Sunset at Tenaya Lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sunset at Tenaya Lake, Yosemite. It’s important to check the red channel in the histogram when photographing warm, saturated colors like this.

Every camera has default settings that seem to have been designed for beginning photographers who are handholding the camera. When teaching workshops I frequently dive into the menus on student’s cameras to change those settings (with their permission of course) to ones more suitable for landscape photographers working on a tripod. And the students usually tell me they wished they’d known about those settings sooner.

So here are six camera settings that I urge you to consider changing. These changes will make operating the camera easier, and in some cases might be the difference between getting the shot and missing it.

Turn Auto Rotation Off

By default, most cameras automatically rotate vertical images so that they appear in their correct orientation when holding the camera in a horizontal position. This might make sense when you’re handholding (although I don’t like it then either), but makes absolutely no sense when using a tripod. On a tripod, with auto rotation on, the image appears sideways, so you have to twist your head around to see the image properly. What’s more, the image is tiny, because it’s not using all the screen space available:

With auto-rotation on, vertical images are skewed sideways, and don't fill the available space

With auto-rotation on, vertical images are skewed sideways, and don’t fill the available space

After turning auto rotation off the image appears in its correct orientation, and fills the whole screen:

With auto-rotation off, vertical images are displayed in their correct orientation, and fill the whole LCD screen

With auto-rotation off, vertical images are displayed in their correct orientation, and fill the whole LCD screen

Much better!

Every camera is different, so I can’t give you exact directions for changing this annoying auto-rotation behavior. With Canon models look for a menu item called Auto Rotate. Choose the option for rotating images only on the computer monitor but not the camera. With Nikons the menu item is labeled Rotate Tall; you want to turn it off. On Sonys look for Display Rotation and turn it to Off.

Set Auto Review to Hold

By default most cameras briefly display the image you’ve just taken on the back of the camera. This is called Auto Review on most cameras and the default setting is usually two seconds – hardly enough time to see the image, much less evaluate it. Once the image disappears after two seconds you can always press the playback button to see the image again, but that’s an extra, unnecessary step. Instead, I recommend delving into the menus to find the Auto Review option (on Nikons it’s called Image Review), and set it to Hold. That means the image you’ve just taken will remain on the back of the camera until you press another button (like the shutter button or menu button), allowing you to evaluate the image at your leisure.

Of course if you leave the image displayed on the back of your camera for a long time that will drain your battery, but you just have to remember to lightly press the shutter button to make the image disappear when you’re done looking at it.

(Note that Sony cameras don’t have the Hold option; unfortunately the longest you can set the Auto Review for is 10 seconds, which is what I set it to.)

Enable the Highlight Alert

On many cameras the highlight alert (which everyone calls the blinkies) is not enabled by default. Fix that now! The highlight alert makes any part of an image that’s overexposed flash on and off, and is one of the most important tools for evaluating exposures in the field. In most cases you don’t want to see any part of an image blinking at you; if you do the photograph is probably overexposed, and you want to make a darker exposure.

On Canon cameras find the menu item labeled Highlight Alert and turn it on. With Sony cameras the highlight alert is on by default – in fact there’s no way to turn it off. On Nikons go to the playback menu and find Playback Display Options. Check Highlights (and while you’re at it, check the RGB histogram), and be sure to select Done to make the changes stick.

Once the highlight alert is enabled, you typically have to cycle through different display modes to see the blinkies when reviewing an image. On some Canon models you’ll see the blinkies (if there are any) in any image-review mode. On other Canon models you only see the blinkies when the histogram is also visible; just keep hitting the Info button until you see the histogram and the blinkies (if there are any). With Nikons press the up or down arrows on the control dial until you find the screen labeled Highlights (unless you’ve set up your camera so that pressing the left and right arrows cycles through the display modes). On Sony cameras press the button labeled “Disp” (on the control wheel) until you see the screen with the histogram, where you’ll also see blinkies (if there are any).

