Taming a DSLR in the Wild

This post shows one way to set up a DSLR for simple everyday operation which I hope you find useful. I use these settings as a default, changing as required.

Here’s a remarkable comparison  :-

The excellent manual for my Canon 60D is approximately 300 pages long.

The ‘long’ manual for my Olympus OM1 (a manual film SLR)  is about 80 pages, half of which is about the rest of the OM system. The ‘short’ one is 10 pages long. In essence it says ‘put a lens on, put some film in, focus, set the exposure with the two controls and get shooting‘.

These two cameras are essentially trying to do the same thing!

Nothing illustrates the sheer complexity of a DSLR better than that, and it’s  no wonder that DSLR users – me included – find that their camera sometimes produces sub-standard results.

That complexity adds a completely false mystique to the basic technical aspects of photography, which is in reality are a relatively simple thing to learn.

Taming the Beast

Essentially we’re going to restrict the camera’s freedom to do it’s own thing, and only let it do what we want it to do. That frees us to concentrate on the creative side of taking pictures.

Exposure Mode

If you’re just starting out and want to become a better photographer, ignore all those ‘shooting modes’ like ‘landscape’ and ‘portrait’ – they’re not needed and confuse things. Just put the camera in aperture priority mode and leave it there.

  • To get greater depth of field use smaller apertures (bigger numbers) and the camera will use a longer shutter speed.
  • To get the very best resolution from your lens use f5.6 or f8 – these usually produce optimal resolution. If this is important to you check a lens review and find the optimal aperture for your lens and use that.
  • To freeze action for subject like sports, or for narrow depth of field for portraits use the maximum aperture you can (smaller numbers) and the camera will give you the fastest shutter speed for the available light and ISO setting (see later).

Using aperture priority, the only thing to keep an eye on is the shutter speed used – if it’s too long you might get camera shake. Unless you’ve a really good reason to do so don’t go past f16 or f11 as most lenses don’t perform that well at very small apertures.


Unless you’re using manual focus lenses the evaluative multi zone metering is usually fine. Manual focus lenses such as Lensbabys are best used with centre weighted metering.


If you’re happy fiddling with multiple AF points then you’ve more patience than I have. Otherwise use ‘focus and recompose’ see here.


Advanced photographers try to use the lowest ISO setting they can get away with for any given amount of light and set it for each shooting session. Most recent DSLRs have great high ISO performance up to 800 or 1600 ISO, so if you really want to simplify things, use auto ISO. You should be able to set the maximum ISO used on auto in your camera’s menu system.

To figure out what maximum acceptable ISO is for you, experiment with some test shots or check an equipment review.

If you suffer from lots of pictures with camera shake, this is probably the best thing you can do to get better shots.

Use Raw rather than JPEG

If you don’t use the RAW file format and instead use JPEG, there are lots of settings you’re going to have to get right when you take the shot.

If you use RAW you can fix minor exposure problems, white balance, noise reduction and a host of other things using the software which came with your camera. You’ll need to take some time to do this but if the shot was worth taking in the first place it must be worth the effort to get it right?

RAW is a bit more effort but well worth it.

A Tamed DSLR

Having set this up, get the focus right, adjust the aperture for the desired effect and shoot. As you become more advanced (or less lazy) you can experiment with other settings like exposure compensation, colour balance, ISO setting etc.

These settings have worked well for me so far. Any alternative suggestions are more than welcome.


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