Ask James – Before the Shot Workflow

Hi James,

I know it’s basic but I’m still not sure. Here’s a possible question for Ask James.

I have a camera, I see a photo opportunity. What settings do I make to camera and in what order?  What is my pre photo workflow? A checklist, if you like, that I can use as a guide in any situation?

Many thanks, Geoff W. U. K.

This is something that seems to come up on every workshop I lead, so I’m happy to go over it here as well.

My pre-photo workflow revolves around pre-visualization. Instead of taking a picture, you have to shift to the mindset of creating one. In order to create an image, you have to know what you want the image to look like before pressing the shutter. Just thinking that way will cause that shift in your mind to take place. When you “take” a picture, you’re just seeing something pretty and snapping a picture of it. When you “create” a picture, you’re adding your own signature to the image, if you will.

So what does this mean? It means that once you’ve decided how you want the image to look, you need to decide a few things regarding camera settings. Let’s use an example situation to better illustrate this: You’re visiting Death Valley National Park in California and have made it to Badwater Basin before sunrise on a beautifully perfect morning. There are clouds in the sky all around you, and you can tell it’s going to be an incredible morning. Let’s go through the pre-shot workflow that will ensure you come away with something great.

The first thing I always decide on is ISO. I typically shoot on a tripod, and you will definitely need one for a sunrise shoot. Since there is ambient light available, and you have a tripod, it’s probably best to start with ISO 100. This will give you the best quality image with virtually zero noise. Ok, that was easy!

Now you have to decide which is more important; aperture or shutter speed. This is a bit harder at first. The real question here is which is more important; freezing action/creating movement or depth of field? Well, in this case you may be able to have your cake and eat it too. Let’s say you definitely want everything in focus from front to back. That means you need to set your aperture to something small like f/14 or f/18. Let’s say you also want to create some movement in the clouds that are moving by. Well, setting a small aperture is going to restrict much of the ambient light from reaching the sensor, so the side effect of that change is longer shutter speeds. Nice!

Still, the choice you made first is depth of field. So how do you set your camera up? In Manual Mode you set your ISO to 100, then set your aperture to f/14 to start. The you use your shutter speed to dial in the proper exposure. If you’re using a traditional DSLR, this means you’ll spin your shutter speed dial until the little tick mark reaches the middle of the exposure meter on either the top of the camera, in the viewfinder or on the back LCD screen. If you’re using a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder that shows a real time preview of the exposure, you can just simply dial the shutter speed until the image looks properly exposed on the screen.

That’s it! Now, there are plenty of other settings to consider as well. Sure. I almost always have my white balance set to Auto. Since I shoot with RAW, correcting WB in post is just a click of the mouse if needed. I personally don’t worry about metering modes anymore because I use an electronic viewfinder on my Sony cameras, so I just go off that now. The big three though are ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Set your ISO, then set either your aperture or speed to what you want, then use the other setting to dial in the proper exposure.

Hope that makes sense!


  • Geoff Woodfield

    Wow James!!, I can’t believe my question is the first to be featured on Ask James and that you have provided such an in depth but practical answer. I will apply that in my photography and no doubt will benefit. Thanks again. Geoff. UK

  • That was a great answer James and definitely liked your quote about “taking” a picture and “creating” a picture. Worth thinking about.

  • Nino Xerri

    Great tutorial James. Two questions :
    1. What would be the equivalent settings if your DSLR does not go lower than ISO 200
    2. When (if ever) do you use Exposure Compensation.

    • If ISO 200 is the lowest your camera will go, then you just have to work with what you’ve got. There may be an “ISO Expansion” setting in your menu that will let you go lower and higher than the standard, but it just depends on what camera you have.

      Exposure Compensation is just overriding what the camera thinks is the proper exposure, so I use it any time I’m shooting in Aperture Value mode. The Sony a7 has a dedicated Exposure Compensation dial at the top.