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Photography Kick-Start Guide: Adjusting Your Camera’s Settings for the Photo You Want

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This post is part of a series called Exposure.
Understanding & Using Ansel Adam's Zone System
Slow Light: Interview with Justin Quinnell

Every two weeks, we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in September of 2009.

Cameras vary in terms of functions offered. There are differences from one brand to the next and even from one model to another of the same brand. By necessity, this tutorial will have to generalize but let's try to de-mystify some of the more common settings found on cameras today, what they mean (to the camera) and how to use them.

Let's start with the core shooting modes, then we'll move on to the more common preset scene modes and finally to some other general information about camera functions.

If you come across terminology or concepts here that are unfamiliar to you, it may be best to refer to part 1 of this series which uncovers how your camera work and what terms like 'Aperture' and 'ISO' mean.


1. Automatic

This is the default, all-purpose setting most people use 90% of the time. On simpler cameras, it may be the only mode, or one of the few available. It is generally indicated by the word AUTO, a green outlined box or an icon of a camera.

Auto dial

In this mode, you can just quickly grab your shots while the camera makes all the decisions for things like:

  • What aperture to use
  • What shutter speed to use
  • The ISO sensitivity
  • Whether or not to fire the flash
  • White balance

The only things the photographer controls are where to point the camera, whether to hold it in portrait (tall) or landscape (wide) orientation and when to press the shutter button.


2. Program and Program-Shift

Program dial

Usually indicated by the letter P or sometimes Ps. Some photographers disdain Program mode because they say it's too much like Auto but think of program mode as "auto on steroids". For users who are still primarily using Auto, Program mode is a relatively easy step-up toward exercising more control over your camera's settings. For the record, there are some professional photographers who use Program mode on a regular basis.

Like Auto, Program will make all the exposure decisions for you. But there are a few important differences:

  • Exposure is skewed based on the zoom or focal length of the lens in use. This is true both with built-in lenses that zoom and with interchangeable lenses. At shorter, wide-angle focal lengths the camera favors a small aperture for greater depth of field. At telephoto focal lengths the camera favors a fast shutter speed to reduce camera shake.
  • The camera's recommended settings can be quickly and easily overridden, usually by either a thumbwheel or a pair of arrow keys. Different brands and models may have different mechanisms but they all provide an easy way to tweak the settings. To use this feature of Program mode, press the shutter button halfway. This will cause the camera to make all its exposure decisions and display those in the viewfinder or LCD screen. Then you can decide to accept the camera's recommended settings or adjust them.
  • The settings are not permanent. When you use some of the other semi-manual modes such as aperture priority and shutter priority, the camera saves your settings and keeps using them until you change them. This can actually be a bad feature for occasional snapshooters. Let's say you photograph your child's birthday party indoors and set the camera up for that. Then you put the camera away until a week or so later when you take it to photograph the kids playing at the park. Then two weeks later you take it to your daughter's ballet recital. Then two days go by and you are photographing your son's soccer practice. If, during any one of those times, you forget to adjust your settings for the new lighting situation, you may end up with ruined pictures. Program mode does not remember settings. Each time you turn off the camera and turn it back on, it will recalculate the exposure based on the new conditions and then give you the opportunity to override it.

3. Aperture Priority

Aperture Priority dial

Indicated by a letter A or Av. In Aperture Priority mode, users set the aperture they want to use. The camera will adjust the shutter speed to get a proper exposure.

Aperture Priority is most useful when you want to control the depth of field, or zone of apparent sharp focus. For this reason, it's the most popular mode among advanced amateurs.

f11

When closed down to a very small opening (larger f-number), much more of the scene appears to be in focus.

f4

When opened wide (smaller f-number) the zone of sharp focus can be very narrow. Portions of the image become progressively more blurry as they get farther away from the focal plane (plane of perfect focus). This works in both directions.


