Photography 101: Default camera settings

One of the basic truths of photography: the camera is not your friend.  It must be manipulated, controlled, reigned in and made to do your bidding, not the other way around.

(1) Kick auto-ISO to the curb
ISO is a measure of sensitivity (or film speed in old school talk).  The lower the ISO setting, the less sensitive the sensor is to light coming in through the lens.  This means aperture and exposure settings must compensate by allowing in more light.  That’s a good thing, for as sensitivity to light increases, so too does sensitivity to noise—including noise generated by the sensor itself.

Automatic ISO settings notoriously err on the side of caution by choosing higher ISO settings than are necessary for the circumstances.  For example, on a sunny day for a still scene and a stable camera, ISO 100 is as high as you should go for a standard image, yet most cameras will choose ISO 200 or even ISO 400.  And the higher the ISO goes, the more the image suffers from loss of dynamics and increasing graininess.

Always remember ISO is equivalent to film speed, hence moving subjects even in good light could require a higher ISO setting based on the exposure and aperture you need for the shot you’re after.  Also remember the best quality image will come from the lowest ISO setting possible.

Practice makes perfect.  Using the camera and manually selecting ISO speeds will quickly teach you the circumstances appropriate for each ISO setting.  Knowing the differences required for shooting hand-held as opposed to using a tripod is as critical as knowing what ISO is appropriate on a cloudy day or inside a dark home as opposed to being outside on a sunny day.  This also is the only way you’ll learn how ISO relates to aperture size and shutter speed.

So turn off automatic ISO and start manually selecting speeds.  It won’t take long before you have a good idea of how this setting works, how it interacts with exposure and depth of field, and when to use each ISO speed available.

(2) RAW photos are better for you than cooked photos
When a camera kicks out a JPG image, the file has been processed by the camera for digital noise reduction, white and color balance, exposure, and so on.  But it’s also permanently lost some of the image data.  You see, the JPG (or JPEG) format uses what’s called “lossy compression.”  That is to say, each time the image is saved some of the data is sacrificed by the compression scheme so the file can be made smaller.  The first loss takes place when the camera saves the file.  Every time it’s saved after that, more of the image is lost.

Another shortcoming of the JPG format is that it’s unable to withstand more than cursory manipulation.  Because the image data has already been processed, changes to the image must be made within the parameters of the resulting file.  An example of this is that white balance of a JPG file gets set by the camera to a discrete value such as “sunny” or “incandescent” or “cloudy,” but with the RAW file the white point can be set to any value.  Underexposed JPG images take on a washed-out and grainy appearance when they are lightened, whereas a RAW file can have the exposure reset with less negative impact to the final picture.

RAW is a dump of what the sensor recorded.  There has been no sharpening, no saturation changes, no processing of any kind.  While this offers much greater flexibility of the final result, it also means more work to make the picture usable.  Nevertheless, doing the processing by hand often means a better photo once it’s saved to a usable format like JPG.

If you’ve not worked with RAW files before and have no sense of what to do with one, set your camera to record both RAW and JPG (if it has that option).  As a temporary learning tool, this can offer both formats so you can see what the camera thought the image should look like (JPG) as well as what the versatile RAW data looks like.  Begin using the RAW images to increase your understanding of how to create the final picture that you want as opposed to what the camera gave you.

Keep in mind RAW files are much larger than their JPG counterparts.  This means you’ll fill up your camera’s memory faster and you’ll not be able to take as many photos as quickly as you could otherwise (it takes longer to write the RAW file due to its size).  The trade-offs are worth it, though, and you eventually can switch over exclusively to RAW.

(3) Multiple focus points can be obstacles
Many new cameras have multiple focus points for the auto-focus system.  These allow the camera to choose which focus point(s) should be used—and that’s normally those centered on the nearest object.  And that leads to trouble.

Assume you’re trying to photograph a bird in a tree.  It’s likely there are branches closer to you than the bird.  With multiple focus points, the camera is more likely to focus on the branches than the subject.  This leads most people to believe auto-focus is malfunctioning since they can’t get the camera to focus on what they’re trying to take a picture of.

Unless you know how to use it and love the application of multiple focus points, it’s best to turn them all off except the center point.  That happens to be the most sensitive and most reliable focus point.  It’s also the one that allows you to aim at the subject you want to focus on without having to worry about extraneous material in the scene catching the camera’s attention instead.

