Quick Tip: Set Your Camera to Default Mode

Image from Pixabay.

Have you ever turned on your camera and snapped a couple quick shots to capture a fleeting moment only to discover that your settings were all wrong? I have. Fortunately this problem is a relatively easily one to solve by setting your camera to a default mode at the end of every shoot. It’s much easier to adjust aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and focus modes at the end of a shoot when you are unhurried than to have to change a bunch of settings when you feel rushed and your subject is quickly slipping away.

Here are the settings you should focus on: anything related to exposure (including aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, as well as metering settings), focus settings, and anything related to frame rate or shooting delays. Your goal is to set your camera to a happy medium by setting it up to allow in as much light as possible without compromising image quality. You are trying to find settings that would be acceptable for a variety of situations rather than the perfect setting for a given shot.

Exposure: Set your exposure mode to something automatic. I prefer either a full auto mode or aperture priority with my aperture set around f/4. This allows me to turn on the camera and start shooting right away. I find f/4 to be a good default because that aperture is wide enough to let in a decent amount of light but not so wide that my depth of field is super shallow, and all of my lenses have a maximum aperture of f/4 or higher.

ISO: I recommend setting your camera to the fastest ISO you can before image quality noticeably degrades. For me, using a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 1D Mark IV, ISO 400-800 is about right. Those with newer cameras can probably bump the ISO up quite a bit and still get really clean, noise free images. This allows you to use faster shutter speeds and shoot in less light.

Metering: In general, I find that spot metering does a good job for portraits and subject in habitat type shots as well as shots where the subject tends to entirely film the frame. If your camera doesn’t have a good spot metering mode or the metered area doesn’t correspond with your chosen focus points, matrix metering works fine as a default setting.

Focus Settings: Definitely leave your camera and lens set to autofocus. Enable either your middle focus sensor/area or your entire focus field. I prefer to leave my camera on continuous focus, but if you rarely shoot moving subjects one shot will do fine.

Frame Rate: Leave your camera set to the highest frame rate you can successfully take a single photo in. If your camera’s highest FPS setting makes it impossible for you to depress the shutter without snapping multiple frames, you can use the second fastest frame rate setting.

Mirror Lock-up: Disable mirror lock-up.

Timer: Turn off all self-timers and shutter delays.

Filters: Remove all filters unless you are one of those people who refuse to do any type of shooting without a clear protective or UV filter on. Any other filter generally blocks light. Some types of filters, such as polarizing filters and graduated filters are also directional and need to be aligned to work correctly, so having them on will only get in the way and slow you down when you are trying to snap photos quickly.

Memory Card: Always store your camera with a newly formatted memory card or one with plenty of leftover space on it. Nothing is worse than having no room to record images when you’ve already downloaded all of the photos on the card. I always reformat my cards right after downloading previous images to my computer. I also always format cards in the camera I plan on using them in.

Battery: Store your camera with a battery that has at least half of its charge. A freshly charged battery is best, but there is nothing worse than arriving on a shoot or whipping out your camera to capture something and have your battery blink at you then die.

By always switching your camera to these settings at the end of a shoot, when you aren’t rushed and have time, your camera will be ready to go at a moment’s notice. You won’t end up with noisy ISO 3200 photos of a brilliant sunrise or a photo of an unidentifiable black blur crossing the road shot at 1/10th of a second. A fresh memory card and battery will also ensure you can keep shooting no matter what the conditions, so you can capture whatever moments life brings your way.

Creativity Doesn’t Always Follow the Rules

Waterfalls are easily one of my favorite natural features and favorite things to photograph. I enjoy them so much that I even authored an eBook called The Essential Guide to Photographing Waterfalls back in 2011. In it, I share a number of tips and recommendations, one of which is that generally I prefer to photograph waterfalls on overcast days, when cloud cover softens the harsh contrast of glittery water flowing over dark rocks.

