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How to Set Up Your New Camera – Everything You Need to Know

Rajib Mukherjee Avatar
Rajib Mukherjee
30 October, 2023 • Updated 22 days ago
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Man taking photo of river using DSLR camera

Why Proper Camera Setup is Essential

Every photographer has their own way of making the best of their camera and every camera has a ton of customizable options with which it can be fine-tuned for your specific shooting requirements.
Black Canon SLR camera attached on gorillapod

Setting your camera up to be your creative companion can be overwhelming, so this article will touch on everything you could possibly want to know, starting at the very beginning.

Let’s unbox the camera.

Unboxing Your Camera

camera gear on floor

Before you start using your new camera, it’s crucial to ensure that everything is in order inside the box. Begin by checking that all the components and accessories are present. If your camera comes with a kit lens, be sure to find the lens hood, front and rear lens caps, and any accompanying cables.

Equally important is the inclusion of the manual. While seasoned users may be tempted to set it aside, even they can benefit from a review. New cameras often introduce unique features that warrant a thorough read-through.

I learned this lesson firsthand. During a landscape shoot, I discovered I couldn’t adjust the focus point using the multi-selector button on the back of my Nikon D7000. It took me some time to realize the issue. Had I consulted the manual upon receiving the camera, I would have found an entire section dedicated to this function. Now, I keep a digital copy of the manual readily accessible on my device at all times.

Handling Camera Components

Attaching the Lens

man Attaching the Lens on camera

Attaching a lens may seem like a straightforward task, but it can surprisingly pose a challenge for many on their first attempt. However, with practice, it can become second nature. Most contemporary interchangeable lens camera systems utilize the bayonet mount, with both lenses and camera bodies featuring distinctive markings. Take a moment to ensure that these markers align perfectly, indicating a correct match.

If you’d like more information, I have written a detailed article on lens mounts and how to pair a lens with a camera body.

See also: Types of Camera Lenses

Detaching the Lens

black camera body

Most camera systems will have a small button somewhere around the lens mount on the camera body that functions as the lens release mechanism. Press that button to retract the mount tabs and twist the lens by hand in the reverse direction to unmount.

Installing the Battery

women Installing the Battery on Camera

The battery slot is typically located at the bottom plate of the camera, though there may be variations. Verify the exact position of the battery compartment on your specific camera.

Remember to use a fully charged battery for extended usage, and always have a spare on hand for emergencies. Running out of power during a shoot is the last thing you’d want!

Inserting Memory Cards

A hand holding a camera

The memory card slot(s) are typically located on the side of the camera, although some systems may have one on the bottom plate. For instance, the Sony A7 III has its memory card slot on the left side, while the Nikon D7000 offers twin SD card slots on the right. Conversely, the Canon 1500D has a single slot at the bottom.

Refer to your manual for the memory card symbol to pinpoint the correct placement.

Keep in mind that not all memory cards are compatible with every camera, and vice versa. Certain cameras, especially those capable of advanced 4K recording at higher frame rates, necessitate faster cards like CFexpress.

Some camera systems offer dual memory card slots, accommodating either two SD cards or a combination of SD and another format. My Nikon D850, for example, features twin slots – one for SDXC and the other for CFexpress. I opt to save raw files on the faster CFexpress card and JPEGs on the SDXC card.

Understanding the Buttons and Dials

DSLR camera in the hands of a photographer

The Mode Dial

The Mode Dial, located on the top left of your camera, enables you to change the shooting mode. You may encounter terms like P, A, S, and M, which stand for Program Mode, Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority Mode, and Manual Mode respectively. These represent the four primary shooting modes available on a camera.

The Mode Dial empowers you to seamlessly switch between these modes, granting control over crucial exposure settings like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. For beginners, there’s also an automatic mode that handles these factors automatically.

Scene Modes

camera on a wooden surface

Various camera makes and models offer a selection of Scene modes. These modes provide convenient access to predefined shooting settings tailored to specific scenes.

They are designed for swift and straightforward adjustments to achieve balanced exposure in diverse lighting and scenes. However, it’s important to note that these modes offer limited creative flexibility.

Customizable Modes

Depending on your camera’s make and model, you may have multiple customizable modes. These allow you to save various shooting settings for quick and effortless recall. For instance, if you frequently shoot indoor portraits with specific lighting setups, you can save these settings for instant use in future sessions. Nikon’s professional and semi-professional cameras often feature dedicated U1 and U2 buttons for this purpose.

 Understanding the Release Mode Dial

Black DSLR camera

The Release Mode, known by different terms in various camera brands, governs how the camera shutter reacts when you press the Shutter Release button. There are three primary release modes:

Single Frame

Dresser beside sofa

Ideal for stationary subjects like products, macros, or portraits, this mode captures a single image per shutter press.