4. A-Dep

A-Dep dial

A-Dep is a specialized mode that is available only on certain Canon cameras. In a nutshell, this mode tries to calculate the nearest and farthest elements in a scene and then calculates the optimum aperture and point of focus to use to get them both in sharp focus in your picture. With some models, you may have to “tell" the camera which are the nearest and farthest points you care about.


5. Shutter Priority

Shutter Priority dial

Indicated by the letter S or Tv (time value). Users set the shutter speed they want to use. The camera will adjust the aperture for proper exposure.

Typical shutter speeds are: 60sec, 30sec, 15sec, 8sec, 4sec, 2sec, 1sec, 1/2sec, 1/4sec, 1/8sec, 1/15sec, 1/30sec, 1/60sec, 1/125sec, 1/250sec, 1/500sec, 1/1,000sec, 1/2,000sec, 1/4,000sec.

These are full stop increments. As with all other photographic measurements, each stop represents half as much time as the one before it and twice as much as the one that follows.

More advanced cameras may allow intermediate shutter speeds in 1/2 or 1/3 stop increments. When the camera controls the shutter speed, it does so in infinitely variable increments so EXIF data (see later in this tutorial) may show strange speeds like 1/128sec.

When using flash, maximum shutter speed is limited by the camera to the fastest speed at which both shutter curtains are completely open at the same time. On older film cameras where the only mode was shutter priority and the dial was used to select the shutter speed, the flash synch speed was highlighted on the dial with a different color.

Flash Synch dial

6. Manual

Manual dial

Indicated by the letter M, this is full do-it-yourself mode. Users select all the settings manually. The camera's light meter still works. The camera will provide guidance and may even warn you if it believes your settings will result in over or under exposure, but it will not interfere with whatever settings you choose.

There is a special shutter speed, Bulb, that is available only in Manual mode. (On older cameras, it sometimes had its own mode on the dial.) With Bulb, the shutter stays open as long as you hold down the button. Since the camera has no idea how long the exposure will be, metering will not be accurate when using it. Similar to, but less common than Bulb, is Time mode. With this you press the button once to open the shutter and again to close it. Holding the button is not necessary.


7. Preset Scene Modes

Preset scene modes are very convenient. Many people use them without truly understanding exactly what they do in terms of changing how your pictures are taken. Some scene modes have their own dial settings on some cameras while almost all cameras have at least some of them accessible only by menus. You get to the menu-selected scene modes by selecting “SCENE" or “SCN" on your camera dial. This will activate a menu, showing you all the modes available.

Scene Mode dial

What all those preset scene modes really do is cluster groups of camera settings together. With one menu or dial selection you are instantly telling the camera how to adjust a dozen or more diffrerent things: white balance, focus range, metering, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, whether or not to use flash, whether or not to use noise reduction, and so on. Let's look at some of the most common ones.


8. Portrait

Portrait dial

Most often indicated by an icon that looks like a person's head. Some camera models get sophisticated and try to make the little stick figure icon look stylish. This mode is really characterized by the number of subjects and how much of the frame they fill.

Generally speaking, there are just one or two main subjects that dominate most of the frame. If there is more than one subject, they are assumed to be about the same distance away. Focusing starts at the mid range; 6'-20' or ~2m-7m away. (Some lenses have very long focus ranges so having a focus limiter to tell the camera how far away the subject likely is helps to make focusing faster, versus having to hunt through the entire range.)

The camera will also do its best to give you a fairly narrow depth of field so that the background is pleasingly out of focus, as in the example below. This may not always be possible but, to the extent that it's able, that is the kind of effect the camera will try to create.

Portrait mode

White balance and flash will both be set to automatic. ISO will generally be set to the camera's baseline value, usually ISO100 or ISO200. Metering is usually matrix (see later in this tutorial.) If available, image stabilization (see later in this tutorial) will usually be turned on.

Don't get too hung up on the idea of people; Portrait mode can be used for pets, zoo animals or furniture. It's all about a single main subject at a moderate distance away and a background you want out of focus.


