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As photojournalists, we’re often asked which camera settings are best. Of course, there’s no one perfect answer to this and each photographer has personal preferences.

However, there are some basic settings we recommend to attendees on Getaway’s photography boot camps. Following last month’s blog, the first of my two-part story on fundamental settings on your camera, this month I look at everyday shooting modes. How these settings are made varies according to camera make and body, so refer to your manual and ensure you understand how to set and adjust these quickly and easily.

White balance

White balance tells the camera about the nature or colour of the light in which you’re taking pictures and, unless I’m trying to achieve a very specific result, this is one of the few settings where I’m comfortable with the camera’s auto setting.

Which exposure programme is best?

Shoot in aperture priority and/ or manual. Aperture priority (usually depicted as A or Tv) is quick and easy and allows for fast, creative control of your camera, as all you need to do is adjust the aperture and the camera picks an appropriate shutter speed for a balanced exposure. If you’re simply trying to take party snaps, the auto or programme (T, P, Auto) mode is fine, but in this setting the camera is making a lot of the decisions around both shutter speed and aperture. Consequently, the camera is in control of critical creative factors such as depth of field and the ability to blur subjects in motion, which can limit what you’re trying to achieve in the shot.

Single-servo versus continuous autofocus

Modern cameras’ autofocus systems can be set to lock off at a particular focal point on a subject (single-servo autofocus) or to continuously adjust or track with a subject in motion (continuous autofocus). Use single- servo for most of your work; I only ever use continuous if I’m shooting extreme action wildlife. Even on something such as a gazelle walking slowly towards me, I’ll often remain in single-servo for my images (one nice option you can set deep within the menus will prevent firing the shutter in this mode if your subject isn’t in focus, which helps minimise wasted shots).

Which autofocus sensor setting should you use?

It’s hard to be prescriptive here – you need to play with the various ways your camera autofocuses and find which pattern of autofocus sensors works for you. Focus is so critical to me that I use the smallest sensor setting possible for 99 per cent of my work. The one exception to this is when I’m trying to track very difficult subjects in motion – things such as birds in flight. (As an aside, don’t neglect manual focus, which is surprisingly useful in a number of tricky yet predictable situations.)

Metering mode

A camera’s built-in light meter can take readings on a small spot, the central area of the frame or from the entire frame. Use this wider setting (often referred to as matrix or evaluative metering) for most of your shots and select the spot meter only when you know exactly why you’re using it. Never use the centre-weighted setting.

Motor drive

Generally there are three or four settings: single shot, continuous low, continuous high (anything up to 12 frames a second or so) and self-timer. Don’t ignore the uses of the self-timer, which can help if you’re trying to prevent camera shake on slow exposures on your tripod or if you need a gorgeous subject (and by that I mean you) to add life into your picture.


There is no magic recipe for making great pictures. In fact, possibly the only generalisation that comes to mind when it comes to photography is that cameras don’t take great pictures … people do.

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  • Adelle Mclean

    Good Day Cameron, Thank you for your insight and artical. Now I would like to get your opinion with the different types of Cameras, especially between the Nikon and the Canons. I started with photography, and find it very inspiring to see all the different images and effects with the camera settings. I’m currently using a Canon EOS 400D (yes I Know very old and arrived with Noah) but want to upgrade now to a newer version. Now my predicament is, which camera between the two, as so many people will advise on the Nikon and there all these web sites where they all use Nikon. Is there really a difference as I love my photography and want to make the best of it. Please advise.

    • Cam

      Hi Adelle. Personally I think you can’t go wrong with either Nikon or Canon. I would suggest finding a reputable camera dealer near you and then looking at the models that fit into your price bracket and then working from there. You may find you prefer one to the other and that would be best for youy. Different models have different strenghts within each brand. Good luck with you choice and remember its time spent taking pictures that has way more effect on the photographs you make rather than the camera brand you use.

  • John

    Remember you are not just buying a camera, you are buying into a system. In the past Canon long lenses used to be cheaper than Nikon, so there are more around, especially second hand. But these days prices have evened out.

    You can’t go wrong with either system for wildlife.. At the entry level Canon has the 100-400 lens which Nikon has yet to match, but higher up the scale they are running neck to neck. Body wise they are constantly leapfrogging each other.

    So my suggestion is to see which system feels best in the hand for you and on which you can get the best deal.

  • David

    Hi Cameron,

    Thanks for the great tips. I find it very useful. I recently purchased a canon 1000D and 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG MACRO lens. I am learning the art of photography. could you explain to me for what this lens is good for please. Is it only meant for macro etc.