Continuous

Wavy ocean during daytime

This mode fires off a series of frames, making it perfect for capturing moving subjects. You can choose between lower and higher continuous frame rates based on your subject. Sports and high-speed action benefit from higher rates, while lower rates suffice for more static subjects.

Quiet Shutter Release

White wooden bookcase

Particularly useful in noise-sensitive environments like churches or libraries, this mode dampens the mirror reset function, reducing the audible sound of each shot.

Note: With mirrorless cameras, these modes might be redundant due to the absence of a physical mirror.

Navigating the Camera Menu

A camera sitting on top of a wooden table next to a keyboard

The camera menu grants access to advanced features and, in some systems, basic camera functions. As menu layouts vary by make and model, it’s recommended to consult your camera’s manual for specific details.

Setting the Date and Time

Person holding black dslr camera

In every camera, you’ll find an option in the Menu system to set the time, date, and location details. Refer to your camera’s manual for the exact location.

Importance of Accurate Timestamps

Accurate date and time settings are crucial for organizing and archiving files correctly. Incorrect timestamps can lead to files being sorted into the wrong folders. To ensure data integrity, consider implementing a backup system, like a RAID 1 architecture with mirrored external drives. This safeguards your files, even if an incorrect date and time are initially set on the camera.

Exposure Compensation Button

Blue skies filled of stars

In priority modes (aperture or shutter), you can use the exposure compensation button to adjust exposure parameters. For example, you can modify shutter speed in aperture priority mode to capture motion blur.

By using the exposure compensation button, you would be able to force a slower or faster shutter speed by telling the camera how much exposure compensation you need. So, let’s say that your camera is recommending a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec, but you need to slow down the shutter speed to capture motion blur, you can apply exposure compensation and slow down the shutter speed to 1/500 or anything that you need.

In the same way, you can adjust the aperture value when shooting in the Shutter Priority mode.

Please also keep in mind that both the Auto mode and the Manual mode do not allow you to use the Exposure Compensation button.

Choosing the Right Shooting Mode

Selecting the appropriate shooting mode depends on your proficiency level and the shoot’s requirements. Camera modes typically include Program Mode, Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority Mode, and Manual Mode.

Auto Mode vs. Manual Mode

camera mode selection

Auto mode generally provides decent exposure in various lighting conditions but lacks creative control. Priority modes (aperture or shutter) offer more control over exposure values. Manual mode provides complete control over exposure and depth of field if you are comfortable with using this mode.

Setting ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed

DSLR camera at 200 display

ISO

Many entry-level camera systems lack a dedicated ISO button. Instead, accessing the ISO option often involves navigating through the camera’s menu system. This limitation prompts my recommendation for aspiring photographers to consider investing in at least a semi-professional camera. These models typically feature an array of buttons and dials on the camera body, granting direct access to priority shooting functions.

If your camera doesn’t have a dedicated ISO button, you’ll need to delve into the menu to find the ISO functionality. Once located, select your preferred ISO value and confirm by pressing OK.

In certain scenarios, opting for Auto ISO proves beneficial, as the camera can intelligently adjust the ISO based on available lighting conditions. However, there are situations where manually setting the lowest ISO value is crucial. This choice ensures a broader dynamic range and a cleaner, less noisy image.

It’s worth noting that crop-sensor cameras often exhibit more noise at higher ISO settings. This is a key reason why professional photographers often lean towards full-frame cameras, particularly those with superior noise-handling capabilities and a wider dynamic range.

Aperture

In the previous segments, I discussed the importance of adjusting aperture and shutter speed. Now, let’s delve into the specific process of making these adjustments.

First, let’s focus on the aperture value. To alter this setting, set your camera to either aperture priority mode or manual mode. Additionally, in shutter priority mode, you can use exposure compensation to adjust the aperture.

The process of changing aperture and shutter speed varies from camera to camera. Some models equipped with two command dials allow you to adjust one exposure parameter with the main dial and the other with the sub-dial. Other cameras have only one command dial.

For instance, consider the Nikon D5500, a popular entry-level camera. In aperture priority mode, turning the command dial left increases the aperture, while turning it right reduces it. In manual mode, if your camera has two command dials, adjusting exposure values is more straightforward. However, for cameras with just one command dial, a combination of buttons and the dial is used to make these adjustments.

For the Nikon D5500 in manual mode, the command dial controls shutter speed. To adjust the aperture value, press and hold the exposure compensation button beside the shutter button, then turn the command dial. Keep in mind that entry-level cameras may take a fraction longer to adjust both exposure values.

Shutter Speed

In shutter priority mode, when you turn the main command dial of the D5500 to the left, the shutter speed decreases, resulting in a longer exposure. This setting is perfect for capturing effects like motion blur, light trails, and achieving long-exposure photography.

