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38 Essential Camera Settings, Techniques, and Rules for New Owners

Buying a new camera and diving into photography may feel like a daunting task- but it’s really not when you break everything all down! Here is a quick and snippy guide to settings, techniques, and rules that all new camera owners should know. By implementing these, you can jump right into photography without hesitation! 

The Settings 

Cameras are set up with default settings straight out of the box. Although these settings may sound good on paper, they don’t actually work as well as one would assume. Here are the must-know settings to keep in mind when you shoot. 

1. Change Your Default Settings to This

Right off the bat, go to your camera menu (regardless of brand) and switch your settings to this:

  • Image Quality: RAW + JPEG (if your card is large enough to accommodate, otherwise leave it as JPEG)
  • RAW Recording: Lossless Compressed (if you’re able to enable RAW)
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Picture Control / Picture Style / Creative Style / Film Simulation: Standard
  • Color Space: sRGB
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction: On
  • High ISO Noise Reduction: On
  • Active D-Lighting / DRO, HDR, Lens Corrections: On

2. Disable Area Autofocus Mode

Your camera focus points will be set to Area Autofocus. This means that the camera will try and determine what you want to focus on, and this isn’t very accurate. Having the camera figure it out will lead to a lot of frustration and missed shots. 

As such, you want to ideally switch your focus point to Single Point (or Spot in some brands) Focus- this means that the camera will focus on whatever area you tell it to! You will need to line up the little black square that appears in your viewfinder over the subject you want to focus on. 

3. Use Manual Mode

With camera modes, switch to Manual Mode. Camera modes are different preset features or options that tell the camera how you want to take a picture. 

Manual Mode turns off all of the camera’s automatic settings. This is the ideal mode for photography because you adjust the entire exposure equation yourself, as well as all of the more minor configurations, such as the Auto Focus Settings and White Balance. 

This mode also prevents the camera from glitching during an automatic mode and causing you to miss your shot. 

4. Use One Variable as a Baseline for Manual Mode

To make Manual Mode easier, use one of your exposure settings as a baseline. Exposure is a formula: ISO + shutter speed + aperture = exposure. Like a mathematical formula, if one variable is changed, the rest are affected by the change. 

If you eliminate one of these variables, it becomes much easier because you only need to adjust two components. The one that I always keep stable is the aperture. Because the aperture affects your depth of field, I always set my aperture to be as wide or narrow as I want for my photograph. Then, all I have to do is adjust my ISO and shutter speed to expose the image properly. 

5. When to Use One Shot 

Your camera is set to One-Shot by default, right out of the box. One-Shot achieves automatic focus on your subject for only one image, best used when capturing still life or product photography.

6. When to Use Continuous Focus

Continuous Focus is when the camera’s focus keeps refocusing on the subject as it moves. This mode changes names based on brands, such as AI Servo for Canon and Continuous AI for Sony. This is great for action photography. 

7. When to Use AI Automatic

In short- never! Pretend this setting doesn’t exist. This mode is seldom used as it tends not to be accurate when picking out the focus mode because you’re expecting the camera to figure out what you’re capturing. 

8. What Metering Mode to Use

Metering tells the camera how to express the exposure meter to you accurately. To understand the proper exposure, we rely on a guide that we see at the bottom of our viewfinder called the Exposure Meter. This measures the intensity of light and tells us if our exposure settings are too light, too dark, or just right.

To get a proper reading, you have to change your camera’s metering mode. The best metering mode for new photographers is Matrix / Evaluative Metering. This mode considers the entire scene, all of its shadows, and highlights when setting the exposure. Its goal is to expose the darkest part of your image and the lightest part of your image as equally as possible. 

9. Switch Image Stabilization On (If Available)

Some higher-end lenses have a feature called Image Stabilization. This helps prevent camera shake, which describes the blurriness or shakiness you may see in your photograph. 

This happens because of the vibration caused by clicking on the camera’s shutter button to capture an image. Longer focal lengths, such as telephoto lenses, are prone to this problem. Make sure to switch this mode ON if your lens has it. 

10. Best Settings for Portraits 

The key to great portraits is making sure that all of the important features of a face are in focus. For portraits, ensure that your Aperture sits around F/8.0 to capture the whole face in focus! 

These narrower apertures will make your image darker, so it is a good idea to use a slower shutter speed- since your subject won’t move much for portraits, shooting at a shutter speed of 1/200 is excellent! Then, adjust your ISO accordingly to achieve proper exposure. 

11. Best Settings for Landscapes

Landscapes look best when as much of the scene is in focus as possible. Flip your aperture up to F/12 and maybe even narrower! 

Put the camera on a tripod to prevent any sort of shake or blurriness, and slow your shutter speed quite a bit to account for the narrow aperture making the photograph darker. You want to reduce noise as much as possible, so keep your ISO as low as possible, ideally below ISO 1000. 