Well some rules are meant to be broken and this is one of them. Given the right conditions, the right setting, and the right tools you can create beautiful waterfall images when the sun is shining.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Smoky Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains, national park, waterfall, Tennessee
Waterfall in Sunlight : Prints Available

The sun shines through a canopy of trees framing a waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains.

I took this photo while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains with photographer Greg Downing in Tennessee back in 2013. It had rained hard the previous day, and I was excited to go find a good waterfall to photograph because I knew they would be flowing. By the time we reached these falls, the weather had improved by normal standards, but it proved tricky for waterfall photography. It was partly cloudy and breezy, which meant the slow shutter speeds I would typically use the blur the moving water would also show any movement in the leaves from the wind. It also meant the light kept changing, from full sun, to partial sun, to complete cloud cover. I took a lot of shots from different angles, trying different techniques, hoping to capture something memorable.

For this image, I snapped the shutter as the sun emerged from behind the clouds, purposefully allowing highlight details to blow out. I was aiming for the bright, fresh feeling of spring, which I think translates well. It took several years of reworking this shot to get it to the point where I feel comfortable sharing it, but even if it isn’t the best waterfall shot I’ve taken I like how its so different from many of my other photos of similar subjects.

Never Delete Potential

One of the most challenging things about being a photographer is editing down your photos and keeping them organized. My collection of photographs spans more than 20,000 images, and I’ve probably shot over a million frames to get them. After a shoot, I make it a point to delete all of the garbage as soon as possible. I then usually select my favorite images – the ones that obviously stand out as being something special. But in between the obvious junk and the obvious winners are a bunch of in-between photos, ones that are neither incredible nor terrible, and these can be the hardest to work with.

Of my 20,000+ image collection, roughly 250 photos are currently displayed on my website and not all of those are the clear winners that emerge immediately following a successful shoot. Many of those photos are ones that have been played with, set aside, and reworked over and over again. Sometimes, I’m not in the right headspace to edit them correctly when I first shoot them. Sometimes, they are technically challenging photos with extreme dynamic range, funky color balance, or any other number of issues that take a while to work through correctly. During a particularly successful shoot, I might have a lot of good but very similar images, and I generally only pick a handful of those to work up. Occasionally, I haven’t yet mastered the skill, the technology doesn’t yet exist, or I don’t possess the software I need to really bring out that photo’s full potential. There can be any number of reasons why a good photo doesn’t make my first cut or first edit.

If a photo isn’t good, it’s okay to delete it. Sometimes I keep bad photos for their sentimental value or uniqueness – for example, when we first got our dog I took a lot of photos of him playing outside and many of them were a little backfocused but I held onto them until I later got better ones – but in general, do away with anything that is misfocused, unintentionally blurry, or poorly composed, especially if to the point that it won’t even hold up for web display. Some photos are just bad. If you like a photo, but the exposure or color are just a bit off, it’s a little noisy, or some other fixable detail makes you take pause, then hold onto it. Some day you may possess the skill, patience, time, or technology to turn that photo into something special. I often spend shooting lulls going through old photos and working on ones that have potential to see what I can make of them. It helps me “do photography” when I’m not actively shooting and creating new images.

Here is one such photo. It’s kinda an extreme example, but you get the idea. I shot this years ago, but only recently processed to the point where I’m actually happy with it. As you can see, it needed quite a bit of tweaking from the RAW file to really bring out its potential.

clouds, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, rocky, beach, dusk
Last Light on the Clouds : Prints Available

The fading colors of the setting sun illuminate the clouds over the rocky beach at dusk.

Picking the Right Size Print

I’m not an art consultant or interior designer, but I do know a thing or two about choosing and displaying photographs on walls.

Many people struggle over picking out the right art to enhance their living or work space. They focus on picking pieces with colors and a frame that matches their furniture or compliments their rug, often overlooking one of the most important aspects of buying art to fit a specific space – size and spacing.

