Set Up Your Camera For Best Field Use

Get the most from your camera by having it dialed in for nature photography
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Have you set up your camera to make it work optimally for you? Have you changed the camera from its default settings? Most photographers make the RAW or JPEG (or both) choice, but since they’re used to film cameras, many don’t realize that there are other important settings that should be changed and adjusted from the way the camera came to you. While you can start using the camera “right out of the box,” most of the time, the default setup isn’t optimum for outdoor photography.

A camera is set up by the manufacturer to work well with everybody and in every condition. The manufacturer does this because of the diversity of photography their customers pursue, but we all know that when you try to please everyone with one solution, few people are truly satisfied. That’s why the camera manufacturer offers controls for you to set.

Often, advanced photographers assume everyone knows these things, too, so they never bring them up in articles, workshops and other presentations. Many of my workshop participants, who all love photography, have never thought about setting up the camera to make it work for them other than choosing RAW or JPEG and leaving the rest at the default settings. This even can apply to advanced amateurs and pros.

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So now may be a good time to get back to camera setup basics. Give these tips a try, and make your photography more enjoyable and successful!

Turn Off
Auto ISO
Avoid this setting! It’s important to choose and set a specific ISO for your camera. While it’s true that digital cameras do a very good job over a range of ISO settings, Auto ISO will use the entire range of ISO settings available to the camera. This means that you could be shooting at ISO 1600 when ISO 100 would work. I can guarantee that ISO 100 is a far superior setting in terms of image quality, tonality and color compared to ISO 1600. You need to be able to choose the ISO setting that’s appropriate for your scene and conditions and not be blindsided by the camera choosing a very high ISO setting that will reduce the quality of your image.

Turn Off
Auto Rotate
Auto Rotate changes the orientation of a vertical picture so that it displays in the LCD as a vertical when the camera is held horizontally, i.e., the long side of the vertical is forced to fit in the short side of the now horizontal LCD. This feature also was designed for the casual shooter. A vertical image doesn’t display very well in a horizontal LCD; in fact, over half of your LCD is wasted!

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Think about this. Everybody wants bigger and bigger LCDs on the back of the camera, which is great because it allows us to better see our pictures and camera menus. But then a vertical picture shows up and is rotated to fit into the LCD—you’re back to the equivalent of an old camera with a small LCD because the vertical is now so small.

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Get your money’s worth out of your camera! Allow your images to use the entire LCD when they display, whether they’re horizontal or vertical. This setting is usually in the playback or setup menu on your camera. On most of today’s cameras, you can tell the camera not to auto-rotate verticals in the LCD, yet still keep vertical information with the files so that they do rotate when the images are opened in the computer.

4-Minute Auto Power Off
I don’t know about you, but I get annoyed when the camera shuts down just as I’m ready to take a picture. That happens all too often with most cameras at their default Auto Power Off setting. Again, these short times were originally chosen because, when the camera was on, it used too much battery power. That’s no longer true at all, but the manufacturers still have kept rather short default settings.

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For me, a setting of about four minutes seems to be fine. The setting is usually in the setup menu of your camera. If you’re doing a type of photography that requires you to sit and wait for action to occur, such as wildlife photography, you may want to set this to an even longer time. It’s incredibly frustrating to have a bird landing on a nest as you push the shutter release, for example, and have nothing happen because the camera went to sleep.

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 8-Second LCD Review Time
The LCD is one of the great innovations of digital photography. It allows us to see what our photographs look like without having to take them to a lab for processing. This is a huge benefit, giving us instant results to review. And those results give us immediate feedback on what’s working or not working. LCD review can help photographers at every level.

Which is why I can’t imagine using the camera the way most are set up for LCD review. The timing is way too short to be able to do anything. The default settings for how long the LCD displays images after a shot are designed for very casual shooters. I’m not talking about beginning nature photographers either—these shooters are those who simply use any camera to point-and-shoot record shots of family and friends.

The short default LCD Review Time is a throwback to the design of earlier digital cameras. The LCD used to be a big power drain for the camera’s batteries. Because of this, manufacturers set the LCD Review Time—the time an image is displayed right after you take a picture—rather short.

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With today’s LCDs, this isn’t necessary, and a short review time is pretty much worthless. Sure, you can always press the playback button to look at your pictures, but that requires an extra step rather than simply having your image show up immediately after the exposure. Pressing an extra button can definitely interrupt the flow of your shooting. I recommend that you change your default setting to eight seconds or so, depending on what’s available in your camera, which gives you the ability to do a quick review of your shot. This control is usually found in the camera or shooting menu.