12. Best Settings for Still Life 

Still life is the easiest because your subject doesn’t move. To make your still life stand out, use a wide aperture and shallow depth of field- such as F/1.8. 

Then, keep your ISO as low as possible, like ISO 100, because the wide aperture will let in a lot of light. Adjust your shutter speed accordingly for exposure. 

Putting your camera on a tripod or stable surface is a good idea. 

13. Best Settings for Action Photography

You need a fast shutter speed for action photography to freeze the movement! You want the shutter speed to be your baseline instead of the aperture for this photography type. Your shutter speed chart is generally as follows:

  • 1/125-1/150 is great to snap a person walking leisurely. 
  • 1/500-1/1000 seconds will capture a person running or jogging. 
  • 1/500-1/2000 seconds will freeze an animal running. 
  • 1/800-1/2000 seconds will photograph faster movements, such as a bird flying. 
  • 1/500-1/8000 seconds is excellent for anything faster, such as a car racing on a track or horses galloping at the Kentucky Derby. 

Then, adjust your ISO and Aperture to accommodate the exposure needs.

Ensure you set your camera to Burst Mode or High-Speed Continuous shooting to take advantage of the camera’s Frames Per Second. 

14. Use the Following White Balance for These Situations 

White balance adjusts colors to look more natural or accurate to the scene. You can switch your camera to different white balance settings:

  • Auto: Works most of the time, so this is a good default to keep.
  • Daylight/Sunny: Adds a warm effect to images, so it is intended for bright clear days. 
  • Cloudy/Overcast: This warms images even more, meant for cloudy days. 
  • Shade: This is the extremest warmth, as shady spots look very blue and cold.
  • Flash: This adds a colder look to your images to handle artificial lights in a photo studio.
  • Fluorescent: This removes the blue and green, sickly look produced by fluorescent lights. 
  • Tungsten/Incandescent: These lights are very warm, so the white balance setting will counteract by cooling the colors down. 

Shooting Techniques and Tips

Now that your settings are in order, here are practical, effective, and common tidbits to remember.

15. Hold Your Camera Properly

Holding your camera correctly eliminates a camera shake. No matter how you are positioned, the most straightforward technique to keep in mind is a proper grip on the camera body and lens. 

With your hand on the grip, use your index finger to press the shutter button (you won’t need to remove your hold on the grip). When holding the lens, rest the lens on your left hand and cup the lens from the bottom. 

You can twist the lens barrel (the focus ring and/or zoom ring, depending on the lens) with your fingers without loosening your hold on the lens. 

Ensure you tuck your elbows into your body to keep the camera sturdy. This is most important! 

16. Mute Your Camera for Animal Photography

Nearly all new digital and mirrorless cameras have a ‘silent mode’ option. This eliminates the ‘click’ you hear when a photograph is taken. The click will scare away wildlife if you love photographing wild animals or distract a pet if you’re photographing your dog or cat. 

The key to being an effective animal photographer is to remove yourself from the situation, and the best way to do this is to keep your camera quiet. 

17. Use the Histogram

The histogram gets little love from new photographers, but it’s very useful. A histogram is a graphic representation of how light is distributed in your image. 

A histogram will show you how bright each pixel in your image is, ranging from black (0% brightness) to white (100% brightness). The histogram is directly related to your exposure settings. The brighter the exposure, the lighter your histogram will show the pixels are.

By using a histogram, you can make your image look more interesting and more dynamic by ensuring there are many mountains in your photograph histogram. If the mountain peak is up, there are many of those particular settings. If it is down, there is too little of that setting. 

18. Use Filters on Your Lenses

Filters are panes of glass that screw onto the front of your lens. The filter will absorb any shock if your lens happens to fall, saving you thousands of dollars. The filter will also prevent scratches and dust from touching the actual lens. 

19. Use Shallow Depth of Field for Unflattering Locations 

Depth of field refers to how much of an image is in focus. When a depth of field is shallow, that tends to mean that just the subject is in focus, and the rest of the image blurs away. This is extremely useful if the location you photograph is super cluttered or unflattering. This is because your background will immediately blur away and stop being a problem. 

Use apertures of a minimum of F/2.8 all the way to F/1.2. Being around the F/1.8, F/1.4, and F/1.2 range is ideal. 

20. Focusing with Wide Apertures

The farther away you are from the subject, the easier it is to get the subject in focus. You can get the subject in focus and still maintain an extremely creamy depth of field. This is because as you move back, your subject becomes smaller and fits on your focus line better. Then just crop in to get your desired composition. 

21. Look for Simple Backgrounds for Portraits 

For effective portraits, pick out the most uncomplicated and plain background you can. Ideally, just a solid color. This allows the portrait to be the center of focus. 

22. Never Aim a Flash, Strobe, or Speedlite Directly At Your Subject (Except with a Diffuser)

New photographers’ biggest mistake with flash is to aim it directly at their subject. Nope, nope, nope! Use the flash to bounce light off of walls. Aim the flash to the ceiling, to the wall behind you, or any of the walls off to the side. You can even buy a bounce card which is a little white plastic card that sticks to the top of your flash to bounce the light if your ceiling is too high. 

