Sunrise over fields during a hot air balloon flight.

Best camera settings for travel photography

When it comes to travel photography, capturing the perfect moment is crucial as you may never have the same opportunity again. It’s important to get your camera settings just right to ensure a sharp and properly exposed shot.

Exact settings such as aperture/shutter speed and ISO will always depend on the type of shot and lighting, therefore it’s almost impossible to provide the exact settings to use for every situation. However, this post will provide you guidelines to help you dial in the correct settings when it counts by ensuring an optimal travel photography camera setup.

JetBlue plane coming into land over crowded beach at at Sint Maarten Princess Juliana International Airport.
ISO 100, 16mm, f/7.1, 1/800 sec
Sint Maarten

Camera mode: Aperture Priority with Auto ISO

Aperture Priorityis my go-to for almost all genres of travel photography, however, this needs to be paired with another feature “Auto ISO” to maximise its effectiveness.

The main reason for using aperture priority is that it gives the most control over the type of image. Aperture Priority enables you to control the Aperture, while the camera adjusts the shutter speed. For Nikon & Sony this is “A” and “Av” for Canon on the top dial.

This can be paired with Auto ISO which only increases ISO when the minimum shutter speed is reached and the correct exposure still cannot be achieved with the set aperture for the given lighting conditions.

Before getting into the process of setting up this camera mode, I’ll first elaborate on why this technique is highly effective by covering the fundamentals:

  • ISO: Your main goal is to keep this as low as possible, however, this isn’t always feasible. For example in low light or where fast shutter speeds are required to freeze action. Auto ISO manages this for you, based on a few input parameters explained in more detail in the next section below.
  • Aperture: Your aperture is usually set based on the depth of field you’re looking to achieve. e.g. generally, a wide aperture for portraits and a narrow aperture for landscape-type shots.
    • Low/wide aperture = Shallow depth of field, more light.
    • High/narrow aperture = Deeper depth of field, less light.
  • Shutter speed: Your shutter speed is critical, mainly to be able to freeze the action and ensure your shots are sharp. For hand-held photography, a general rule is to not go below 1/focal length. for example 1/50th sec for a 50mm lens. Although this varies based on the individual and also lens.
Hot air ballon silhouette as it flys over fields at sunrise.

How to set up and use Auto ISO?

Once you’ve found out how to turn on Auto ISO, it will need to be set up within the camera menu. This is very quick and easy to do as generally only two parameters need to be adjusted.

Maximum sensitivity

This needs to be set first and will depend on the capability of your camera to handle high ISO. For example, I tend not to go above ISO 4000-6400 for my Nikon D7200.

I used to be scared of using high ISO, however, remember, a sharp image with some noise is far better than a blurry image. Increasing ISO is critical to enabling high shutter speeds to prevent motion blur. Especially with sharpening tools available today such as Denoise in Lightroom or Topaz Labs DeNoise AI which can significantly reduce noise during post-processing. The photo below is shot at ISO 2200 on a fairly old entry-level DSLR, Nikon D3200!

View towards the One World Trade Centre from the top of the Empire World Trade Centre.
ISO 2200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/15 sec

Minimum shutter speed

The next aspect is setting the minimum shutter speed, this is the point at which the camera will start to ramp up the ISO once this shutter speed cannot be maintained.

I’m always changing the minimum shutter speed, and have it in recent settings on the menu. For example for static subjects and low light reducing it to a minimum, I know I can get away with a given lens focal length/aperture. Or for action shots increase the minimum shutter speed to ensure shots are in focus.

Overall I’ve trialled shutter priority, full manual and also both of these modes with Auto ISO but have found Aperture Priority with Auto ISO to be the best travel photography setup for the reasons described above.

A local taking in the views from the Copolia trail in the Seychelles.
ISO 100, 31mm, f/9.0, 1/320 sec

Summary: Aperture Priority with Auto ISO

  • 1. Aperture priority: Set your aperture dependant on your scene for
    • Low/wide aperture = Shallow depth of field, more light.
      • Portraits, Street photography, wildlife.
    • High/narrow aperture = Deeper depth of field, less light.
      • Landscapes, Cityscapes/Architecture, Seascapes
  • 2. Auto ISO:
    • Set your maximum sensitivity for ISO based on your camera capability.
    • Set your minimum shutter speed based on the lens, scene & subject.
  • 3. Focus on your travel photography composition without worrying about settings.
  • 4. Check your shots at the start of a photography session. Tweak the minimum shutter speed when changing lens, scene, lighting conditions & subject.
Iconic boulders at a secluded beach in the Seychelles.
ISO 100, 16mm, f/8.0, 1/250 sec

Additional tips

Additional travel photography camera settings for getting the most out of your camera for travel photography.

Check focus

It’s always best to avoid the disappointment of realizing you missed the perfect shot due to missing focus. Luckily, most cameras have a 100% zoom feature that allows you to check focus with just one click, and in a matter of seconds. You can also check the location of your focus point with this feature.

Focus mode

Focus points: By using a single focus point, you have greater control over the placement of your focus point and as a result your composition. However, some newer camera models have features like auto eye detection which can be very useful, especially for wildlife and portrait shots.

Focus mode: Continuous focus, also referred to as AF-C mode, is a versatile option ideal for various photography genres. It is particularly effective for capturing moving subjects, but it also works well for still subjects, making it a convenient and reliable focus mode that can mostly be set and left alone.

Views down over Gran Via in Madrid at sunset.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/7.1, 1/160 sec

Histogram check

Histogram: What is a histogram? A histogram is a graphical representation of an image’s tonal range, depicting the highlights, shadows, and everything in between. It displays pure black on the far left-hand side and pure white on the right-hand side.

Monitoring your histogram is crucial for your images, as it is one of the most important factors besides focus. To facilitate quick histogram evaluations, it is advisable to configure your image review preferences to display the histogram.

Virtual horizon

Did you know that some cameras have a virtual horizon feature that helps you position your camera straight to the horizon? This feature can be shown through both the viewfinder and the main display screen. If you have a Nikon camera like my Nikon D7200, you can even assign a shortcut to quickly access this feature using several buttons. Ever since incorporating this feature, I have noticed a significant reduction in the amount of time I spend correcting the alignment of my images during post-processing.

Trunk bay in St. John in the United States Virgin Islands.
ISO 100, 26mm, f/7.1, 1/500 sec
Trunk Bay, USVI

Back button focus

The back button focus technique transfers the focusing task from the shutter release button to a separate AF-ON button located on the back of the camera. This button can be easily accessed with your thumb, hence the name “back button focus.”

Some people prefer back button focus, especially for action as it can improve your hit rate as the shutter button doesn’t need to acquire focus before taking a photo.

However, if this is a new technique, you could forget to focus using the assigned AF-ON button. Also, if you plan to hand your camera to others to use, they’re unlikely to know how to focus, leading to out-of focus-shots.

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In conclusion, mastering travel photography requires a solid understanding of camera settings. Adopting Aperture Priority mode with Auto ISO enhances your photography experience, allowing control over the depth of field while ensuring proper exposure. Set the maximum ISO sensitivity based on your camera’s capabilities and adjust the minimum shutter speed to maintain sharpness. Check and tweak settings as needed. Remember to focus, monitor the histogram, utilize the virtual horizon, and consider back button focus. With these techniques, embrace the freedom to focus on composition and capture extraordinary moments during your travels. Happy photographing those unforgettable memories!

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