Whether you just bought your first camera or you’re looking to improve your photography, the first step is learning how to take full advantage of your camera settings.
Digital Camera Settings to Get the Most Out of Your Camera
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have the ability to do far more than a smartphone. You need to know how to use your camera’s features before you can take full advantage of it. Let’s look at some of the photo settings that will unleash your camera’s potential.
Get Out of Automatic – Using Different Shooting Modes
Nearly every digital camera has an automatic mode. When using auto mode, your camera is going to decide what settings are best based on how it interprets the image. This is essentially the same thing that your smartphone does! To take your first steps in improving your photography, you need to get out of auto.
1. Programmed Auto Mode (P Mode)
When you start trying to use the different camera modes, the programmed auto mode, or P Mode (indicated by a P), is like just dipping your toe into the water. The camera will choose what it thinks are the best aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get a proper exposure.
In P Mode, you can:
- Use different combinations of shutter speed and aperture while keeping the same exposure.
- Prioritize a certain depth of field or shutter speed to get the picture you want.
Want a shallow depth of field? If you change the aperture in this mode, the camera will attempt to maintain the same exposure by adjusting shutter speed and ISO for you. Want to freeze a fast-moving subject? Increasing the shutter speed will cause the camera to maintain exposure by adjusting the aperture and ISO for you.
2. Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv Mode)
The end result of shutter priority mode is very similar to P Mode. The camera will decide the best exposure and choose settings to create that exposure.
In shutter priority mode, you are telling the camera to use a specific shutter speed. The camera will only use auto mode on aperture, while shutter and ISO are manually set. This is why S/Tv Mode is sometimes referred to as a semi-automatic mode.
There are two reasons to use a specific shutter speed:
- Control how much or little motion blur you have.
- Avoid blurry images that result from camera shake.
A good tip is to choose a shutter speed that’s no slower than one over the focal length of your lens. For example: if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, you probably should hand-hold the lens and shoot with a shutter speed no slower (or lower) than 1/50th of a second. For a 200mm lens, you probably should stay above 1/200th of a second if you’re shooting hand-held.
Because faster shutter speeds let in less light, you’ll need either a larger (wider) aperture or a more sensitive (higher) ISO setting to properly expose an image. In S/Tv mode, the camera will update aperture for you based on the shutter of your choosing. There is a limit to how much the aperture opens on lens, so if your shutter speed is too fast, you may end up with an underexposed image. Fortunately, you still have ISO available to you. Increase your ISO sensitivity in this situation.
3. Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av Mode)
The opposite of shutter priority mode is the aperture priority mode. In aperture priority mode, you select a specific aperture f-stop and the camera determines the necessary shutter speed to properly expose the image. The camera will only use auto mode on shutter, while aperture and ISO are manually set. Like S/Tv above, this is why A/Av Mode is sometimes referred to as a semi-automatic mode.
Selecting a specific aperture is important when you’re trying to control the depth of field of your image. If you want a shallow depth of field, set a wide (low number) aperture and the camera will choose a fast enough shutter speed to expose the image. If you want the same image to have a wide depth of field, pick a narrow (high number) aperture and the camera will change to a slower shutter speed to allow enough light for the right exposure.
Like in shutter priority, there are some risks to using aperture priority. When you choose smaller apertures, you need slower shutter speeds to compensate. If the aperture you choose forces the shutter speed to be too slow, you are almost guaranteed to end up with camera blur – unless you use a tripod or compensate with ISO in an effort to get the camera to pick a faster shutter speed, which can in turn invite excess grain or noise in your image.
4. Manual Mode (M Mode)
Manual mode gives you full control over all of the manual camera settings (the entire Exposure Triangle: shutter, aperture, ISO) so that you can achieve the look you want.
You decide the camera settings based on the results you want in your final image.
The camera won’t hold your hand when it comes to exposure. Carefully monitor the exposure meter inside your viewfinder or on the LCD to avoid ending up with a solid black (underexposed) or solid white (overexposed) image.
Certain scenarios and settings are difficult to attain without additional equipment or advanced techniques. A common scenario is trying to freeze motion (requiring a fast shutter speed) in a dark room. Certain conditions will require tripods, strobes, or cameras with special features (like extreme light sensitivity).
5. Auto ISO
Although auto ISO is not a shooting mode, it does directly affect how you use both semi-automatic modes and P Mode.
Between all of the modes discussed, you can set your own ISO. Because higher ISO settings can reduce overall image quality, setting the lowest possible ISO helps ensure less noise in your image.
