5 Camera Settings Every New Photographer Needs to Know

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The first time you pick up a camera it can be pretty confusing. With all the bells and whistles crammed inside even entry-level DSLRs nowadays, knowing where to start is anyone’s guess. Teaching yourself, through trial and error, is one of the best means-tested ways to come to grips with your camera and learn how to use it. But sometimes that takes a while, so here are some of the camera settings that I think every photographer needs to know about when they get their hands on a DSLR.

1. Live View Stops Mirror Slap

That satisfying, reassuring “clunk” sound you hear when you press the shutter button isn’t actually the shutter firing on the camera. In fact, that is the mirror moving up and down to expose the sensor to the world. But that relatively aggressive motion of the mirror can introduce camera shake into your images.

It’s something you might notice if you’re shooting a long exposure, but there’s an easy way around it. Switch the camera into Live View mode, forcing the mirror to raise permanently (until you turn off that mode) so that you can see the image on the LCD screen. This means that when you do actually press the button, only the shutter itself is moving – no need to worry about that mirror thudding up and down anymore.

Long exposures are better shot in Live View. 5 Camera Settings Every New Photographer Needs to Know

2. Auto ISO and Manual Mode Helps You Learn

Lots of photographers stay in Automatic mode because of the fear of missing images when they switch to Manual mode. To remove this fear, try shooting in Manual mode with Auto ISO enabled. This means that the camera is still in control of one of the three factors affecting exposure (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) so that it can balance out the settings with the ISO. But now you get to control the aperture and shutter speed yourself, changing them around to see what effect they will have on your photo.

5 Camera Settings Every New Photographer Needs to Know

Use Manual mode and Auto ISO to experiment safely with the other camera settings.

Try slowing down the shutter speed, or narrowing the aperture of the lens, safe in the knowledge that auto ISO will do a pretty good job at balancing the exposure (unless you slow your shutter down a lot). Being able to experiment freely like this will help you to get a practical knowledge of the exposure triangle and how it works.

3. Disable Area Autofocus Modes

The first thing you should do is disable any Area (zone) Autofocus modes. This is where the camera picks and chooses where it focuses, as it will rarely be at the point you would want. Instead, try using single-point focus. This allows you to be precise and line-up the black square over the target area in the scene.

5 Camera Settings Every New Photographer Needs to Know

Here I used single-point focus to nail the focus on the eye.

If you were taking a photo of a dog, for example, it’s much better to focus on the eyes than to rely on the camera to find that spot for you. Most likely, the camera would be focused on the end of the dog’s nose – not very good for an impactful shot.

4. Mute Your Camera

As a wildlife photographer, one of the really annoying things to hear in a quiet hide or nature reserve is the beep of someone’s camera. Whenever I get a new camera, it’s not long before I dive into the menu and disable all of the autofocus beeps, menu selection beeps, and any other noises the camera might feel so inclined to make.

5 Camera Settings Every New Photographer Needs to Know

Mute your camera to avoid disturbing sensitive animals – or people!

Not only is it pretty pointless, it could alert an animal to your presence! So, wildlife photographers, don’t do it.

5. Pay Attention to the White Balance Setting

The White Balance setting is one that can totally transform your images in a second, but it’s one that most people ignore for quite a while and just leave in auto mode.

If you’re shooting in JPEG file format, and not raw, then the White Balance choice you make in the camera does matter. If you’re shooting raw, you can adjust this later during post-production.

5 Camera Settings Every New Photographer Needs to Know

Adjust your white balance for proper color replication.

Why not Auto White Balance? I find that it never gets things right. Colors always look much flatter and dull, whereas the daylight or cloudy presets add an immediate punch to your shot. Try it, and you’ll probably find things really do change for the better.

You can also look at the manual White Balance setting (measured in degrees Kelvin) if you want to have a much more fine-tuned control over this setting.

Summary

Hopefully, these five tips will help you to navigate through the minefield that is a new DSLR camera. There are of course so many more things to know – and that’s where Digital Photography School can help you, of course. But these are some things that I think will make life easier for you as a new DSLR user.

Let me know in the comments if you have any other great tips or camera settings for new DSLR users!

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Will Nicholls

is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He has won multiple awards for his work, including the title of Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2009. Will runs a blog for nature photographers, Nature TTL, which provides tutorials and inspirational articles to readers. He also has a free eBook available called 10 Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Nature Photos.

  • Guilherme Palazzo

    Number 1 doesn’t work in my oldish Canon T3i, even in live view the camera flaps down the mirror after I press the shutter button. There’s a way to lock the mirror up, though, through the menus.

