My thanks for this go to Arwa Wallan, a lovely Saudi student who worked with me as a private student for several months in 2009. We talked about so many aspects of photography that I made a list of them for her, and share it with you here.

AF/L (auto focus lock) at default is by pushing the shutter button halfway down. Focus on your subject (in the middle), then hold the AF/L to recompose the composition with the same focus.
AE/L at default should be separate from AF/L and is usually done by holding down the  button or the +/- button. You will use AF/L much more often than AE/L.

Fast lenses @ wide aperture (f.1.4, f.2.0, f2.8) let you shoot images hand-held, in less light.
A very fast lens (ex. 50mm f1.2 or 1.4) @ widest aperture, gives real BOKEH(soft background).
Small apertures (f16 or f22) give you more depth of field (focus) than large apertures.
For best depth of field, use hyper-focal focussing (focus 1/3 into the distance of the scene


Pointing the camera straight ahead (vert. or horiz.) avoids converging vertical lines of buildings.
Use a wide-angle lens to bring whole buildings into viewfinder.
When parallel lines converge, think about lining one up with the edge of the frame.
Design aspects of composition. Don’t stick to straight-line conventions.

Remember to use AWB (Canon) or BRACKET SET (Nikon) when in a hurry for best exposure.
Bracketing with the multi-shoot setting gives 3 bracketed shots (instead of continuous burst).
Most modern cameras can bracket ambient exposure, flash exposure and also white balance!


Preview your choice of composition in your mind before putting the camera to your eye.
Be aware of light, position of sun, clouds, etc.
Design elements of composition instinctively; be aware of what looks good in the viewfinder.
Always check the image on your review screen, make different shots, and compare results.

A smaller aperture (f16, f22) gives more depth of field (focus) than a larger aperture (f3.5, f2.8)
At any given aperture, depth of field is created 1/3 in front of and 2/3 behind the focus subject:
Use your camera’s depth of field preview button (where the image goes dark and sharper) to see how much depth of field is produced at small apertures.

Hyper-focal (maximum) depth of field is created by focussing 1/3 into the scene.


tripod tabletop tripod ND filters ND graduated filters
filter holder UV filters for lenses step-up rings hand held exposure meter
50mm f1.4 lens fast telephoto lens spare battery speed-light flash / diffuser
cable release lens shades grey card spare memory card(s)
card reader blower brush camera bag sensor cleaning brush
lens-cleaning cloth

EXPOSURE: Ambient (existing light)
Metering, ambient, incident metering, reflective metering, matrix or centre weighted
Ambient exposure compensation (+/-) gives an exposure more or less light.
See bracketing
Do a Grey / Black / White card test to show how the camera meter averages the reading.
HDR: High dynamic range (see tone mapping)
Reciprocity Failure (film & digital reacts more slowly with very long shutter speeds)

EXPOSURE: Flash / (additive light)
Flash metering (incident not reflective), works more with aperture than shutter speed
Max. flash synch speed: is usually 1/250s unless the lens has a copal shutter in the lens
Expose for flash only (fast shutter speed) or mix flash & ambient light (slow shutter speed)
Flash exposure compensation ( +/-) gives more or less power for the flash output.
Studio and professional rechargeable flash is measured in Joules or Watt/Seconds
Speed-light flash output is measured in Guide Numbers (GN), to the following equation:

f-stop x distance
(this is usually done in feet at 100 ISO).

A flash giving a reading of f16 at six feet (at 100 ISO) therefore has a Guide Number of (GN) 96.

You can over or under-expose both ambient and flash settings for dramatic results.
Try ambient at -1 and flash at 0 or -1 for lowering ambient for holding sky details.
It’s worth experimenting with exposure since the ‘right’ exposure is open to wide interpretation.
Explore the different results you get from low-key (dark) and high-key lighting situations.
Remember that the meter assumes your composition is average.

Experiment with different settings when shooting at a radiant light source.
Metering ambient light with a diffuser cone on a hand held meter is most accurate way to meter:
Hold meter at subject pointed straight back at camera. You can also use this for flash readings.
The camera ONLY gives a REFLECTED meter reading for an AVERAGE scene (with +/- at 0).
For non-average scenes, use your ambient +/- and  +/- to adjust settings for best result.
Always set exposure for best overall rendering of tones and colour at time of exposure!
A reflective reading of the subject off a grey card gives the same exposure as an ambient reading with a hand-held light meter.


Learn which side of display shows shutter speed and aperture settings.
Look at these BEFORE you take a photo. Remember 1/60 as lowest hand held shutter speed.
Remember that ‘stops’ are interchangeable with each other & have same exposure value.

