Digital camera settings & controls
Problem No. 33: Which autofocus mode should I use?
The two basic autofocus (AF) modes are Single and Continuous, often also referred to as One-shot and Servo. In most cases, the Single mode works best because autofocus locks onto its target when you apply a light press to the shutter release button and remains fixed while you maintain the light press, until fully pressing the button to take your shot.
Continuous autofocus mode is better for moving targets, such as kids running around, because focus continually tracks subjects. Continuous AF might not keep up with extremely fast targets (such as racing cars), so switch to Single AF and pre-focus on a place the target is moving to (for more on this, see How to choose the best AF mode for your digital camera).
Problem No. 34: My camera seems to autofocus in the wrong place in some shots. How can I make best use of the different AF points?
The multi-point autofocus function uses all the camera’s available AF points, although some cameras also enable smaller groups of AF points to be selected. In either case, focusing locks onto the closest point in a scene that lines up with one of the points.
For more critical focusing, for example when you want to keep a subject’s eyes sharp in a portrait, it’s best to switch to single-point AF so that you can take complete control of what to focus on.
Problem No. 35: I find manual focusing quite difficult, because it seems hard to judge the effect of slight adjustments through the viewfinder. Is there a way of getting more precise results?
Most new DSLRs have Live View, complete with magnification options. Preview the image on the LCD instead of in the viewfinder, switch to the maximum magnification, then use the direction buttons to display the part of the scene that you want to focus on. This enables precise manual adjustments, although it’s best used with the camera mounted on a tripod as you do so.
For step-by-step instructions on focussing manually with Live View and other options, see Manual Focus: what you need to know to get sharp images.
Problem No. 36: I find that autofocusing is so much slower when I’m using Live View. Why is this, and how can I get round it?
Normal autofocus uses dedicated focus sensors coinciding with the focus points you see in the viewfinder (the number varies between different cameras). These sensors use something called phase-detection AF, and DSLR lenses tend to be optimised to work with them.
Live View, on the other hand, uses information from the camera’s main imaging sensor, and relies on contrast-detection AF. For various reasons, this is slower. When you shoot in Live View or record movies, the focus system often fails to keep up with rapid movement (find out What your Live View screen is telling you).
However, Live View focusing might be slow, but it’s extremely accurate, and it allows you to set the focus point anywhere you like. This is great news when precision matters more than speed, such as in macro photography.
Problem No. 37: My camera has the option to set the AE-L/AF-L button to lock the exposure or the focus or both at the same time – which setting should I use?
The simple answer is to choose whichever you find more valuable. Having this button set to lock both exposure and focus essentially doubles up on the role of the shutter release button. Instead, we’d recommend starting out using it for exposure lock on its own – and set to hold this reading without having to keep your thumb pressed on it.
This allows you to quickly lock in a meter reading, then reframe the shot and lock the focus with the shutter release. Changing the AE-L/AF-L button to just lock focus can be useful in action photography – you’ll be able to switch off focusing if the subject becomes temporarily obscured by an object in the foreground.
It’s also dead handy for portraits, as you can focus on an off-centre subject and then take your thumb off AF-L, freeing you up to recompose the shot without the focus shifting.
Problem No. 38: I’m a fairly experienced photographer and never used shooting modes such as Portrait or Landscape on my 35mm camera. Is there any reason why I should use them on my DSLR?
As long as you know what you’re doing with exposure settings when it comes to shutter speeds and apertures, and how they govern aspects such as depth of field, freezing the action and so on, there is little to be gained by using shooting mode options such as Portrait, Landscape and Sports on a film camera.
With digital SLRs, things are quite different. A variety of imaging parameters can be altered with a simple twist of the shooting mode dial, tailoring camera settings for optimum results without the need to make numerous changes via various buttons and menu options.
Choose Landscape mode, for instance, and both sharpness and contrast are increased, while blues and greens are more saturated. This gives a much more punchy and vivid look (for more on shooting landscapes, see our in-depth guide The 10 Commandments of Landscape Photography – and how to break them).
Problem No. 39: I’m trying to move on from my camera’s auto ‘scene’ modes, but am a bit confused about when to use the Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes. Can you help?
One of the main problems with ‘scene’ modes (Landscape, Portrait, Sports etc) is that they often prevent you from making changes to other useful shooting parameters, such as ISO, autofocus mode and white balance. Switch to your camera’s more advanced modes (P, A, S, M) and you can put all of your camera’s settings under your control.
The Program (P) shooting mode is a good place to start, as it gives an ideal balance of aperture and shutter speed for most scenarios, linked in to the zoom setting of your lens. You can also ‘shift’ exposure settings, enabling faster or slower shutter speeds, just by turning the main control dial.
Aperture Priority (A or Av) should be used when you want to select a large aperture to blur the background, or a small aperture for extending your depth of field.
Shutter Priority (S or Tv) is the mode to use when shutter speed is all-important, either fast for freezing the action or slow for creating blur.
Finally, Manual (M) is perfect in studios, or in very high-contrast scenes where the exposure compensation you need exceeds the range offered by the camera.