9. Landscape or Scenic

Landscape dial

Generally indicated by an icon that looks like two mountain peaks. The defining characteristic of landscape mode is that no one object dominates the frame. It's really an overall view.

Landscape mode

As far as your camera knows, you may have a bush that's 6' (~1.8m) away and a mountain that's 30 miles (~48.3km) away so focusing usually starts at infinity and the aperture is usually closed down to get maximum depth of field. Focus-free cameras are almost always stuck on landscape mode.

White balance will usually be set to direct sun. Flash will be turned off. ISO will generally be set to the camera's baseline value, usually ISO100 or ISO200. Metering is usually matrix.


10. Sports, Action, Children or Pets

Action dial

On the dial, this is usually indicated by a running stick figure or sometimes a golfer. This setting is best for fast moving subjects. Because it favors faster shutter speeds, this setting works best in bright light. Generally, the subject should be prominent in the frame.

The camera will turn on continuous autofocus (see later in this tutorial). White balance will be set to direct sun. Flash will be set to automatic. ISO will generally be set to automatic but will rarely go above ISO400. Metering is usually matrix. Sequential shooting mode, if available, will be turned on. (This will allow you to shoot a burst of several shots in rapid succession.)


11. Close-up or Macro

Macro dial

Most often indicated by a single flower. Macro mode may be its own setting or sometimes it can be a supplemental setting that can be used in conjunction with almost any other setting. When it's a supplemental setting, it will have its own button, rather than being on the same dial as all the other preset scene modes.

Macro button

Macro mode is really characterized by how close the subjects are and how much of the frame they fill. Generally speaking, there is only one subject (or a tight cluster of subjects) which fills most of the frame and is 0'-6' (0m-2m) away. For that reason, focusing starts at the closest end of the lens' focus range.

Cameras and lenses vary in their close focusing ability. Some can focus just inches away while others may not do well with subjects closer than two arm lengths. The latter is especially true with focus-free cameras.

Macro mode

White balance will be set to automatic. Flash will be turned off with many cameras, though some newer and more advanced ones may use flash with reduced intensity. This helps to freeze camera shake and subject movement, both big issues when shooting close-up. Flash can make backgrounds appear darker than they really are, even in daylight.

ISO will generally be set to the camera's baseline value, usually ISO100 or ISO200. Metering is usually matrix.


12. Night, Night Portrait and Night Landscape or Night Scenic

Night dial

Night is most often indicated by a crescent moon and a star; Night Portrait has a moon and star over the shoulder of a little stick figure; Night Landscape usually has a crescent moon and star over two mountain peaks or some kind of cityscape.

All of these settings keep the shutter open for a relatively long time; too long for hand-held shots. For that reason, image stabilization will be turned on if it is available. All of them will probably also turn on noise reduction, if it is available. Night Portrait adds flash. Night Landscape suppresses flash.

The real purpose of these settings is to capture the ambient light (which is presumed to be low, since it's nighttime.) Night Portrait supplements the ambient light with flash to illuminate the main subject but otherwise is more or less the same as Portrait mode.

White balance may be set to automatic or tungsten. ISO will generally be set to ISO400 or higher. Metering is usually matrix. Aperture will almost always be the widest available on the lens being used.

Night Landscape mode

The example I like to give for these modes is of a lit up city skyline in the distance. (Simulated here by candles inside glass lanterns.) If you use regular automatic mode or something like it, the camera will fire the flash but the distance makes it useless. Only by suppressing the flash and keeping the shutter open longer can the camera gather enough light to get a proper exposure.

Night Portrait mode

Taking that same scene and putting a person or other subject about two arm lengths away, the camera will fire the flash. Be warned that it will almost always fire the flash more than once. First it will meter the flash and ambient light to calculate a proper exposure. When it fires, the flash will fire with reduced intensity. The camera will try to somewhat match the brightness of the background so that the foreground and background come out balanced in terms of brightness.


