Important Camera Settings: A Guide for New Photographers
You’ve just received your first camera! Or maybe you’re renting one or borrowing one from a friend. Before shooting, let’s make sure that everything is set up and ready to go. Nothing will ruin your shoot faster than being right in the middle of a stellar composition and your camera suddenly acts like it has a mind of its own because you didn’t fully set it up first. Cameras today are little computers. You must customize them before using them.
Camera Preparation Checklist
I’ve put together a handy list to reference before nearly every big shoot you do. Some of these will be obvious but others less so. Examples are from the Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 6D Mark II, Nikon D800, Fuji X100V, and Sony a7R IV but most of these apply to any recent interchangeable lens digital model.
Correct the Diopter for Your Vision
The viewfinder is customizable to your vision. Look through the viewfinder, focus your lens as best as you can on an object a medium distance away, and – if the scene and symbols in the viewfinder are blurry – turn the focus adjustment ring just outside the eyepiece until they are not. Most everyone will already be using vision correction, like contacts, Lasik, or glasses, and won’t need to do this. But – especially if you’re renting – diopters are not always “reset” between users.
The + adjustment is for the far-sighted (folks who can’t focus easily on items that are near). The – adjustment is for the near-sighted (can’t focus easily on items far away).
Folks who do not like using their glasses while shooting will relay on these settings more. So if your entire viewfinder looks blurry – including the meter and settings readout – then the diopter needs to be adjusted.
Compare Viewfinder AF to Live View AF
DSLRs, when paired with different lenses, will sometimes exhibit focusing errors – they’ll focus just in front or behind your target. This is because DSLRs, unlike mirrorless cameras, are using a secondary sensor under the mirror which can be miscommunicating with the autofocus system – sometimes because it is getting thrown off by minor lens aberrations. Mirrorless cameras don’t have to worry about this – communication for those cameras is direct with the image sensor thanks to either Contrast Detect AF or On-Sensor Phase Detect AF. Likewise, when focusing in Live View mode (using the LCD screen to compose and focus instead of the viewfinder), you are analyzing directly from the image sensor.
If you find you can’t nail focus when composing through the viewfinder but you can in Live View, you may need to fine-tune the AF of the camera to the particular lens you’re using. For instructions on how to do that, see Microadjustment for Lens and Camera Front/Back Focusing Issues.
Check Your Battery Info
In some menu systems, you can find something called “Battery Info”. It provides a little more information about what to expect from your battery, including its charging performance and the number of shots you can expect to pull from it.
You might be surprised to see vastly different results from an after-market battery vs an OEM one. Canon’s menu system tends to show a recharge performance while Nikon’s menu will display a battery age. Be careful with off-brand batteries, as they will sometimes have poor recharge or an “old age” right out of the gate.
Make Battery-Saving Decisions
Before you take a camera out, you should decide what you really need and don’t need – and I’m not talking about lenses. I am talking about power hogs.
Do you want a preview of your image to show up on the LCD after every shot? That is a setting you can turn on/off and having it on drains the battery. If you need it but not for very long, that helps – reduce the image review duration. Remember, you can always review your image as it’s needed by hitting the Image Review (or Play) button. Decide how quickly you want your camera to go to sleep or turn off completely between shots – that’s also a setting. You can also control the brightness of the LCD and (where applicable) the electronic viewfinder.
Minimize time spent going through the menu system via the LCD screen by assigning all your favorite settings to programmable buttons. If you find yourself using the same settings over and over again for certain types of scenes, assign them to a Custom Mode and then set your shooting mode dial to C1 (or C2, C3, if your camera offers it). Most cameras offer at least 1 Custom Mode option. Basically, the less often you have to use the LCD screen, the longer your battery will last. If you’re recording longer scenes with your camera (or doing a long portrait session) and you’re using the LCD as your main monitor, consider using an AC adapter for continuous power.
Get Familiar with Metering Modes
Just like cameras of old, cameras today have light meters in them. But unlike camera of old, you can customize your meter to read the scene more intelligently – or at least more to your style – right inside the camera. Here are what the different modes do (note that they have different names among manufacturers but largely operate the same way).
Multi/Matrix/Evaluative Metering: Reads the brightness of your entire scene but gives extra weighting to the point you’re focused on.
Center-Weighted: Reads the brightness of your entire scene but gives extra weighting to the center of the frame.
Spot Metering: Reads the brightness of only where you’re focused on (only about 2% of the whole scene).
Partial Metering (rarer and mostly on Canons): Reads the brightness of only where you’re focus on but with a bit more evaluation spread than Spot Metering.
A very safe bet is Multi/Matrix/Evaluative but I prefer Spot Metering for the drama it produces – allowing for blown out backgrounds or deep shadows for the sake of metering for only my subject. You will find your own favorite.
