Basic camera settings


The easiest way to make friends with your camera is to master it with as little effort as possible - that's what this is all about. For beginners who want to start with straightforward photography and for those who tend to be discouraged by too much camera technics.

Camera mode

The camera mode changes the character of most cameras – into a gentle, easy-to-handle camera or a sophisticated tool that needs to be operated properly. It determines what the camera does automatically and what you can or even have to adjust manually. Most cameras have dials for this purpose, such as the ones shown as examples.

Dials for camera mode, in full automatic mode

The camera mode to take photos as uncomplicated as possible is: full automatic.

It is preset when you get a new camera and highlighted like the green markings in the example photos. In particular, the camera will conveniently suggest aperture, exposure and ISO itself and not let you intervene.

If a camera has no dial at all or only one without full automatic, it is a model for experts who know what they are doing; as a beginner you will not be completely happy with it. Or the camera is a very simple one with almost no settings; ok for starters, but sooner or later you will reach its limits.

Smartphones always have an automatic mode that is preset and is simply called ”photo“ on Apple and Samsung, for example.

A sunrise, photographed with simple full auto

Great pictures are possible even with full auto.

Please don't believe advice that you have to shoot with manual settings to get good photos. Yes, if you intervene manually in the camera settings, you have more possibilities to manipulate your photos, but you don't have to start with that. Rather, practice your eye for the more important things first: subjects, perspective, image composition.

Basically, a full automatic is not a full automatic – it only covers technical camera settings. But not what you point the camera at, when and from where, with which image detail. That needs more attention.

If you have the choice of having fun shooting in full auto or being frustrated pondering over camera settings, stick with full auto.

And please consider: if you shoot with manual settings, not only you can adjust more, but you also have to choose some settings yourself and correctly. This brings the risk of making mistakes and that pictures may even look worse.

Therefore, I do not dogmatically recommend ”shooting manually“. Practice with manual settings if you have time and the inclination, feel your way towards them and don't let too much technology spoil your fun. There is still plenty you can discover photographically with a camera in full automatic.


A monument, from a short distance and with a wide-angle zoom
The same monument from a greater distance and enlarged by zoom

If your camera has a zoom lens, you can change the width of the field of view you capture. This is a setting that will improve your photos if you actively use your feet and the camera zoom to find the best possible perspective and optimise the framing.

Zoom ring on the lens of an SLR camera
Zoom control on a compact camera

The usual operation is

  • with a control for the right index finger or
  • by turning the lens or
  • a gesture on a touch display.

Beyond pure operation, it is good to know if your camera has a digital zoom – and to switch it off or avoid it. Digital zoom means that a section of the image is enlarged electronically. The quality suffers and is no better than taking a picture without zoom and cropping something out. A shot with maximum digital zoom has a good chance of being disappointing.

Unfortunately, there is no universal explanation of how to find and, if necessary, change this setting, so please check your camera menus or manual.

The counterpart is optical zoom, where the optics move inside the lens and there is no loss in image quality.

Various camera manufacturers have come up with mixtures of creative names, e.g. ”ClearImage zoom“ (Sony), ”hybrid zoom“ (Samsung) and whatever else marketing experts can think of. For them the camera uses hardly documented tricks to improve the quality of the digital zoom, e.g. via software or that smartphones combine the images from several cameras. There are no general tips, if your camera has something like this, it only helps to try it out and compare.


Autofocus on foreground and background

Autofocus sets the lens to focus at a certain distance, and the photo can become blurred in front of and behind that distance. If you know how your camera works and you can control which part of the image it focuses on, you will have it easier to avoid unsharp subjects.

The area where camera puts the focus can be:

  • in an automatically selected area somewhere in the picture or
  • fixed in the centre of the image or
  • in the case of SLR cameras, within a limited area marked in the viewfinder.

There is no description for all manufacturers and models, please check the manual or try out what applies to you.

Make a habit of paying attention to what the camera is focusing on.

In practice this means:

  • First press the shutter release gently until you feel a slight resistance.
  • Observe where a coloured mark appears in the viewfinder resp. on the camera display. This indicates the part of the image that the camera has focused on.

If the important parts of the picture that should be in focus are at the same distance, all is well - press the shutter release button gently further down.

If the focus does not happen at the appropriate distance, there are two ways to achieve focus on another part of the picture:

Autofocus lock with the shutter release button:

  • Release the shutter release button again
  • Select a slightly different image section with similar brightness and press the shutter release button again until the autofocus mark is on an image section with the appropriate distance.

