In a recent discussion with three other photographers, I commented that I’m constantly changing how my cameras function, depending on my subject matter at any one particular moment.  I was rather surprised when the others responded that they never did this.  All three said the only change their ever made was to the ISO in use.

To be honest, I was rather shocked.  Was I really the odd man out here?

So what changes do I make?  (Some of my answers are specific to my Nikons.)

ISO.  I certainly do change the ISO, especially when I need a faster shutter speed.  At times I turn on Auto-ISO, where the camera sets whatever ISO is needed to maintain my selected shutter speed/aperture combination.

MOTOR DRIVE RATE.  I use the fastest frame rate for critter work, single frame advance for everything else.

MIRROR LOCKUP.  “No” for moving subjects, “yes” for everything else.

METERING PATTERN.  Matrix (evaluative) most of the time, Spot for precise areas.

LCD BRIGHTNESS.  In bright sunlight, viewing the LCD is difficult.  I set the brightness as high as possible in that condition (which makes the LCD much easier to view) and lower the brightness when I’m not in bright sunlight.

THE IN-CAMERA TIME AND DATE.  I rename my files when I download, using YYMMDD at the beginning of the file name, which automatically organizes my files chronologically.  I change date and time as I travel, so that all the files match my itinerary.

EXPOSURE DELAY.  I use a remote release whenever possible, but often use the 3-second delay mode for totally static subjects (where I’m not trying to time lulls in the wind or other movement).

EXPOSURE MODE.  While most of the time I use Aperture Priority, I change to Manual exposure when I want to maintain a given exposure value.  For example, consider a dark bison in winter snow.  If the light is not changing, there is one correct exposure value.  But a fairly wide shot would be mostly white snow, while a tight shot would be mostly dark bison.  Any autoexposure mode would change the exposure depending on how much of the frame was light-toned or dark-toned, but manual exposure would be consistent.

CROP MODE ON MY D800E.  Full frame most of the time; 1.2X crop when I know I will be cropping a bit in post-processing (the smaller file size also gives a slightly faster frame rate, while making the buffer clear a tad quicker).

AF MODE.  I use single point AF for landscapes and static subjects (although generally I’ll also manually tweak focus).  For moving subjects, I almost always use 3D focus tracking, which automatically shifts the primary focus point to follow the movement of the subject.  This is my favorite action AF mode, as I can concentrate on composition and don’t have to keep an AF point centered on the subject.  If I switch from 3D AF, it’s to 21 point AF.  In this mode I have to select the primary AF point, which works best when I know exactly which way the subject will be moving across the frame.  I can’t imagine myself using the same AF mode for all my work.

So what do you do?


  1. Andrew McLachlan July 17, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

    Hi John, I am using a D800. I have never thought of boosting the LCD brightness in bright sunlight…will have to try that. When I am working Bullfrogs from a canoe with a wide anlge or fisheye lens I always work in Live View. I also use Live View to manually fine tune focus when using my old 80-400 for landscape work. I also change the crop mode, but mostly when working with wildlife. I tend to think of it as a built in teleconverter of sorts.

    • John July 17, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

      Guess I should have mentioned Live View also, which I use quite a bit, especially with the tilt/shift lenses. I would like Live View to be better on the D800 cameras, but it’s certainly usable.

  2. Jim Covello July 17, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    I change all this and more. The D800 is my only camera, so I use it for everything from landscapes to random family snapshots others might use an iPhone for. I shoot raw+jpeg; I always try to make the jpeg the way I want it, so I work the size & quality as well as the picture controls. I’ll keep the raw files for things I might print, things that are really nice, and things that need serious post-processing help. For other stuff, medium normal jpegs are usually great. For really high ISOs, I’ll do small fine jpegs.

    I also end up switching VR on/off and function/preview buttons around.

  3. James Doyle July 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Hi John,

    I think you are showing your age here John and of course with age comes wisdom and skill for most people. I’m sure you will relate to memories of the early cameras where by necessity you had to use the camera functions manually to make an image. In a lot of ways I still work that way, I still manually focus most of the time.

    I am constantly telling my clients to slow down and think about what they want to achieve with each image and to adjust the camera settings to achieve the best results. I have to admit though, I just don’t understand Live View or the movie mode so they never get used, otherwise I take my time, think about the image making process and what it is I want to achieve and use the functions of the camera to achieve that goal and as I result I end up using a different combination for each different situation.