If you need to shoot a flash toward your subject, use a diffuser or softbox. These are fabric cages, usually with white fabric, that go around your flash and soften the light as it goes out of it. 

23. Use Panning for Action Photography

Panning is a photography technique in which the photographer follows the moving subject with the camera in a horizontal fashion. This is best for action photography because you can capture every moment in an action sequence. 

The tip for panning is to ensure your subject is always centered in your frame, making it easy to follow. 

24. Prefocus for Action Photographs

If you’re photographing a sporting event or trying to capture a dog jumping over an object, sometimes the camera can have trouble locking focus on your subject (even if you are using Continuous Autofocus mode). The remedy is to pre-focus on where you know the action will happen and then click the shutter button when your subject is there!

25. Shoot During the Golden Hour 

The golden hour includes the first hour after sunrise and the last hour of light before sunset. It is named as such because the sun parallel to the camera creates a glow of gold light that washes over the image. 

This is the most beloved and eye-catching time of day to capture photographs, and many clients pay extra to shoot in this window of time. 

Settings are also easier to achieve because the light is more even. 

26. It’s Easier to Save Underexposure than Overexposure 

When the image is too dark, the shadows look very black, meaning they are underexposed. When your image is too light, the whites look very white and lack details, which means your photograph is overexposed. 

In the editing room, it is much easier to bring back shadows and lighten them because oftentimes, there is still information in the blacks that you can bring forward by adjusting the exposure slider in an editing program. Overexposed highlights, however, have lost information and cannot be brought back. 

27. Make Sure That You Backup All of Your Photographs

The biggest cause of a photographer’s heartache is losing your precious photographs. Don’t delete or format your camera memory cards until the photographs are safely backed up! It’s better to back up in multiple locations, such as external hard drives, online cloud systems, and your computer hard drive. 

28. Invest in Walkaround Lenses 

If you only have the money for one lens, get a walkaround lens. Walkaround lenses are variable focal length (zoom) lenses that go from a wide view to a zoomed-in narrow one. The most popular is every camera brand’s 24-70mm F/2.8 lens. These lenses are the most adaptable as they can work for almost any situation, hence the name “walkaround.” 

Photography Rules

Here are the primary composition rules all photographers need to know. Composition is the arrangement of a photograph’s elements (subject, objects, foreground, background, and negative space). The composition will make or break your image.

Although most photographers go by their aesthetic preferences or what ‘looks right,’ these rules provide a great guide. 

29. The Rule of Thirds

This is the most basic compositional rule. If you divide your photograph evenly into thirds horizontally and vertically, the image’s subject needs to be placed at the intersection of the dividing lines. Any of the intersections! But it must be at an intersection. 

The idea is that this provides the most accurate amount of negative space. Negative space describes all of the parts of your photograph that do not have your subject in it. 

30. Implied Sense of Movement 

An implied sense of movement means the direction you think the movement will go in a still image. For example, if a dog runs to the left in a picture, the implied sense of movement is toward the left. If a model looks to the right, the implied sense of movement is to the right. If the subject looks into the camera, the implied sense of movement is towards the viewer. 

How this factors into the composition is that you always want to leave more negative space in the direction of implied movement. This keeps your photograph from feeling claustrophobic or too abruptly cropped.

31. Eye Lines

Eye lines are a way of describing a perspective. When photographing living subjects, you generally want to photograph from their eye level. 

This is because photographing from eye level allows the viewer to sympathize with the subject and develop a mental relationship with the photograph. 

Shoot from the eye line or eye level. 

32. Use Framing and Leading Lines

The most effective compositions are the ones in which the viewer looks around the frame and lands on the subject. The goal of composition is to keep the viewer interested and engaged; a big part of that is ensuring that the viewer understands who or what you are trying to show them. You achieve this by using framing or leading lines. 

Framing is when the subject is in a ‘frame,’ achieved by using the composition to circle your subject. You can frame your subject by placing them in a doorway, under an archway, or between two trees! There are many ways to do this, and you can get very creative with it. 

Leading lines are parts of your composition that cause the eye to follow a line all the way to your subject. Many achieve this by capturing models near architecture that lead directly to the subject! You can do this with various lines in a picture.  

33. Don’t Cut Off Limbs

Don’t cut off limbs if you photograph a living subject, such as a person or pet! That looks like you purposefully handicapped your subject. If you must crop tightly, never crop at a limb joint- always crop in the center between two joints. 

34. Look for Symmetry and Patterns

When photographing landscapes, look for symmetry and patterns in your frame. The human mind and psychology naturally gravitate towards repeated information, such as bridge design. This creates a very visually pleasing and satisfying photograph. 

Bookmark this guide and refer to it whenever you need helpful information to help with your photography journey! 

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