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.

Patience is a Virtue

I’ve spent most of the past week up in Acadia National Park, scouting for the NANPA Regional Event I’ll be co-leading there this fall. Jerry Monkman, one of the other leaders and NANPA president-elect, invited me to tag along for one of his photo workshops so I could get a better feel of the place and check out some of the locations I was unfamiliar with prior to the workshop.

One of the locations I’ll be taking a group to is the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, and it was one of the spots I had never been before. So I made it a point to visit the lighthouse one gray and rainy morning to scout it out, making sure I knew the terrain, noted any safety concerns, and found where to best direct participants.

On my last evening in Acadia, I had planned to shoot at Jordan Pond, but it was windy, I was tired, and I didn’t feel like getting to bed late. The next day, I planned to wake up for a sunrise shoot at 4:30AM and then drive the six hours home. I was on my own at that point – the workshop was over and the other photographers whose company I had enjoyed had mostly headed home – so I changed my plans and decided to shoot at Bass Harbor Head instead, as the lighthouse was much closer to where I was camping at Seawall.

I got to the lighthouse around 6:30 or so, more than an hour before sunset, to set up and get a good spot on the rocks. When I arrived, I was met by no less than a dozen people already at the lighthouse, perched in various spots I would have preferred they not be. I frowned on the inside a bit. I chatted briefly with another photographer on a nice flat rock and scrambled to a nearby sharp and pointy rock where I was sure I wouldn’t be in his way. I set up my tripod and wedged my bag in a nice safe spot in the rocks. Then I waited.

And more people came. Photographers – there were at least a dozen with DSLRs, more with point-and-shoots, and at least six tripods, including mine. Spectators, many who wanted their photos taken in front of a completely backlit lighthouse obscured by trees. People who climbed on the rocks right below the lighthouse. Why? I have no idea, you couldn’t possibly get a good look from that angle. A bird watcher with binoculars. Families with kids. More people came, some people left, and of course no one was sitting still enough to make it possible to include any of the sightseers in my composition. I was irritated.

Patience is a virtue, I thought to myself, so I waited. I was pretty sure if I waited long enough I would get my shot. While I waited a bald eagle hunted for fish and some porpoises swam offshore. At least they made the waiting a slightly less frustrating experience.

As the sun started to set, most people cleared away from right in front of the lighthouse, so photographers could get their shots. If I had felt like using a different lens, that probably would have been ok with me too, but I envisioned a wide angle shot, with jagged rocks leading the viewers’ eye into the frame, towards the lighthouse, rimmed in the colors of the setting sun. People were still in my way. So I took a couple boring frames and kept waiting.

From experience, I know that the colors at sunset and sunrise are often the most intense when the sun is about 20 minutes under the horizon. So for sunrise shoots, I always try to get to my location and be set up a half hour before sunrise. During sunset, I stay even when most think the show is over.

And if I’m smarter than the other photographers, and willing to wait longer and work harder for my shots, I can get the place all to myself. I often do. And then, I can reap the rewards.

Once the sun set, people dissipated quickly. One photographer even said “Well I got what I came here for” and left just as the colors were getting more intense – obviously more pink and more saturated – right before his eyes. Others began wrapping up and started to complain about the mosquitos, swatting at invisible demons I hadn’t even noticed yet. Within 15 minutes of the sun setting, I was the only one left.

Bass Harbor Head, bass harbor head lighthouse, lighthouse, sunset

And I got the shot because of it.

This is a hand blended combination of seven different frames. I don’t like HDRs, so I bracket my exposures and then combine them in PhotoShop using layer masks. Just processing this shot took at least a couple of hours, but the waiting game was really won in the field. This photograph is the result of being a smarter photographer, one who knows the subject, and who is willing to work harder and shoot longer than the others, not to mention better tolerate uncomfortable rocks and pesky bugs. Mostly it’s because sometimes the one who plays the waiting game best wins.



1) Jerry probably knows more about Acadia than just about any other photographer currently shooting. In fact he and his wife Marcy wrote the bible of it, The Photographer’s Guide to Acadia National Park, along with two other books about Acadia and other titles of interest to New England area nature and landscape photographers. Jerry is also a super stand up guy who does great work as a photographer working on various conservation issues in New England. I recommend Jerry and Marcy’s books (I own three now) and suggest you buy direct from them, as they get a slightly higher cut of the proceeds that way: http://ecophotography.com/books/.

2) The NANPA Regional Event in Acadia National Park is being held October 4-7, 2012. Myself, Jerry, and two other photographers will be leading groups to various photography hotspots throughout the park, and it’s sure to be a fun event. Spots are still available, so please visit the NANPA site to learn more about the event and register. I hope to see you in Acadia this fall!