  4. steeve marcoux July 18, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    Well i use mainly 2 different cameras, Pentax K-01 and Canon 7D. I also change my settings depending on the situation on my 7D i saved my settings for wildlife (C1) so in a hurry i can turn the dial to C1 and i’m ready for actions. I also use LV when i can and the 2 second delay with remote release. The 7D have a good AF customisation that i really like. My Pentax K-01 is mainly use for landscape and Macro, i love the LV and focus peaking, it’s a great camera to take photos of frogs at water and ground level. I use manual exposure a lot but sometimes AV.

  5. Satish Menon July 19, 2013 at 11:01 am #

    In addition to many of the controls you mention, I am also constantly changing the following on my Nikon D300:
    1. 12 bit RAW file format for wildlife continuous high burst shooting, 14 bit RAW file for everything else – squeeze additional frames per second as a result.
    2. Auto-bracketing of 9 frames (-4eV to 4eV) when I have HDR imaging in mind, single shot for everything else.
    3. AF-Single (S) mode for total flash shots in extremely low light, AF-Continuous (C) mode for everything else. The S mode puts out a red light onto the dark subject, to provide ability to focus. In the C mode, you need adequate ambient light to focus, even with f2.8 lenses.
    4. Of course, on my telephoto 70-200mm f2.8 lens, VR=on while hand-holding and VR=off while on a tripod.
    5. Exposure compensation button – whenever I am operating in aperture priority exposure mode, getting the exposure right for white birds requires exposure compensation.
    6. Back-button autofocus exclusively (with shutter trigger button focus disabled), whenever I am using the camera. When my 7 year old son wants to borrow my camera during his birthday party, I enable the shutter trigger button autofocus before handing it over to him.

    I may be missing other things I change, but these come to mind right away.

  6. Juan Carlos Vindas July 19, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    It sure depends on what kind of image I want to make. I currently use Canon and I try to give a different use to my bodies, for one I set it up mostly for action and for macro or landscape I use the full frame body. I do use LV on the newer camera body but I mostly compose through the view finder. Probably never use the TV mode so I even disable it on my fast camera body. AV and manual for most of the scenarios.
    I did enjoy to read the settings on your cameras even though we use different camera makes, many of your preferences apply to both camera makes.

  7. John Ragsdale July 21, 2013 at 5:40 am #

    This was a valuable post as it provided confirmation for the changes I often make. Because of all the settings available with DSLRS I find using a checklist helpful before beginning a shoot. The checklist helps me concebtrate on the images I want to get and helps me be certain I did not forget to change one or more settings that worked for a prior session but would not be right for the current one.

  8. Artem Sapegin July 22, 2013 at 6:31 am #

    I also change some settings: ISO, exposure compensation, Av/M mode, mirror lockup (I have user mode for landscapes with enabled MLU), GPS, Wi-fi 🙂

    But some settings I never change: quality (always raw), AF mode (always continuous), metering mode (default value), drive mode (always continuous shooting).

  9. Allen Kuhlow July 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    My favorite setting is ‘reset’. When I get ‘home’ I clean my gear and put all functions/settings to the mode I anticipate I’m most likely to use the next morning. Then I put all my stuff back in my bag where I expect to find it in the morning.

  10. Jay Levin August 9, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    Hi John. Here are my most important settings. I keep some of them in “My Menu” so that I can make changes easily:
    1. I turn on auto-ISO for wildlife photography to raise the shutter speed as the light begins to dim. I do this in conjunction with shutter priority mode.
    2. I also adopt the exposure delay mode as you describe for landscapes.
    3. For landscapes I use manual exposure mode exclusively, first choosing an aperture and then setting the shutter speed to produce optimal exposure. For wildlife I generally use manual exposure mode or shutter priority depending on the situation.
    4. I always keep AF Activation OFF because I always use back-button focusing with the AF-ON button.
    5. I always keep the AF-C priority selection on Release so that the camera will always remain at the original focus after back-button focusing is engaged.
    6. I normally keep EV steps for exposure control at 1/3 but change this to 1 if I want to shoot an HDR manually.
    7. I lock the camera and use the center point focused on the most important object in the scene with back-button focusing for landscapes before recomposing. I will have to try your 3D tracking method for wildlife. I have never used it. I have only used the single point method with back-button focusing and high continuous focusing.