Learning how to properly handle the camera is the most important aspect of improving your photography. While composition, light and post-processing have a big visual impact, they are second in line when it comes to where your priorities should be in the beginning.

Fellow photographer Ugo Cei has talked about a neat little trick he uses to teach his clients how to better learn the camera: use a brown paper bag to cover the camera, place your hands inside and change the ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture. When you’re able to adjust these without looking, you’re familiar enough with your camera to move on (it goes without saying that you’ll also need to understand how these fundamental settings work).

Making mistakes is part of the learning progress but the sooner you become aware of them, the better. So, let’s address a few of the most common camera setting mistakes and how to fix them:

#1 Sticking to Automatic Modes

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that sticking to Auto Mode won’t give you much of a better understanding about the fundamental settings. This mode is excellent if your only purpose is to ‘snap’ shots of family vacations but if you’re serious about taking your photography skills to the next level, stop using it now.

Auto Mode is a mode where the camera chooses all the settings. The problem is that it doesn’t take into consideration the quality of an image. Well, at least not at the same level as we do.

Instead, the camera selects the settings which give the optimal exposure (meaning an image that isn’t too bright nor too dark). This sounds nice but the issue is that the camera won’t take into consideration topics such as noise/grain and depth of field. It will, however, try to choose a shutter speed which is quick enough to avoid any camera shake.

The Aperture and ISO are adjusted based on how quick the shutter speed needs to be. If it’s in dark surroundings, it will most likely choose an open aperture and increase the ISO. While that isn’t incorrect, it’s better to do so manually so that you know exactly how these adjustments are going to affect your image.

#2 Using Unnecessarily High ISO

There’s one mistake I often notice my workshop clients commit in the field: they tend to use an unnecessarily high ISO.

In most situations, you want to keep the ISO as low as possible. Increasing it will allow you to use a quicker shutter speed but it also starts introducing noise to the image. That’s ok if you need a quick shutter speed but be well aware of the consequences.

I tend to keep my ISO at 100 as much as possible. In situations where I’m not using a tripod, I’ll only start adjusting the ISO when it’s getting darker or when my shutter speed is too slow to get a sharp handheld shot. I’ll then incrementally increase the ISO until I’m back at an exposure time which is quick enough (as a rule of thumb I never shoot slower than 1/focal length when handheld).

In situations where you’re forced to (or prefer to) use a slow shutter speed, mount the camera on a tripod and keep using the native ISO, which for most cameras is 100.

#3 Using Too Slow Shutter Speed

This leads us to the third mistake commonly made: using an exposure time which is too long for a handheld shot.

Although image stabilization systems are getting better and better each year and certain camera models are able to do up to a one-second shutter speed handheld, that’s not what most of have in our camera bags.

Camera Mistakes
Despite using a 14mm, the 1/20th second shutter was just too slow and resulted in a less sharp image

You’re not able to get a razor sharp image when photographing handheld with a slow shutter speed and the minimum shutter depends on which lens you’re using. Again, I use the formula “1/focal length” when photographing handheld i.e. nothing slower than 1/50th of a second for a 50mm or 1/20th of a second for a 20mm.

However, even when using 1/20th of a second and a 20mm lens there might be some camera shake. So, make sure that you zoom in on the image preview to double-check that the image is sharp.

Recommended Reading: Leaving the Tripod Behind? Read These Tips for Handheld Landscape Photography

#4 Forgetting Manual / Automatic Focus

The fourth mistake is one most of us are guilty of (I’ll admit I’ve made this mistake more than once myself). It’s also one that might be tricky to avoid repeating.

I often recommend using the camera’s manual focus when you’re using a tripod and the Live View. There are several advantages to that (which we’ve discussed here) but it’s easy to forget switching back to automatic focus afterward.

Using manual focus when photographing handheld can be tricky, so if you tend to switch between tripod and handheld make sure that you double check whether you’re using a manual or automatic focus. It’s easy to think you’re using automatic focus when indeed it’s still set to manual (you’ll get quite disappointed when browsing through a bunch of out-of-focus images…)

#5 Neglecting the White Balance

Ok. I know a couple of you are about to leave a comment now so I’ll beat you to it and note that the White Balance doesn’t matter if you’re shooting in RAW. It’s easily corrected in post-processing.

That being said, I prefer getting the image as close to the finished product as possible in the camera; this includes setting the right White Balance. I’m likely to make adjustments to the Color Balance in post-processing but having a good starting point is crucial for my workflow.

Recommended Reading: Master White Balance Like a Pro

Setting the White Balance is especially important for night photography. When photographing the stars (or for example the Aurora Borealis), the White Balance is going to make a big difference in the image. Using Auto White Balance is most likely going to result in a dominant orange color cast that can be tricky to fix afterward. Manually setting the Kelvin is desirable in this situation.

Common Camera Setting Mistakes Beginners Make
Auto White Balance vs Manual White Balance (Kelvin 3100)

Not having the correct White Balance might also be confusing for those of you who don’t spend much time processing an image and prefer to have a good result right away. If that sounds familiar to you, I recommend exploring the Kelvin Mode and learn which Kelvin looks best in various situations.

Over to You

Don’t worry if you’re guilty of any of the 5 mistakes above. There’s a reason why the title is 5 Common Camera Setting Mistakes Beginning Photographers Make. Comfort yourself by thinking that even your favorite photographers have all made them also and Perhaps they still occasionally do! 

The best way to avoid them is by simply continuing to practice and use your camera. You don’t even need to go outdoors in order to learn how the various settings work. Try adjusting them while photographing on the kitchen table; you’ll still see what happens when changing the ISO, Aperture or shutter speed!