  • Tudor Croitoru

    Hi! Awesome article. One thing, though. This is very nit-picky, but it’s one of those things that if you don’t know, it flies over your head, but if you do, it haunts your dreams. Kelvin is not a degree typeset(i.e. Temperatures are measured in Kelvin, not degrees Kelvin), unlike the Celsius or Fahrenheit scales. Other than that, I loved the post!

  • Jim Wolff

    Good points in the article and I did not know that Live View automatically puts the mirror up. Thank you for sharing that. That is great to know.

    As for your recommendation to use auto-ISO, I respectfully have to disagree. Of course, I assume that you are directing that comment for complete beginners. But for anyone who wants to learn true photography, they need to be in complete manual mode, including ISO to understand the affects of ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Otherwise, they might as well buy a cheap point-and-click camera. Why spend $3000 for a Nikon D850 if all they are going to use it for is point-and-click (auto-modes).

  • Elizabeth Rose Milne

    the writer does say to use auto-iso when you’re worried about missing great shots – I assume he means to learn how to use iso on full manual with static or slow-moving objects, but allow some auto shots at one-time fast-action events?

  • Veronica Roberts

    In my experience many Nikon camera still use the mirror from Live-View.
    When you press the button to take the shot you get a double thwak, once as the mirror drops, the camera does its determinations for iso, f- stop, etc., then it raises the mirror again to take the photo.
    This can be overridden (I think) in the menus but is generally not the default.

  • Jim Wolff

    Thanks for that Veronica. I know I can set the mirror up manually, but now I will have to check the Live-View if it really lifts the mirror or not.

  • Tony Sullivan

    Hi,
    Great information. One of the best things I learned to use is the live view magnification feature. I think both Canon and Nikon have it. If you are setting up for a long exposure landscape you will be able to focus on the exact spot that you choose.

  • Monica Manginell

    As a beginner I used the auto-ISO in manual mode and it was an absolute great place to start. I was able to get comfortable with the camera without the stress of missing the shot.

  • Jim Wolff

    I would also recommend auto-white balance. I use auto-white balance all the time, even though I set everything else to manual.

  • Boris Maryanovsky

    My Nikon D3000 doesn’t have Live View mode, anybody could help whether there is any workaround to avoid camera shaking when long exposing? Thanks for useful article and an answer in advance

  • Nikeel Pillay

    best option in my opinion would be to invest in a external remote shutter or try and do it with your phone

  • Neville Baker

    Nobody just uses cameras in auto only modes. I’ve been using DSLR for 15 years, and use every trick in the book, including P Mode. That is why I paid so much for my equipment. What you, Jim, need is a box camera – f16 for scapes, and f8 for portraiture. More manual you can’t get. A photographer must use everything at his disposal, whether auto or manual. I look at my camera as Semi auto (P Mode) with it’s two extensions, namely Aperture ext. and Shutter speed ext.. I mainly am in P Mode, but switch over to Aperture ext. or Shutter speed ext. or Manual, as and when i require their usage, which is often. I’m never stuck fast on anything. Even when I’m in P Mode, I use what I want or need as I require. I do! do! do! I get my money’s worth. That P Mode story rut photographers come up with, is complete rubbish. Do! do! do! Don’t teach young photographers rubbish. They must learn to use everything, other than fully auto. which none of us use at all.

  • loginfailed

    Very thoughtful tips! Thanks for sharing.

  • Boris Maryanovsky

    Thank you Nikeel: to eliminate stress of shutter I use 10 sec delay mode, but does remote shutter would eliminate mirror raising?

  • https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b4297ef2cd1550ae404321b655052c3b4c0cc14130c5a5f3f7bb5f237aa03f32.jpg Great tips! Thank you. I’m trying to improve my focus. I shoot a lot of portraits and they are often of kids who don’t sit that still…. I shoot with a Canon 77D and had my settings on AI Servo, with Auto Select AF. I use back button focus. I am not thrilled with my success rate getting focused picture… the focus often ‘misses’ the eyes. Based on #3 above, do you think I should use AI Servo with single point focus? I just worry that in the moment I focus and recompose, the subject will move slightly and my focal point won’t work anymore. What do you recommend? Any other tips to help me improve my focus? Thanks! (Here is an example photo which I took recently – you can see the focus misses her eyes and is on her hair.)

  • Superheterodyne

    What happens on some or maybe all Nikon DSLRs is the mirror flips up when you put it in live mode, else the LCD would be blank. But, it doesn’t keep it up (like some others). It drops AFTER the shot is taken and it lifts back up as the camera goes to metering/ready status.

  • Superheterodyne

    Nice quick tips Will.

    I would add that when in Live view, on DLSR cameras that maintain the “Up Mirror” status, you not only have a quieter camera but a more precise focus. Live view uses “Contrast Detect” focus. While that is much slower than “Phase Detect” focus used in non-live view, it is more accurate.

  • Superheterodyne

    No.

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