Boy selling lanterns in Hoi An old town

Basic camera settings to know for people photography

When travelling to Asia it is very tempted to take photos of people. Not only Asia is very busy with people, which makes it more difficult to find clean open landscapes, but Asia is really defined by its bustling activities. Hoi An, for example, is surrounded by rice fields and fishing villages. By driving outside of the town you can find endless photo opportunities given all the human activity we can find. the problem is that camera settings often get in the way, and the time spent playing with settings isn’t time spent composiing images.

Taking photos of people is also something that allows us to get closer to the people we photograph, and very often allows us to experience more of the place we travel to. We go explore more remote areas, getting lost into the countryside, and experiencing a more genuine culture. This is the reason why we run most of our photography tours in the countryside.

By the way, if you are interested to know how to approach people to take their photos, we have already covered that topic extensively.

Taking portraits of people in Vietnam with Hoi an photo tour and workshop

So what camera settings are important to master for people photography?

The setting on your camera that allows you greater control and creativity when doing people photography is the aperture. The aperture is about your lens, and it is defined by the size your lens will open/close when you take a picture.

The interesting thing about the aperture is that it is the element that controls the depth of field. Basically, how much depth will be in your picture. A shorter depth of field means less in focus and a more blurry background/foreground. A longer depth means more in focus, more sharpness through the picture.

A boy holding an umbrella at night in the old town of Hoi An during hoi an photo tour and workshop
A short depth of field: more blur around the subject
Coconut sellers in the mekong delta
A long depth of field: more in focus around the subject

The great thing about being able to control your depth of field is that you will be able to tell different stories. By asking yourself, every time you want to take a picture, “what am I trying to say here?”, you will decide on what sort of depth you want through your image.

Technically, on your camera, the aperture if the “f” number. What you have to be aware of, is that a smaller “f” number is a wider aperture. A higher “f” number is a smaller aperture. Confusing?

So F/3.5 would be a wide aperture, giving you more blur in the foreground/background, while F/16 would be a small aperture, giving you more sharpness.

Open your aperture

Using wider apertures, meaning using a shorter depth of field, and a low “f” number, will allow you to isolate your subject. By blurring elements in the background and foreground, you will make your subject pop out. This is great for portraits, working on details, or when you are trying to get rid of a messy background.

A portrait taken during hoi an sunset photo tour
The busy lines in the background have less visual weight when blurred

What the aperture allows you to do it to isolate parts of your subjects, and tell more interesting stories. If you have the chance to travel with a few prime lenses (meaning fix focal length lenses) you can use them with really wide apertures, for a very shallow depth of field effect.

So instead of telling yourself “I will take a photo of that”, how about asking yourself “what is it in this scene that is really grabbing my attention? Is there anything worth hiding in the background?”

two red dzao brothers taken on a photography tour in North Vietnam
How about isolating one of your subjects?

Warning: using very wide apertures is fun and creates very pretty results. We recommend, though, that it doesn’t become a habit. Taking all your images with very wide apertures limits the amount of elements you can have in your frame, which will restrict you from telling more interesting stories.

Close your aperture

On the contrary, when working a scene you often realize that everything in front of you is pretty, and tells interesting stories. In this case then, why blur anything?

Smaller apertures allow us to have more in focus in our image, allowing us to tell more, to show more.

A famer in a rice field taken during hoi an photography tour and workshop
Having no distraction in the background, we have no reason to blur it

When taking silhouette photos for example, while facing a simple background (in this case the blue sky). If everything is correctly placed within your frame, it would make sense to have everything in focus.

Vietnamese fishermen photographed as silhouettes in Hoi an during our sunrise photography tour and workshop

How to use the aperture on my camera?

Instead of going fully manual on your camera, which is a slower process and may be confusing for beginners, we highly recommend you to use the Aperture mode on your camera (A or Av mode).

What happens when using the Aperture mode in your camera, is that you will be able to control your aperture and your ISO, while your shutter speed will automatically be set by the camera to give you a correct exposure. This means that you can be much faster to react to something. As long as your shutter speed is fast enough and let’s you capture a sharp image, you can “point and shoot” and capture the moment.

A cyclo driver in front of Hoi an famous yellow wall during a photography tour in Hoi An

For a more detailed article about using Aperture on your camera, head on to Pics of Asia.