Although I’ve been a photographer for many years now, I am proud to say that I am continually learning as an artist.

When you first start out, the thrill of having someone want YOU to take their photo is amazing, isn’t it?

It’s exciting preparing for that session, gathering up fun posing ideas and props. You photograph the session and it goes okay but maybe you’re still learning the ropes.

We’ve all been there at one point and that brings me to the topic of this article, choosing the correct settings for your session.

You know the basics of your camera and what the proper settings should be. If you need a refresher or just a little bit more help with this we have an incredibly popular photography workshop and there is also a great book available, Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. It’s a great way to visually see how your ISO, f-stop and shutter speed relate to one another.

Tips on choosing the right camera settings.

Know your camera and your lenses.

This is the KEY to getting great photos. You need to know what your camera is capable of and what your lenses will produce. If you haven’t gotten really acquainted with your lens arsenal do it now. Take some practice shots and play with your lenses to get to know them better. Let’s look at the images below.

choosing your aperture when photographing groups by Melissa Koehler

choosing your aperture when photographing groups by Melissa Koehler

Each image was shot with the same camera but the settings changed. Do you want the background to be blurry or in focus? Do you need more light, higher shutter speed or a lower ISO? Assessing your situation prior to pressing the shutter will make a huge difference in your final image. This is why location scouting is highly recommended so that you can get familiar with where you will be shooting. If you know the location and how the light hits the areas that you are planning on photographing your subjects in this will make your session go so much smoother.

Also, knowing what your lenses can do for you is key. If you don’t know the limits of your lens – how wide your aperture will go and how much your lens can get into the frame – then you’ll never really know what you’ll be able to produce. If you are using a kit lens and are constantly frustrated with how your backgrounds aren’t as blurry as some other peoples, it’s probably because you haven’t learned the capabilities of the lens.

When using a lens such as 100 2.8 or 70-200 2.8 you can achieve a blurrier background at a low f-stop because you are standing further away from your subject due to the telephoto lens. Keeping your subjects far away from the background will also help in achieving good bokeh.  With any lens, the further away you stand from your subject the better chance you’ll be able to shoot at 2.8 and still get everyone in focus.

The same goes for keeping your subjects all on the same focal plane. Try keeping everyone on the same focal plane to get them in focus at a lower aperture. What does this mean exactly? Well, if you can get a group of 2, 3 or even 4 people together and have their eyes all on the same focal plane, aka next to each other, you have a much better chance of getting everyone in focus at a wider aperture. This can be challenging with really small children/siblings especially if they are really active and don’t want to sit still long enough to get the shot. But when you can make it happen it really is awesome, especially with that gorgeous blurry background. Look at the image below, the subjects eyes aren’t perfectly in line with each other but they are pretty close. Everyone’s eyes are in focus and the images background is nice and blurry.

choosing your aperture when photographing groups by Melissa Koehler

Know who you’re photographing.

Will you be photographing a larger group?

choosing your aperture when photographing groups by Melissa Koehler

Larger groups generally require a more closed up f-stop due to the multiple rows of focal planes and can sometimes use the aid of a tripod to make all subjects in focus. As you can see in the image above my f-stop was at 13 so that should have gotten everyone in focus. With families of four, I like to try to stay around the f/4 mark since they’re generally pretty close to the same focal plane and then I adjust my shutter speed and ISO accordingly.

If you’re photographing one person, challenge yourself to get an open aperture. I know it’s tough to get eyes completely in focus all the time, but it’s fun to play around. Then, go in for the “money” shots. Keep in mind that if you have your subject turned to the side slightly you could get one eye more in focus than the other. Try making sure that your subject is facing you straight on so that your camera can focus on both eyes evenly.

choosing your aperture when photographing groups by Melissa Koehler

One resource you may consider is a depth of field calculator.  Here is a great DOF app for you iPhone and here is a great one for the computer.

Remember, everyone photographs their subjects differently and for different reasons. Make sure that you have a clear understanding of what your style is so that you can achieve great results. Take some risks and have fun. You might surprise yourself!