Polarizing filters: have a filter factor of x2 (they lose two stops of light)
remove highlight ‘pings’ from faces (any skin tone) in any light
reduce reflections in water and glass if light is 90 degrees from camera
saturate colours (so they are good filters to use for landscapes and skies

ND (Neutral Density) filters:
reduce the light enough to be able to use very slow shutter speeds in daylight
ND grads (Neutral Density graduated) filters: darkens sky in landscape photography

Heliopan Neutral Density Filters: Filter factors and exposure correction –

ND 0.3 50.00% 2 X – 1
ND 0.6 25.00% 4 X – 2
ND 0.9 12.50% 8 X – 3
ND 1.2 6.25% 16 X – 4
ND 2.0 1.00% 100 X – 6.66
ND 3.0 0.10% 1000 X – 10
ND 4.0 0.012% 10 000 X – 13

Only true single flash output may be in Manual setting (no pre-flash test)
First or second curtain flash output determines blur at start or end of long exposure (test)
Front facing naked flash is a hard light with prominent shadows. Use diffuser for front light flash.
Diffused front facing flash (esp. @ -1 to the ambient exposure) is subtle & balanced
Bounced flash makes shadows under eyes in recessed part of face.
Flash from camera will only light the foreground. Background must be lit by slow shutter speed.
Use most powerful batteries available (ex Duracell Ultra). Be careful if flash gets hot: turn it off!


Jpegs (.jpg) are processed images compressed to different sizes. Always use the largest size.
Tiffs (.tif) are processed, uncompressed images, captured at the mega-pixel rate of your camera.
Raw files (ex. .CR2 and .NEF) are unprocessed, slightly compressed files, in 16 bit colour, allowing greater adjustment post processing, because you can change the whole exposure and WB.

Professional photographers often always shoot in RAW format, or RAW and JPG large, but shooting in raw commits you to processing each image individually, either in your camera’s software (Nikon view, Canon view) or Photoshop CS4. Early versions of Photoshop may not recognise the ‘tag’ ending of your camera model’s raw format.

Earlier digital cameras had settings for tif, but modern cameras only have jpeg format.
Pros often save images for printing in tif (for Mac or PC) since tifs are more stable than jpegs.


Importance with using single centre AF point, point centre of lens at subject
You need to use MF (manual focus) with any subject of single tone in all kinds of light, since there’s no contrast range for the auto focus to work.
Understand the difference between AF-L (auto focus lock) and AE-L (auto exposure lock).
Compare: One Shot Focus, AI Focus, AI Servo Focus settings.

Use HDR to extend the limited tonal range of the digital medium (relative to film). Using a tripod, shoot 5 to 7 exp. in Manual mode (with manual focus): exposures at +/-0, then +/- 2 to 3 stops in whole stops (change shutter speed, to maintain D-O-F). For best results use ‘tone mapping’ software, but for basic results: blend all exposures in Photoshop (file-auto-merge in HDR).

Use shutter priority not program (inside) with slow shutter speed to capture available light
Best WB inside with flash is usually sunshine (!), not AWB or  WB. TEST these results.


The best quality is from using lower ISO settings. Above 400 tends to give excess noise. Test!
High ISO sacrifices the ability to enlarge image without noticeable noise increase, and gives less contrast, less saturation, less sharpness, increased grain (noise).
Use LOWEST ISO you can, that will give you a 1/60 shutter-speed (lowest hand held speed).

Wide-angle lenses are best to show large area of view.
Avoid large views without areas of focal interest: these tend to be more boring.
Try using cloud WB even on a sunny day to give more vibrant and interesting colours.

The standard lens for 35mm (film) is 50mm, because it gives same perspective as human eye.
All lenses (inc. those for smaller camera sensors) are measured compared to 35mm (full frame)
Ex: 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 (24-70mm in 35mm format), because of longevity of 35mm format.

Pro. lenses are more corrected (wide-angle: barrel, telephoto: pincushion) than consumer ones.
Wide-angle lenses: distort / exaggerate perspective, have more inherent d-o-f @ same f-stop.
Telephoto lenses: flatten / compress perspective, and have less inherent d-o-f @ same f-stop.

PRIME (single focal length) lenses are sharper, usually faster (wider aperture, e.g. F1.4), and have less distortion inherent in them (barrel distortion for wide-angle, pincushion distortion on telephoto settings).

There is less depth of field the closer you get to a subject (esp. macro, 1:1 ratio. Life-size)
For maximum d-o-f, focus 1/3 into the scene @ smallest aperture possible (hyper-focal d-o-f)
Explore difference of perspective and relative subject size with different focal lengths & distances, e.g. using a wide-angle lens for portraits has less distortion the further away the subject is from the camera.

D-O-F becomes more shallow, (less depth of focus), the closer you focus on a subject.
Use a tripod and small aperture (f22) for best D-O-F, or use shallow focus to good effect.
Life size magnification (ratio 1:1) is only possible with a real macro lens. This is a telephoto.

Slow shutter speed using only ambient light gives abstract, fluid effect of movement
Portrait with tripod & slow speed (@ good d-o-f) gives person movement plus sharp background
‘Open Flash’ (slow shutter speed + frozen movement from flash): use second curtain flash synch (synchronisation)
‘Camera toss’ (jiggling camera during slow exposure)
Zoom blur (hand-held or on tripod)
Radial blur (rotating camera in circular movement during slow exposure)
Explore combinations: open flash / camera toss / zoom and radial blur.