Entry level cameras will measure the brightness at the same time, for them it is important that the adjusted picture frame has a similar brightness.

  • Hold the shutter release button down and tilt the camera back.
  • Press the shutter release button fully down.

Select the focus point on the touch display  if your camera supports it:

  • Compose the desired image section.
  • Touch the point on the display where you want to focus, a coloured mark appears. It should have a similar brightness as the main subject.
  • Press the shutter release button, the coloured mark will light up green or otherwise to confirm the focus.
  • Release the shutter and take the picture.

This applies to still subjects; if your subject is moving, you may not always be happy with full auto.

With smartphones, the second option will work in most cases.

If both simple approaches do not work for you you have to accept this as a limitation or go deeper into advanced autofocus settings.

Image brightness

Subject in backlight, taken with and without exposure lock

Exposure controls the brightness of your photo and most of the time the sophisticated metering of a fully automatic camera will produce respectable results. But not always, and the most common reason for inappropriate automatic exposures is high contrast. Then an automatic exposure will more or less cleverly choose an average brightness and dark or light areas can become poorly visible.

If you know the simplest method for controlling image brightness, you will already be able to handle many situations better, it is the exposure lock. Its advantage is that it is easy to use, even without knowing anything about metering and without touching aperture, exposure time and ISO sensitivity.

With exposure lock, you can point the camera anywhere and tell it: ”measure the exposure here and keep it when I move the camera“. In the example photo, it means pointing the camera at the darker wall next to the window, measuring the exposure there, without the backlight through the window, and then photographing the final image detail.

Here is a dedicated page about exposure lock.

Colour rendering

In colour rendering, the balance between cooler and warmer colours is particularly important. A camera's automatic system does not always manage this the way the eye perceives it or the way you want the image to look.

The camera setting for colour reproduction is called white balance, but you won't be able to change it when shooting with full automatic.

With smartphones, a slider for warmer or cooler colours may appear on the display.


A camera's automatic system does not always answer the simple question "with or without flash?" in the way that is best for your photo. Familiarise yourself with your camera's flash so that you can use it appropriately.

Face with dark shadows from direct sunlight on the left, with fill flash on the right

With some cameras you first have to pop up a flash for it to work, others activate it automatically. Here, too, please check or try it out with your camera model.

The flash control will always have at least three options:

Symbol Blitz-Automatik The automatic flash decides whether the camera flashes or not.

Symbol Aufhellblitz The flash is fired in any case.

Symbol Blitz aus No flash, no matter what the automatic thinks and how dark it is.

Simple rules of thumb are:

  • Turn off the flash when the distance to the subject is "long".

By ”long“ I mean for all built-in flashes: more than a few metres, how far it reaches depends on your camera.

Many cameras switch on the flash in the dark, even if the distance to the subject is far too great and the flash does nothing, but on the contrary leads to a worse photo. This is because with flash, cameras use a shorter exposure time, which is not sufficient if the flash does not reach the subject.

  • Switch off the flash if you want to preserve the mood of the ambient light.

This brings the risk of blurred pictures in low light, but is often at least worth a try for a nicer picture atmosphere.

  • If the main subject is only a few metres away at most and has dark shadows because of harsh light, it can be good to switch on the flash and enforce it. The camera's automatic will then most likely not use it on its own.
  • If it is really dark and the flash is the only source of light, it is not necessary to switch on the flash manually. 

Taking the picture

Nikon D5200 shutter release button

When releasing the shutter, make sure to hold the camera steady to avoid camera shake. Image stabilisation can compensate camera shake nowadays surprisingly well, but not infinitely; it is definitely a good habit to always hold the camera as steady as possible.

What I mean by this is:

  • Press the shutter release button halfway, watch the focus and then press it fully down at the right moment with a minimal finger movement. This not only reduces camera shake, but also the shutter release delay.
  • Hold the camera steady,
    • with both hands
    • if it has a viewfinder, also leaning against your head
    • if it is a camera with a large lens, support the lens with the whole of your left palm, not just holding it with your thumb and index finger.

If the camera has a noticeable delay in releasing the shutter: Observe, concentrate, and try to release slightly before the best moment. This applies especially to smartphones, which need some time to think about focusing after the shutter release button has been tapped.

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