Your camera’s menus may be hiding a number of features that can have a huge impact on how you shoot and what your final image looks like. Depending on your model of camera and how you shoot, here are a number of less known settings you should double check.
These tweaks are settings that you might not have changed frequently, but offer meaningful benefits in the field. Importantly, on newer cameras, the decision making behind how you configure these options can be different, as live view is becoming more common.
Electronic or Mechanical?
The shutter mechanism, which triggers with every shot you take, can introduce blur from shaking the camera. Even with perfect hand-holding technique or while mounted on a tripod, this shake can cause some visible blur. Switching on EFCS, which stands for electronic front curtain shutter, can eliminate this vibration.
EFCS changes how the shutter operates, actuating the mechanical front curtain before the exposure starts and instead beginning the exposure electronically, by reading from the sensor. What this means is no vibration is caused by that front curtain moving across the sensor.
This feature is particularly important if you’re shooting a mirrorless camera, commonly use longer focal length lenses, have a higher resolution sensor, or are shooting in the “danger zone” of shutter speeds.
While this feature is available on some DSLRs, it is best supported on mirrorless cameras. Since mirrorless cameras already have the front shutter curtain open to support viewfinder operation, they typically support EFCS operation with ease. Some newer DSLRs, like Nikon’s D850 and Canon’s 5Ds and 5D Mark 4 support this operation, but may come with restrictions on use.
Whatever style of camera you have, you should consider using this feature when shooting with longer focal lengths, which can be more sensitive to vibration. Along with longer focal lengths, both higher resolution cameras and slower shutter speeds, like 1/25th of a second can show a greater benefit from switching to EFCS. A final consideration is the interaction of EFCS with florescent lights, as the frequency of the lights and the slower shutter readout can cause odd effects.
Whether your camera menu refers to it as Picture Controls, Picture Styles, Creative Styles, or Film Simulation, there’s a good chance you can control the color and contrast settings your camera uses for rendering JPEGs. Now, if you shoot raw files, you might be thinking, “That’s not relevant to me!” — which it might not be. However, don’t just leave this option on something random. There’s a number of decisions you can make when it comes to this setting that can impact your camera’s usability. The degree of impact will vary across cameras, with some having these settings impacting everything from a JPEG to the live monitor view, while others will require you to actually shoot a JPEG and review it to see the impact.
If your workflow can accommodate it, using these settings can provide a useful benefit in the field. For instance, when shooting raw, you can set the most neutral profile possible to better understand what your file will look like before processing. Shooting a high contrast scene and will need to recover the highlights and shadows? Try setting your highlight recovery option to a higher level and get a preview of what can be possibly recovered. This feature goes by a couple names, including Auto Lighting Optimizer for Canon and Active D-Lighting in Nikon bodies.
Also helpful is the option of previewing a black and white photo. To better visualize the image post-conversion, just set and shoot a black and white profile — some even provide tweaks to contrast to better match your intended output.
One thing to be aware of is the increasing impact these settings actually have in raw processing. No longer are these settings entirely ignored by raw processors like ACR, instead a combo like the Nikon Z 7 and Lightroom will actually alter Lightroom’s processing defaults based on settings like Picture Controls and noise reduction. Fortunately, these can be reset or at least zeroed out, although it adds an extra step.
Noise Reduction and Sharpening
Sharpening and noise reduction options are another batch of menu items that many set and forget, myself included. While I’ve typically zeroed these out, it’s important to understand certain distinctions in noise reduction processes, and the impact sharpening can have in evaluating images in the field.
Firstly, there are two main types of noise reduction performed by your camera. High ISO reduction is functionally different from long exposure noise reduction and both settings will need to be changed based on the situation (again, names will vary based on camera brand).
High ISO noise reduction will typically work by blurring the fine details in an otherwise noisy high ISO image. If you’re shooting raw, this is another option that previously hasn’t mattered as it won’t affect output, but this is changing as raw processors have started to reflect the camera setting. I prefer this to be set to 0, to avoid masking focus issues in the field, and because I’ll vary my NR technique based on the image anyway.
Long exposure noise reduction functions differently. Instead of just blurring the details in an existing shot, this will take a second exposure of the same duration with the shutter closed, and use that information to reduce hot pixels present in that first image. This can significantly increase total exposure times and ruin image series like star trails, but is more difficult to replicate in post than high ISO NR. Consider having long exposure noise reduction off when dialing in your framing and focus, for shorter exposures where the sensor doesn’t get hot enough, or when shooting for stacking or star trails.
When it comes to sharpening settings, this is another tool that you can use to better visualize your finished shot in the field. A low level can better reveal any focus issues, which would otherwise be hidden by artificial sharpening. As for a high setting, this too can help nail focus, although I’ve only found it useful in a particular circumstance: manual focus on a star for astrophotography, where it gives the extra “bite” in live view to distinguish critical focus.
In just a few years, sensor performance and Auto ISO options have both advanced to the point where I am comfortable leaving it on for 95% of the time. For it to be that versatile on my camera, Nikon had to add one major option: dynamically adjusting the targeted minimum shutter speed. Essentially, I can hand hold 1/20th with a 14mm lens, but not a 300mm lens. Adding this option was a huge boost to the usability of Auto ISO, and getting these settings dialed in to my preference made me much more likely to use this option. To that end, if you haven’t been a frequent Auto ISO user, try it out. If you have been using it, take a second look at your settings — if you frequently shoot moving subjects, try setting a higher minimum shutter speed and a higher ISO range, as ISO performance is better than ever in newer cameras.
These menu options aren’t going to revolutionize your photos, but taking a few minutes to set your camera up right can pay dividends in the field. While the menus of cameras have continued to grow more complicated, they also offer a lot of power for users willing to navigate them. Finally, keep in mind that your needs will change from shoot to shoot, as well as over time — some of the options I’ve set when I first got my new body aren’t really the best defaults months later. Have you taken a look at your camera’s menu recently?