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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

Key camera settings & what they do!

Modern cameras have an amazing array of settings in their menus, which is often a bit overwhelming for beginner photographers. But the truth is, most of them you never need to use, or understand. So, in this week's email, we'll explore some of the key ones you DO need to know about.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but it does point out some of the most important settings and should help to get you started by the scary list of settings revealed when you hit the 'Menu' button! Although the wording, some of the options, and the general menu layout will vary by camera make and model, most digital cameras will have something similar to the settings covered below.

A screenshot of the main menu on a Sony camera
Main menu on a Sony A7RIV

File format

This is where you can choose the file format of your photos. Common options are:

  • Raw

  • Jpeg

  • Raw and Jpegs

For an explanation of what these mean, and how to decide which to use, take a look at this blog which explains whether you should use Raw or Jpeg format.

Grid lines

This allows you to switch on a number of grids on both your screen, and often your viewfinder as well. Often there are several options for types of grid, but I would recommend the simple 'rule of thirds' grid which helps you when composing your photos. See this article about composition which discusses how to use the rule of thirds in your photography.

Drive mode

This setting controls various aspects of shutter release. The main options usually include:

  • Single shot – one press of the shutter takes one photo (perfect for landscapes and other scenes that don't change rapidly)

  • Continuous – holding the shutter button takes multiple shots (perfect for wildlife and sports)

  • Delay – after pressing the shutter there is a delay before the photo is taken. A 2 second delay is perfect for long exposure shots to prevent camera movement when you press the shutter.

You may also have HDR (bracketing) drive modes for taking multiple exposures with a single shutter press. These are for high dynamic range scenes and may need blending in software afterwards.

Focus mode

This defines whether your camera focusses once and keeps that focus point until your press the shutter (perfect for landscapes) or whether your camera tries to track a moving object and keep it in focus until you press the shutter (perfect for wildlife and sports shots). This blog gives more information about the various focus modes available.

Focus area

This specifies WHERE your camera will focus. Most people are used to using a fully automatic focus, where the camera decides where to focus, but it is far better to understand how you can better control where you want the point of focus to be. This blog gives a full explanation of the various focus areas available on most DSLR and Mirrorless cameras.

White balance

White balance is effectively the ‘colour’ of the light (e.g. white in the middle of a summer's day and a golden orange just before sunset) and can significantly change the overall look of the image. Modern cameras are pretty good at detecting the colour of the light and setting the white balance appropriately, so it's fine to set this to 'auto' and leave it to the camera. White balance can easily be changed in post processing as long as the file format is RAW (not Jpeg).

Creative style

This setting ONLY applies if you shoot Jpeg, as it is effectively telling your camera what post-processing to apply to the image (in contrast, a RAW image just has the basic sensor data with no post processing applied). Options will often include:

  • Landscape - this usually boosts the contrast and saturation to improve the look of landscapes

  • Portrait - this often applies better skin colours

  • Sunset - this often adjusts the white balance to boost the colours of sunset.

So, when people say that an image is 'straight out of the camera' (i.e. not messed with) you can tell them that actually that's not true, they have just left it for the camera to do it for them!

Steady Shot

This generally just has an 'on' or 'off' setting. When it's on, the camera will try and adjust for small movements of the camera by the user to avoid motion blur. This is most useful when taking photos in poor light, when shutter slower speeds are needed and camera shake might cause your photos to blur. Ironically, when using very long exposures (longer than a few seconds) on a tripod, you should switch Steady Shot OFF as the mechanism can actually introduce movement blur!

Monitor brightness

This allows you to set the brightness of your screen, so that (for example) you can see the screen clearly on a sunny day. Obviously the brighter you set this, the more quickly you will use up your battery!

Cleaning mode

Some cameras automatically shake the sensor when you power off the camera in order to dislodge any dust particles that can ruin photos. For other cameras there is a menu item which does this. I recommend removing the lens and pointing the camera downwards before operating the cleaning mode, so that any dust falls out of the camera, rather than just being shaken around in the sensor recess!

Touch operation

If you have a camera with a touch screen, this allows you to turn off the touch sensitivity. Personally I find it annoying as I keep touching it with my nose when I look through the view finder and changing the point of focus, so I always leave mine turned off!


This will wipe the contents of your memory card (so make sure your photos are backed up somewhere before you do this!). It is good practice to occasionally wipe your memory card clean by formatting it, as this can help prevent card errors.


Some cameras have a functionality called 'focus peaking'. When activated, this highlights areas which are in focus with a faint coloured outline. This is extremely helpful in ensuring your subject is in focus, especially when using a shallow depth of field. If your camera has this, the setting allows you to turn it on and off, and also change the colour used for the outlines.

Face registration

Some (generally more expensive) cameras have a functionality whereby you can register faces in order of priority. Essentially this means that not only will your camera identify faces and potentially ensure that they are in focus, but if there are multiple people in the frame you can specify an order of priority (e.g. at a wedding, you can ensure that if you are using a shallow depth of field and someone is standing just behind the bride, the camera will ensure that the brides face is prioritised in terms of achieving focus)

Zebra setting

Some (mirrorless) cameras allow you to switch on this feature which shows any over-exposed areas with coloured hatching, so that you can identify and correct overexposure before you take the photo (DSLR's will only show you over exposed areas AFTER you've taken the photos). This is very useful to make sure you are not over exposing areas of the sky.

Final words

Most modern cameras have huge numbers of menu items which can often seem a bit daunting, so hopefully this quick run-down will de-mystify some of them for you! I would advise having a read through your camera manual to see which of the menu items might be useful to you. The good news is that most of them can safely be ignored, or set once and then left.

Want a learn more about photography?

If you're a beginner photographer who is local to East Devon and want to learn the art of landscape photography, check out my range of local photography courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my residential photography workshops - either my beginners landscape photography masterclass for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography masterclass for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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