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What are the best settings for my Digital SLR camera?

This is how I set up my cameras

Canon mode dialNow you've bought a great new digital SLR camera, what are the best settings? Surely it will work straight out of the box? Sorry, most will give you unsharp slightly overexposed pictures if you just turn them on and shoot. Welcome to the one page they all missed from the manual. Use these settings and you'll be OK until you really get the hang of it.

Basics : Stage 1

To get going you need to choose an exposure mode, an autofocus mode, an ISO (sensitivity) setting, and lastly a Quality setting. Simple really.  OK, OK - I know it doesn’t sound like it, but most of this you can set once and then just take pictures. Sharp ones.

First off : I'd suggest that you set a small amount of exposure over ride, or compensation, more or less permanently. Set your camera to minus 1/3 to start with. This is because a slightly dark good picture can be lightened to make a superb one, while any picture that's too light, or over exposed, will look horrible and probably can't be fixed. Most Digital SLR Cameras tend to over expose slightly out of the box. They think we like “bright” pictures.

Program Modes: New cameras are always set to “Program” or “Full Auto” mode which, you would think, is exactly what you want, but for some reason they tend to use lowish shutter speeds giving lots of camera shake. Maybe Japanese people have really steady hands, but I never use program modes. You must know what shutter speed you're using if you want sharp pictures.

Setup for general pictures outdoors

Exposure :  Unless you’re using a tripod, set Shutter Priority - usually Tv or S - and a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. Usually just “250” on the LCD.  Using high shutter speeds will get you sharp pictures. 1/250th or higher is fine but don't go below 1/125th second unless you have to. Try increasing the ISO if it gets dull. Camera shake is the number one cause of unsharp pictures - way ahead of anything else. So why do makers program modes use shutter speeds like 1/60 or 1/30 second?  Beats me.  Without a tripod, even with a stabilised lens almost all your shots will be unsharp. Stay at 1/250 or higher and your pictures will miraculously get sharper, even if it means turning the sensitivity up to 400 or 800 ISO.

ISO : Set the ISO or sensitivity to 400 in average light, 200 if it's midday in a dessert, and 800 of you're in Aberdeen on any day other than the good one. Higher numbers = more sensitive. All modern DSLR cameras will give great results up to about 800 ISO then at 1600 ISO and higher there will be some noise or grain to the images. I think a sharp noisy image is much better than a silky smooth blurred one, so use higher ISOs if the light’s poor or if you’re shooting with a long zoom. Some cameras have “Auto ISO” settings which work quite well -  if your DSLR has Auto ISO give it a try. Auto ISO and Shutter Priority should give you a sort of Program mode that actually works.

Autofocus : The best setting for this depends a lot on what kind of subject you’re shooting, but even with the most sophisticated autofocus systems in the world I’ve found that you still have to tell the camera where you want it to focus. Out of the box all DSLRs are set to automatic multiple point AF, which can get it spectacularly wrong even with simple subjects. These systems will focus on the nearest object the AF sensors pick up. Which is why your pictures of the animals at the zoo are all focused on the cages not the animals. or your portraits of your mum are all focused on the end of her nose not her eyes. Save that set up for photographing sport, but the rest of the time this is my system. Set the focus mode to “one Shot” or “Single Shot” and change the focus point selection to single point, using the centre AF point.. This is the most sensitive and accurate focus point, and if you get into the habit of placing this over whatever you want to be sharp and then half pressing the shutter release until you get a beep or steady green light you'll get sharp pictures that are sharp where you want them to be. After the focus locks hold the shutter release half way down, recompose and then push fully down to take the picture. It's actually a lot easier and quicker to do than to describe it. Try it. With a bit of practice it’s really easy and quick and you’ll be sure your pictures are sharp where you want them to be.

Multiple AF points are fine with some subjects, especially sport, but will usually focus on the nearest object they pick up, so if your subject is behind a fence or the 4th person in a line they can get it spectacularly wrong. With single point and one shot the camera will focus where you tell it to, and mostly you do have to tell it what you want sharp.

Quality  :  Set the camera to large fine JPEGs if you've never used RAW files before. RAW is better but the files need to be processed to give JPEGs, so JPEG or RAW plus large fine JPEG are fine to get you going. RAW files are like a digital negative, so even if you don’t plan on using them straight away, they’re good to have for when you realise how much better they are than JPEGS. If you do use JPEGs, copy the camera files to your computer, but don't change the original JPEGs – use them as a negative - So, get into the habit of saving each good file as a TIF and then adjusting that, before saving a finished JPEG version.

Why do all of that?  To begin with JPEGs are fine, but JPEGs are a form of compressed file that loses a little bit of quality each time you save it. JPEGs are like a description of the picture you took, while RAW files store exactly what the camera recorded. TIFs or PSDs are good for working on pictures in Photoshop  or Elements as each time you open one you get exactly what you saved - no quality loss.  In the long run, if you want the best pictures shoot RAW. Your camera probably came with RAW processing software. RAW v JPEG

I think that’s plenty information for Stage One. Now’s the time to go and take pictures - lots of pictures. Then come back and look at them on your PC as soon as possible, while they’re fresh in your mind. Because you can just save the good ones before reformatting your memory card and starting again, this is free and a huge advantage over film cameras, when, by the time you saw the results, you’d no idea why the good ones were good and the bad....... disappointing.  Another big help in learning what works, is that digital cameras store all the settings used, so you can find out exactly what settings worked, and which didn’t. The information is stored in the EXIF tags on the image file and can be viewed In Photoshop or Elements in File / File Info, or right click on the thumbnails in your file browser and look for Info. It will be there somewhere. You no longer need a notebook and pen or a really good memory. Study the settings used for the good ones, and learn. Hopefully you’ll also start to produce some great pictures along the way.


Stage 2 : Digital SLR Exposure Modes


© David Gold
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