Problem No. 40: What’s the difference between RAW and JPEG image quality settings?
The JPEG format was made for digital photography and is now a universal standard, viewable anywhere, straight from the camera. By contrast, RAW images are specific to individual makes and models of camera and require specialist photo editing programs to open, view or edit them, but they too have some specific advantages.
Shoot RAW and you can carry out alterations to many of the camera’s image settings even after shooting, using the camera manufacturer’s software or the RAW import plug-ins of programs such as Photoshop or Lightroom.
These typically include being able to change the white balance, colour mode, saturation, contrast, sharpening and even the exposure value by a couple of stops either way.
Problem No. 41: When shooting RAW files, my 8GB memory card was full in only about 300 shots. How much quality will I sacrifice when shooting smaller JPEG images?
When you’re confident about getting accurate exposure settings and white balance, shooting in JPEG should still deliver very good image quality. Another factor is how big you want to print your images. For example, if you only want to look at your photos on a computer or TV screen, or make prints up to A4 in size, the ‘small JPEG’ option on most DSLRs will suffice.
This can stretch your shooting range with an 8GB memory card from about 300 shots to around 3,500 shots, making a massive difference. Bear in mind, however, that you won’t be able to crop images much, as you’ll have a much lower resolution to start with. A good option is to stick to JPEGs for general snaps, and to switch to RAW for more important projects.
Many recent DSLRs enable you to shoot small or medium-sized RAW files, rather than only giving you a full-sized RAW option, at the camera’s maximum resolution. This gives you the flexibility of shooting RAW images without the overhead of huge data files.
Problem No. 42: What’s RAW+JPEG mode?
This mode lets you save RAW files and JPEGs at the same time. It’s handy if you want to view a JPEG straight away but have a RAW file for editing later.
Problem No. 43: Should I Delete All or Format to remove pictures from a memory card?
Formatting the card is quicker, so is nearly always the better option. However, if images are ‘Protected’ during playback, they won’t be erased when you press Delete All but will be wiped if you format the card. You can flag photos as ‘Protected’ by pressing the appropriate button.
Problem No. 44: I’ve noticed that my camera has a ‘low-level’ option when formatting memory cards, even though this isn’t the default method. What’s the difference and when should I use low-level formatting?
Similar to a quick format on a PC, regular formatting deletes the data from a memory card so that you can start saving files on it again from scratch. A low-level format carries out a more thorough reformat. It’s good to use this option on any occasion when the card has been used in a different camera.
Problem No. 45: I’ve noticed that my camera has different options, including Continuous and Auto Reset, for its file numbering method. Are there any particular benefits of using either option?
We tend to stick with the Continuous file numbering option because, even after removing a memory card, copying the files and then formatting it, the numbering system will carry on from where it left off. This is also true when swapping memory cards. The advantage is that, even over long periods, all of your camera’s image files will have unique file names.
Problem No. 46: I’ve noticed that my camera offers fine-tuning options for white balance settings. In what situations should I use these, and how can I make the best use of them?
If you consistently get a slightly warm or cool colour balance in your shots, it can be useful to make corresponding adjustments to the auto white balance setting, or any of the other presets. A better bet, however, is to shoot in RAW so that you can fine-tune white balance at the editing stage, enabling you to make corrections on a shot-by-shot basis.
Problem No. 47: My camera’s sensor-cleaning system operates every time I switch the camera on. I find it frustrating if I want to shoot quickly – is it really necessary?
This feature is worth having because it helps to minimise the build-up of dust on the sensor. Some cameras enable you to customise sensor cleaning so that it happens when the camera switches off. Another alternative is to disable the automatic routine and to operate the cleaning cycle manually every once in a while when it’s more convenient.
Problem No. 48: I’m having trouble setting my camera’s dioptre adjustment, or at least judging which setting makes the viewfinder image look sharpest. Is there an easy way to do this?
Lightly press the shutter button so that the viewfinder’s information display is switched on for aperture, shutter speed and so on. It’s much easier to adjust the dioptre setting when your eye is focusing on the information display rather than the viewfinder image itself.
For more on using a viewfinder, see our infographic How to use a viewfinder.
Problem No. 49: Should I use sRGB or Adobe RGB?
The Adobe RGB colour space was developed to enable the largest gamut when printing an RGB image on a CMYK printer. The sRGB colour space (‘s’ stands for standard) is best for viewing images on a screen or distributing them electronically. It’s also the best option for inkjet printing, even if you’re sending your files to a printing lab.
Problem No. 50: My camera has recently started using different style file names, so I get an underscore at the beginning of the file name instead of the usual characters. They now read _MG rather than IMG. Why is this?
This means you’ve selected the Adobe RGB colour space instead of the default sRGB colour space. Adobe RGB will give you a slightly greater gamut (range of colours), but images will look dull and subdued on most computer screens unless you’re using software that’s compatible with Adobe RGB.