13. Fireworks

Fireworks menu

Equally useful for capturing either fireworks or flashes of lightning. The shutter will remain open for a very long time. Noise reduction will be turned on so, after exposure, the camera will commonly perform some exposure adjustments internally. This may cause the camera to be “busy" for a long time. Shooting the next exposure will not be possible while the camera is processing.

Let's take a moment to look at how noise reduction works. With long digital exposures, you may get random blue and red dots scattered throughout your image. With noise reduction on, after you finish an exposure (let's just say it was 15 seconds) your camera will make a second exposure of the same length (also 15 seconds, in this example.) This second exposure is taken with the shutter closed and is never saved. It is only used by the camera for processing.

Since the shutter was closed, your camera knows that this second exposure should be perfectly black. So it analyzes every pixel, looking for ones that are not perfectly black. When it finds one, it notes the location then goes back to the previous picture and finds the pixel in the same location. It will then recolor the offending pixel based on the pixels immediately surrounding it.


14. High Key, Beach, Snow or "Beach & Snow"

High Key menu

Cameras assume that all the light in a scene averages out to more or less an “average" level of brightness. This group of settings tell the camera that the scene is brighter than normal and that it should not overcompensate. This basically overexposes the image so that brightness comes out bright.

High Key scene


15. Low Key

Low Key menu

The exact opposite of High Key. This setting tells the camera that the scene is relatively dark and to allow that character to come through by underexposing from what it thinks is the proper exposure.

Low Key scene


16. Candle, Dawn, and Sunset

Sunset menu

These aren't really completely interchangeable settings but I've grouped them together for one simple reason: they all change the white balance of the image in similar ways. They capture and preserve more red, orange and yellow tones than would be normal, making colors in this range appear more vivid.

Sunset scene


17. Other General Functions

Beyond the various shooting modes, there are some other general camera functions that it can be very useful to understand. Again, not all of these will be found on every camera and yours may have some additional functions not listed here but this is intended to provide a good starting point.


18. Anti-Shock

This menu option delays the shutter opening for some preset time (usually 2-5 seconds) after the shutter button is pressed. This is different from the self-timer function. With SLR cameras, there is a mirror which swings up out of the way while the exposure is being made. The anti-shock delay is to allow vibrations from that movement to dampen before the exposure is made.

Anti-shock is not available on point-and-shoot, rangefinder or other types of cameras without a mirror.

Although it can be used at any time, Anti-shock is only effective when the camera is on a tripod or other support.

Image Stabilization

This may be called Image Stabilization, Vibration Reduction, Anti-Shake, Anti-Blur or something similar. There are three main types of image stabilization.

  • In-camera stabilization actually moves the CCD or CMOS array (the digital chip that records the image) in response to small movements and camera shake in an effort to counter those and capture a sharper image.
  • In-lens stabilization performs a similar function within the lens, moving one of the groups of elements. In-lens stabilization is available only on select (usually expensive) lenses for SLR camera systems.
  • Software stabilization attempts to interpret and clean up blurriness using software in the camera.

In all cases, image stabilization works only when shooting handheld and can actually make your pictures worse when using a tripod or other solid support.


19. Exposure Compensation

Exposure Compensation button

More advanced cameras may have a function which allows fine-tuning the overall exposure. This may be found on a menu or by using a dedicated button like the one above.

Exposure compensation allows you to increase or decrease exposure from what the camera thinks is optimal in small, often 1/2 or 1/3 stop, increments. Exposure compensation forces the camera to overexpose or underexpose the image from what it considers normal. (High Key and Low Key are preset settings available on some cameras to perform the same function, though with less control over the degree of the effect.)


20. Histograms

Many digital cameras and most photo editing software will allow you to see a histogram of an image. A histogram is a graph showing the distribution of light, medium and dark tones throughout the image. Very often, the histogram on your camera will be superimposed over the image it represents.

Normal Histogram

The far left edge of the graph shows the darkest tones while the right edge shows the brightest. The range of the graph represents the broadest range of brightness that the camera is capable of recording. This is referred to as the camera's dynamic range. As a rule, for most scenes you want a histogram which shows a full dynamic range with the tones more or less evenly distributed and none running off either edge.

