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Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Week 18: Recommended camera settings

This the final post in this 15 week free photography course.
Start at Week 1 and work your way through.
To find Week 1, use the navigation panel over there on the right, or search through "Older Posts" at the bottom of the page.

So, for those readers who have done all the work and got this far:
This might seem an odd place to finally get around to spelling out all the camera settings that I recommend...And it is! But in my defence, if I did this right at the beginning, before students had a grasp on the fundamentals of photography and why things work they way they do, it might seem a bit arbitrary and meaningless. Anyway, we've had plenty of other stuff to get our heads around. So, here goes...

Before I start let me say that the settings here are based on Nikon cameras because that's what I use but most of the settings have an equivalent on Canon, Pentax, Sony and so on. But you will need to refer to the camera manual to understand how your particular camera treats these settings as there are differences.

OK. Let's start with the camera body itself.
This is a Nikon D5100 - a pretty typical mid price DSLR camera. There are only a couple of settings that you need to think about on the camera body itself.

Camera mode dial can be set to whatever mode is most useful or appropriate to the task but remember Week 1; Green camera or square (Auto mode) is point and shoot and you really should be past all that by now.

Exposure compensation button: Before you start shooting, as soon as you pick up the camera at the start of the day, do a pre-flight check that includes zeroing the exposure compensation dial in case you forgot to do it last time you shot some photos. A pre-flight should also include checking the white balance settings, the image size/format and the ISO settings, the metering patterns and the auto focus mode. Then you're good to go.

Flash mode: I always set this to rear curtain slow speed sync unless I have a good reason to change it (see Week 9) because then I get all the ambient exposure i want, when I want it and I get motion blur looking cool. I often have flash exposure compensation tuned to -1.7 EV as well, so the pop-up is primed to give me fill-flash any time I need it.

On Nikon cameras there is a customisable function button on the camera too. I generally custom set this for instant access to ISO settings but this only applies to Nikon cameras and actually I never really use it. People will have their own preferences for this which is programmable from within the menu settings.

Around the back of this particular model are a few control buttons but the only one that we need settings for is AE-L/AF-L. This is auto exposure/focus lock. On Nikon cameras there is an option to select this as either auto-exposure lock only, auto-exposure and auto-focus lock, or auto-focus lock only. This gives the user a choice of having the camera lock exposure info as well as focus lock before re-composing the view or one or the other. It makes the most sense to lock exposure info as well focus-lock before re-framing the photo so your subject has a decent chance. So that's the setting I use.

That's about all you can set up on the outside of this camera, all the rest is in the menu, so let's take a look in there. Because there's a bunch of settings in the menu that are relevant to all dslr cameras, I'll list them. You'll need to navigate your camera's menu system to find the appropriate menu item on your camera body.

  1. Format memory card: I always format my memory cards before shooting a new assignment so I'm starting with a clean slate. But be careful - formatting wipes the card clean, so make sure you have securely downloaded and backed up your previous work before formatting the card.
  2. Monitor brightness: Many people have this set too bright, which gives the impression that your photo is over-exposed when in fact it's fine. I actually set mine to be slightly under-bright because it more accurately reflects how the image will look on my computer screen.
  3. Clean image sensor - ON. Might as well.
  4. Time & date - Set to your time zone, correct time and date because this info is carried with the images Exif data.
  5. Playback display options: turn them all ON, especially Highlight warning and Histograms. These are the best tools for judging correct or best exposure.
  6. Image review - ON or OFF, your choice. I choose OFF because I don't want the LCD illuminated all the time when I'm shooting bursts of action pictures, it's very distracting next to my eye!
  7. Shooting menu options: Image quality: highest quality/least compression for Jpegs or shoot RAW. Why would you want to shoot anything other than the finest, highest quality and biggest file size?
  8. White balance: Auto WB unless you find a pre-set that works better for your situation. RAW shooters can apply white balance later after downloading unless you are mixing ambient and flash, in which case get the ambient WB the way you want it in the camera. Jpeg shooters need to get WB accurate in the camera.
  9. Picture style settings: For Jpegs only, RAW shooters can ignore these. Custom settings for different subjects/situations. Set with care because this is how your camera is going to process your photo.
  10. Distortion controls: ON
  11. Colour space: Adobe RGB for Jpegs and RAW unless you are printing direct from camera, then sRGB.
  12. Active or Dynamic light control: ON for Jpeg, OFF for RAW
  13. Long exposure noise reduction: OFF except for night photography
  14. ISO: Auto except when shooting flash only photos (like in a studio), then manual and set the lowest setting. High-end pro camera users can use Auto-ISO in Manual mode as an extra "priority mode".
  15. Shutter release modes: Single shot for landscapes. Continuous mode for action.
  16. Custom settings: Auto focus settings: AF-C for action, AF-S for still life or landscape or AF-A as default setting. Canon's do-it-all mode is AI-Focus.
  17. Auto focus assist: ON
  18. EV steps: 1/3rds
  19. ISO display: ON, you want to know when the camera starts using a high ISO so you can avoid "noise" issues.
  20. Beep: OFF!
  21. File number sequence: ON, otherwise each time you start a new shoot, the file numbers go back to 0 - nightmare!
  22. Flash control: TTL
Other camera settings that are important:

Metering pattern: Matrix or Evaluative metering every time for me. It's so accurate on Nikon and if it does get it wrong I just dial in some exposure compensation.

Focus sensor: This is different for different cameras and for different shooting situations but whatever sensor pattern you choose to use make sure you know how to select the centre focus sensor quickly and easily whenever you need to - this will save a lot of faffing around!

Image stabilisation: (VR on Nikon) On the lens - Normal, ON for most situations, Active ON for shooting from a moving platform or vehicle, OFF when using a tripod.

I think that just about covers it. If I think of any more I'll add them later.


  1. Thanks Dave. I've just bought a new Sony NEX camera with a 50mm prime. Been fiddling with the settings today.

  2. That's a coincidence, I just did the same thing! I'm planning use mine as a street camera and for video. I'll be posting my street shots on my new diary blog "picture post" on my website at, have a look sometime. Good luck with the NEX. Best compact camera in the world maybe.

  3. Superb efforts! Keep updated more and more posts I’ll be here to wait for your posting. Bryan P. Photography

  4. Great blog and an ideal foundation for Level 3. Thank you Dave!