You’ve been to the camera shop, bought your camera, gotten it home, and unboxed it. It still has that new camera smell, even. So, stick the battery on the charger, wait two hours, and you’re good to go, right? Well, not exactly. Your camera probably comes with a quick start guide, which will tell you not to charge your camera in the bathtub or put saltines in the SD slots. Anything beyond that, you’ll need the manual. The only problem is, if it’s your first time with an SLR, it may take a while for you to figure out what you need to set up for optimal performance; it’s a challenge finding something when you didn’t even know you needed to look for it. To save you some time, I’m going to give you a list of things you can do to make sure your camera’s ready to give you its best shot.
Now, granted, you can get acceptable photos on an SLR straight out of the box. As long as there’s a lens on it and it’s turned on, you’ll get a photo of something if you point the camera at that something, focus, and press the shutter release. However, something with as many options and controls as an SLR has needs to have some kind of factory default settings, and “one size fits most” just might mean that you’re that guy or gal who falls outside of that “most.” Let’s take a look under the hood at some of the more common camera settings that you might want to tweak.
Firmware Update: This should always be your first step with a new camera, and it’s not a bad idea to check periodically after that. The firmware is the software that runs your camera. Whether your camera’s a relatively new model or it’s been on the market for a bit, go to the manufacturer’s website and search for firmware updates. You’ll find an option in the menu to view the currently installed version of the firmware. Compare versions; if the numbers match, you’re good to go; if, on the other hand, the website shows a more recent version, update it. While you’re on the manufacturer’s website, download the PDF manual for your camera, and put that on your smartphone or tablet for easy access later.
File Formats: You’ll generally have the option of choosing RAW, JPG or both. If your camera has a single card slot, choosing to shoot both can mean gaps between shots. If there are two slots, you’ll usually have the option of JPG on both cards (with one card slot acting as either backup or overflow), RAW, or RAW+JPG, with RAW files being written to one card and JPG to the other.
Picture Quality/Size: If you’ve just landed a thousand miles from the nearest camera shop and you need to make an entire week’s worth of photos fit on a single memory card, you have one of two options: take fewer, more carefully shot, photos, or just use a really small file size. Otherwise, use the best quality and the largest file size you can, since the only way to get a smaller file size is to shave a significant amount of data off each file. For some purposes (like shooting for the web), you can likely get away with something that uses more compression, but if you plan on cropping, editing, or (especially) printing, you’re going to want as much information in those files as you can get.
Color Settings: At the very least, you should be able to choose from monochrome, desaturated, normal, and varying degrees of additional saturation. I suggest shooting color (I explain why in this article), but the type and degree of saturation you choose is a matter of personal preference.
Noise Reduction (NR): This comes in two “flavors”. There’s Long Exposure NR, and High ISO NR. Long Exposure NR generally only comes into play with long exposures, or repeated long-ish exposures; you’ll notice noise, or color artifacts, that occur when the sensor heats up from the extended use. High ISO’s, meantime, will give you different kinds of noise (grain, chromatic noise) that NR can handle. NR sometimes works quite well, but it can also lead to loss of detail. If your camera loses detail in the upper reaches of the ISO range to begin with, excessive NR just makes a bad situation worse, so use it sparingly.
ISO and White Balance Settings: This is a matter of personal preference. I generally try a few test shots under relatively controlled conditions (i.e., shots under a single light source, and multiple light sources) to see how reliably the camera chooses white balance. Most SLRs do a good job of it, so Auto White Balance isn’t such a bad thing. Auto ISO, however, can be a mixed blessing. That’s especially true if your camera has a habit of boosting ISO when its ISO performance at 1600 and above is spotty. Take a test shot in low light with auto ISO (or three shots at 800, 1600 and 3200) and check the results. If you’re happy with the results at 800, but not as much past that, there’s normally an option to limit how high the Auto ISO will set your ISO in low light. You can either use that, or just adjust ISO manually as needed (which I’ve found to be an easier option).
Metering: Matrix metering is generally reliable, but there are times (like shooting a bright subject against a dark background, or vice versa) when you’ll want to use either spot or center-weighted metering. If you’re not sure, set it to Matrix/Evaluative metering, and use the other metering modes as needed.
Exposure Compensation: This is strictly optional. I’ve noticed that every Nikon I’ve used has tended to overexpose slightly, especially in bright light, so I usually set the EV to -.3 and just leave it there, though there are times that I’ll change it (if I’m using a polarizing filter, or when I’m bracketing an exposure, for instance).
