How to Set Up Your Camera

Lesson 1 Module 1

Here's the good news.

You put in the time reading the reviews, sorting through all the prices and options from the camera manufacturers. You talked to your friends and asked which one they chose and why. You found the best deal, pulled out your credit card and now you've got—the camera you've always wanted.

But there's one problem.

The user manual is over 100 pages long! You don't have time to read all that, but you want to get your new camera out of the box and bring back great photos from your next trip.

Might be nice if someone would just tell you what settings to use so you can go back to planning and enjoying your trip?

Well, you're in luck because that's exactly what this lesson of 'How to get Pro Photo Results with Point and Shoot' is about.

How to get the best photos from your camera in 15 minutes or less

If you want to get the best pictures possible from your camera, you need to make sure it's set up right from the start. Don't worry, this won't take long and you won't need to read much (or maybe any) of the manual.

Step 1: Choose the Best Image Quality

So you took the time to pick your camera based on the number of megapixels and the great reviews of how sharp the photos look.

But there's one big problem: Your camera arrived from the factory with the default image quality set to 'medium'. This means that your ten-megapixel camera is giving you photos that are more like six-megapixel quality. You might as well have saved the money on the better camera and just bought the six megapixel model instead.

The good news is that this is very easy to fix, you just need to change the image quality settings in your camera.

For this example, I'll use a Canon Digital Elph, one of the most popular and versatile point-and-shoot digital cameras available today. I had several different versions of that model before I upgraded to the PowerShot in 2007 and the G11 last year.

To choose the maximum image quality:

  • Push the 'Func / Set' (insert image) on your camera
  • Choose the 'image quality' (insert image) button, then choose 'Fine' or 'Superfine'—whichever setting gives you the lowest number of shots for your memory card. This means that the photos will be the highest quality possible from your camera.

Having a lower number of shots for your memory card is definitely a downside for many people, but this problem is more than made up for in the improvement of your photo quality. Having a lower number of shots on your card will force you to make the most of each photo—you'll be a better photographer because of it.

Also, when you get a really great shot your photo quality will be high enough to make a poster-sized enlargement that will blow everyone away.

And if you find you still need those extra shots, the great news is that the price for memory cards has been going relentlessly down so you can always buy a bigger card if you need it later.

Step 2: Set the ISO

Back in the days of film you could only choose one ISO setting for each roll of film. ISO just refers to how sensitive the film is to light. A higher number ISO (say 400 when compared with 100) means that the film could be used in lower light and still get good photos.

The tradeoff with using a higher ISO is more graininess or 'noise' in your photos. You want to use the lowest ISO possible so that your photos are very sharp and the colors are great.

And if you like the noise effect, you can always create that in Photoshop or other photo editing software. But it's always best to start with the highest-quality image in the beginning because you can always edit it later. Unfortunately if your original image is lower-quality or has a lot of noise, it's a lot harder to remove than it is to add!

To change the ISO:

  • Push the 'Func / Set' (insert image) on your camera
  • Choose the 'Auto ISO' function (insert image) and choose your ISO setting based on the following guidelines.
    • ISO 80-200: Bright, Sunny days, few clouds
    • ISO 400-800: Sunset / Sunrise / Late evening Photos. ISO 800 will also work for indoor photos in a well-lit room without using the flash
    • ISO 1000+: Depending on your camera model, you may or may not have an ISO above 800. If you do, you'll be able to use this setting for shooting at night or in very low light situations without a tripod.
  • Remember that you'll need to change the ISO occasionally depending on how much light is available: the less light you have, the higher the ISO setting needs to be.

To start, if you're shooting during the day I'd recommend setting your ISO to 200—it's a good all-around setting that gives you a very high image quality but still lets you use a fast shutter speed or a high aperture number (don't worry, I'll cover shutter speed an aperture in the next lesson).

