Suppose we have time to shoot with an DSLR. Before actually shooting, some settings have to be adjusted to get a picture. Suppose we have a brand new DSLR in hand and every setting has to be defined.

Of course, getting the right picture depends on the subject, the context, the personal taste, etc. but I don't matter on the artistic point of view, just on the order (if such a determined one exists) and the importance of all the required technical step.

As a debutant, I imagine it could be this (rather simple) one:

  • ISO, depending on the current lightness ;
  • white balance, depending on the light color ;
  • aperture, depending on the desired depth of field ;
  • composition, depending on the subject ;
  • shutter speed, depending on the desired exposition ;

and finally...

  • SHOOT!

Is this a correct way to handle things? Is such an order (this one or another) very typical or does it change for each picture? If different, what's yours, and why?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ You might be interested in Michael Freeman's book Perfect Exposure focalpress.com/books/photography/…, which uses a similar workflow diagram as an organizing principle for the book. (Freeman doesn't claim that his is the only such ordering of steps; he just presents a logical one, and says that most experienced photographers use something similar, consciously or not.) \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Apr 19, 2011 at 13:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm that's while reading this book that I first realized some people tried to put such a process on paper. I tried to find one that suits me, but the book is a bit hard for a debutant like me, that's why my process is still rough... \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2011 at 13:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also see What is the best order to set exposure parameters (ISO, aperture, shutter)? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Dec 24, 2013 at 10:44

4 Answers 4


I never really thought about it, and I don't really think there's a right sequence, but I guess my typical sequence is:

  1. White balance: I shoot raw, and almost always leave the camera in Auto White Balance, because it's usually an OK starting point, and precise adjustment will be done in raw development.
  2. Shooting mode: Most often Aperture Priority (Av)
  3. "Independent variable": That is, for Aperture Priority, I set the aperture that I want to shoot
  4. First guess at ISO: Based on my perception of the light
  5. Check "dependent variable": Point the camera at a "typical" or "approximate" version of the shot's composition and see if the camera-selected exposure variable (shutter speed in Av mode) is acceptable. Adjust ISO if not.
  6. Exposure compensation: Adjust +/- exposure compensation based on subject matter (e.g. + compensation for snow scenes) and/or a test shot
  7. Focus, compose, and fire: I would not typically want to be worrying about exposure any more when making the final composition.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Expressed very precisely. Nice. Perhaps a note on ISO – there is Auto ISO as well. Not important when it's bright enough, but for dark scenes (like, concerts) I might wish to stay at the lower limit of shutter speed that I can still hold stable and chose an appropriate aperture, and let the camera do the ISO magic (especially if lighting conditions change quickly; no chance to adjust correctly by hand, at least not for me). \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2011 at 19:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Simon, I shoot a Pentax K10D, which has a so-called "TAv" mode, where you set both the aperture and shutter, and it picks the ISO automatically. So if that's how I want to work, I'd pick that mode in Step 2. That's a camera-specific detail, though, and most other makes handle it differently, as you describe. (The K10D has a pretty narrow range of usable ISOs compared to newer models, so I don't actually tend to use this mode much.) \$\endgroup\$
    – coneslayer
    Apr 18, 2011 at 19:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @coneslayer, note that not many people can use the TAv mode. No other brand, except perhaps the Samsung GX series based on Pentax cameras, has this mode, and not all Pentax models support it—only the more advanced models do. I use a Pentax K-r, and I don't have this mode; the more expensive K-5 does. In any case, high ISO performance has dramatically improved over the years and you can often get a usable shot at ISO 3200. \$\endgroup\$
    – bwDraco
    Apr 19, 2011 at 3:52
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @DragonLord Now you nearly shocked me: Does my Auto-ISO only work on Shutter and Aperture priority, but not on Manual mode? Fortunately not (checked); it works for both the D90 and the D7000, and I can additionally chose an upper limit for the ISO. So that's the Nikon TAv mode :) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2011 at 6:08
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ On the D7000 at least, you can program one of your user modes to emulate the TAv mode coneslayer describes. To do this, first set your shooting mode to M, then set up the Auto ISO settings. Save these settings to U1 or U2. Having this mode means ISO is no longer the odd variable out among the variables in the exposure triangle. \$\endgroup\$
    – Evan Krall
    Apr 20, 2011 at 3:33

The typical set of steps I go through when I see a scene I want to photograph. They are presented in order of importance:

  1. Composition: No point randomly snapping unless I know what the focal point in a scene is, and how I wish to interpret the scene. This really must be the first thing you do as everything else flows from this.
  2. Move: I get into position, as this will affect the focal length of the lens I use. Do I want to compress the depth of the scene and bring objects that are far apart closer together? I move further back and use a telephoto lens. Do I want to exaggerate lines and distances? I go up close and personal with an ultra wide angle.
  3. Pick AF point: Once I know where my point of interest lies, I pick the AF point that best corresponds to the location of the subject. If this is not possible, I switch to manual focus or use the manual focus override.
  4. Aperture & Shutter speed: Then I set the aperture to achieve the desired depth of field and the correct shutter speed to express motion.

I generally leave the ISO setting at Auto, which is configured to go from ISO 80 - 6400 on my K-5. White balance is left on Auto or Cloudy, depending on my mood. All of this can be fixed easily in post processing so there's no point in mucking about with them at point of capture.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for this different approach (subject-based instead of settings-based) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2011 at 6:09

I don't think you're going to find a "correct" way to handle things, since this will all be very subjective depending on the circumstances.

If I want a shot where the subject stands out and I want a lot of bokeh, then the aperture probably becomes the most important and first thing to configure. If I'm photographing fast-action sports, the first consideration will be a very short shutter speed.

There's not likely a certain set of steps that will apply in most situations. A photographer should evaluate the situation, think about the photograph that he or she wishes to create, then use the appropriate camera settings for that vision. If there's a camera setting (aperture, shutter speed, etc.) that will facilitate that vision, then that setting becomes the most important. Others will need to be considered (I'm still going to think about white balance in almost any situation) but they won't be as important as the setting that helps facilitate the primary challenge or vision.


Prior to leaving home:

A. Lens (decided by subject matter, expected subject distance, expected available light). Ultrawide, normal zoom, telezoom, ridicilously fast prime, superzoom?

When entering the area of shooting:

B. ISO (dictated by available light and my anticipated needs for shutter speed and depth of field)

Prior to shooting a sequence of shots:

C. Aperture (for depth of field, or lack thereof)

D. Shutter speed (for freezing the subject or blurring movement) These two must be balanced against each other, and possibly with the ISO setting as well.

E. Take a test shot to verify that the histogram is where it ought to be.

Finally, compose and shoot. Note that I generally keep the settings as they are over a sometimes large number of pictures, given constant light.

I couldn't care less about the white balance. That's a matter for the RAW conversion afterwards.


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