Night photography is very exciting and has many different applications.
Try using a tripod with fairly slow ISO (400) to hold small pixels and tonal range.
For extended tonal range at night, use a tripod and shoot 7, 9 or 11 stops exposure (see HDR).
Night panning is better than day because of the dark backgrounds.
Also blurring water (fountains) is easier at night since you don’t have to use ND filters.


Explore slow shutter speeds for holding movement sharper relative to blurred background.
Traffic and people can both be panned: move camera exactly at same speed and in viewfinder.
You don’t have to look through the camera when panning; try looking at subject over camera.

PORTRAITS: working with people
Good portraits are a combination of timing, good light, an animated (live) expression and a good relationship between photographer and subject. Do have all your equipment and lighting how you want them before shooting, and only show the good photos to the model when you’re happy with what you’re getting. Try to get the model interested enough in the process to do some experiments with lighting, composition, location, poses, costumes etc.

Explore the qualities of SUNLIGHT: from times of day, direction, angle, and strength of light.
Sunshine in the middle of the day is much less interesting than early or late in the day.
Sunshine always gives harder, sharper shadows and more contrast than a cloudy day.
The ‘magic hour’ is one to two hours before dusk on a sunny day.
Overcast light gives very flat colours and no shadows, with even and diffused tonal range.

The slowest hand held S/S is 1/60s (do test). Shorter speeds (1/250s) for long zoom lenses.
Fast shutter speeds (1/125s, 1/250s and faster) freeze movement.
TEST results from lower shutter speeds @ both ends of every zoom lens for best results.

Learn whole ‘stop’ numbers:

S/S: 2s 1s 1/2s 1/4s 1/8s 1/15s 1/30s 1/60s 1/125s 1/250s 1/500s 1/1000s etc

Aperture: f1 f1.4 f2 f2.8 f 4 f5.6 f 8 f11 f16 f22 f32 etc

ISO 50 100 200 800 1600 3200

Explore the ‘decisive moment’ with relevant subjects. OBSERVE changes before they happen.
Shooting in continuous mode solves the problem of people blinking, but the noise is distracting.
Choice of images is better than one bad one that could have been improved at time of shooting.

ANALYSE the images you’ve already done. List similarities of what make them good images.
EXPLORE aspects of design in photso: composition, angles, lines, colour, light, contrast, patterns (rule of thirds etc), other considerations like timing and emotional / human resonance.
COMPARE and study the work of other painters / photographers.
DEVELOP your understanding by working on projects: photograph the same thing many times.
Show your best photos to people who know you, and ask them to comment on your work.
Make a BEST PHOTO file in your computer, and be harsh in selecting your best images.
These will change over time, as you get better and set a higher standard for your work.
UPLOAD your work on web forums like FLICKR; get feedback, and go public with your images.

Default WB setting is AWB, OK to use in RAW since you can change this post-production.
Use custom settings to bracket white balance, especially in subtle changes from warm to cold.
Set CUSTOM or PRESET WB by doing a test shot of a white card and see if it gives a good result. You may have to overexpose at least +2 stops (ambient +/-) to render the white tone.
This is especially useful when in a mixed lighting situation if you’re not shooting in RAW format.

If you want to be able to create consistently good photos, you have to take lots of bad ones first!

Don’t be embarrassed by this truism.

Four main things you need to be genuinely curious to learn about, to progress and enjoy:

1. Learn your camera(s) very well, use them as paintbrushes to light. Explore, investigate, test!
2. Find out how photography works! Buy books on technique, go on photography workshops!
3. Explore composition, design, aspects of what gives images the most impact. Be thorough!
4. Question your motivations and interests in photography, and work on ways to develop them.

©James Bartholomew

Email: james@jamesbartholomew.com





Like the earlier post on ‘technical things’, this list is not meant to be exhaustive.

Many students have problems in knowing how to compose, how to see, and basically what to put in the viewfinder.

My response, as always, is ‘do some work.’

If you have ever done an art or art history class, you will have come acrosss some of the subjects below, that many painters and artists working in two dimensional form will have used to good effect.

It’s a good idea to go to one of the major art galleries where you live, and just walk around, looking at what painters have put onto their canvas frames. You can also search any of these words below on google to see what other people say about them.

I’ve expanded the list for painting, to include aspects that apply more to photography. I hope the list is useful.

































©James Bartholomew

Email: james@jamesbartholomew.com




My thanks to Martin Grommel, whose wordpress post:
“100 Things Martin Grommel Learned About Photography” was humorous inspiration.

