Avoid These 5 Common Camera Setting Mistakes Made By Beginners

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Over the years, I’ve taught many new photographers and observed how they used their cameras. I have noticed a handful of common mistakes that many of them make. While there is a lot more to learn about photography, if you can avoid or fix these issues alone, you will find that your photographs will be much sharper and of much better quality.

Avoid These 5 Camera Setting Mistakes Typically Made By Beginners

1. Not raising the ISO high enough

It used to be commonly taught that you always needed to go as low as possible with the ISO for digital cameras. This was because early digital cameras had horrible noise at higher ISOs. These days, that has completely changed. Newer digital cameras can shoot with incredible quality at ISO 800, 1600, 3200, and even 6400 for higher end cameras. The noise is much less noticeable than it used to be, and it is much more pleasant looking.

Avoid These 5 Camera Setting Mistakes Typically Made By Beginners

This has changed how we can shoot. While your ISO should still be as low as possible when the camera is on a tripod when you’re shooting handheld you will often want to raise your ISO up much higher. Unless I am purposely shooting with a very large aperture such as f/2.8, I typically keep my ISO at 400 in sunlight, 800-1600 in light to dark shade, and 3200 and 6400 when handheld at dusk or at night. This allows me to use a faster shutter speed to offset handheld camera shake or motion in subjects, along with a decent depth of field. My shots are much sharper because of this.

Unless you are shooting in Manual Mode, I suggest taking your camera off of auto-ISO. You never want to let your camera choose two of the three settings (shutter, aperture, and ISO) because it will mess up your photographs a lot of the time. The camera should only be choosing one of those three settings for optimal use.

2. Using a shutter speed that’s too slow

Avoid These 5 Camera Setting Mistakes Typically Made By Beginners

To offset the handheld camera shake, the shutter speed always needs to be ONE over the focal length of your lens. So if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, your camera will need to be at 1/50th of a second (or faster) to make sure the image is sharp. This comes even more into play with a zoom lens because a 300mm lens will need a 1/300th of a second shutter speed in order for the image to not look blurry. This is because slight vibrations are much more noticeable when you magnify a small area in the distance. This is also why I will often raise my ISO when zooming at far distances.

For subjects in motion, you will need a fast enough shutter speed to freeze them. I prefer a minimum of 1/250th of a second to freeze people walking. You will need an even faster shutter speed as you get to subjects such as cars.

3. Not using exposure compensation (+/-) or the right meter mode

Avoid These 5 Camera Setting Mistakes Typically Made By Beginners

If you are using Aperture or Shutter Priority mode, Exposure Compensation is your best friend, particularly in scenes with tricky lighting. Your camera’s light meter is not creative – it wants to make everything look a neutral gray, but that is problematic in images with lots of dark or bright tones. Maybe you want those tones to look gray for creative purposes, but most likely, you will want them to be true to the scene. This is where Exposure Compensation (+/-) comes into play.

For instance, in scenes with lots of bright snow or a bright sky, this could trick the camera into thinking that it needs to overly darken the image to make those white areas look gray. Or if you are shooting at night, or in a dark alleyway, the camera’s light meter will try to make those dark tones look like a lighter gray, thus brightening the image too much. Similar problems can also appear when shooting in areas with both bright highlights and dark shadows, or if your subject is backlit.

On a related note, many photographers keep their camera on the wrong metering mode. There are three main metering modes; Evaluative, Center-weighted, and Spot metering. Evaluative will expose for the entire scene, Center-weighted will expose based on the spot that you focus on and an expanded area around it, and Spot metering will measure the light based on only the spot that you point to. I personally find Evaluative to be too broad and Spot to be too focused, so I mostly use Center-weighted metering mode.

Read more here: Cheat Sheet: Understand Metering Modes On Your Camera

4. Not getting the focus point right

Avoid These 5 Camera Setting Mistakes Typically Made By Beginners

Some photographers leave their focusing completely up to the camera. This is a terrible idea as the camera will often focus on the wrong point, ultimately ruining your image. You need to be in control of your focusing and put the focus on the most important subject in the image.

On a similar note, it is common for photographers to get that new 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens and immediately think that they need to shoot everything at f/1.4 because they can. Some situations will be good for f/1.4, but it’s important to realize how shallow the depth of field is at that aperture.

If you are shooting with a really shallow depth of field, the focus needs to be perfect and exactly right on the most important subject. If you are photographing a person and you put the focus point on the person’s ear or nose instead of their eyes, it will be noticeable and it will mess up the photograph. Often, I prefer to shoot portraits like this at f/4 instead of f/1.8 or f/2.8. There is still a beautiful background with bokeh, yet more of the person is in focus. This minimizes any focusing mistakes as well.

5. Using image stabilization when using a tripod

Avoid These 5 Camera Setting Mistakes Typically Made By Beginners

The image stabilizer in your lens or camera will make your photographs sharper when handheld. However, it can also create minor vibrations while keeping the camera steadier, and these vibrations can actually backfire when you are on a tripod. Sometimes they will introduce blur. So always make sure to turn the image stabilizer off when you are using a tripod. If you ever notice your photographs on a tripod are slightly blurry, this issue and wind are the most likely culprits.