Enable the RGB Histogram

By default most cameras only show you the luminance histogram, not the RGB histogram. But the ability to see histograms for the individual red, green, and blue color channels is essential when photographing scenes with rich, saturated colors, like sunsets or autumn leaves. You want to pay particular attention to the red channel in those situations, and make sure the red channel isn’t clipped. You don’t want to see the red channel pushed up against the right edge, or find a spike at the right edge, like this:

The RGB histogram on my Sony A7rII, showing clipping in the red channel

The RGB histogram on my Sony A7rII, showing clipping in the red channel

Notice that the luminance histogram (at the top in this illustration) looks fine, with nothing pushed against either edge. You wouldn’t see any blinkies here, because the blinkies are based on that luminance histogram. But the red channel has a big spike at the right edge, showing that it’s overexposed. Overexposed reds and yellows are usually very difficult to work with later, even in Raw files. No matter what you do they end up looking weird and splotchy or posterized. So if the red channel is clipped you need to make a darker exposure. Keep going darker until you don’t see any clipping in the red channel. Or you can bracket and blend the exposures together later – just make sure at least one of your bracketed exposures shows no clipping in the red channel.

But first you need enable the RGB histogram. On Canon cameras there’s usually a menu item specifically for the histogram; find that, and turn on the RGB histogram. With Nikons you’ll find a checkbox for the RGB histogram under Playback Display Options (make sure you select Done to make it stick). On Sonys the RGB histogram is always on.

Once the RGB histogram is enabled you will again have to cycle through different playback display options to see it (as described in the previous section).

Turn Off Image Stabilization on a Tripod

Image stabilization (or Vibration Reduction for Nikon users) is designed for handholding. If the camera is on a tripod and the camera senses any vibration, image stabilization will try to compensate for that vibration, but won’t do it correctly, and will actually blur the photograph. Turn off image stabilization when using a tripod!

Some lenses will sense when the camera is on a tripod and automatically turn image stabilization off. That’s a great feature, but unless you’re sure your lens will do that, the safest bet is to turn off image stabilization manually.

Use Back-Button Focus

By default, with every camera I know of, you activate autofocus by pressing the shutter button halfway down. But I prefer to separate those two functions – focusing and pressing the shutter – by using back-button focus. And I’m not alone: virtually every professional photographer I know uses back-button focus.

Back-button focus takes the autofocus function away from the shutter button and assigns it to a button near the top-right corner on the back of the camera. You use your right forefinger to press the shutter (as usual), and your thumb to activate the autofocus.

Opertaing back-button focus on my Sony A7rII. I have it set so the AF/MF button activates autofocus.

Opertaing back-button focus on my Sony A7rII. I have it set so the AF/MF button activates autofocus.

Divorcing autofocus from the shutter button has many advantages. First, you don’t have to flip a switch to change from autofocus to manual focus, because the camera is always in both modes. Just leave autofocus on all the time, and if you want autofocus, press the button on the back of the camera. If you want to focus manually, just turn the focusing ring; the camera won’t override your manual focus when you press the shutter because autofocus isn’t attached to the shutter button anymore.

For that matter, you can just leave the camera in continuous focus mode, rather than changing from single-shot focus to continuous focus. If you want single-shot focus, just press the focus button on the back until focus is locked, then let go. You can then keep pressing the shutter as many times as you want, but the focus will stay locked at the same distance until you press the back focus button again. If you want continuous focus, just press and hold the back focus button while you follow your subject.

Let’s say you want to focus on an off-center subject. Rather than moving the focus point, or attempting to press the shutter halfway down to lock it on your subject, just move the camera until the focus point is on your subject, then press the back focus button until focus locks, and let go. You can then recompose and fire away, knowing that the focus won’t change and will still be locked at the right distance for your subject.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. The only potential disadvantage of using back-button focus is that you might forget to press the back button and end up with an out-of-focus image. It takes a little practice at first to get into the habit of pressing that back button, but once you get the hang of it you won’t go back.

Unfortunately I can’t give specific instructions on how to set up back-button focus on your camera, because the procedure varies so much from one model to the next, even within the same brand. I’d suggest Googling “back button focus (your camera model).” You should get a bunch of hits, including YouTube videos. And back-button focus isn’t available on some models, but should be an option on most higher-end cameras.

Two More Obvious Ones

I said there were six of these settings, but I’m going to throw in two more obvious ones. First, I recommend using Raw mode for the highest image quality and most flexibility in adjusting the images later. Second, if you’re using Raw mode there’s little reason to adjust the white balance in the camera, since with the Raw images it’s easy to adjust the white balance later in software, so most of the time you can just set the white balance to Auto.

Okay, that’s really it! I hope you find these tips helpful.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Digital Photography Basics: Reading Histograms; Digital Photography Basics: Adjusting Exposure

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.