But what about the rule of thirds and not centering every photo?  Just because you use the center focus point, it does not necessarily follow that you have to center every image.  Once you’ve attained a lock and good focus, you’re more than welcome to turn the camera away from the subject so it’s no longer centered.  Limiting yourself to only one focus point is a tool, not a mandate for how all images must be shot.  Besides, manual focus is always the better option.

(4) Automatic image modes = the lowest common denominator
When you look at the mode dial, you probably see a frightening array of options.  Some are obvious: one for landscapes, one for macro, one for portraits, one for action, etc.  No matter how alluring these easy modes seem, they are the enemy and should be avoided.

Automatic modes leave all the work to the camera.  It tries to figure out exposure, aperture, ISO, lighting and contrast, color saturation, white balance, and all the other goodies that will be recorded in the image.  If you have no interest in controlling the pictures you take, then by all means use these as the camera does all the thinking and you only need to press a button.  Also note these modes generally will not record in RAW.

But if you want to compose the image yourself, avoid these least common denominators and go to the manual modes.  Three or four of them are usually available: one for aperture priority, one for exposure priority, possibly one for guessing, and one for all-manual (on a Canon, these are Av, Tv, P and M respectively).  I use only aperture, exposure and manual modes.  (Guessing priority is where the camera sets all the values but allows you to change them before shooting.)

In each of these all settings can be manipulated, although the priority modes put one option up front while trying to automate the others.  It’s easy to modify the non-priority settings before taking the picture.

(5) White balance shouldn’t be left to guesswork
Some people say you should always leave the camera set to the “sunshine” white balance option.  Since you’re shooting in RAW and can change the white balance to any value when you process the image, that sounds good in theory.  But it’s not.  However, it’s an even worse idea to leave white balance on automatic so the camera decides.

Automatic selection of white balance leaves me feeling queasy.  Like auto-ISO settings, it appears the camera tends toward the easiest and least appropriate option.

Yet leaving white balance on “sunshine” for all circumstances means you’re left with an image that might have no resemblance to reality.  And can you always remember what the scene really looked like, what colors were present and where?  If you only take one picture, maybe.

As a means of guidance for processing the image file, set the white balance to the closest option that matches the circumstances.  You don’t need it to be perfect; you just need it to help you later when you’re trying to get the colors back to reality.

(6) The bigger the image, the better the image
We’d all like to have as much room as possible to take as many photos as possible.  That leads one to believe recording small images is best.  That’s so wrong.

Your camera should be set to record the largest images possible.  It should also be set to record using the greatest quality possible.

You can always reduce the size of an image without losing quality, and you can crop a large one without being left with a postage stamp.  But a small image can’t be enlarged without creating a disaster and it can’t be cropped without killing it.

Equally important is the image quality.  The more data you have to work with, the more you can do with the image later without sacrificing presentation.

So find the recording settings and make sure it’s on the largest file size and highest image quality.

(7) Pretend your f/stops stop at f/16
Like pretty much any cool technology, f/stops are confusing because they’re counter-intuitive: the larger the f/stop, the smaller the aperture, the more that’s in focus.  Assuming you remember the depth of field (everything that’s in focus) increases as the f/stop increases, you can ignore how that equates to a smaller aperture.

But even assuming you realize f/32 should mean the whole world is in focus, always remind yourself that anything above f/16 should be off limits, and anything above f/12 should be reserved for special circumstances (like macro), and anything above f/10 should be considered exceptions and not the rule.  Why?

Although smaller apertures create a wider depth of field and therefore more focus across a larger area, the smaller aperture also has a negative effect on image quality.  That’s because of something called diffraction: the tendency of light to scatter when passing through a small opening (a wave function for the physics nuts out there).  You can test this by setting your f/stop as high as it can go and snapping a photo of anything you see; then set the f/stop to it’s lowest value and take the same picture again.  Not only will you see the difference in focus range between the two images, but you’ll notice the result of diffraction in the first picture and how it causes significant damage to the scene (often in the guise of tumultuous digital artifacts, a.k.a. noise).

As a rule of thumb, remember this saying: f/8 or you’re too late.  You can go as low as you want assuming you understand that means a narrow depth of field (a smaller area in focus), but don’t go much above f/8 unless you know precisely what that means.  And never go above f/16 unless you’re interested in a garbled image that will require lots of work just to be recognizable.

(For those interested in how to get a large depth of field so almost everything is in focus, but you want to do it without the cataclysmic results of diffraction, I’ll discuss hyperfocal distance in a future installment.)

Leave a Reply