1. Always go out with a spare battery and memory card.
2. Shoot from your hip, instincts, and feelings;places other than your head.
3. Learn from the lucky accidents that occur. There are no accidents.
4. Be hopeful and observant. Take pictures without looking through the camera.
5. Notice the small details around you, as much as the big horizon
6. Look for the treasures that are offered to you. Only you can see them!
7. Find a project to work on: shoot the same thing again and again. And again.
8. Notice the sun’s actual journey in the sky: take a compass with you.
9. Have a notebook in which to write addresses, people’s names and camera tips.
10. If strangers let you photograph them, always email the results to them.
11. Join a forum like Flickr, show appreciation of photos you like, put up your own.
12. Join or start a local camera club. Make sure you go to meetings.
13. Get an inkjet printer with 6 inks, and output your best photos on A4 matt paper.
14. Find a local venue to exhibit of your finished projects. Be serious about this.
15. Always have business cards to give to people. Make contacts with others.
16. Talk to other photographers you see on the street. Don’t be competitive.
17. Take a raincoat with you, and pack one for your camera bag as well.
18. Go out at night and do street scenes with a tripod. It’s supposed to be heavy!
19. Make panoramas with photo stitching software. The results will please you.
20. Learn basic adjustments in Photoshop to maximise your image quality.
21. Shoot like you had to pay £1 for every photo you have stored on your computer.
22. Be sure to back up all your images on an external hard drive.
23. Then back up your external hard drive to a master drive.
24. Learn how to clean your image sensor with a vibrating brush (e.g. ‘Visible Dust”)
25. Explore the work of other photographers, living and dead.
26. Notice the difference of sunny and overcast light, at different times of day.
27. Shoot at dusk and dawn, and treasure these times just for you.
28. Find a friend to go shooting with in the same place. Look at the different results.
29. Find a good teacher or mentor, and go on some photography courses.
30. Becomebetter than your camera. This might take a while.
31. Equipment isn’t important, but good lenses are worth paying for. So is a good tripod.
32. Let your pictures tell a personal story. Make a photo diary.
33. Make a sequence of images as a story; write a journey of your mind’s eye with text.
34. Explore new ways to take risks, as daring as you can challenge yourself.
35. Shoot at least one new way every time you use your camera. Make lists of these.
36. Try to photograph your feelings, and do this honestly. It will show.
37. Avoid clichés and images that are not genuine for you.
38. Try at least once, to photograph only things that do not interest you at all!
39. Write a editorial story with photos on something you care about. Try to get it published.
40. Make a proper book of your photographs. Show it to people. Make another one.
41. Research local photography exhibitions where you live and go to them.
42. Always carry a camera. If your SLR is too big, buy a good compact.
43. Always shoot in raw format and learn how to post process to optimum results.
44. Make a ‘best’ folder in your computer for your best photos. Keep it to the best 100 results. Update the images at least once a month.
45. As you get better, make a ‘B’ and a ‘C’ folder, for the old photos from the ‘A’ folder.
46. Categorise your best images for a Photo Library (like Alamy) and try to sell them.
47. Don’t be afraid to look for ways to make money from your photos.
48. You will make l000s of bad photos before you start making good ones.
49. You should probably only really like a maximum of 10% of your photos. This is fine.
50. Always send good photos of people to them. They will like this. Emails are ok.
51. Explore personal things like your culture, gender, race, etc. with your photos.
52. Don’t be afraid that your photos have nothing to say in them. They do.
53. Don’t be afraid to try to let your photos say something about you. They will.
54. Remember that photography is at base a form of sun worship. Even in Britain!
55. Learn all your camera’s menus and set good defaults for it. This will save time.
56. When photographing other people, be prepared, and value their time.
57. Learn how to mix ambient light with subtle fill flash, inside and out.
58. Take as many photos as possible. Always. It’s basically free.
59. Never delete ‘bad’ photos until you learn how to do better next time.
60. Get the best exposure at the time; use the +/- button, or bracket.
61. Imagine you will never have another chance to take this photo. You won’t.
62. Learn the angle of view of both ends of your zoom lens.
63. Get a 50mm prime lens. Pay the extra for f1.4 over f1.8. It’s made better as well.
64. Use a dedicated speed light, with a diffusion screen; face on, at -1 stop,
65. Realise that your pictures are expressions of your beliefs, values and reality.
66. Realise that you can change these. Explore the values of others.
67. Recognise what attracted you to that something, and let your camera translate this.
68. Don’t be afraid to express yourself, even if you only understand what this is, later.
69. Let your camera be a subtle ingredient to events, rather than an obvious obstacle.
70. Learn to be unobtrusive with your camera (Leicas and compacts are good for this).
71. Learn from other people’s views on your photos. They are valuable.
72. Some people will not like your favourite images. This doesn’t matter.
73. Always shoot for yourself; but explore and develop your motives for this, honestly.
74. Photographs of people make them immortal to the moment, that will not come again.
75. Print all your best photos to A4 at the highest quality you can. Show them to people.
76. Keep your camera under a coat in public, and always be aware of your own safety.
77. Take pictures with your eyes closed; point accurately and use the audio focus beep.
78. Imagine that your sight is brand new. Take pictures this way. Really.
79. Learn the differences between your review screen, computer monitor, and prints.
80. Try movement and night shots with different shutter speeds, panning and zoom blur.
81. Don’t miss a shot by being afraid to get your clothes dirty from kneeling or lying down.
82. Learn about artistic methods of composing; these apply to photography as well.
83. Investigate rule of thirds, leading lines, colours, contrast and shapes of composition.
84. Close one eye to see things like a camera (in two dimensions instead of three).
85. Squint, to anticipate the tonal limitations of the digital medium, relative to your eye.
86. Never take only one photo of something. Look around you. Wait. Be aware.
86. Always explore different zoom positions before you shoot. That’s what it’s for.
87. Brace the camera against something solid at slow speeds, rather than up your ISO.
88. Always buy the best lenses you can, the same brand as your camera.
89. Read reviews on equipment before buying it. Don’t follow fashions.
90. Shoot in Raw at auto White balance and change it afterwards if you need to.
91. Use a Mac instead of a PC. If you can’t afford one, try someone else’s. You’ll like it.
92. Download your images on a card reader, so you can do this on any computer.
93. Explore the results from using different apertures: wide open or stopped down.
94. Always look at the exposure numbers before you take a photo.
95. Remember that shutter speeds slower than 1/60s will blur your photos.
96. Believe that you are a good photographer, and you will be one.
97. Don’t be frustrated by bad results. You are as good as you want to be.
98. You have to learn about photography as well as your camera. And compostion. And your motives.
99. Photography is an endless journey of seeing yourself in images.
100. Be passionate about your journey. Enjoy it. With luck, your images will outlast you.