Step 3: Choose the Color Mode (Optional)

Many point-and-shoot-cameras such as Canon's digital Elph allow you to change the color settings to Black and White, Sepia, Vivid, or several others.

When you're first experimenting with your camera, this might seem like a fun thing to do—and of course it is cool to see how your shots turn out with different color settings.

The only problem is that in a few weeks, months, or years, you probably won't be as excited about that sepia version of a shot that would have been a lot better as a regular color photo.

After all, these effects are easily created in Photoshop from your original image. The problem with telling your camera to make these changes for you is that you can't re-create the original color image from a sepia or black and white image.

That's why it's much better to always shoot in color and at the highest quality setting because you can always make alternate versions of your original color shot with Photoshop or other photo-editing software depending on what creative inspiration strikes you.

Step 4: Sharpening your photos inside the camera (not recommended)

Some point-and-shoot cameras will digitally sharpen your photos as they are being saved to your memory card.

This can sound like a good idea, but similar to the situation with editing the colors of your photos with the camera (described above), it's always a better idea to make these kinds of changes in Photoshop or other photo-editing software after you've saved your photos to your computer.

Best to have a pristine copy of your shot when you save it from your camera because the amount and types of digital sharpening you should apply to your shots will depend on what you're planning to use the photo for (example: making prints vs. putting the photo on a photo-sharing website).

Step 5: Adjusting the white balance

Ok, we're almost finished setting up your camera but there's one last setting to be aware of before you start shooting: White Balance.

I talked a little about White Balance in the first lesson. Basically when you're talking about white balance in a digital camera, you're referring to how your camera's sensor looks at the color white.

For more than 80% of the time, the automatic white balance setting will be totally fine, but it's still good to be aware of how white balance affects your shots because it can be the difference between a decent photo and one that's so good that you can't wait to get it framed.

Here's a list of some common White Balance modes and when to use them:

  • Auto: The one you'll use most of the time
  • Daylight: If it's a perfect sunny day with blue skies, you might get better colors from the sky and whiter clouds if you use the 'daylight' setting
  • Cloudy: On an overcast day it's a good idea to set the white balance to cloudy to keep your photos from appearing too 'cold' (towards the blue end of the spectrum).
  • Tungsten: For shooting inside in a room with regular incandescent light bulbs. If you use the auto setting in this situation the photo will look really yellow.
  • Fluorescent: For shooting inside in a room with florescent light bulbs. If you use the auto setting in this situation the photo will usually look pretty cold and blue. Some cameras such as Canon's Elph have a 'Fluorescent H' setting which will make your florescent shot look a bit 'warmer' (better yellows and reds). This is the setting I usually use when shooting around fluorescent lights.
  • Custom: In rare situations when the color of your light doesn't match one of the above settings, you can tell your camera what color you want to call white. Usually you will point the viewfinder at something white (like a piece of paper) and click the shutter button. The camera will then remember that while balance and apply it to all shots when you use the 'custom' setting. This can also be a good option if you're trying to experiment with unnatural or creative color balances to your shots—but read the section above about Color modes to see the downsides of doing this.

And if your camera offers the RAW setting instead of JPEG, this is by far the best choice for both white balance and image quality. Photos shot in camera RAW format can be finely adjusted for white balance in programs such as Adobe Lightroom or the Camera RAW plugin, giving you the ultimate control over exactly how your colors turn out.

Another huge advantage of camera RAW is that the photo file has not been compressed at all by your camera so you can use it to output any file format (from JPEG to TIFF to digital negative) without any loss of quality.

What's Next:

That's it for this lesson, I hope you're excited to get your camera out and about and start bringing back the best photos you've ever taken!

Stay tuned for the next lesson, I'm going to take you further into understanding your camera's settings and teach you the basics of exposure, setting the shutter speed, and setting the aperture (the most important settings of all).

Thanks so much for reading this far, and if you have any friends or family who might also find this information useful, I hope you'll take a minute to invite them to join our free photography course here.