Are There “Magic Numbers” in Photography?

Are There “Magic Numbers” in Photography?

“What settings did you use…?”
“What f-number? What ISO?”
“What shutter speed should I use…?”
“What focal length…?”

We are all familiar with questions like this. We’ve either asked them ourselves, or come across them at various photographic events or online forums. 

I’ve taught photography since 2009 and even in 2021, it’s a staple of many an event or tour that I have run. We hop off the bus, gander at the stunning location, the incredible light, and before 5 seconds has elapsed, someone pipes out: “So, what f-number?”

There is this assumption that photography is all about the numbers. The f-number. The ISO number. The time number (shutter speed). The white balance (colour temperature is a number).  If only it could be distilled to such a simple, formulaic outcome.

Sand rivulets in Broome

Let’s look at this from a different point of view, in a different context. Say you’re trying to learn a new language (spoken and written). Imagine going to your instructor and asking: “So, how many letters should I use?” or “Should I write it in all Capitals, Title Case or all in Lower Case?” or “How many strokes should I use to write this Kanji character? How many millimetres should the lines be?”

We don’t learn a language by looking at the number of letters that comprise a word, or the number of strokes that create a character. Nor the combination of Upper and Lower Cases in the creation of the word. We learn a language by understanding the roots of that language — the meaning behind words, the way words combine grammatically to render meaning.

The same thing applies to photography. Asking questions about numbers and settings (the “magic numbers”) implies that you’re only interested in the facile, the surface aspects of using the camera. Numbers do not a photograph make. No great photograph is great because it was shot at f/8 (despite what Wegee is purported to have said). The numbers game brings focus to the tool, the technique, and not the content, the substance of the image.

Approaching photography from this numbers-focused position reveals that we’re not entirely concerned about the subject. We’re not connecting with what it is we’re seeing, what it is that we’re photographing. We haven’t thought about our subject and how we’d like to capture it. Looking for “magic numbers” first distracts us from our mission as photographers — which is to create images with meaning, resonance and which prompts engagement and responses from viewers.

I would argue that numbers play second fiddle to content, message and meaning. It is better for us to work out what we want to say in the photograph, and then choose the techniques that will let us do this. Do we need a deeper or shallower depth of field? How do we want to represent movement? What kind of lighting do we want to capture in order to enhance mood and emotion? Answering these questions will direct us towards the selection of camera settings that better fit what we want to create.

“But I’m not confident that I have chosen the right settings.”
“I’m not very technically literate and always struggle with my settings.”

There is an underlying anxiety among photographers (both new and even experienced ones) that they have not selected the perfect combination of settings to take the shot.

Newsflash: the notion that there are “right settings” is a myth.

Unless you’re working as a forensic photographer or a photographer dealing with absolute scientific outcomes in image-making, there are no “right settings” that will do the job. There is no formula, no template, no “magic numbers” for the different types of photography you may embark upon.

Worry less about settings. Unless you are an absolute beginner who hasn’t done any reading or learning about photography, you actually know enough about camera craft. Stop obsessing about numbers. Trust yourself more. Start with the question: “How do I want to present this scene” and then trust that your knowledge will let you dial in the right numbers (not the magic numbers) that will allow you to do this successfully. It requires thinking, reflection, maybe a bit of trial and error, but you know enough to get the job done.

You’ll be surprised by how flexible and forgiving your camera can be. 

Trust the knowledge that you have in you. Be guided by your intuition. It is far more important that you see and feel the shot, than it is that you shoot it at the perfect f-number and shutter speed. You are not your camera.

And if you find yourself starting any conversation with “What f-number” or “What settings”… then pause. Take a step back, check yourself and ask instead: “What do I want to create?”.

And let your answer to this question guide you in how you work your camera to obtain this goal.

Silhouettes at Rottnest
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