Note that it is possible for the tones in the actual scene (and thus the peaks of the graph) to extend beyond the limits of the camera's dynamic range in one or both directions.

Blown Highlights Histogram

When the brightest parts of a scene are too bright for the camera to accurately record them, this is known as “blown highlights". Most photographers, given a choice of preserving only highlight or shadow detail, consider highlights the more important of the two. They will use exposure compensation or some other technique to underexpose bright scenes to try to prevent the brightest parts from falling outside the dynamic range of the camera.

Blinking Highlights

Many cameras have a special mode when reviewing pictures you've already taken which will highlight any portions of the image which fall outside the brightest end of the histogram with a blinking outline. The idea being that it makes it easier for you to see which parts of the scene are blown out. For example, if you were shooting a night scene with beautiful tones but saw that streetlights in the scene were blown out and the area was limited to the lights themselves, you might choose to ignore it. If large, important portions of your scene were blown out, you might choose to reshoot the scene.


21. Metering Modes

Metering is the term for measuring the light used to record an image and determining settings to use for proper exposure. Some cameras may offer several different metering modes. Here are the most common:

Matrix (also called Pattern, Zone, Intelligent or ESP) Metering. The camera samples specific points from all over the image. Depending on the camera, anywhere from a handful to more than 50 points may be sampled. The light intensity at each of these points is fed into a complex algorithm which is used to set exposure.

Center-weighted metering

Center-Weighted. This is the same as above except that an area in the very center of the image frame representing ~30% of the total area is given disproportionate weight in the calculations.

Spot metering

Spot.Only a tiny spot, representing from 1%-5% of the total image frame is used for metering. Spot metering is fairly specialized and should generally be used only when the light falling on your subject is vastly different from its surroundings. Examples might include a spotlit performer on stage in a darkened auditorium or a skier wearing dark clothing but surrounded by bright snow.

The basic goal of the camera is to come up with a correct exposure. To use an analogy, if the scene were converted to a black-and-white picture, the camera wants a scene where all of the tones mixed together come out to a nice medium grey.


22. White Balance Presets

All but the simplest of digital cameras have preset white balance settings. These are usually found on one of the menus and are often identified by pictograms. There may or may not be explanations or other information displayed when you select one of the pictograms.

Auto

The automatic setting is default and is found on all digital cameras. Those without selectable settings have only the automatic white balance. With this, the camera attempts to interpret the color cast of the dominant light source(s) in the scene and correct for them so that, if a white object were in the image, it would come out properly white.

Automatic white balance is generally pretty decent. The problem with it is that the camera must guess. It has no way of knowing for certain the kind of subject being photographed nor the kind of light shining on the scene.

Sunny WB

Sunny

The sunny preset, sometimes called Direct Sun, Bright Sun or some other variation, tells the camera that the primary light source is unmodified sunlight.

Cloudy WB

Cloudy

This preset may also be called Overcast. It assumes a slightly blue tint to the light source and warms the color balance of the image to compensate.

Shady WB

Shade

If your camera has a Shade or Shadow setting, it tells the camera that the light is even more blue than with Cloudy. The camera warms the color balance even more.

Tungsten WB

Tungsten

This setting, also sometimes called Incandescent, is usually indicated by a lightbulb. An ordinary incandescent light bulb has a much warmer color tone than the photographic reference point of sunlight. With the camera set on this setting, it will compensate by making the color balance of the captured image much cooler (more blue) than “normal".

Flourescent WB

Flourescent

Some cameras, especially more advanced models, may have multiple variations on the setting for fluorescent lights. Those that don't will assume cool white fluorescents. There are also warm white fluorescents and daylight-balanced fluorescents.

Custom White Balance

Some cameras may have custom white balance settings in which you can specify the color temperature of the light source in degrees Kelvin or can “photograph" a white surface that is being lit by your primary light source. In that case, the camera would read the color of the light and figure out on its own what adjustments to make to bring back true color fidelity.