Conversely, turning the command dial to the right will increase the shutter speed. This means you’ll get a faster shutter speed, which is ideal for freezing fast-action moments, making it great for sports and other high-speed photography scenarios.

Focusing Techniques

In essence, focusing involves maximizing the contrast to achieve the sharpest image possible. However, in practice, when you’re framing a subject and fine-tuning the focus, your goal extends beyond contrast. You’re aiming for superior sharpness and resolution.

As you make focus adjustments, whether by turning the manual focusing ring or pressing the shutter release, minute focusing elements within the lens barrel begin to shift. This precise movement is geared toward creating a sharp representation of the subject on the camera’s sensor, ensuring clarity in your captured image.

Manual vs. Autofocus

A person taking a picture with a camera

Autofocusing involves pressing the shutter release button on a camera to achieve focus. On the contrary, manual focusing requires turning the manual focusing ring, either clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on the camera’s make and model, to attain focus.

The advantage of manual focusing lies in the absence of a dedicated autofocusing motor inside the lens or camera body, allowing for precise focusing adjustments. Many legacy lenses lack an autofocusing motor yet remain compatible with modern camera bodies, making them viable as straightforward manual focusing lenses.

Certain camera lenses can only achieve autofocus when coupled with camera bodies equipped with an autofocusing motor. For instance, Nikon’s professional and semi-professional cameras incorporate a body-based focusing motor, enabling them to function with legacy lenses devoid of an autofocusing motor.

Take, for instance, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, a legacy lens without an autofocusing motor. However, when used with a Nikon camera featuring a body-based AF motor, this lens can achieve autofocus. Hence, for autofocus functionality, either the camera body or the lens must possess a built-in auto-focusing motor.

Using Focus Points

All interchangeable lens cameras come equipped with multiple focusing points. While some are user-selectable, others are fixed, contingent on the camera’s make and model.

For instance, let’s consider a camera with an 11-point AF system featuring a central cross-type AF point.

Selecting a focusing point can be accomplished through various methods. Some cameras feature a small joystick at the back, facilitating the movement of the focusing point. I’ve found this to be a particularly convenient way to navigate the AF points, especially when composing off-center shots.

In contrast, entry-level cameras, among others, necessitate the use of a multi-selector button located at the rear for similar adjustments.

It’s crucial to note that different focusing modes are available, with the choice dependent on the subject being photographed.

You have the option to choose between three major AF modes. Nikon camera systems employ the terms – AF-S, AF-C, and AF-A. On the other hand, Canon camera systems use the terms – One Shot, AI Focus, and AI Servo.

The AF-S mode is most effective for focus-and-recompose techniques. For instance, when capturing a stationary subject, employing the AF-S mode ensures a sharp photo.

However, when dealing with a moving subject, the AF-S mode proves less suitable. In such cases, the AF-C mode, which continually adjusts focus while the shutter button is depressed, is more appropriate. This mode is especially valuable for birds, wildlife, sports, and action photography.

The AF-A mode is well-suited for scenarios where you’re uncertain about the optimal focusing mode to use. For example, if your subject is initially stationary but then begins to move, the AF-A (or the AI Focus AF) mode will seamlessly switch between the other two focusing modes as needed.

Back-button Focusing

digital photo camera controls

Back-button focusing is an immensely effective shooting technique. It essentially divides the traditional tasks of focus lock and shutter release. In practice, this means designating a specific button located at the rear of the camera (hence the term “back button focusing”) to assume the role of focus locking, while the shutter release button retains its primary function of releasing the shutter curtains.

This division of functions significantly enhances your ability to focus and recompose swiftly. With the shutter release button initiating the focusing process before releasing the shutter, there’s no risk of inadvertently altering the focus point when recomposing. This issue can sometimes arise when using the traditional focus-and-recompose method. Employing back-button focusing effectively mitigates this problem.

Which button to assign as the back button for focusing?

The first time I ever tried this was with my old Nikon D7000. If you look at the back of the camera there is an AE-L/AF-L button. I assigned this as the focusing button. Of course, you can check the menu system of your particular camera and the button layout to figure out which button to assign as the focusing button.

White Balance Configuration

White petaled flower on white

White balance adjustment is a critical aspect of shooting photos in any kind of lighting and there are dozens of techniques to adjust the white balance during post-processing, I always recommend choosing the correct white balance at the time of shooting as it then requires minimal adjustment when editing your photos.

Adjusting White Balance Settings

White Balance ensures that colors appear natural and untinted. You can achieve this in various ways:

First, on some semi-professional and professional cameras, there’s a dedicated white balance button. Pressing WB and turning the main dial allows you to adjust the white balance.

Alternatively, you can select from preset options such as Snow Scene, Shade, Fluorescent, and others available in your camera.

Some cameras even offer the option to choose a specific color temperature value. This is particularly useful when shooting under artificial lights with known color temperatures.