Conclusion

There you have it. The bottom line is that if you can learn to conquer and avoid these five common beginner mistakes, you’ll be on your way to better photography.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • I learn new things from your blog. Especially using image stabilization when using tripod Thanks.

  • now many Indian university also looking to launch degree in photography and one the university is

  • aar_cee

    Good tips.. Especially about using high iso

  • Yes, beginners make the mistakes. Thanks for this informative post. Really learn new thing from your post.

  • As to the first advice I completely agree that you probably should be less afraid of the high ISO. But using auto-ISO in manual mode for me completely defeats the purpose of going manual. What is the point of choosing aperture and shutter speed and then letting the camera f*** up my exposure by cranking up the ISO. In manual mode I want to choose the exposure, and let my light meter be the guide and not the driver. If I choose to underexpose or overexpose according to the meter I want to be able to. That is the whole purpose of shooting in manual for me.

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  • walwit

    Point number three was for me, I was wondering why my Fuji X-T1 has that big button for exposure compensation which I rarely use.

  • I get the job done from ease and comfort of my house, with quick projects that solely demands from you a Home computer and also connection to the web and I am also joyful than before… After six months time on this task and therefore managed to get remunerated in whole 36 thousand bucks… Basically I earn nearly 80 bucks/hr and also work for three to four hours on a regular basis.And fabulous factor regarding this work is usually that you can control time while you get the job done and for how much time as you prefer and you achieve a check each week.—–>>>> learn by clicking here how to do it right now

  • amali

    great tips!! Tip #4 about Focal point especially informative for me. I was one of those shooting at 1.4 and wondering why shot was blurry. Thank you!!

  • Southern Gent

    Such great advice, and though I’ve been shooting for years, I think you cleared up one or two issues I keep having. I am in a “Photography 101” class at a local college working my way through to their “certificate”. The instructor for this class really, really needs to print out this page and hand it out. Of course that would negate the need for him.

  • James, I have been shooting for about 7 years now and am an avid reader of dps. I always enjoy your articles. I would love to attend one of your workshops. I’m pretty full for 2017, but maybe next year. Where do I go to watch for workshop dates? Your website doesn’t show many dates.

  • Peggy Bogar

    Thank you for your article. I have so much to learn and have only just begun to take auto off and learn and your tips should help with that. I am in Australia.

  • Vishesh Kamboj

    The metering/exposure-compensation tip was really great. Now I realize why my photos of birds sitting on secluded branches with bright sky were so very dark.

  • rwhunt99

    I’m not sure, but I thought manual mode made everything manual, but maybe not. I do what you do, I set the ISO to what I want, so I will have to check the manual to see for sure.

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  • Glad it helped Vishesh!

  • My pleasure Peggy – glad you enjoyed it!

  • Jim so happy to hear you enjoy them! I should have one in April 2018 and one in Sept 2018, but not sure about what else – those will go on the website later this year. If you go to http://www.jamesmaherphtoography.com/workshops you can see info about my group and my private ones. Also, if you want to know right away when a new workshop is line, just make sure to join my mailing list and I will send out an email when it is.

  • Ha, glad it helped you!

  • Yeah 1.4 is overrated amali, except for certain types of shots.

  • Yes, exposure compensation is so important.

  • Adam of course when you want to shoot in Manual you can set the ISO yourself and be completely manual, but auto-ISO doesn’t defeat the purpose of it, it just gives you a new way to shoot in a similar vein as aperture or shutter priority. For instance, if there is variable light, you want a specific depth of field, a specific shutter to freeze motion, and you don’t want to change your settings every time you go from shadow to sunlight, auto-ISO will solve that problem for you. Using auto-ISO with Manual setting is just a completely different way of setting your camera that has nothing to do with true manual shooting.

  • With auto-ISO now on most cameras, it just gives you another way to control your camera. It’s technically not true Manual – just more of a Manual-Priority mode. Good for occasional situations.

  • Glad you enjoyed it Jamila!

  • Glad you liked them!

  • Happy to hear that you enjoyed it Yusuf!

  • James, September 2018 might just work. I’m going to shoot for that. Prior to that, I have other commitments. How do I join your email list? Through your website? Look forward to doing a workshop.

  • Yes, beginners learns here. Thanks for this informative post. Really learn new thing from your post.Thank you for your article. I have so much to learn and have only just begun to take auto off and learn and your tips should help with that.
    Good tips.. Especially about using………….

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  • Hey Jim – sorry I missed this. You can join my mailing list here. You’ll then get notice once the next workshop is up. https://www.jamesmaherphotography.com/join_mailing_list/

  • Thanks, James! Just subscribed! Thanks.

  • Hi Jim! I’ll also be in NYC joining James on a photo walk on August 28th! It’s currently full but you can get on the waiting list if you want to join us.

  • Aw, thanks! How awesome it would be to attend this photo walk with both you and James there. But I’ll just be returning from Alaska on the 16th…28th would be pushing the envelope. Hope to see you again soon, though.

  • You too!

  • PS I may be building a Night Sky photo workshop up this way!

  • I really got the issue of my camera now. Thanks for sharing this with me. Now I am able to find out the trouble of my camera by myself.

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