Focus Mode: From the number of AF points that are active, to whether you’re using continuous or single-servo AF, you’ll want to choose the mode that best fits the kind of shooting you do (or anticipate doing). Here, again, your manual will prove invaluable (you see a pattern emerging here?)
AE/AF Lock: You’ll be able to choose how this button “behaves,” and whether it’s going to be used for Exposure Lock or Focus Lock. If you haven’t used this feature before, it may help you to shoot for a bit and revisit it when you’ve a better idea of which one you’ll use most often.
Shutter Release: You can usually program your camera not to take a photo if the AF isn’t locked in (which can be helpful, frustrating, or both, depending on the circumstances).
Set Up Your LCD: There are usually multiple display options with the LCD: levels of brightness, grid lines, virtual level, exposure information, histogram, and quite a bit else. Cycle through your options, and see what works best for you. Some of these things matter more if you’re shooting more in Live View than through the viewfinder, while others will be related more to your Playback menu. The options here aren’t quite limitless, but they’re close enough that covering the lot of them would take us quite a way off-topic. Just bear in mind that this is one thing (out of many) to take into account and adjust.
Program Your Function Button[s]: Not every SLR has a Fn button, but several do. These come in handy when you have a button on the back of the camera that changes a function you use often, or if that function’s buried in a menu. Usually the Fn button is easily accessible with the camera at eye-level, so this makes it easier to change something without having to lower the camera. If you’re just getting started and you’re not sure what to program the Fn button for, don’t worry about it; after a week or two of shooting, you’ll get ideas. Some cameras that feature a DOF Preview button will also allow you to reassign that to another function as well.
User Customizeable Settings: Some cameras allow you to customize menu banks so that a single press of the menu button brings up your most frequently used settings. Some have user-assignable softkeys (like a dedicated Fn (function) button, or the ability to reassign another function to your Depth of Field preview, for instance). Your mode dial may also have the ability to assign a series of settings that can be pulled up with a quick turn of the knob. In any of these cases, give some thought as to the kinds of shooting you do, and how these options affect your workflow when you’re shooting. User preset banks are great for the times when you need multiple settings changed all at once and quickly, while customizeable menus come in handy for features that can’t be assigned to a user preset, or for those things that you may not use often, but that you need to access quickly when you do.
Adjust Your Viewfinder’s Diopter: With the camera in autofocus, choose an object that’s easy to focus on, and use the diopter — it’s the little wheel thingy next to your viewfinder — to adjust the viewfinder’s magnification. IMPORTANT: However you plan on shooting normally — with or without glasses, contacts, a monocle, et cetera — adjust the diopter for that. You’ll need to see clearly to verify that the AF system is focusing on the thing(s) you had in mind, to say nothing of focusing manually.
Check Your “Extras”: Some things aren’t exactly mandatory, but can be helpful depending on personal preference. These include things like a framing grid in your viewfinder, an electronic level, vignette control, lens correction, AF confirmation beeps, and a host of other features.
I’m admittedly glossing over a vast numbers of menu options here. My purpose, however, is to get you started; for the rest, you have the manual. And for Pete’s sake, please RTFM! In the meantime, besides getting your important more-or-less permanent settings the way you want them, there’s another reason that this initial setup helps: as you’re navigating the menus, you’re familiarizing yourself (even if only a bit) with the different options baked into the camera. There’s no substitute for the manual (even the camera’s Help function, assuming your camera has one, requires you to find an item in order to pull up the available information about it), but getting acclimated in this way helps to demystify the camera (especially if this is your first one) and gets you used to the idea of actually using some of the great things that are now at your fingertips.
One thought in closing: The first time or two that you try this, it’s not uncommon to get lost in the maze of menus, submenus, and options, and have a “WTF?” moment where something seems irreparably screwed up. If that’s the case, don’t despair. Your camera will have an option to reset all your menu options back to their factory defaults.**
*I should note that I’ve shot Nikon almost exclusively since I’ve started shooting DSLR’s, so a lot of the nomenclature I’m using here is from what’s in their menus. If you’re using another brand, they may use different terminology. If all else fails, open the manual.
**If that doesn’t work, despair freely. Or just take it to the shop, and they’ll get it back in working order. See why it’s important to buy local?