Finally, you can set a custom white balance. Simply take a shot of a white target, ensuring it fills the frame, and then use it as the reference for custom white balance settings.

Image Quality and File Format

JPEG abbreviation on a photo belt with a DSLR camera in the background

Your choice of image quality and format depends on your proficiency level and whether you plan to edit your images.

For casual shooters sharing photos on social media, shooting in raw may not be necessary. It saves space and eliminates the need for extensive editing.

However, if you’re deeply invested in photography and seek complete control over aspects like noise, color, contrast, and lighting, exploring the RAW option is essential.

The JPEG vs. RAW debate goes beyond the scope of this discussion.

Selecting the Right Image Quality

If you’re planning to shoot exclusively in RAW, you may skip this segment. This is intended for users who are opting for JPEG or a combination of RAW+JPEG.

Now, let’s delve into image quality considerations.

Every camera offers at least three options for JPEG image quality: Fine, Normal, and Basic. I’ll be using standard Nikon terminology, but your specific camera may use different terms. Generally, these terms are interchangeable.

The Fine option results in a larger file size, providing the advantage of producing larger prints.

The Basic option yields the smallest file size, but sacrifices resolution, limiting your ability to create large prints.

The Normal option strikes a balance between file size and print size.

Image Stabilization Settings

Modern cameras come with two different types of image stabilization systems (IS). The first one is the lens-based IS and the second is the camera body-based IS.

If your camera uses a lens-based IS, you’ll find a button on the lens body labeled with terms like image stabilization, IS, VR, O.I.S, or similar. Simply switch the button to the “On” position to activate IS.

Certain lenses offer additional options. You may have the ability to choose between multiple IS modes. For instance, super telephoto lenses may provide two or more modes.

One of these modes is the Panning-Assist, designed for capturing fast-moving subjects along a predictable straight-line path. Another mode activates IS only when you fully press the shutter release button, ideal for subjects with unpredictable movement.

Alternatively, you can deactivate IS when shooting with a tripod setup.

To enable or disable in-body IS, you’ll need to access the menu options. The exact process will vary depending on the make and model of your camera.

Metering Modes

Metering modes play a crucial role in determining how much of the scene your camera uses to assess and adjust the exposure. Metering involves evaluating the available light and setting the appropriate exposure value.

The specific metering modes available can vary based on your camera’s make and model. For instance, older Nikon systems offered three metering modes: spot, matrix, and center-weighted. Modern Nikon cameras have introduced a fourth mode called highlight-weighted.

camera display

Canon systems, on the other hand, provide four metering modes: evaluative, center-weighted, spot metering, and partial metering. Let’s take a brief look at each:

Matrix (Evaluative) Metering: This mode considers the majority of the frame to assess the available light and determine the exposure value.

Spot Metering: It uses about 1.5% of the frame, focusing solely on that area to calculate the correct exposure value.

Center-Weighted Metering: While it evaluates the entire frame, it places special emphasis on the center when determining the correct exposure value.

Partial Metering (Canon): Exclusive to Canon cameras, this mode employs a larger portion of the frame compared to spot metering to gauge the scene and estimate the exposure value.

Choosing the Right Metering Mode

Selecting the appropriate metering mode is essential for accurately assessing the exposure value of a scene. This typically involves pressing a designated button and then adjusting either the main or sub-command dial. In certain camera systems, accessing the menu may be necessary to locate and change the metering mode option.

Setting Up the Image Play option

One adjustment I promptly make when I receive a new camera is configuring the LCD to perform a swift image review after each shot. Many entry-level camera systems do not have this review feature activated by default; instead, they display the shooting controls showing settings like shutter speed, ISO, aperture, and others.

I achieve this by setting the LCD to momentarily display the last captured image before returning to the shooting mode.

Using Built-in Flash

A majority of the professional and a lot of the semi-professional camera systems don’t have a built-in flash. Only entry-level camera systems have this feature.

The built-in flash is a pop-up flash that flips out automatically in Auto mode, but in the other modes, you’ve to flip it out using the flash release button.

Understanding Flash Modes

The built-in flash can be used in the following modes:

Fill flash

This mode emits just enough light to fill in shadows, making it ideal for daytime shots under direct sunlight.

Rear curtain sync

Use this mode when photographing a moving subject. It fires the flash just before the second curtain of the camera starts to move, freezing potential movement and ensuring a relatively blur-free subject.

Red-eye reduction

This mode eliminates any dreaded red-eye effect when you shoot portrait images with the flash turned on.

Conclusion

The above are most of the major camera set-up options that are necessary for you to get started with your shiny new camera. This is, however, not a comprehensive guideline and as stated before, read your manual, read your manual and … read your manual.

Rajib Mukherjee Avatar
Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV!
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