James Bartholomew

Email: james@jamesbartholomew.com




Especially if you’re a beginner, this list is useful for two reasons.

One, if you’re having problems translating your camera’s instruction manual into plain english, you need to get used to the words and terms used in photography (this stands for film as well as digital). Once you begin to look at what the options are for each topic below, you’ll begin to understand where they all fit in to both the workings of your camera, and also the physics of photography (which is basically as simple as light recording an image on film or a digital sensor.

Two, though you don’t have to use all of these controls, if you know what they are, you can choose which ones to use!

This list is not meant to be exhaustive (!). One thing that would be very useful is to get one of those nifty little ‘Moleskine” notebooks (the smaller the better), make notes in it (start with the ‘golden rules” – I’ll leave you to decide which ones these are), and put it in your camera bag. What do you mean, you don’t have a camera bag? Get one! Tamrac rucksacks are the best, though there seems to be a distribution problem for these in the UK. LowePro are good too.

NB: re. camera rucksacks. Don’t ever put your laptop computer in the pocket at the back of your rucksack and carry it around, or worst still, put the rucksack on your motorcycle and bungee it over your top box. If you do (you have a Mac, don’t you?), the thin aluminium (aluminum to my American friends) will buckle, the whole thing will bend, and even if it’s under warrantee, Apple will tell you to take a hike. Which is probably a good thing to do with your camera anyway!





































©James Bartholomew

Email: james@jamesbartholomew.com




Traditionally, film cameras had set shutter speeds, usually from 1 second to 1/1000second. These were timed with a spring shutter, which did not allow interim settings between these speeds.

Lenses for film cameras, pre-auto focus, usually had a ring to set apertures, which often had clicks for making stop and half stop settings.

ISO (ASA) settings on film cameras are for film speeds. These are calibrated in 1/3 stops, since some films (e.g. Ilford FP4: 125 ISO) are not made at whole stop settings. The same ISO must be used for a whole film, but can be changed in digital cameras according to the light value present.

Film camera lenses were first made in prime focal lengths, ie. without zoom. The standard lens for 35mm cameras is 50mm, which gives the same angle of view as the human eye (45 degrees), and also shows the same perspective (for relative distances of different subjects) as the human eye.

NB: since the size of consumer digital cameras is 1.5x smaller than ‘full frame’ (whole 35mm film format), the ‘standard’ lens for these cameras is also 1.5x less than 50mm, or around 32mm. BUT: since 35mm constitutes a wide angle lens, which has the characteristic of exaggerating perspective, there is still more perspective distortion with a ‘normal’ focal length lens on a small chip camera, compared with a full frame camera system.

White Balance (WB) is the correct colour balance of the image relative to the colour temperature (degrees Kelvin) of the ambient or flash light source in the scene. Colour film is available only in two white balances: daylight and tungsten (changes for other light sources have to be made with lighting or camera filters). Digital cameras have settings for individual light sources; sun, cloud, overcast (shade), tungsten, florescent, flash and preset or custom, as well as auto white balance.

Film cameras record data on the film at one quality setting, usually relative to the ISO of the film (lower ISO films record finer colour and sharper detail). Digital cameras can be set to different File and Image sizes (quality), though it’s best to record data at the highest quality setting. Film also records colour, sharpness, saturation and contrast relative to the light source and subject, but digital cameras can be set at different ‘perameters’ or ‘picture styles’ for these characteristics.

Digital cameras offer features with the review image of photos just taken, including auto rotate and magnifying the image detail. Since film images are not available for viewing or printing until the film has been developed, there is no way to see or review the final image from a film camera before this stage. Professional photographers shooting film often use instant ‘Polaroid’ camera backs which allow them to review this image, though usually this isn’t available on 35mm format cameras.

Film records tone and colour most accurately using exposure to calculate shadow detail and development to render highlight detail. Digital media only has one process in exposure, except that shooting in ‘Raw’ (unprocessed) format allows for greater adjustment of things like exposure and white balance. It’s thought that film, properly exposed and processed, shows a greater tonal, colour and contrast range than digital for this reason, especially in black and white.