The challenge is that if you’re in shutter priority mode and set a specific shutter speed, there are usually a few ISO and aperture combinations that will give you a proper exposure. If you specify both shutter speed and ISO, you may not find an aperture that will work. Setting your camera to auto ISO makes things a bit easier. If you’re not very comfortable yet using a semi-automatic modes (and having to adjust shutter or aperture and ISO) go ahead and turn on auto ISO.
Baseline ISOs to Try
- 200 ISO for sunny conditions
- 400 ISO for overcast conditions
- 800 ISO for indoors/evenings
Begin here and adjust accordingly.
Auto ISO also opens up another possibility:
Manual mode gives you full control over all the settings. If you choose auto ISO while in manual mode, it essentially creates another semi-automatic mode to use! Think of it as your “next level” mode. You can set the shutter speed and aperture to give the overall effect you want and allow auto ISO to automatically set the exposure for you.
In the various semi-automatic modes, the camera will evaluate the image and make a decision on how it should be exposed.
However, you may want to achieve an effect that is different from the camera’s default programming. There are a few different methods to help you achieve the picture you want even if the camera is telling you to use something that isn’t working for you.
6. Exposure Compensation
You can achieve direct control with the exposure compensation camera setting. It is a great go-to when you’re shooting in semi-automatic modes and want to stay in those modes but need to temporarily override what the camera thinks is a good setting. Exposure compensation tells the camera to expose brighter or darker than it thinks it should.
A good example of when you need exposure compensation is when photographing snow. The camera only sees white and attempts to reach middle gray in its results. You have to intentionally overexpose your scene in order for your snow to look white. Learn more in How to Handle Your Camera’s Metering in Snow.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re taking a picture of a city at night, auto exposure will likely brighten everything and remove all the mood of twilight. Use exposure compensation to keep the shadows dark and the bright lights properly exposed.
7. Spot Metering
There are a few different methods the camera can use to decide how to set exposure.
The default mode for most cameras (called evaluative metering by Canon, matrix metering by Nikon or multi metering by Sony) looks at the overall image and decides how to expose based on the overall average brightness values. It may put more emphasis on exposing what’s in the middle of the frame, but the entire image is considered.
Most of the time, this works really well. In some instances, you may want to consider spot metering.
Spot metering evaluates a small area right around the focus point you’re using and exposes that area. This works really well if there is a major difference in brightness between your subject and the overall scene. Below are visual examples and a breakdown of each.
8. AE/AF (Auto Exposure/Auto Focus) Lock
While we want technology to work flawlessly at all times, the reality is that sometimes cameras get confused.
When the main subject or focal point is off center, make sure the camera is focusing and exposing that subject. Using the AE/AF Lock button can help you set those values and recompose for the framing you want.
The AE/AF Lock button (typically marked AE-L/AF-L, AEL, or sometimes just an asterisk) will tell the camera that no matter how you reposition yourself, you want the focus point and exposure metering that you set to be used. Focus and ensure your exposure is set for your subject, then push and hold this button as you recompose and shoot the image.
Creative Shooting Modes
Dig into your camera’s settings to find cool creative options!
9. Monochrome Picture Style
Most of us view the world in an amazing array of colors. In many instances, vivid colors help an image come alive. An incredible sunset where the sky is on fire can transform an otherwise mediocre picture into something special.
At the same time, black and white images are timeless. Fortunately, digital sensors are fully capable of capturing both color and black and white images with the switch of a setting.
The decision to use a monochrome setting ultimately comes down to the photographer’s vision and taste. If you want to try taking black and white pictures, look for scenes where color doesn’t bring anything to the picture (or maybe even distracts from the subject). Images with strong contrast are great in black and white.
10. White Balance
Your camera has options to correct for lighting temperature differences, called white balance. These settings are what help white look white (and not yellow or blue) regardless of the lighting.
Most cameras do a decent job of identifying the correct white balance when set to their auto white balance settings.
However, you may want to manually set the white balance to emphasize a lighting environment. For example, if you’re shooting in an alley surrounded by neon lights, you may want to bring out a certain color more. Selecting a specific white balance can make a huge difference in the final picture.
11. Long Exposure
If you’re in manual or shutter priority modes, setting the shutter speed to freeze action or prevent camera shake will help ensure a sharp, crisp image.
Certain photographs, though, can benefit from leaving the shutter open for a long time. Common long exposure shots are of water and traffic at night.
Long exposures can bring an element of creativity to your shots. In order to take a long exposure shot, you’ll need to have your camera set on a sturdy tripod, at a fairly small aperture and a low ISO to avoid overexposing your image.
Long exposures can be taken in either shutter priority or manual mode by setting the shutter speed for several seconds or more. For extremely long exposures of more than 30 seconds, there’s often an additional mode (bulb mode, often marked by a B) that will keep the shutter open as long as the shutter button is pressed.
