Boggled by all the buttons and dials on your digital camera? Does reading the manual give you a headache? No worries, we’re here to tell explain how—and when—to work those digital bells and whistles to get better pictures. Camera features vary from model to model so check the manual or spec sheet so you don’t go on a wild goose chase hunting for something your camera doesn’t have.
We’ll be continuing this series by diving deeper into other features and functions at a later date but these will get you on your way to taking more control over your camera and picture-taking.
Resolution and compression are, perhaps, the most important digital camera settings since they play a large part in determining the quality of your pictures. These settings can be found in either the main menu system or via the camera’s quick on-screen menu. All digital cameras shoot in JPEG, which is a compressed file format but the amount of compression is almost always user selectable. The basic rule of thumb is that a large file size/high resolution and low compression produces the highest quality images and those best for larger prints. Nomenclature differs across cameras (large or by megapixel; fine or superfine, normal, etc.) but it’s easy to figure out the settings that will deliver the highest quality images.
Some cameras, particularly higher end models, also offer a RAW setting. Although some cameras offer a compressed or small RAW option, most are uncompressed but the main benefit of RAW is that these files are unprocessed. Since RAW files are not processed in camera like JPEGs, you will, however, have to tweak these pictures in an image-editing program after you download them from your camera. This, however, gives you finer control over how your final image looks. Keep in mind that RAW files are large and can quickly eat up your hard drive space.
Naturally, the smaller file size/lower resolution and higher compression delivers lower quality images. Unless you know for sure that you’re going to use the image only for e-mailing or the web, you should take pictures at the highest quality level possible. You can always downsize your photo without losing picture information, but enlarging an image beyond its intended file size will result in degraded quality.
A great composition isn’t worth much if your photograph isn’t well exposed. Most digital cameras provide at least a few options for controlling exposure. Auto and Program Auto, accessible on the camera’s physical or virtual mode dial, are the easiest settings to use when you’re taking pictures. Auto means just that—the camera automatically takes care of all the settings (aperture, shutter, white balance, flash, etc.). This is a no-brainer shooting mode and it works great if you’re a beginner or want point-and-shoot freedom. Program Auto functions much in the same way but also allows users to manually choose a number of different settings such as white balance. While Program Auto is snapshot simple if you want it to be, you also have the option to apply some manual control.
The Scene setting on the mode dial provides access to a number of selectable scene-matching options such as such as portrait, landscape, fireworks, beach/snow, food and night scenes, to name just a few. Just choose the scene that best suits your subject and press the shutter. Optimized for each specific shooting situation, the camera will then automatically use the best settings for that subject. Using this mode is almost as easy as using the Auto mode, but may deliver better pictures.
The aperture priority mode allows you to control the size of the aperture (how small or large the lens’ diaphragm opens when the shutter is depressed). The camera will then select the appropriate shutter speed for a proper exposure.
Whenever you work with aperture settings (f-stops), remember that the lower/smaller the aperture number, the wider the opening and vice versa. For example, f/2.8 opens up the lens, while f/8 closes down the lens. In low light situations, you need to open up the lens (smaller aperture number) to allow in more light. To avoid an over-exposed image in brightly lit scenes, you need to close down the lens (choose a higher number, e.g., f/8).
In addition to exposure, aperture priority controls depth-of-field or how much of your image—from near to far—is in focus. If you want to soften the background for portraits and close-ups so your subject is a strong focal point, open up the lens (choose a lower number, like F2.8).
If, however, you want objects near and far to be in focus, close down the lens by selecting the highest aperture number possible. This will increase your depth-of-field. Some high-end cameras have a depth-of-field preview feature that allows you to see how much of your image will be in focus before you take the shot.
Shutter priority mode gives precedence to the shutter speed setting. In other words, you control the camera’s shutter speed (the length of time the shutter stays open during an exposure) while the camera selects the appropriate aperture (f-stop).
The shutter speed controls the amount of light that enters the camera by adjusting the amount of time the shutter stays open. A slow shutter speed allows more light to enter through the lens while a fast shutter speed decreases the amount of light.
In addition to controlling exposure, an important aspect of shutter priority mode is the effect shutter speed has on motion. A fast shutter speed will stop action. On the other hand, a slow shutter speed may result in a blurred picture.
Shutter Speed Slow
But you can use slow shutter speeds to your advantage. For example, if you have a very steady hand or a tripod, you can photograph a waterfall and have the water slightly blurred from motion while the rest of the scene is sharp. Play around with a slow shutter speed (1/60 or slower) to see what kind of interesting effects you can create.
If your camera has a manual setting, then you can choose both the aperture and the shutter speed. DSLRs use a meter bar, which is visible in the viewfinder and LCD in Live View, to indicate the suggested exposure; some cameras change the colors of the aperture and shutter readings (shown on the LCD) to indicate when the proper settings for both have been reached. Feel free to experiment with slightly over- or under-exposing under special conditions or according to your visual aesthetics.
In addition to automatically setting the ISO (or light sensitivity), digital cameras give you the ability to manually choose an ISO. Light sensitivity is adjusted based on the conditions under which you’re shooting and are most helpful when there’s not enough light to achieve the shutter speed f-stop setting you want. For example, if it’s dark and you don’t want to or can’t use the flash, you’ll need to increase the ISO in order to get a shutter speed fast enough so you can handhold the camera without blurring the image. Or, you may need a fast shutter speed to stop action but there’s not enough available light to reach the desired speed.
