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Common Camera Settings for Beginners

Many beginner photographers often wonder what camera settings they should use to get the best possible results with their current camera gear. While there is no set rule for camera settings that work well in every shooting environment,

I noticed that there are some settings that I personally set on every camera I use, which are universal across all brands of cameras on the market. These are the “base” settings I set initially – once they are done, I rarely ever revisit them. In addition, there are particular camera modes that make the process of capturing images easier or quicker, especially for someone who is just starting out. Let’s go through these common camera settings in more detail!

fog and mountain

Camera Setup

First, let’s go over some of the camera settings that should apply to any modern digital camera. You should be able to find all the settings specified below since they are more or less universal across different camera brands and models:

  1. Image Quality: RAW

  2. RAW Recording: Lossless Compressed (if available)

  3. White Balance: Auto

  4. Picture Control / Picture Style / Creative Style / Film Simulation: Standard

  5. Color Space: sRGB

  6. Long Exposure Noise Reduction: On

  7. High ISO Noise Reduction: Off

  8. Active D-Lighting / DRO, HDR, Lens Corrections (Vignette Control, Chromatic Aberration Control, Distortion Control, etc): Off

The above are the most important camera settings. First, you always start out by selecting the proper file format, which is RAW. If there is a setting for selecting RAW compression, always select Lossless Compressed, since it reduces the amount of space your RAW files consume. While things like Picture Controls don’t matter for RAW images (they only impact the way the image appears on your camera’s LCD), it is best to stick with a standard profile without tweaking any other settings like Sharpening, Contrast, Saturation, etc, as such settings only matter if you shoot in JPEG format.

The same with color space and white balance – you do not have to worry about them when shooting RAW, since you can change them later. Unless you know what you are doing, I would keep “long exposure noise reduction” turned on, since it does affect your RAW images when shooting long exposures – it works by reducing the amount of noise you will see in your images (although it will also double the amount of time it normally takes to capture an image). All other in-camera lens corrections, dynamic range optimizations, and noise reduction options should be turned off as well since they do nothing to improve your RAW images.

Once you have the above settings set up in your camera, it is time to move on to things that matter when taking pictures.

Best Camera Shooting Mode

While some photographers argue that it is best to always shoot in Manual Mode to have full control over your camera, I would strongly disagree with that. Considering how amazing modern cameras have gotten when it comes to properly metering a scene and exposing a subject, there is very little reason to actually shoot in Manual Mode, so why not use one of the semi-automated camera modes instead?

Camera Modes

For example, I personally rely on the Aperture Priority mode of my camera 90% of the time, because it does a great job and I have full control not just over my camera aperture, but also over how bright or dark I want an image to appear. If my camera takes a brighter image than I would like it to be, I simply use the Exposure Compensation button to adjust my exposure and I am set:

Nikon D5500 Exposure Compensation

If you are wondering whether it is good to shoot in any of the “Scene” modes of your camera (such as Macro, Sports, Fireworks, etc), I would discourage the use of these modes for a number of reasons. The main reason is that such modes vary greatly not just between different camera manufacturers, but also different models. So if you learn to always rely on a particular scene mode on one camera and decide to upgrade to a new one in the future, you might not be able to find the same scene mode on a different camera model. It is also important to highlight that most higher-end and professional camera models don’t even come with scene modes in the first place.

Best Autofocus Mode

You should always make sure that you are shooting in the best autofocus mode depending on what you are photographing. For example, if you photograph a still subject, you might want to use Single Area Focus Mode (also known as “Single Area AF”, “One Shot AF” or simply “AF-S”), whereas if the subject you are photographing is continuously moving, you would want to switch to Continuous / AI Servo Focus Mode, since you would probably want your camera to actively track your subject.