Setting up your DSLR camera

There’s always a sense of excitement when you take a new camera out of its box. After charging and installing the battery, you probably switch on and go through the quick guide to set up your camera. Many of the default camera settings are ones that a lot of users will never need to change and, generally, the manuals do a good job of taking you through the various settings and describing the options. However, there are a few important things that some people seem to skip over that I think it’s worth highlighting.

The normal sequence is to first set up the language and then the date and time. Since many photographers organise their images based, at least partially, on date and time, it is important to set these up accurately. It really will make your life easier in the future when you want to find images or just check when something happened. You should also remember to change the date and time setting to the local time when you go on a trip. I was once on a safari in Africa with someone who had two cameras with them – one set  at UK time and one set for an Australian time zone. Later, he was able to alter the dates and times in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom so his images could be organised by day and ordered by the capture time. But it was a painful experience for him and one that ensured that he’ll not forget to reset these in the future.

One of the next settings is picture quality. The main decision to be made here is whether your images will be captured in raw format or in JPEG. Camera manufacturers have their own formats for storing image data as captured by the camera’s sensor. For example, Canon’s raw format is CR2, while Nikon’s is NEF. If your images are captured in raw format, they will need to be processed later either using some general image processing software such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or the software provided by the manufacturer of your camera. Alternatively, images can be processed in the camera at the time of capture and stored in JPEG format. This means that the camera automatically performs some colour processing, sharpening, contrast boosting and noise reduction. It will also compress the data so that the resulting file is much smaller than the raw format and hence requires much less space on your memory card. Since JPEG files are a standard format, you will be able to send them to friends or post them on a website directly. Because they have already been processed in your camera, a JPEG version of an image will also tend to look much better than the raw equivalent when first uploaded onto your computer. However, the down side of capturing images in JPEG rather than the raw format is that the data originally captured by the sensor is lost and the types of processing that you can do later will be limited. For example, if you capture the image in raw format, you will have full flexibility in adjusting the white balance later in a photo editing tool such as Lightroom so you can choose to simply leave your camera on the automatic white balance setting (AWB).

I would strongly recommend that you capture as much data as possible and hence set the picture quality to the largest raw format available. I’ve read one photography book that recommends JPEG unless you are a really keen photographer prepared to spend time sitting in front of a computer processing images. The problem with this advice is that it doesn’t allow for your growth as a photographer. I used to travel and take snapshots, and only became interested in photography after, somewhat accidentally, ending up on a photographic trip to the Arctic. I now look rather sadly at the images from my first DSLR camera taken on trips to Botswana and the Antarctic as they were captured in JPEG. Even though my processing skills have improved dramatically, there is little that I can do with them as the original data is lost. I think the purchase of a DSLR shows that you are at least thinking about photography as a hobby and something more than simply taking snapshots. Leave yourself the option of spending more time on processing images in the future by capturing raw. In the meantime, you can always do minimal processing which really requires only a few clicks or slider adjustments before exporting your image as a JPEG ready to be printed or posted online.

Two other things to check when you set up the camera are the beep and card reminder settings. Cameras are often set up to beep when they focus on a subject. Apart from being annoying to fellow photographers, the beep can be problematic when photographing wildlife or events such as concerts. It is therefore best to switch it off when you take the camera out of the box and always leave it at that setting. If your camera has an integrated flash, you might also consider switching off automatic firing of the flash to avoid it going off unexpectedly in situations where flash is not allowed or could cause problems. I remember a young bull elephant once getting rather upset when someone’s flash went off unintentionally! The card reminder setting controls whether the camera allows images to be taken if there is no memory card in the camera. You might ask why this should even be possible and the simple answer is that it allows someone to try out a camera in a store without their image actually being stored. It is important to check that the reminder setting is activated. I knew someone who spent a Christmas taking lots of family photos with a new camera given to her by an ex-husband, only to discover later that there was no memory card in the camera. Of course, the ex-husband was blamed.

Last, but not least, is a setting that comes as a revelation when people find out about it later down the line. Next to the viewfinder eyepiece, there should be a dioptric adjustment dial that allows you to adjust the setting for your eyesight so that the information displayed in the viewfinder is sharp. I once attended a photography workshop for beginners where many people said this was the most useful discovery of the day. I’ve also had a fellow photographer pass their camera to me to check something and I couldn’t read anything in the viewfinder as it was totally blurred. When I asked if it was really adjusted to their eyesight, it turned out that they didn’t know it could be adjusted. They were amazed at how much easier everything became once they could easily read their camera settings in the viewfinder. You should remember to check this periodically, as the dial can sometimes be knocked accidentally and the best settings may vary according to specific eyewear and contact lenses.

These are all general settings that you can leave in place. The next thing is to learn about the basic settings used to capture specific images and I hope to share some tips with you for settings used to take wildlife images in future articles.