Use a remote shutter release to avoid accidentally shaking the camera or press the shutter on your camera very carefully when doing long exposures. There is another tactic for this that we’ll dive into later.
In addition to the settings that control how your images come out, there are a number of tools built into cameras simply to help you take the picture you want.
12. Live View
One of the most convenient features of digital cameras is the ability to instantly see your pictures. With the live view camera setting, you can see what’s going to be recorded on the sensor.
Most DSLRs use a mirror and pentaprism to create an optical viewfinder that essentially shows you the same thing your eye sees. You have to pay attention to (and trust) the exposure meter to know if your image will be properly exposed. It can be difficult or impossible to fully examine your depth of field to know how much is going to be in focus.
Live view solves these problems. If your picture is going to be under or overexposed, you’ll see it on the screen. You can zoom into the preview to ensure pin sharp focus exactly where you want it. Live view gives you a far better idea of what your picture is going to look like.
Alternatively, many newer digital cameras (particularly mirrorless cameras) have electronic viewfinders (EVFs) that are essentially tiny LCDs inside the eyepiece. These typically work the same way as the live view on the back LCD screen, showing you more information (such as histograms) and a realistic preview of your shot.
Of course, there are some tradeoffs to using live view. By far the biggest is the impact on your battery life. Expect your batteries to die far faster when using live view than with an optical viewfinder.
13. Highlight Alert
Despite all of the settings and features designed to ensure you nail the exposure, you’re not always going to. When you get into situations where you are pushing up against the limits of your camera, it can be hard to tell when you’ve gone too far.
A common and challenging situation is taking pictures outside when it’s bright. It’s easy for foreground subjects to be too dark and the sky to be too bright. It’s common to try to make the picture as bright as you can without overexposing the sky in order to keep as much detail as possible in the image.
The highlight alert setting helps you see what your image will look like by flashing where the image is so bright, the camera can’t record any details.
When you are reviewing a picture on your camera’s screen, anywhere that is completely overexposed will flash if highlight alert is turned on. These areas, often called blown highlights, are areas that are so bright the camera reads them as white.
By checking the images on your camera and ensuring that there are no blown highlights, you can know that you have squeezed as much information into the image as possible.
A histogram is a graph that tells you how much of the image falls within certain brightness ranges. Lines farther to the left indicate darker areas while lines farther to the right indicate brighter areas. The more of the image fall within those ranges, the taller the line will be.
For the average picture, the ideal histogram is going to be a fat bell curve with almost nothing at either of the far ends of the graph. Of course, there will be times where the histogram is going to be skewed to get the picture you want. Our earlier example of a white snow scene is going to have more on the right if the snow is properly exposed.
Pay attention to the edges of the histogram. If you have a line on the far left of the histogram, it means there are parts of your image that are so underexposed that they are only black. If you have a line on the far right, it means that there are areas so overexposed that they are solid white (and your highlight alert should be flashing, if it’s on). Exposures this extreme are unrecoverable in post production.
As great as the screen on the back of your camera is, it’s very small and can be hard to tell what’s going on in it. Learning how to read your histogram is invaluable for getting the result you want.
The histogram is helpful in challenging lighting scenarios. In images where there are both over and underexposed elements, the histogram can be the only way to dial in a suitable exposure.
The self-timer causes a delay from when you press the shutter button and when the picture is actually taken. There are two self-timer modes that can be easily overlooked but quite useful–the two second timer and ten second timer.
One of the biggest challenges with using self-time for long exposure photos is keeping your camera stable enough so there’s no blurriness, caused by camera shake. A sturdy tripod is essential, but touching the camera at all during the exposure can create problems.
A popular solution is a remote shutter release, but if you don’t have one, the two second timer comes to the rescue! Simply set up your shot, turn on the two second timer, push the shutter button, take your hands off the camera and wait. The two second delay will allow any vibrations to stop, but is also quick enough that you don’t have to worry about missing the moment.
If you don’t have a remote shutter release, the two second timer can help prevent camera shake in longer exposures. Make sure your camera is mounted on a sturdy tripod.
Bonus Setting: Automatic Sensor Cleaning
At a certain point, you will need a cleaning kit or to give your camera to a professional to get the sensor cleaned. Fortunately, though, most cameras come with an automatic sensor cleaning setting.
This setting vibrates the sensor to shake the dust off. For many cameras, this is done automatically. However, if you’re in the middle of a shoot and see dust spots in your pictures, go into your camera settings and manually run the sensor cleaning.
No matter how great your DSLR or mirrorless camera may be, if you leave it on automatic and its default settings, you’re missing out on the benefits of your camera. Learning how to use your camera settings and features can help you elevate and improve your photography.
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