Make Some Focusing Decisions
There are focus modes, focus areas, and focus points. On top of all that, there are focus point types. The single biggest challenge people have with more advanced cameras is nailing focus and it’s easy to blame the camera and the lens for malfunctioning but more times than not, it’s user error and not using the right settings for the subject. While front and back focusing errors do happen, they are actually relatively rare. Autofocus is probably the most complicated part of any digital system and the learning curve is high. Here are the different areas to explore for setting up your AF preferences.
Focus Points: The better the camera, the more focus points it probably has. Having more points to work with makes composing and focusing exactly on what you want that much easier but it also helps the camera with subject tracking. Among these, there are vertical and cross-type AF point sensors. Vertical ones detect contrast in a scene on a vertical line while cross-type detect it along vertical and horizontal lines. Cross-type is much more accurate but also much more complex to implement, so you don’t see as many in cheaper cameras.
AF Areas/AF Zones: This acts a little like the metering modes in that it lets you choose how wide or how narrow something operates in. With AF Area, you can set how much of the frame the camera will use for autofocusing. Area choices tend to be some variation of Single Point or Center/Zone-Based (different numbers of points within a restricted area of your angle of view), and Auto.
Focus Modes: These vary from camera-to-camera but largely your choices are Single Point or Single Shot (you choose the 1 area of focus and if the subject moves, the camera doesn’t do anything about it), Dynamic/AF-A/AI Focus AF (a hybrid mode where you choose the 1 area of focus but if the subject moves, your camera will adapt accordingly), Auto (the camera is figuring out where the subject is on its own), and Continuous/AI Servo/Tracking (you choose the 1 area of focus but you’re following the subject, poised with a shutter half-press, and the camera keeps up with the subject by updating its focusing accordingly).
Know How to Assign Your Focus to Another Button
What if I told you that focusing didn’t always just have to be done by half-pressing the shutter button? For many Canon and Nikon DSLRs, there is a dedicated AF-On button that can act as your focusing button in addition to half-pressing the shutter. For many mirrorless cameras, you can assign AF-On to several different button options.
Being able to choose the way autofocus is activated is great for a couple of reasons. It might be more comfortable for some shooters, for one. Separating your shutter release from your focusing can help prevent misfocusing, especially if things are darting in and out of your scene. You’ll sometimes hear AF-On being referred to ask “back button focusing”.
For Dual Card Cameras: Choose How Files Write to Cards
Cameras that have dual card slots are particularly valuable because you simply have more options for your files. You can use both cards for the same session – doubling the number of files you can store in any given shoot – or, more safely, you can store the same image to each card. This way, if one card is corrupted for any reason or is lost, you have that backup.
Other Camera Settings to Check
All of the settings above I categorize as “operational settings”. They control mainly how the camera operates. The list below is just a quick summary of what I categorize more as “creative settings”. A lot of these you already know if you’ve been shooting for awhile but are great reminders, even for the experienced folks out there:
- Raw vs JPEG: Most choose raw files for their flexibility when editing later. If I am using a camera with creative filers or film simulations in them, like a Fuji, and I am taking images only to share with friends, put online for fun, or to make relatively small prints, I am very comfortable with just shooting JPEG. They transfer more quickly over WiFi, too. But most of the time, I’ll shoot raw.
- White Balance: Auto White Balance does such a good job that I almost always just use that. Sometimes, though, an image will turn out good in every respect (focus is dialed in, exposure is fine) but the color is way off. That is when you’ll really want to dive into the white balance settings. If you’re shooting something with sensitive color (common in product photography), picking a white balance is more crucial. For candids? I go with Auto.
- Semi-Automatic Modes: When using full auto mode, your camera is going to decide what settings are best based on how it interprets the image. This is kind of like treating your camera like a smartphone. It gets the job done but can feel artistically vacant. To step away from auto mode, there are handy semi-automatic modes. On many DSLRs, you’ll see A or Av (Aperture Priority), S or Tv (Shutter Priority), and P (Program) right there on your top dial. Others have them in the settings. Others still, like the Fuji X100V, for example, do not use this language and instead have physical dials for the shutter, ISO (both on the camera) and aperture (on the lens) with an “A” setting you can click into. Whichever of those 3 dials you set to “A”, that function is now in “Auto” mode. Learn more about when to use these modes in The Exposure Triangle Explained for Beginners.
Find more information about how to set up your camera in 15 Overlooked Camera Settings for Any Photographer. For deeper dives on specific settings, check out Shutter Speed Chart and Tips on How to Master It and What is Aperture in Photography? Have an important setting to share with us that I missed? Add it to the comments below!
Get how-to guide for newcomers who are still getting comfortable with their equipment. May I add one suggestion.. to maybe create a video on this as it may be easier for people to watch and learn then read and scroll.