ISO settings generally start as low as 80 or 100 and go up to 6400 and beyond. Generally, the lower the ISO, the better the image quality. High ISO’s, often 800, 1600 and higher, increases image noise—a sort of grainy appearance that degrades the image. Almost all DSLRs have a user selectable noise reduction feature to help alleviate this problem or you can adjust the image in post processing to reduce image noise.
Since higher ISO settings allow you to take pictures under low light conditions but often produce image noise, using a high light sensitivity setting is a mixed bag and one that’s best decided on an image-by-image basis.
Even if your camera doesn’t have manual or semi-manual exposure modes, you can adjust the exposure via the EV (exposure value) compensation feature. If the shot looks over- or under-exposed, you can adjust the EV settings to change the exposure and shoot again. Experiment with different settings, which are usually measured in one-half steps and marked + (to increase exposure) or – (to decrease exposure). EV can also be used to bracket shots: take one on automatic, one slightly under exposed and the third slightly over exposed to see which setting delivers the best exposure. Many cameras can be set to bracket automatically, which is also a good option if you want to experiment with HDR (high dynamic range) imaging by shooting and combining multiple images shot at different exposures into a single photo.
Metering assesses the light in order for the camera to determine the best exposure. DSLRs and many compact cameras offer a trio of metering options. Multi or Evaluative read the overall scene to arrive at the proper exposure. Center metering, as the name implies, takes the exposure reading from the center of the frame. Spot metering uses a small area to ascertain exposure. Center and Spot metering are very helpful in more extreme lighting situations where a “multi” or “evaluative” reading may result in blown out highlights or dense shadows. For example, if your subject is backlit, using the center or spot metering will expose for the subject rather than the entire scene, e.g., a bright background and dark subject, which can throw off overall exposure by averaging the highlights and shadows.
In addition to automatic white balance, DSLRs and most compact digital cameras have a series of presets to match different lighting conditions such as sunny, tungsten and fluorescent. Simply choose the setting that matches your scene and shoot. Manual white balance is available in DSLRs and many compact cameras. This allows you to customize the white balance by pointing the camera at a span of white, such as a white wall (you can also use a white piece of paper) and taking the shot so that the camera knows what white “looks like” in the light you’re shooting under. Just be sure to fill the frame with whatever reference you’re using.
In DSLRs and many advanced compact cameras, white balance can also be customized by setting the Kelvin temperature. Using a numerical scale that corresponds to various lighting conditions, just choose the temperature that best matches the light source. For example, daylight is 5500K. If the image is too warm (yellow/red), set the camera at a higher number. If it’s too cool (blue), lower the Kelvin temperature setting.
Most digital cameras, with the exception of a few high end DSLRs and some mirrorless models, have a built-in flash with several flash settings. Utilizing flash options can play an important role in your photography.
Auto determines whether the flash fires and how much light it emits. The camera makes the decision and, like auto exposure, this setting requires no action on your part.
Flash on—sometimes referred to as “fill flash” or “forced flash”—forces the flash to fire regardless of whether or not the camera meter says there is enough light. This feature is most helpful for illuminating backlit subjects or objects that are in shadows.
Turning the flash off prevents the flash from firing at any time, even when there’s not enough light. This setting is necessary if you’re photographing in a museum or other venue where flash is prohibited.
Shooting video with your still digital camera can be fun and while video capabilities have improved dramatically over the years, unless you have a high end DSLR, don’t expect to qualify for Cannes or the Sundance film festival.
Not to be confused with audio, these sounds alert you to certain functions of the camera. For example, some digital cameras allow you to control whether or not the camera makes a sound when the camera locks focus. Test it out—you may find that it’s helpful to hear a beep so you know that focus has been achieved. On the other hand, you may just find it annoying and keep it turned off.
In addition to recording mono or stereo sound with your video clips, some cameras allow you to record voice annotations to attach to images. This feature is most often found in higher end DSLRs and comes in handy for recording identifying information about the subject of each image.
Compact cameras and fixed lens cameras often have a digital zoom feature. We strongly recommend turning off the digital zoom. All this does is enlarge and crop the picture, much like you would do using an image-editing application. Yes, you get a closer view of your subject, but you lose image information—and image quality—by doing so. Cameras that lack a digital zoom “off” feature will usually have a hesitation when zooming to indicate that the camera is venturing into digital zoom territory.
The obvious use of the self-timer is for group shots where you want to be in the picture or if you’re making a self-portrait. The self-timer also works well if your camera doesn’t have a remote release. Let’s say you want to take a long exposure… so long that even the action of you pressing the shutter button may move the camera and result in a blurred picture. Put the camera on a tripod, focus, set the self-timer and wait for the shutter to trigger.
When you want to catch action or a series of shots, switch over to continuous shooting mode. The resolution setting and the size of the camera’s buffer will determine how many pictures you can take in a row before the camera saves images to the media card. Keep in mind that while the camera is saving the images, you won’t be able to take pictures or the continuous shooting speed will slow considerably. Depending on the camera and shooting speed, focus and exposure may be set based on the first shot. Sometimes it’s better to choose a slower continuous shooting speed so the camera can automatically change focus and exposure throughout the burst.