© James Bartholomew 2009

Email: james@jamesbartholomew.com




The following are essential calibration tests that can be done either with a compact or SLR digital camera, and will help you to become both more familiar with your particular camera, and be more likely to get the best use from it.


The best way to judge the results of all of these tests is to print them out (photo in ink jet prints) at A4. Failing this, all images should be viewed (with Photoshop, or any picture viewing software) on your computer’s monitor, at a size of 200–300%. Remember that actual screen resolution is 92 dpi.


In different lighting situations, take pictures using ‘AUTO’ white balance, and also the specific white balance calibrated for that lighting balance. These include (usually shown by symbols on your camera): sunlight; cloud; overcast; tungsten; fluorescent (often more than one of these); flash; and ‘Preset’ or ‘Custom’ white balance. For best results, take pictures using all of these for every shot. You can then get to know when your Auto white balance is good enough, and when you instead need to set the camera for the specific light balance you are in. Compare visual results carefully.


Take a piece of clean A4 white paper, hold it in the same light you are shooting in, and make a test shot of just this (filling the whole frame), following the camera’s instructions under the ‘Custom’ white balance setting. This is the most accurate way to achieve neutral white for the light you’re in.


ISO is the sensitivity of your recording chip, to light. Low ISOs need more exposure (slower shutter speed and / or larger aperture) or light; higher number settings need less. Generally for best enlargement capability, use the lowest ISO you can (see ‘Minimum Shutter Speed Test), since the higher ISO you use, the more ‘noise’ or grain will show in your image resolution (colour/sharpness).

Choose a light situation that will allow you to use all the ISO settings; maybe outside in daytime but not in direct sunshine. Set your exposure mode to ‘Program’, and take pictures using all the ISO settings in turn (the full range is 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, but your camera may have fewer settings). The exposure will change each time (e.g. going from 50 to 1600 ISO, exposure might be: 1/60s@f4; 1/60s@f5.6; 1/60s@f8; 1/125s@f8; 1/250s@f8; 1/500s@f8).

The best way to determine how high an ISO you can use, with an acceptable level of noise, is to print out all these images at A4. Usually anything higher than 400 ISO is thought to be too grainy for good enlargements.


Similar to the ISO test, you need to find a lighting situation where you can do several exposures of the same thing, at different shutter speeds (a low ISO is best to judge the results. A subject with a lot of fine detail, sharp texture, or straight lines is best. Set your camera on Shutter priority (S, or TV), and do use the following shutter speeds, hand holding the camera (these are fraction, but appear as whole numbers on your display): 250; 200; 160; 125; 100; 80; 60; 50; 40; 30; 25; 20; 15; 10. This means you will have shot from 1/250s to 1/10s in 1/3 stop increments. Look at all of the images at 200-300% on your computer screen, and decide which first shot shows an unacceptable level of camera shake. This is usually below 1/60 or 1/50 second. The image with the slowest shutter speed showing sharp detail with no blur is your minimum shutter speed for hand held shots.

For long focal length lenses (100mm or above, for full frame cameras), you need to assume that the lowest shutter speed for hand held shots is using 1/focal length of the lens: e.g. 1/250s for a 250mm lens, etc. You can also do the same test as above, with long lenses; particularly useful for lenses with an image stabilizing mechanism (which can allow you to get away with much lower shutter speeds than otherwise).


This is an easy one. It’s a good idea anyway, if you have one, to set your camera to give you an audible signal (beep) when the lens is focussed on your subject. Also, be aware of the auto focus area in your viewfinder (usually best in the middle).

Simply move yourself closer and closer to a subject to find the minimum distance at which the lens will focus on the subject. You can try this with the whole range of a zoom lens, and also with and without any macro settings (sometimes shown as a flower symbol). Some lenses have a special macro setting at the wide angle to normal end of the lens (especially on some compact camera models), and can focus very close. The actual minimum focus distance may be different at different focal lengths of the same zoom lens (often a longer distance for the telephoto end). With this in mind and also the fact that beyond 50mm (around 35mm on small sensor sized cameras) you need to assume 1/focal length as longest hand held shutter speed, it’ useful to test both the wide angle and the telephoto end of each zoom lens,.

The best results for really close up work (down to a ratio of 1:1 or life size), you have to use a macro lens which is designed for this. Usually these are very sharp lenses, and 60-100mm focal length lenses are good for close up portrait work as well as closer macro shots.

Remember that you need to use a shorter shutter speed for longer lenses (see above); also (very important), that the closer you get to a subject, the less depth of field you will get.


Whether you’re using zoom or fixed focal length lenses on your camera, it’s a good idea to get an accurate sense of the angle of view (this is how wide your lens goes) and field of view (the composition contained within the frame) each lens covers.

You can do this at each end of a zoom lens, either using your hands spread out, fingers touching, or any other visual tool that will help you to know the limits of what you will get from every lens focal length, before you pick up the camera. If you’re using a DSLR and have more than one lens, at least you will come to know which lens to put on to get the shot you want.

Remember: wide-angle lenses have a wider angle of view and distort (expand) perspective and relative distances, while telephoto lenses compress (shorten) both of these, and show a narrower angle of view.


