Camera Settings

At this point, you’ve planned and composed your perfect scene. Now, it’s time to hit the shutter button. But wait! There are a few in-camera settings to consider first.


Most cameras these days will show you a histogram in live view, and then will also show one when reviewing your images. The histogram is the most important piece of information on your camera screen. If your exposure is too long or too short, the histogram will show you clipped shadows or highlights. That little LCD screen is not reliable when it comes to checking for detail, even if you zoom in, so you need to use the histogram. Adjust your settings and re-shoot the photo if the histogram is clipped, because you will not be able to add detail back into a bright or dark element that is clipped.

You haven’t seen the last of the histogram yet (I’ll revisit it in more detail during my editing seies), so spend some time learning and understanding it! The photographer’s favorite graph will return in the future when I cover post-processing techniques.

White Balance

If you shoot RAW, any editing program can adjust this setting after the fact. But, if you are shooting a panorama and using auto white balance, you might be in for a bad day when you try to stitch those frames. When I shoot panoramas, I always use a manual white balance so every frame is equal in temperature and tint. This greatly reduces the chances of computer error when merging (it also reduces the time you have to spend manually correcting each frame if your program merges the files poorly). All I do is adjust the balance one click in any direction, so the frames are consistent. This is nothing fancy, just a little trick I learned after a few long headaches.

Mirror Lock-Up

Are you shooting a slow shutter speed? You may want to find and enable mirror lockup. This feature is designed to avoid vibrations caused by the DSLR mirror flipping up to expose the shutter. It requires you to hit the shutter button twice, once to lock the mirror, and a second time to turn on the sensor. A few hints – use a cable release or remote so you don’t have to touch the camera, and wait 10 seconds after the mirror has locked to be sure all the camera shake has dissipated. This is a small but helpful setting that can make a huge difference in sharpness at speeds around a second.

brooks estate medford spring pond reflection
In my opinion, the mirror’s in-camera movement is most noticeable with shutter speeds around one second. We tend to think of shake and vibrations when shooting extra-long exposures, but when the exposure is shorter, there’s less data to forgive the disturbance. Using mirror lock-up, I was able to make sure the image was sharp and unaffected by moving parts in the camera.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Heat causes sensor noise, and heat is generated every time your sensor is on and recording. When shooting a long exposure on a hot summer day, you can expect a painful amount of noise in your file. Many cameras have a useful setting called “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” (LENR) that takes an equivalently-timed exposure with the shutter closed, recording noisy pixels on a black frame. It then negatively applies the black frame to your exposure, greatly reducing the noise in your RAW file. It’s a helpful feature that can also be done manually, shooting a frame with the lens cap on and subtracting the noise in Photoshop. While I have been impressed with the noise reduction in my files that used in-camera LENR, there is one huge setback: you have to wait double the time of your exposure for the camera to process (if the exposure is 5 minutes, you have to wait an additional 5 minutes for the dark frame before you can take another photograph). If the conditions you are photographing are fleeting, you may not want to use this feature.

boston skyline harbor sunset
This photograph was taken on a memorably hot evening. With that in mind, I used LENR because I knew that orange burn would last long enough for me to wait an extra minute and a half. Had the color been disappearing quickly, I may have opted to shoot a second frame instead.

These are just a few small tricks I use to ensure my photographs turn out the way I want them to. What other camera features do you take advantage of when you’re in the field? Let me know in the comments!

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