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.