The +/- button on your camera is the most useful editing tool you have. Get used to looking at the first shot you make, on your viewing screen, and then making a decision as to whether you need to adjust the exposure to make it more accurate. You can often use one adjusted exposure for several series if the ambient light remains the same. Get an idea of how much to adjust; one third, two thirds, or a stop or more. Often 2/3 of a stop is a good default. Remember that your camera’s built-in light meter will only read light reflected off all the subjects within your composition, that will always give you an exposure based on an ‘average’ scene (18% grey), whereas many compositions will not be average. For a quick version of this, you can always set your camera to AEB (auto expose bracket), which will give you three shots spread across the exposure range you set it; and if you also use ‘multi’ instead of ‘single shooting, you can then keep your finger on the shutter button and only knock off three frames.


This feature is either found in your menu or on the fascia of your camera back with this symbol:  +/-. It is also good to set this and leave it at a default setting, either -1 or -2 stops, depending on how far away from your foreground subject (usually people) you are. To get more power from a built-in flash on your camera you can always set the compensation into the plus, but you may find that the results are garish and not subtle.

Remember if you’re shooting in low light (say at a restaurant) and want to use the built-in flash to give more light, not to use the Program setting. If you do, the default shutter speed (which you can’t change) is 1/60 of a second, when probably the ambient light isn’t enough for this, and you would need a much slower speed like 1/15 or even 1/8 second. Also if you use the flash on full power it will try to light everything it sees including all distant parts of the composition, which it can’t do – instead making the foreground subjects much too light.

Instead, set the camera to TV or S (shutter priority), find the correct exposure for the ‘ambient’ (existing) light, and test how much to reduce the flash output by trying one shot at -1 and one at -2 stops. Flash will freeze movement, so if you’re careful (on auto white balance) you will get an image that won’t overexpose the foreground with the fill-in flash, and also has a more realistic ambient-light background light balance by using the appropriate slow shutter speed.

© James Bartholomew 2009

Email: james@jamesbartholomew.com




Most settings for all digital cameras out of the factory, are good ones.

Having said this, it’s a good idea to look at settings to leave to the camera, and which would be better to adjust yourself.

Often on the top dial there are a set of “idiot modes” as well as the useful ones (Program, Shutter and Aperture Priority, and Manual). Actually these are not such idiot modes, if you look at the settings (shutter speeds, apertures and ISO) the camera chooses for each mode (usually portrait, speed, landscape and closeup) and understand why the camera chose them.

Unfortunately, compact cameras ususally have much harder menus either to navigate or understand (this is why I recommend either Canon or Nikon DSLRs to new students – though the Canon Powershot G10 is a beauty), and the worst ones – you know, cameras that look like a small silver cigarette case with a retracting lens) don’t even show the exposure settings (shutter speed, aperture and ISO – the essential ingredients to an exposure that you need to pay attention to).

You want to be able to pick up your camera and use it straight away, and take good pictures. There’s nothing more frustrating for you – and people you may want to photograph – to stand there, scratch your head and wonder where to start.

Below is where to start. Once you’re happy with the basic settings, go on to my ‘Digital Camera Tests” to fine-tune other settings to a point where the camera is a tool to use, and simply an extension of your instinct, and hand-eye coordination.

If you have any questions, drop me an email; or better yet, sign up to one of my London based photo workshops!

ISO: Set ‘400’ (or appropriate for the strength of light)
Choose the ISO setting appropriate to each different lighting condition. Since the exposure on a sunny day (for example) is 1/ISO (as a shutter speed) @ f16, 100 ISO is best for sunshine, since 1/100s is fine (generally the minimum hand held shutter speed you can use is 1/60s).

Here’s a rough guide to choosing the right ISO for different light conditions:

100: daylight / strong sunshine (watch those deep shadows!)
200: light cloud hazy sun
400: shadow, heavy cloud, overcast, some inside shots near window light
800: most indoors where there is low ambient light (usually tungsten, since this is normal household light)
1600: safe for all indoors, especially concerts, pubs, restaurants and night indoor events (buthigh ISO gives you noise)

NB: rule of thumb is: use the LOWEST ISO that will give you 1/60 shutter speed (unless you want blur)

SHOOTING MODE: (Outside with or without flash, or inside without flash) Set ‘P’ (Avoid ‘Auto’)
The only four choices to consider are Program (P), Shutter Priority (S or TV), Aperture Priority (A or AV, and manual (M). P is usually the best and quickest shooting mode, since the camera’s exposure meter will give you both the shutter speed and aperture (lhs and Rhys of your viewfinder) for an average exposure. Set an ISO high enough to use at least 1/60s to avoid camera shake..

This is what interprets the best colour (temperature) for each lighting condition. Choices (using symbols) are: Auto (AWB), Sun, Cloud, Shade (Overcast), Tungsten (Incandescent: household lighting), Florescent (Offices), Flash, K (degrees Kelvin) and Cust/Pre (Custom or Preset). AWB is ok for most situations, but not as accurate as the setting appropriate to the light condition you’re in.

