The marvelous thing about a good camera (DSLR, or even advanced Point & Shoot) is that it has so many menus and dials and buttons and doohickeys. And all of them let you change your camera's settings... do you see where I'm going with this? There is no perfect, all-encompassing way to set your camera, that will work in all situations.
If you change your settings for one shot or one place and time: remember to change them back afterward!
There is nothing worse than taking some great shots (you thought), only to realize your settings were all wrong. Doh! This is compounded tenfold - at least - when you're off on a trip in a fantastic location, and you don't realize until it's too late that you messed up at that one amazing place. Yes, it's happened to me. And I bet it's happened to you, too. Uh huh, yes, you.
So to idiot-proof your shooting, I recommend running through a checklist every time you put the camera away, every time you take it out, and at periodic intervals while in use. It might take a minute each time - and it could be the most valuable minute of your day, even including that glorious sunset. Think of it like a pilot taking off on a flight: that plane isn't moving from the runway until the pilot has gone through their pre-flight checks. Religiously.
So here it is: Moira's Pre-Flight Checklist (I'm using Nikon terminology, your mileage may vary):
- ISO: I always set it back to 200 when I'm done shooting (the default for my camera). Outside the studio it will change almost constantly, of course.
- Exposure Mode: Outside the studio, I use Aperture Priority most of the time, so this is where I start. I also use Manual a lot, and occasionally Shutter Priority. Don't think I've ever used fully Programmed Auto, actually; maybe one of these days I'll try it just to see what happens.
- Aperture: Since I shoot so much in Aperture Priority, this one is crucial. Also known as the f-stop, I always set it back to f8 when I'm done.
- Shutter Speed: Even though in Aperture Priority the shutter speed is determined by the camera, I like to reset it (by going into Manual mode for a moment) back to around 1/200th. Why, you ask? It can take a few seconds to reset this, if you've been doing something wacky that requires a slow speed like 2 seconds / shooting sports at 1/3200th. If you suddenly have to jump into Manual mode to get the exposure you want, you may actually miss your shot by fiddling around too much to get back to a more usual setting. Do it ahead of time.
- Focus Mode: I frequently use both Manual focus and Autofocus (Continuous), but Autofocus (Single) is the go-to most of the time.
- AF_Area Mode: There are three main settings here: Spot, Area, and Large Area within the full frame (I'm not using Nikon terminology here, as it's too hard to explain otherwise). Basically they determine how much of the frame the camera will use to calculate correct focus. All are useful in different situations; I use the middle one (Dynamic-area AF, in Nikon parlance) as a starting point.
- Focus Point: This determines which part of the frame the camera will use to calculate correct focus. You want to aim for a point that will focus on the correct area, and necessitate as little recomposition as possible. I set mine back to the center point.
- Exposure Compensation: I always set this back to 0 (zero) when I'm done.
- White Balance: I like to set this back to Auto. That's not necessarily where I'll use it, but it's a safe starting point.
- Frame Rate: Most of the time this should be set to Single (one shot only, when the Shutter Release button is pressed). I do use Continuous though, for sports and occasionally for wildlife, so it's worth checking. It's not such a big deal if you forget, but it can eat up your battery power and it's a nuisance in post-processing to wade through all the duplicates.
- Quality: I honestly don't know why people would change this too frequently, but if you do then it's crucial to check it. I always shoot at least JPG Fine (highest quality, largest file size), and these days it's usually RAW + JPG Fine. Memory cards are cheap now, and they don't add to the weight you're carrying around.
- Metering: Most of the time I use Matrix Metering. It will change occasionally for special situations.
OK, that's a lot of stuff! But don't be put off. Some people will never touch some of these settings: in that case you don't need to include them in your checklist. (Although I'd still check them now and then just to be safe - especially if you start getting unexpected results.) Others may think I've left a lot of stuff out: feel free to add more to your own personal checklist.
It doesn't matter if your normal settings differ from mine, or from that guy standing next to you at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, so long as they work for you. But whatever settings you use - remember to check them frequently!
Good luck, and have fun.