Can an experienced photographer walking down the street with no equipment visualize exactly what settings would work with a particular lens/body to capture a scene at that moment in time?

Similarly could they blindly (without aid of equipment) mentally "snap" photos while vocally stating the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focal length of the shot? How fast can they do this?

If this is possible, personal experiences or professionals who write about this capability would be appreciated.

Similar question just focusing in on sensor size here: How can I visualize or simulate the effect of different focal lengths?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Any help in clarity of the question is appreciated. I tried my best :) \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 14:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ I know many users here can look at an image after it was captured and calculate the settings that were likely used. This question is focused on doing this in the moment, prior to any shot being taken, and still getting exposure correct. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 14:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Given that professionals either use light meters, TTL metering of some description, or practice shots to get the correct exposures, I'd take out the 'getting exposure correct' part of the question, although they would know whether they want varying stops of under of overexposure. 'How fast they can do this' also seems a little silly as that makes me think of measuring the computational speeds of Data from Star Trek ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Dreamager
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 14:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dreamager - That is exactly what my question is, could some take shots WITHOUT light meters, TTL, practice shots, or any equipment? Similar to how the first photographers did it, but in today's world! \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 14:26
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Something like 'I gaze at the sunset with the woman I love and think F8 at 1/250'? :) (a Canon 40D ad) \$\endgroup\$
    – Imre
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 14:52

6 Answers 6


Yes, in general with enough experience you can look at a scene and judge the settings. You wont be exactly right all of the time, but you'll be close a vast majority of the time. It's part experience, part learning not to trust your eyes.

There's a finite number of situations to deal with as human beings have a limited window of light levels that are comfortable. Provided you are constantly aware of what settings you are using in different situations (i.e. by looking at the shutter speed/aperture/ISO in the viewfinder) you'll eventually get a feel for what settings go with what situation (dusk, midday, office, concert etc.)

As I said earlier you have to learn to distrust your eyes. The eyes/brain are far too good at adjusting for varying light levels. The difference between midday and after the sun goes down but still light enough for most people to see where they're going unaided is huge. You have to override what you see and think: even though it still looks light, it's getting late and the light levels have probably dropped right off...


Have you heard about the "sunny 16" rule? (In bright sunlight, when you set your aperture to f/16, the shutter speed is 1/ISO).

I just checked, I've set my camera to f/16, 1/100, ISO 100 and pointed it to an object in direct sunlight and the meter showed -1/3, I then used an iPhone app to find the corresponding rule for open shadow, pointed the camera at my dog sitting in the shade and the meter was +1/3.

So - using those basic rules takes you very close to the correct exposure, well within the dynamic range of the camera - and you don't even need experience to use them.

Now, complex situations with multiple or changing light sources is a completely different story.

Note about "Sunny 16" - You don't have to use f/16 - f/16,1/100,ISO100 is exactly the same exposure as f/11,1/200,ISO100 (+1 stop aperture, -1 stop shutter speed) and f/8,1/400,ISO100 (+2 aperture,-2 shutter speed) or any other combination where the changes compensate for one another.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Upvote for the "Sunny 16 Rule". I've never heard of it, but that will very much come in handy. I'm still learning little tricks like these. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jon
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I'd stay away from f/16 on most lenses though! Especially if it is sunny! \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 16:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dpollitt - I've added a clarification about using "Sunny 16" without going to f/16 \$\endgroup\$
    – Nir
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 17:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I love my F/2.8 :) Let's try 1/3200th of a second... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 28, 2011 at 3:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's a far better rule: f/8 and forget it :) \$\endgroup\$
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 29, 2011 at 6:00

I believe that like everything professional, this is just a matter of practice. Assuming that ...

  1. The number of independent variables for setting the camera is not really big,

  2. We are talking about a limited field of interest (i.e., street, food, portrait etc..),

  3. When you say "visualize exactly" you give some tolerance for the "exactly" part,

... then a seasoned professional, who is also knowledgeable about the mechanics and theory, with a lot of experience can get pretty close to the desired result w/o using instruments.

I guess it is something like "hmmm... this is a cloudy day... the mountains are covered with snow... I probably need f/16 and 1/250sec". This kind of assessment comes from the fact that he had taken images of snow covered mountains numerous times in the past.


Yeah you can do that, as you can "feel" the right parameters to apply for any kind of technical instrumentation using several parameters. It even works for ovens or toasters! You can always manage to reach the point where your guess concerning the right parameters to apply is pretty good and at least good enough to not use light meters or the like.

This is experience. By reproducing comparable situations, you will be able to manage to understand intuitively what you need for a specific shot. Of course you can reach this point faster using several tricks:

  • be systematic: begin with all the help you can have and compare with your guess.
  • methodology can help, too in the beginning. You can see here a simplification of Ansel Adams' zone system rules for landscape photography for instance. But after a while, it will become natural to find the right settings.

Of course this can take a long time...

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you hit it right on the head when you said "experience". It is all about that. Are you to that point, or do you know photographers who are? That is specifically what I am wondering. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 15:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am alas only a hobbyist and I am not at that point with my camera. However, I managed to reach that point with comparable optical devices (3D scanners - more complex but you have the same kind of concerns) when I was using them 2 hrs every day, after 2 or 3 months. I would say that the secret is to be regular and methodic. Then finding the right settings wont need a thought. \$\endgroup\$
    – drolex
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 15:34

I think, that almost everyone, who started with fully manual cameras, should be able to do something like this - almost approximately.

For example, my first camera was cheap Soviet compact BelOMO Vilia (Вилия) which was completely manual, so I have to learn to set the exposition (F number, shutter speed, ISO - which film to load). My later camera - my first SLR - Practica LTL-3 had TTL-metering with a needle in viewfinder showing the under/ok/over exposure so I could correct my own settings. However, the one I had, was incorrectly set and tend to overexposure my photos so I have to rely more on my personal estimation.

This is probably the reason, why I am mostly unable to use full auto mode with my DSLR, as I often want to set different parameters than the camera.

About the focal speed: Ok, I have some basic idea about the focal lenght - something like "Oh, this street is too narrow, so I should have a fisheye to be able to shot this house." or "This is too far and it makes no sense to try to shoot it with my 300 mm lens.". But I cannot state exact focal length.

PS: I would never call myself a professional :-)

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the comments on manual cameras. I started an exercise of shooting a roll of film every month with a old Pentax K1000, and recording (by hand) the settings for each shot. In doing this, I found myself thinking in advance about specific numbers far more than I would in years shooting with my dSLR, which I normally use in Av or hyperprogram mode. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Jul 28, 2011 at 12:42

Can an experienced photographer walking down the street with no equipment visualize exactly what settings would work with a particular lens/body to capture a scene at that moment in time?

Yes, as a few others have answered, this is exactly how things used to be. In the late-60's, early 70's, my dad shot pictures with one of these:

http://www.wrotniak.net/photo/exakta/exa-gallery.html (The Exa 1a)

No metering. Very limited shutter speeds.

In practice, it wasn't as hard as it sounded, since you were largely restricted to decent weather and light conditions, which if you mainly shot at 1/60th - 1/125th shutter speed, you could pretty accurately guesstimate the aperture for different light conditions, say f4 in marginal conditions to f11 in bright sunlight.

Also, color film even in the 70's had some range in which it could be 'pushed', in order to salvage an under-exposed image. Think of your skilled high street photo developer as the equivalent of the 'auto-levels' option in today's photo software.

Typical lenses back in the day were 50mm primes which approximate human vision, so most people would just shoot what they saw, instead of having to visualize how a wide or zoom lenses could be used. Of course zooms have become cheaper and more popular since.


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