As your most useful editing tool, you will learn much about non-average ambient exposure settings by using this with your review image. If the image is too dark, hold the +/- button and move the mark to +. If too light, move the setting into -. Experiment how much: 2/3 to 1 stop is good. Taking more photos at this setting, your next pictures will be better. Remember to reset to the default of 0.

FLASH EXPOSURE COMPENSATION ( +/-): Set ‘-1’ or ‘-2’ (stops)
Do a flash test inside (shooting mode ‘S/TV’) with a person up to 6’, then further away. In shutter priority mode, set the shutter speed to allow the correct ambient exposure (speed will be < 1/60s), and set the flash exposure compensation either to -1 or -2, depending on distance. You may find that with indoor flash balanced well with a slow ambient exposure, setting the WB to flash () gives more accurate colour balance for the person, though this may not be accurate for the ambient light.

EXPOSURE METERING (Ambient Light): Set ‘Average’, ‘Matrix’ (Nikon) or ‘’ (Canon)
Set your exposure metering to enable your meter to read the light from the whole composition; this gives you the best chance of getting accurate exposures. Avoid spot or centre weighted metering.

AF (Auto focus) Point: Set ‘Single, Centre Spot’
The AF display points in your viewfinder are set in a pattern, and any one of these squares can be the focus point (lenses only focus in one place!). Setting the focus to Single (not Continuous) focus, and setting the middle AF point, allows you to set the focus in the middle of your composition and get both visual and audio focus confirmation (if ‘beep setting is on). ‘Auto’ causes the lens to focus on the nearest object to the camera not good) and Continuous disallows the beep.

AUTO FOCUS LOCK (AF/L): Set using Shutter button (separate from Auto Expose Lock (AE/L)
Use this (press shutter button halfway down) to lock ONLY the focus, on centre point with beep and visual focus confirmation (use AF settings above) and recompose your composition in your viewfinder. This action is separate from also locking your exposure (AE/L), which is done using the ‘snowflake’ button. Check to see if your camera’s default setting, separating these two, applies.

FILE SIZE / IMAGE SIZE: Set ‘Large’, ‘High’, ‘Best’, etc.
Always use the highest file size and image size for your camera. With Canon, be aware that you get the same pixel count by using Large with the step symbol as Large with the curve sign. If you shoot in Raw format, you need software to process the images (CS4 or Nikon/Canon View, etc).

PICTURE STYLE / PERAMETERS: Set ‘Neutral’ or ‘Faithful’ (Canon) or ‘0’ (Nikon)
These adjust the settings usually for sharpness, contrast, saturation and colour tone. It’s best to have all these set at 0, so you can change them afterwards from a neutral default setting.

AUTO ROTATE (vertical): Set ‘On’ for computer, ‘Off’ for the camera
The problem with your camera rotating the vertical images on the review screen is they appear half sized compared to horizontal shots. You can set auto rotate ‘on for computers but ‘off for camera.

SHOOTING MODE DRIVE: Set to ‘Single’ (unless shooting moving subjects or using bracketing)
Single shooting is better than ‘Mulit’ for card space and choosing decisive moments to shoot. If using ‘Multi’ shooting, use Continuous Focus / AI servo mode for moving subjects (no AF point).

BRACKETING: Set to ‘AEB’ (Canon) or ‘Bracket Set’ (Nikon), usually +/- 1 stop
Not all Nikons have bracketing. It’s good to bracket 3 shots when not sure of the right exposure or you don’t have time to readjust s/s and aperture settings. Set shooting order sequence to: – / 0 / +.

FORMATTING MEMORY CARD: Use ‘Format’ after downloading (and backing up) images
Download images with a card reader (not cable to camera) for any computer. Use Firewire 400 if your computer has a slot for this (x5 faster than USB). Don’t forget to backup all your data from computer to an external HD! Format card in the camera to zero out data and remove empty folders.

AUTO FOCUS: Use ‘M’ or ‘MF’ (instead of AF) for solid colour / tone subjects
AF will work in most light situations including night street scenes where there are streetlights. But AF doesn’t work pointed at any solid tone or colour object without texture or contrast. If focus is set to AF the camera won’t work; so in these situations, move focus to Manual (M or MF).

‘SHOOT (camera) WITHOUT CARD’: Use ‘Off’
This is only useful to have in the ‘On’ setting if you want to check or reset something on your camera when it doesn’t have a card in it. Otherwise, if you forget that you’ve got the card somewhere else, you might pick the camera up and start shooting, but the images won’t be recorded or saved to anything, since there is no internal memory in digital cameras.

EYEPIECE DIOPTER: Use centre mark (middle), or adjust for your eyesight
This is the tiny scroll wheel just above the eyepiece of your camera. Often it gets knocked off the right setting, and you seem not to be able to focus the lens, even though your pictures are fine. There is usually a thin shiny mark on the scroll wheel in the middle of the turn, which should be your default setting for 20/20 vision. But if means you could pick up the camera without your glasses (if you wear them) and quickly set the right focus for your eye, up to +/- two diopters.

© James Bartholomew

Email: james@jamesbartholomew.com