In order for artwork to have a meaningful impact it needs to be the right size and have the right proportions. Art should complement the other objects in the room, either filling the space provided for it or purposefully juxtaposing the area in inhabits. A too small picture looks incredibly out of place over a giant couch, and a horizontal image doesn’t work well in a vertical space.

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Art that is the wrong size just doesn’t work, no matter how beautiful it is. This image of St Marys Falls is way too small for my office, and it looks out of awkward and out of place even though its nicer than the drooping banner and wrinkled poster on either side. The poster to the right is a much better fit for the amount of wall space and large bricks.

Photographs, like wall mounted TVs, also need to be hung at the right height. Too high and they make a space look unfinished and incomplete, too low and they are awkward to look at. In general, photographs hung on blank walls should be centered at around eye level. Since people vary in height, a good rule of thumb is 60-66″ from the floor to the center of the photo. This of course varies with artwork that is long and vertical or artwork hanging near or around other objects, such as furniture or over a fireplace.

My advice when purchasing a photo:

1) Don’t skimp on size. Too big is almost always better than too small. Unless you have a clutter free home and very minimalist decorating style where empty space is a thematic design element, art that is too small for the space it occupies will nearly always look cheap.
2) Prioritize proper proportions. Many people spend a lot of time matching colors when they should be focused on balanced proportions. If you are one of those folks who have a long sectional couch, don’t put an oddly tall rectangular art piece over it. This is where a panoramic image or triptych really stands out. If you are hanging artwork over furniture, it is generally recommended that artwork should be 2/3 to 3/4 the length of the piece of furniture in order to provide the right balance, although I think you can play around with those numbers a bit.
3) Don’t forget the frame. If you plan on matting or framing your art, keep in mind that this will not only add size to the finished piece, but will also change the proportions slightly. For example a 20×40 inch photo with has a ratio of 1:2 without a frame, but if you add framing that is 3 inches thick, the overall artwork becomes 26×46 inches with a ratio of closer to 1:1.4. Plan for the frame when buying your piece.

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Art that is proportional to other objects in a space makes the space feel balanced. This photograph has a similar amount of above and below it as it does from side to side and is a litle less wide than the small couch.

If you aren’t sure what size to buy, I suggest creating a mock up. It may sound silly and it certainly takes a little time, but the 10-15 minutes and inexpensive supplies this exercise involves are definitely worth it, especially if you are considering spending upwards of several hundred dollars on art for your home or office. Here’s what you’ll need:

1) Large piece of paper or cardboard. This can really be any material, as long as it is big enough to represent the artwork. If you are considering a really big piece you might want to use something larger or more durable, like a thin sheet of plywood, but for smaller pieces cardboard, foam core, or wrapping paper should be sufficient.
2) Measuring tape.
3) Straight edge.
4) Scissors, box cutter, or any tool sufficient to cut clean edges of the material you are using.
5) Hanging supplies. Painter’s tape is perfect for lightweight materials, because it leaves no residue on the walls.

You can go about this one of two ways. Either start by making the mock up the size of the artwork you are considering, or design the mock up to be the ideal size and then find art that closely matches. Essentially you are going to make a cardboard cutout of the art and hang it in the space you envision it. If supplies are limited, start big and gradually trim your stencil down until you get the ideal size. You’ll quickly get an idea of how the size of the artwork plays with its surroundings.

Adding art to your home is a beautiful way to make a space feel lived in and loved, and in a work setting art can help liven up dull spaces and make them feel welcoming. Resist the temptation to buy art you love in a smaller size to keep the price affordable. Make your investment count by choosing art that compliments the space it is given. If you really must stretch a tiny budget, buy something big, inexpensive, and mass produced from a box store like Ikea to fill the space temporarily, then save up for a truly incredible piece by your favorite artist in the right size that will last for years to come. You won’t regret it.

PS: I really love articles by interior designer Emily Henderson and she did a great one about hanging art. Check it out for many awesome examples of art that is the right size and art that isn’t, as well as additional tips on how to measure and select properly sized pieces.