By: Will Nicholls
The first time you pick up a camera it can be pretty confusing. With all the bells and whistles crammed inside even entry-level DSLRs nowadays, knowing where to start is anyone’s guess. Teaching yourself, through trial and error, is one of the best means-tested ways to come to grips with your camera and learn how to use it. But sometimes that takes a while, so here are some of the camera settings that I think every photographer needs to know about when they get their hands on a DSLR.
1. Live View Stops Mirror Slap
That satisfying, reassuring “clunk” sound you hear when you press the shutter button isn’t actually the shutter firing on the camera. In fact, that is the mirror moving up and down to expose the sensor to the world. But that relatively aggressive motion of the mirror can introduce camera shake into your images.
It’s something you might notice if you’re shooting a long exposure, but there’s an easy way around it. Switch the camera into Live View mode, forcing the mirror to raise permanently (until you turn off that mode) so that you can see the image on the LCD screen. This means that when you do actually press the button, only the shutter itself is moving – no need to worry about that mirror thudding up and down anymore.
2. Auto ISO and Manual Mode Helps You Learn
Lots of photographers stay in Automatic mode because of the fear of missing images when they switch to Manual mode. To remove this fear, try shooting in Manual mode with Auto ISO enabled. This means that the camera is still in control of one of the three factors affecting exposure (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) so that it can balance out the settings with the ISO. But now you get to control the aperture and shutter speed yourself, changing them around to see what effect they will have on your photo.
Try slowing down the shutter speed, or narrowing the aperture of the lens, safe in the knowledge that auto ISO will do a pretty good job at balancing the exposure (unless you slow your shutter down a lot). Being able to experiment freely like this will help you to get a practical knowledge of the exposure triangle and how it works.
3. Disable Area Autofocus Modes
The first thing you should do is disable any Area (zone) Autofocus modes. This is where the camera picks and chooses where it focuses, as it will rarely be at the point you would want. Instead, try using single-point focus. This allows you to be precise and line-up the black square over the target area in the scene.
If you were taking a photo of a dog, for example, it’s much better to focus on the eyes than to rely on the camera to find that spot for you. Most likely, the camera would be focused on the end of the dog’s nose – not very good for an impactful shot.
4. Mute Your Camera
As a wildlife photographer, one of the really annoying things to hear in a quiet hide or nature reserve is the beep of someone’s camera. Whenever I get a new camera, it’s not long before I dive into the menu and disable all of the autofocus beeps, menu selection beeps, and any other noises the camera might feel so inclined to make.
Not only is it pretty pointless, but it could also alert an animal to your presence! So, wildlife photographers, don’t do it.
5. Pay Attention to the White Balance Setting
The White Balance setting is one that can totally transform your images in a second, but it’s one that most people ignore for quite a while and just leave in auto mode.
If you’re shooting in JPEG file format, and not raw, then the White Balance choice you make in the camera does matter. If you’re shooting raw, you can adjust this later during post-production.
Why not Auto White Balance? I find that it never gets things right. Colors always look much flatter and dull, whereas the daylight or cloudy presets add an immediate punch to your shot. Try it, and you’ll probably find things really do change for the better.
You can also look at the manual White Balance setting (measured in degrees Kelvin) if you want to have a much more fine-tuned control over this setting.
Hopefully, these five tips will help you to navigate through the minefield that is a new DSLR camera. There are of course so many more things to know – and that’s where Digital Photography School can help you, of course. But these are some things that I think will make life easier for you as a new DSLR user.
Let me know in the comments if you have any other great tips or camera settings for new DSLR users!
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Will Nicholls is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He has won multiple awards for his work, including the title of Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2009. Will runs a blog for nature photographers, Nature TTL, which provides tutorials and inspirational articles to readers. He also has a free eBook available called 10 Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Nature Photos.