Assume your Camera Setting Are Wrong, Even if They’re Correct

Assume your Camera Setting Are Wrong, Even if They’re Correct

Nothing is more frustrating than having the wrong camera settings, especially during decisive moments. These images are probably beyond recovery. That’s why you have to check the camera setting every single time you go out. Just assume the settings are wrong. Always.

I truly believe you are an experienced photographer. Despite that, I’m also convinced there were times that you ran into a situation that didn’t deliver the images you expected. This was probably due to a wrong camera setting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional, amateur, or even a professional amateur. These kinds of mistakes are because you're human.

I've had my share of wrong camera settings through the years. In the analog age of photography, a small mistake could lead to a whole roll of failed images. Back then, there was no way of checking the results until the photos came back from the print shop.

I knew something was going to happen. So, I was prepared. I checked settings, corrected any faulty ones, and could capture this argument between members of this happy family of graylag geese.

That’s why you had to be careful with the settings. You had to take everything into account to prevent this from happening. Those who still shoot on film know about this danger. But with digital photography, we can check the result every time we press the shutter release button. You would think more than one failed photo would be almost impossible. On the other hand, there are many more settings on digital cameras that can be wrong compared to film cameras.

Missing the Decisive Moment

Perhaps we are too easily convinced about having the correct settings when we grab our camera. Maybe we know our experience and rely too much on that. However, when photographing action, the decisive moment can be gone by the time we can check the series of photos that we recorded. Imagine how you would feel if it turns out you forgot about that one setting you changed the day before?

I try to check my camera settings every single time I’m planning to go out. Perhaps not everything can be set beforehand, but the most common ones are easy. Think about the PASM setting, the shutter speed, and the ISO setting. Do you need a fast shutter speed or a slow one? Is auto-ISO necessary? Is the white balance set correctly? Do you have the right file format dialed in? You wouldn't be the first one to shoot only small JPEG by accident.

I didn't prepare the settings before this roe deer appeared. There was no time to check or to change. That's why this photo was taken with a shutter speed of only 1/25 s and ISO 200. 

Perhaps you need a lot of speed and a special autofocus setting. If you check these things before you go out, you won’t run into nasty surprises. This may seem unnecessary most of the time, since you only shoot one kind of images, but therein lies the real danger. If you’re convinced all settings are correct because you never change anything, that one time you actually experimented will go unnoticed until it’s too late.

Wrong settings can be anything. It could be a self-timer or a limit to the amount of images that can be taken in one burst. The autofocus may be set to a different area of the screen, or it’s set to the wrong subject recognition. Maybe exposure bracketing is activated, or the ISO setting is way off. 

I knew what I was going to shoot during this trip. That's why I prepared myself, checked the settings before we went out, and managed to capture this common murre in action. 

To prevent this from happening, it’s best to assume your camera settings are wrong when you pick up the camera. Just run through the most important and basic settings for your kind of photography. This way, you know for sure everything is as it should be.

Using a Custom Setting

You can teach yourself to check the camera settings every time by assuming one or more settings are wrong. I believe it’s good practice anyway. 

Nikon has U1, U2, and U3; Canon C1, C2 and C3; and Sony has the numbers 1, 2 and 3. Use these settings to make sure you have everything set up correctly.

If you are a photographer who shoots more than one genre, it may be wise to program the camera with a custom setting. Canon calls these C1, C2 and C3. Nikon has U1, U2, and U3. Sony has just the numbers. This way, you can dial in the correct custom setting, and you'll know everything is set.

Still, be careful with these custom settings. I know Canon allows you to automatically update settings if you change them while in the custom mode. This way, a simple or temporary change of setting can ruin the next shoot if you don’t check everything. In other words, never take anything for granted.

I have set one custom mode for shooting animals and birds. The other one is set for long exposure photography. The third is not programmed yet, but I could decide to use it for studio portrait photography. This way, I can have the right settings, like the exposure simulation of the EVF turned off, manual exposure, eye autofocus for humans, and tracking with just one action.

I have programmed the C1 button on my Canon for long exposures: a low ISO, small aperture, and the bulb setting with the bulb timer active. I have also chosen the self-timer, one point autofocus without subject recognition, and long exposure noise reduction turned off. It's my starting point.

Not Necessary for Every Type of Photography

I do understand this is not for every photographer. It’s for the ones that rely on fast action and decisive moments, during situations when you don’t have the time to check the viewfinder, let alone to adjust any wrong settings. If you’re performing under pressure and something is off, you also have be able to recognize what’s wrong in one glance. You can’t afford to experiment in order to find out.

When the pressure to perform is high, you can't allow any faulty settings. Making sure everything is set before the wedding day starts is necessary, even if I did the same shoot the day before. It's just good practice.

If your photography doesn’t have this much pressure, settings can be corrected quite easily. You have enough time to try things out. Nonetheless, it can be wise to teach yourself to check the settings. As said, it’s just good practice.

Do you have any experience with wrong settings with a decisive moment? I would like to know if you check your settings the way I described, or do you have another method to prevent this? Please let us know in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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1 Comment

"Do you have any experience with wrong settings with a decisive moment" Oh man... So many experiences! :-)

I once was playing with RAW+JPG and had to do something else. Came back, did more playing but set to JPG for a test. Forgot all about it when I had to take some "proper" shots... Was only able to use a very small number of JPGs, though I was able to recover more a few years later. Was lucky it was a personal shoot.

These days I use two bodies, each configured slightly different. Body #2 is long lens wildlife only, settings don't usually get changed. Body #1 is 24-105 only and settings change often, even within the same shoot, because I use it for so many different genres - It's ritual/habit now for me to check it both at the end and start of a shoot and make sure it's at my defaults.

Having a personal set of defaults is one way I avoid wrong settings. I know how the camera should be set up, so should know what needs to change for a given photo.