Photography 101: How to set up a shot

“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”
– Edward Weston

These is my easy method for setting up a shot with a DSLR camera, there’s no “rules” here about what should be in the photo itself, because rules are subjective when it comes to photography.  I have been ill with man-flu for the past couple of days and am still burning through tissues at a fair rate of knots, so I’m going to keep this article very short and sweet.  It’s aimed at people who have just bought their first DSLR and perhaps don’t know how to set up a shot so it comes out really well (without resorting to the automatic settings).  Why bother?  Because if you take a decent picture on the spot, then you don’t have to waste any time messing around with photo-editing software when you get home:

1. Identify what you want to take a picture of.

2. Find the landscape (if it’s a picture with a landscape). Usually but not always a horizontal line between land and sky. If you have a diagonal landscape e.g. in the Scottish Highlands, set your camera up using the upward lines from buildings.  If you have a tripod you can just use its spirit level.

3. Identify light levels and do a test shot (snap a quick pic to check whether it all looks ok).

4. Fix ISO (you want it at the lowest number you can set it to without getting a black photo back).

5. Fix aperture (a low number brightens the picture if it’s too dark, and vice versa).

6. If picture is still too dark, slow down your shutter speed until you get a bright enough picture.  1/8 is the lowest number this should be unless you’re doing a “long exposure” shot.  If you’ve got to take it below 1/8 to get a bright enough picture of a non-moving subject, or a landscape, then increase the ISO.  If there’s anything moving in the picture, you probably don’t want to go beyond 1/80 shutter speed because the moving object will start to blur; in this case, increase the ISO to get a brighter picture instead.

7. If picture is too bright, increase your shutter speed to darken the picture.

8. Zoom (if your lens does this) if you need to. This might change the aperture as some lenses (my Sigma 18-250mm does this) make the picture noticeably darker as they zoom in on something.

9. Focus using the manual focus ring (or autofocus).  On most cameras you need to flip the switch from “AF” to “MF” to manually focus.  This switch is generally on the lens.

10. Take at least two pictures just in case one doesn’t come out right. Check the first one in the viewfinder to make sure you’re satisfied, if not, repeat steps 2-10 until you’re happy with the result.

11. If all your pictures are coming out too dark and you’ve tried everything else, increase the ISO as a last resort.  I will talk about ISO in more detail in a future article because it’s important to know when NOT to change it.

There are exceptions to all of these rules, and after the first couple of thousand photos, you will start to develop the judgement to know instinctively what to do with your camera in specific situations.

Did I miss anything?  Let me know in the comments!


Author: MsAdventure

I am a twentysomething travel, photography and beauty blogger who occasionally writes about other topics. Within travel, I tend to write mostly about Europe because all the other travel bloggers seem to write about South East Asia. As a writer, I have written articles that are published in Offbeat Bride and on Buzzfeed, and as a photographer, I have taken photographs that are published in local and national news outlets in the UK. I have a blog at