I like to immediately see what my picture looks like. I don’t do this for every shot, but I certainly like being able to do it as needed in order to get a quick check on exposure and white balance. Plus, I can quickly see if I like the composition—that’s such a great feature of shooting digital. If you want the review time shorter, simply press the shutter release lightly, and the LCD review goes away.

Use 1⁄2-Step
Exposure Levels
Whenever you use Exposure Compensation or auto bracketing (which is great for HDR, or high dynamic range, work), you set your camera to change exposure in steps as you take several shots. The default for many cameras is 1/3-steps, which is 1/3 ƒ-stops or shutter-speed steps, but usually you also can choose 1⁄2-steps. I recommend the latter.

Some photographers find the 1/3-step valuable, but for most of us, this is a waste of time and energy because of the extra shots we have to take and deal with later. With 1/3-steps, you must take three exposures for every full ƒ-stop change, for example, while you only need two with 1⁄2-steps. I shoot a lot of pictures in a year and have never had a need for anything other than 1⁄2-step changes.

I also think it’s a waste of time and energy for most photographers to use anything other than full stops for ISO settings. I know some photographers will find an esoteric use for this, but I’ve never found a need for this and have yet to meet an outdoor photographer who needs anything other than full stops for ISO settings (i.e., 100, 200, 400, etc.). The smaller steps just take added time and thought, taking you away from your photography and getting the shot, with little real benefit.

Check Out Your Camera

So get your camera out and see how it’s set. Try the settings noted in this article, and you may find your camera handling better, which will lead to better photos, as well.

13 Comments

    Great article. Very interesting to hear how others set up the optional parameters of their camera and why …no one has a monopoly on good ideas and this kind of article is very useful in todays world where the options and parameters of digital cameras can be overwhelming.

    Rather than the 8 second preview which seriously wastes power, turn the LCD review off and have the camera turn on the review with an easy to reach button. As you are rotating the camera down to look at the image, just press the button. Image will be ready for your viewing by the time you get it into position to see.

    Not only do you save power, but you also can review the image for as long as you want. Just push any “shooter” related button to get back.

    Camera manufacturers seem to be more into computers than camera operations. A really simple way to be in manual mode without peering through the viewfinder for settings or groping for the right buttons would be a nice manual feature that I bet could be easily part of the multiple program featured modern digital camera and would make picture taking less of a geek experience.

    Digital photography did NOT kill Kodachrome. The far superior Fujichrome Velvia 50 did. Just ask any film pro, such as Art Wolfe. Best of all, Fuji still makes them and sells lots of them to pros today.

    I disagree with your recommendation on Auto ISO. On my Nikon 300 ISO sensitivity auto control lets me set the maximum ISO and the minimum shutter speed. Thus in Aperture control I can set the ISO for anything I want (usually 400); but with Auto the maximum is 3200 and the minimum shutter speed is 1/125. Thus when I walk into a temple in Cambodia and the monk is talking to us, I find that without auto control his lips are blurred (non-correctable); but with auto on the ISO, the ISO may go up to 1600 but I still get a non-blurred picture. I find this setting fabulous and it has saved me many times. Sure, if I am using a tripod and am taking the world beating scenic I can easily turn this off or, more likely will still be in the settings that I intended. The amateur on a tour versus a pro with his own time schedule needs different settings.

    I never worry about battery-saving techniques while shooting. I either use “8 second” or “hold”, depending on what I’m shooting. If your battery gets low, just pop in 1 of your charged extra batteries. No pro goes anywhere without a couple (minimum) of spare camera batteries and cards and at last 1 set of AA’s for their strobe, and neither should you. I own 6 extra batteries for my Canons and 3 chargers.

    anything that bogs you down in the field and sucks up energy from the battery and/or takes away from the actual shoot should be looked at-double check your settings-you may be suprised to see what is lagging on your camera settings

    Been pushing that shutter release for 40 some years. Eventually some learn; most never learn.
    I don’t still shoot film because I’m an ‘old foggy’ but because it is essential that I stay on top of things and not have to resort to cheating with Adobe Photoshop. Same with the different film formats. Digital is *only* used when having to change film rolls would undo the efforts for the day, like shooting a race or some other fast paced event.
    Want to know more and be better at all of this? Go to a photo school that is at least two years!

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