priority (AV Mode) and shutter priority (TV mode) help to automate this process for you, by letting you select one or two of the three legs, and it automatically adjusts the third for you. –  reuscam Jul 16 '10 at 2:01

Most street photographers will insist, loudly, that the technique and equipment are very much secondary to the vision and the results. They're quite correct, and it's important not to obsess.

That said, from a very basic standpoint, there are some pretty simple constraints to most street work:

  1. People are probably moving.
  2. You don't have time for extra-careful focus.
  3. It's outdoors, but you have to deal with shade and shadow.

Movement means you want a slightly higher shutter speed. Not having time to focus would imply a higher f-number to increase depth of field. Take both of those together, and combined with the variation in light and shade in the city, and you'll want to raise the ISO, at least a little. Tri-X 400 was the photojournalist film of choice (though sometimes downrated to ~250).

This is a very typical 'photojournalist' type of setup, with nothing particularly special about it. And there are always reasons to vary your approach, like this great long-exposure shot by Trent Parke: alt text

And very much worth reading is his commentary on how he got the image, reproduced on Flickr here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/onthestreet/discuss/72157617875097800/

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Interesting, thanks for the link! –  heavilyinvolved Jul 24 '10 at 17:41

There is no common setting that produces a good exposure. You need to practice, experiment and make sure you understand how these settings work together. Some general guidelines I've come across in the past might help you on your way:

  • Photojournalists have a saying, "f/8 and be there", meaning that being on the scene is more important than worrying about technical details. (from Wikipedia)
  • The Sunny 16 Rule might help with exposure levels, but it doesn't suggest an appropriate depth of field
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+1 for Sunny f/16 rule –  CoderDennis Jul 24 '10 at 7:33

A suggestion - nothing more

ISO

The lower your ISO, the less digital noise you will have. Although modern cameras are improving noise very quickly, I suggest that you start by setting the lowest ISO you have.

Shutter

To start out with, you probably don't want any motion blur in your photos, so set the shutter speed at faster than, say 1/50 of a second. (The rule of thumb is to have the shutter going at least as fast as the length of the lens, so at least 1/50 of a second for a 50mm lens, at least 1/100 of a second for a 100mm lens, etc.)

Apperture

This leaves apperture - leave apperture on automatic so that you can get the correct exposure having set the ISO and shutter speeds.

Try it out and see how it works for you - then have fun changing things.
When changing settings, it is often best to choose one setting and change that, rather than making lots of alterations at once.

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Aperture has significant impact on resulting photo, so it's rare when it should be left automatic. As Matt Grum has clearly demonstrated in answers his related to high ISO, a lower ISO than needed for correct exposure results in more noise than a higher ISO. –  Imre May 28 '11 at 8:09
    
@imre, you're quite right, but this question is asking for some common settings, and is couched as a beginner question. Your comments are relevant for someone at the next level. To start with, this guy just wants to get the right exposure. –  AJ Finch May 31 '11 at 11:24
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I doubt using shutter priority is nearly as common as aperture priority or even full manual. The asker did not specify whether streets will be roamed in daytime, low-light or both - in low-light, lowest ISO will not be sufficient for adequate exposure. –  Imre May 31 '11 at 15:38

My own setting

With my GF1, I set up the 2 custom modes : on C1, my "back to Leica" setting :

  • Dynamic B&W
  • 400 ISO
  • Manual focus
  • Aperture priority; I Usually set it à 8 or 11 for street shooting

on C2, my "shoot without thinking" setup :

  • basically, everything AUTO, in RAW.
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Not an expert, but I've heard some experts favor high iso (i.e. fast shutter speeds) and small aperture (i.e. deep depth of field), both because action is fast, subjects are in motion, no time to focus precisely on subject and noise (hi iso) is preferable to motion-blurred subjects.

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These are the setting that I generally find work best for me. I use a 35mm film camera, but should be the same for digital. Shadow characteristics. St. photography ISO Set shutter speed to match ISO f/16 Sunny: Distinct with sharp edges. f/11 Slightly cloudy: Soft around edges. f/8 Overcast: Barely visible shadows. f/5.6 Heavy overcast: No shadows. f/4 Open shade: sunrise/set no shadows.

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