Problem No. 51: I’ve been using Picture Styles such as vivid and neutral, but they don’t have any effect when I shoot in RAW and edit images in Photoshop Elements. Why?
Picture Styles or Picture Controls let you dictate how colour rendition, contrast and sharpness are controlled in advanced shooting modes such as Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual.
Picture Styles work in both JPEG and RAW quality settings, but when shooting in RAW, they’ll only be handled correctly when using the camera manufacturer’s own editing programs, such as Canon Digital Photo Professional or Nikon Capture NX. They get lost in translation if you process RAW files in adobe Camera Raw, the plugin for Photoshop CS and Elements.
That said, the latest editions of Adobe Camera Raw include a Camera Calibration section, which gives a good approximation of many of the Picture Styles available in most current DSLRs.
Problem No. 52: The video menu on my DSLR gives me a choice of 24, 25, and 30fps frame rates. Which one should I use?
For TV viewing, standard frame rates are 25fps in countries that have 50hz mains electricity and 30fps in those with 60hz. In the UK, which has 50hz mains, you’re therefore best sticking with 25fps.
The 24fps rate is a more popular standard in cinematic film photography. If you edit video clips on your computer and burn them to disc, it’s best to use the same frame rate for the editing as you did for recording.
Problem No. 53: I’ve been trying to use the depth of field preview button to gauge how much of a shot will be sharp when using small apertures, but the viewfinder image is very dark and I find it’s impossible to make any judgements. Are there any alternative methods?
With film photography, DoF preview was your only option, but it’s easier with digital. You can use live view, or take a test shot and review it on the camera’s rear screen. You can then zoom in to get a good idea of how much depth of field you have.
Problem No. 54: When I playback images on my camera’s LCD screen, parts of them are flashing – is that a fault?
This is simply a ‘highlight alert’ feature that is usually activated or deactivated via the camera’s playback menu. With it switched on, areas of the picture that are (or are close to being) overexposed will flash or blink between black and white.
This warning enables you to instantly see, for example, if you’ve lost all the detail out of the sky or other very light areas in an image. It’s very useful when you’re trying to retain highlight detail, as you can dial in some underexposure compensation and re-shoot.
Problem No. 55: Should I set the aperture/shutter speed/ISO adjustments to 1/3 or 1/2 or 1EV stops?
Setting aperture and shutter speed to 1/3EV adjustments will give you greater control, however it can save you time trawling through overly fine ISO adjustments by setting the ISO step to a full 1EV stop.
Problem No. 56: I often forget to adjust the ISO setting in my camera when switching between indoor and outdoor shooting. Is there any way of setting a reminder?
The sound of very slow shutter speeds is often a good reminder that you’ve forgotten to increase your ISO setting when shooting indoors or in low light! Going outside is more of a challenge. If you’re sightseeing, shooting a wedding, or in other situations where you’re switching between indoor and outdoor settings, it’s worth considering Auto ISO.
This will keep the sensitivity as low as possible without giving shutter speeds that are so slow that camera-shake results. As lighting gets dimmer, Auto ISO will raise the sensitivity by only the amount that’s really necessary, so you should always get a good trade-off between sufficiently fast shutter speeds and the best available image quality. That’s because pictures taken at very high ISOs are likely to have increased noise and a drop in fine detail.
With many DSLRs, you can customise the way Auto ISO operates, choosing the slowest shutter speed you want to use as well as defining the maximum ISO permissible. There are times to avoid Auto ISO.
For example, if you want to use a slow shutter speed to create motion blur, you’ll need to apply a low sensitivity setting manually. Similarly, if you want to freeze action, you’re likely to need a faster shutter speed than Auto ISO will deliver, especially in dull lighting conditions.
Problem No. 57: I’ve noticed that the Custom Functions on my DSLR have an option to set high ISO noise reduction to Standard, Low, Strong or Off. Is there any reason why I shouldn’t set it to Strong?
Stronger noise reduction will certainly give you smoother-looking images at high ISO settings, but it’s not all good news. It comes at the expense of a loss of fine detail, so images can appear to lack sharpness.
Problem No. 58: I’ve only ever used the single-shot drive mode on my digital camera, because I don’t shoot sports photography or take self-portraits using the timer delay. But I’m wondering if other drive modes can be useful for other things?
Alternative drive modes can be very handy, apart from their conventional uses. For example, if you’ve set up your camera to take bracketed exposures, the continuous drive mode will automatically advance from frame to frame and then stop once the end of the bracketed sequence has been reached.
Continuous drive is also a good choice for group portraits because it maximises your chance of getting at least one shot in which nobody’s blinking. The two-second timer delay is also useful in conjunction with the mirror lock-up custom function on Canon cameras.
It provides a short delay between the mirror flipping up and the shot being taken – ideal for avoiding mirror bounce, which can cause blur
PAGE 1: General Photography Problems
PAGE 2: Using lenses
PAGE 3: Digital camera accessories
PAGE 4: Digital camera settings and controls
PAGE 5: Camera exposure
PAGE 6: Using flash
PAGE 7: Photography technique