It's very important to note that, in all cases, you are telling your camera what kind of light is falling on the subject you are photographing. If you are standing under the shade of a tree but photographing a subject in direct sun, set your white balance for Sunny because that's where the subject is. Likewise, if you were inside your house under tungsten lights but shooting out the window to get a picture of a bird under overcast skies, set your white balance for Cloudy because that's the kind of light falling on your subject.


23. Using Autofocus

Many cameras have two types of autofocus:

  • Single autofocus (S-AF) focuses when the shutter button is pressed halfway. Once focus is achieved and locked, as long as the button is held halfway down, focus stays locked even if you recompose or the subject moves.
  • Continuous autofocus (C-AF) begins focusing when the shutter button is pressed halfway and will continue adjusting focus until the picture is taken.
  • Shooting with these two modes requires completely different techniques. With S-AF, it is highly desirable to press the shutter halfway then adjust your composition before making the exposure. With C-AF, pressing the shutter halfway will only waste battery life and lead to more out of focus shots by causing the camera to hunt for focus more. It's better simply to take the picture.

One thing to note about subjects moving toward or away from you when using C-AF is camera-to-subject distance. Subjects that are physically farther away, even if you are zoomed in so that they appear close in the image frame, are easier to focus on. To understand this, let's assume you are taking a picture of a runner coming directly toward you. With a short lens, let's say the runner is 10' (3m) away when you start to focus and moves 1' (0.3m) closer while you are making the exposure. That is a 10% change in camera-to-subject distance.

Now let's suppose you photograph the same runner with a longer telephoto or zoom lens. Say the runner is now 50' (15.2m) away and still moves 1' (0.3m) closer while you make the exposure. That movement represents only 2% of the camera-to-subject distance. Relatively speaking, your camera has to make a much smaller adjustment to compensate for the same amount of subject movement. (Note that zooming in on distant subjects introduces the potential issue of camera shake.)

Cameras which offer C-AF will also offer some type of focus priority feature. This prevents the exposure from being made unless the camera has gotten sharp focus. This feature can usually be turned on or off.

Autofocus cameras which do not offer a choice most often use S-AF. You may be able to ‘trick' cameras by using the preset shooting modes; Action and Children modes will typically use C-AF while most other modes, especially Close-up, Portrait and Landscape will use S-AF.

There are also manual focus and focus-free cameras. Manual focus is self-explanatory. Focus-free uses such a great depth of field that the camera doesn't bother with changing focus at all. These are very limited in the effects you can produce and are rarely good at focusing closely.


24. EXIF Data

All digital cameras automatically record information pertaining to each image they take. This additional information is embedded in the image file itself. (Note that some image processing software may strip out this data.)

EXIF stands for Exchangeable Image File. Camera makers vary in exactly what EXIF data they record – some even let you customize certain fields – but, in general, you will find the following (all information is specific to the image it is attached to):

  • Camera make and model
  • Shutter speed
  • Aperture
  • Lens Focal Length (or zoom length)
  • ISO sensitivity
  • Exposure Compensation
  • Whether or not the flash fired & flash mode
  • Orientation of the camera
  • Physical Image Size
  • Image Resolution
  • Date and Time Stamp
  • White Balance
  • Metering Mode
  • Exposure Mode (Scene Mode)

Reviewing EXIF data may be the single most powerful tool at your disposal for photographic self improvement. Study the settings used for shots that came out great so you can use them again in similar situations. Also study the settings for less successful shots and see if you can figure out what to do differently next time.

EXIF window

To see EXIF data after your pictures have been downloaded, right-click (or Ctrl-click) an image and select Properties from the menu. On the Summary tab (in WindowsXP; or the Details tab in Windows Vista; or the Info tab on Macintosh), click the Advanced button and all your most useful, most commonly referenced data will be displayed. (There is a lot more data embedded in the file but much of the rest is highly technical or arcane. What you will see here will serve your needs 99% of the time.)

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