The only settings you really need

New camera and a billion settings? 500 page manual?
Where shall I even start?
Don't worry, this is all you really need to find!
Tip: Start out with the first setting only! Once you got commfortable with it, check out the next one.

What does that do? With this mode you can easily influence how sharp or unsharp your photo background looks. For portraits you might want it less sharp, while you want it tack sharp for landscapes. You do this by setting the aperture number. This defines how large the opening of your lens is. Take a look at the front of your lens while switching apertures and you can easily see the size changing. No matter what you shoot, aperture priority mode gives you excellent control.

How do I use it? Set a high number like f/16 to get a sharp image throughout. Set a low number like f/2.8 or f/4 to get an unsharp background for portraits (corresponds to a large lens opening). The blurry effect gets even stronger if you take a step back and zoom in.

Where to find it? It's usually the A on the wheel on your camera that also says Auto, P, S, M, etc

What does that do? A high ISO number allows you to take bright photos in relatively dark conditions. It defines the light sensitivity level of your camera. And while it sounds like an awesome idea to leave ISO at a high value, this comes at the price of a many small coloured dots in the photo, called noise. It degrades the picture quality, potentially a lot. So while it is tempting to just crank up ISO, try to keep it as low as possible.

How do I use it? If you are on a tripod, put ISO at 100. If you are not, use the Auto-ISO function where you can set a maximum ISO. Set that up with your maximum acceptable ISO and don't worry about it anymore. To figure out the maximum acceptable ISO for your camera (they all vary widely) take a few test shots in a shady corner indoors with different ISO levels and check the noise on a computer screen (not the camera's LCD!). Then you know how far you can go with ISO on your camera.

Where to find it? You will find the Auto-ISO with Max setting in your menu. To adjust the ISO directly find the ISO button on the camera or the LCD.

What does that do? The white balance defines the colour tone of your picture. The photo will look cooler or warmer depending on the white balance. A little crib: The white looks rather orange or rather blue, hence white balance.

How do I use it? Leave it on Auto WB. Only if you are not happy with the tones of a photo, then try another setting and see if you like that better. Especially in night shots you might want to try a cooler tone.

Where to find it? There will usually be a button on your camera or you set it on your LCD. Check the manual if you cannot find it.

What does that do? This is a brilliant and dead simple feature of DSLRs. In any mode (other than Auto and M), you can just tell your camera to make the overall picture a little brighter or darker - without changing any other settings! The camera will calculate how to do it. It will make adjusting your images soo easy! Together with the highlight warning (see below) you can quickly make sure that all your photos are exposed correctly!

How do I use it? If you want your image darker or brighter just push the Exposure Compensation button and dial the wheel or push a button. This varies a bit for different camera models.

Where to find it? Look for the +/- or EV button on your camera. Check which wheels you need to turn in your manual. Go do it! Now! It's awesome!

What does that do? Sometimes there are parts of a photo that are so bright or dark, that even the camera cannot distinguish details in them any more. Not even post-processing software can change those areas in a natural way. The highlight warning function makes it really easy to notice such areas: They will be blinking on your LCD after you took the shot. Always aim to have very few to no "blown out" areas!

How do I use it? Check the LCD after each shot for blinking areas. Small areas are no problem, but if e.g. your whole sky is blinking, you should adjust the settings. Use your exposure compensation as explained above to make the image brighter or darker until the blinking areas are gone.

Where to find it? You can enable this in your menu and then change which kind of info you want to see on your LCD. One of them is called Highlight Warning, RGB Highlights or alike.

What does that do? If the AF-area mode is set to Auto, the camera will decide where to focus. If you set it to single point focus you decide yourself where you want to focus. Don't worry, the camera will still do the focussing, you only define WHERE.

How do I use it? When you look through your viewfinder you will find a small red or green square that you can move around with your arrow buttons. Set that point to where you want to focus, e.g. a person's eye or the most important part in a landscape. Then push the shutter halfway down to focus and take the shot. If you prefer to use your LCD to select the focus point, there will also be a small square that you can move around.

Where to find it? Sometimes this is hidden in the menu, sometimes it's just a button combination. Check your manual.

What does that do? With focus lock you tell your camera to NOT change the focus. Why on earth would you want to do that? Sometimes the point you would like to focus on is not reachable by moving your focus point square around or it would take too long. The person might have moved already. With focus lock you can focus on what you want and then recompose the photo. Just make sure you do not move the camera further to the front or to the back after focussing! Another helpful use of focus lock is for Cities at night if your sky is too bright. You can focus and then move the focus point square to an area in the sky to meter the light off from.

How do I use it? There are several ways to lock focus.

  1. If you are on a tripod, focus where you want and then flip the switch on your lens to Manual Focus (M or MF). The focus stays where it was last and you have your hands free to move the camera around. Remember to switch the lens back to Auto Focus for a different shot!
  2. In all other cases: Push the shutter halfway or use the AF-Lock button. Focus on a spot by pushing the shutter halfway and hold it until you take the shot. If your camera has an AF-Lock button, you can also keep holding that one. This works really well for small recompositions of the photo. It gets a bit harder if you want to move the focus point square around.
  3. My all-time favourite is Rear Button Focussing in all situations. Only few cameras offer this. But if your camera has Rear Button Focussing, use it! Focus on a spot by pushing the rear focusing button rather than pushing the shutter halfway. The focus stays locked in until you push the rear focus button again. You will have to go to your menu to tell the camera to focus only on the push of the rear focus button, have the shutter button only take a shot without focusing and set your focus mode to AF-C (continuous).

 

If you are still looking for the perfect camera, the team from phototravellers has an always up-to-date review of the best cameras from amateurs to professionals. Check them out.

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