Advanced camera settings


Here's a path through the jungle of possible camera settings, along the manageable number of adjustments that really matter to the look of your photos.

Camera mode – allow manual control

Dials for camera mode, in P

P, S, A, M resp. P, Tv, Av, M with Canon are the camera modes for advanced users. Only with these modes you can control all camera settings yourself. A fully automatic mode does not allow this, as it is not only supposed to be convenient, but also safe from operating errors.

With full control over all camera settings, there is also more freedom to make mistakes, be aware of this directional decision. When you cook something yourself from fresh ingredients instead of stirring a ready-made meal, you have not only the freedom to create something of your own. You have to take care of salting, seasoning and much more yourself - opportunity and risk, freedom for creativity as well as for mistakes.

You can achieve the same results with all four modes. It's a matter of personal preference which mode you use and depending on the shooting situation they are differently practical.

My recommendation is P or A/Av, i.e. programmed automatic or aperture priority. Start with P if you want to shoot comfortably or are not yet familiar with aperture selection. Use A/Av if you want to actively select the aperture to influence the depth of field.

You don't need to know everything about camera mode to choose P or A / Av, but you can read about it here: camera mode.

Resetting the camera – create a familiar starting point

There is no general recommendation for this, it is too different for the various manufacturers and camera models how you can reset them to a reasonable basic state. They may offer a kind of reset or require you to reset changed settings yourself.

Otherwise, you may, for example, set an exposure compensation to make a photo brighter or darker, put the camera down, and your first photo the next day unintentionally gets the same exposure compensation.

It's a normal experience to accidentally take photos with the wrong settings. I would bet that it has happened to every advanced photographer.

Get into the habit of keeping track of the settings you actively change and familiarise yourself with how to reset your camera to a known initial state.

A new camera that no one has tampered with before will always have reasonable default settings from the manufacturer that you can start with.

Focal length – choose angle of view and perspective

For advanced users, I will write about focal length instead of zoom. It has two effects on your photos:

Shot with tele, focal length approx. 180 mm (35 mm equiv.)
Shot with slight tele, focal length 70 mm (35 mm equiv.)
Shot with wide angle, focal length 25 mm (35 mm equiv.)
  • The focal length determines the width of the image section, you can ”get more into the picture“ by zooming out or ”get closer“ by zooming in. This is the obvious image effect that every beginner already knows and uses.

To illustrate this, three photos taken from the same spot within a few minutes, the different focal length creates completely different image content and image composition possibilities. I was not using extreme wide-angle or telephoto focal lengths, which could make the differences be even more glaring.

Shot with slight tele, focal length 80 mm (35 mm equiv.)
Shot with standard focal lengt, 50 mm (35 mm equiv.)
Shot with wide angle, focal length 28 mm (35 mm equiv.)
  • The focal length, together with the position from which the picture is taken, determines the perspective, the proportions in the picture. This is the advanced role of focal length, which is important for image composition. It changes the effect of your pictures, gives you more possibilities of expression and makes you move around. For example, get closer and shoot with a wide-angle focal length instead of comfortably using the zoom slider on the spot.

In the three photos of the house in Tuscany, notice the wagon wheel on the bottom left and the tree on the right edge; they are the same in all three photos and in the same place. Different shooting distances and focal lengths result in such different perspectives.

Beginners zoom with their camera where they are standing; advanced photographers also master image composition with their feet, the "zooming with shoes" in interaction with the focal length.

If you don't have it at hand, check for your camera resp. lens(es),

  • which focal lengths they have – expressed as equivalent of 35 mm cameras
  • in which range from wide angle to telephoto you can move with them and which image effects you can achieve with them. Try and experiment!

Autofocus – sharpness

autofocus on foregrund and background

The autofocus has only one result to deliver: It has to set the lens to a distance that it can reproduce with the best possible sharpness.

All the settings and complex technology around it are concerned with how your camera finds this distance, as quickly and reliably as possible, even in low light, etc.

If the autofocus comes to the distance of your main subject on its own, everything is fine.

Otherwise, the two most important settings are to direct the autofocus yourself:

  • Focus on which point in the image? – Telling the camera at which point in the image you want the autofocus to focus.
  • Focus once or continuously? – The setting whether the autofocus should focus once and then stand still or whether it should follow a moving subject, i.e. continuously adjust the distance.

More about the most important autofocus settings

Aperture, exposure time, ISO – three faithful companions

Sample display with aperture, exposure time, ISO sensitivity

These three are at the heart of camera settings, in today's digital photography as much as in decades before. They control the recording of incident light, the very essence of photography.

  • Each by itself has a specific effect on the look of your image.
  • All three together result in exposure, how light or dark your photo looks. More on this in the next section.

Here are three steps that explain everything you need to know:

Exposure – image brightness

White orchids, images taken with different exposures

The camera's automatic exposure metering measures the brightness of the incident light. If you understand how it works, you can decide for yourself whether to intervene in the exposure metering. This will help you with it:

There are three ways to adjust exposure:

  • Exposure lock | The simplest way to influence exposure, and already described in the explanations for beginners. This does not mean anything bad, on the contrary, professionals also use it. More about exposure lock
  • Exposure compensation | An additional correction set manually for a brighter or darker exposure that deviates from the automatic exposure metering. More on exposure compensation
  • Type of exposure metering | Selecting a different type of exposure metering can also be useful. How to do this is part of the article Types of exposure metering linked earlier.

The three possibilities for adjusting exposure can be combined in any way; there is no exact recipe for what leads to the best result and when, and there are different personal preferences. As long as the result is right, everything is good.

In the end, the result of the exposure metering must be translated into a combination of aperture, exposure time and ISO sensitivity. There are always several that deliver the same brightness and it is the task of the already mentioned exposure control to select a combination.

Depending on the selected camera mode, you choose aperture and/or exposure time yourself. 

White balance – colour rendering

Different white balance settings, automatic and manual

White balance corrects colour rendition, especially towards warmer or cooler colours.

As with exposure, every camera does this automatically and usually well. If you want full control, you need your camera's white balance.

More about white balance

Flash – the extra dose of light

The decision to take a photo with or without flash is already part of the advice for beginners and applies unchanged to advanced photographers.

For advanced photographers, the following comes on top:

  • Knowledge about the possible uses of the flash, and how you can influence the light with a clip-on flash: What can a flash do?
  • Balancing the flash with the exposure time, especially to be able to control the background brightness with longer exposure times: Flash sync
  • Controlling the flash brightness: Flash exposure compensation

RAW and/or JPG? – the image file format 

This question is about the file format created by the camera – the standard JPG format or the more complex RAW format. There are very different recommendations and personal preferences.

Detailed articles on this will follow, the result will be:

  • Please do not trust any general recommendation. Neither a ”definitely shoot in RAW“, nor a plain ”JPG is also sufficient"“. It always depends on your expectations and skills and the shooting situation. Anyone who makes such sweeping judgements is either generalising their own experiences or simply wrong.
  • Photos taken in RAW format may deliver better results if
    • you are familiar with how to process them and
    • they need strong processing, especially brightening and darkening.
      RAW files have more reserves for good quality, but they don't come to light by themselves, you have to actively work them out.

Slight editing is no problem in JPG format; subsequent image editing is not yet a compelling reason to switch to RAW.

Saving photos in RAW format doesn't improve anything, and in the worst case you won't be able to see your photos on your computer or tablet without the right software.

  • If you feel busy with image composition and learning about your camera, stick with JPG for now. If you start editing RAW files as a newbie, you are entering a new, large field of image editing, which also needs training. Don't start too much at once.

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