OOPS! My Camera Settings Were ALL Wrong

Have you ever come back from a shoot

only to find images with bizarre settings?

Like ISO 1600 when it should have been 200

Welcome to the club. We all have.

Read on for suggestions to avoid this problem.


Casing the Bank at 4AM

I like to look at an image’s camera settings –

Aperture, shutter speed, lens, ISO, exposure compensation, metering – the works

It’s the first thing I check after looking at the image itself

Whether it’s my image, one in a publication or one someone sent to me

My reason is to learn – by asking whether I understand and agree with the choices made

Digital images with their embedded EXIF data make this easy

It’s surprising how often the settings are questionable at best

Due to not knowing what the correct settings should be (lack of operator training) or

Knowing but failing to make the correct setting (operator error)

This post is to suggest ways to avoid operator error.

Check this blog’s table of contents for over 100 articles on how to use a camera if your problem is not knowing what adjustments to make in the first place.

Operator error is common and usually stems from two main sources.

1. You started off your shoot assuming the camera was set at certain settings – and you were wrong

2. You started off right, but later made a setting change while shooting and forgot to reset it

Yesterday’s post discussed #2 in detail for the case where exposure is wrong from shot to shot even though you made no changes between shots.

1. Start off Right!

Pre-flight check lists are a must before an aircraft takes off.

You need a camera “pre-shoot” check list before heading out the door, as well

It varies from camera to camera but the principles are the same

My list begins with the memory card –

1st – is there one in the camera?

2nd – format it right then & there; no exceptions

and follows with a battery check
Now that that’s done I check every setting – no exceptions except for the menu (see presets below).

Exposure mode? I use aperture priority and check the setting even though I rarely change it (after all, it’s those unusual, unexpected setting changes that we’re checking for – don’t assume anything)

Focus – Manual or other. How often have you switched to manual focus and forgotten to switch back? With today’s quiet focusing systems you can’t depend on hearing the lens to save you. In fact, for the first shot in a series I stick my hand in front of the lens & focus – just to ensure that the setting is what I think it is.

Auto exposure bracketing – OFF, Check!, Metering? Check!, ISO? Check!, WB? Check! and so on….

Also, my camera allows me to save several preset custom menu settings including items buried deep in the menu system.

I have 4 – named Normal, Action, Flash & HDR (gonna’ change this one – I don’t use it)

Preset = Normal? Yes, Check!

The only menu changes I make while shooting are in the special Menu section of my camera – a custom-built page of menus. These I check as I activate them on a shoot (Multiple Exposure settings would be an example – # of exp.? Gain setting?)

And so on through every dial, knob & switch on my camera

Even those like Quality (RAW) & White Balance (Cloudy, warm) that I almost never change. Again, that’s the whole point – if it’s something that you rarely change, that’s the setting that’s most dangerous in terms of your assumptions and why the pre-shoot check list is essential

I even set aperture (f/8) rather than have it vary at the start of the day depending on where it was last set just to have a known consistent value

f/8 and be there“, an old film expression

So, there you have it.

If you start your photography day with a clean slate, so to speak, your chance of bad settings later go way down.

Take the time to do this before starting your day

Don’t just run out the door thinking “I’m in a hurry and will check things later.”

In fact, the very best time to do the pre-shoot check is when you’ve finished for the day & not at the start of a new day.

Does the list have to be written?

Of course not – but maybe doing so is another use for your mobile device like an iPad

Mine’s between my ears, iBrain – written there through 1000’s of repetitions

2. Settings Errors during the Shoot

OK – you’ve done your pre-flight check. Everything is perfect. What could possibly go wrong?

Especially if you get over-enthused and start shooting with abandon
You will change something and, in your excitement, forget about the change.

If what you forgot is something like turning auto exposure bracketing on (say 5 exposures -2 to +2)

4 of every 5 images past that point will be improperly exposed

Ditto, manual focus, high ISO, wide open aperture for the last shot and for this next one you want the greatest DOF possible, and on & on

So mistakes happen. What can be done about it?

First of all be methodical about how you make your changes.

Most changes are, or should be, exposure and/or focus related.

Make these changes in a logical order, for example

1st! do the main change (aperture for aperture priority, shutter for SP, etc.)

only after that is done, think about ISO if needed for a faster shutter speed

Check the histogram and make exposure compensation changes as needed based on the foregoing aperture, shutter speed setting

Need HDR? Turn on AEB.

Great! The new settings nailed that last image. On to the next shot.


At least the ISO & AEB setting need to be reset to where they were before that last great shot – or the next one won’t be so good.

I know that, but sometimes I forget

Consider a memory aid.

When making a change that will need resetting, use a small color paper clip.

Attach it to your camera’s left eye ring for the camera strap

When “dangerous” settings are made move this clip from the left to the right ring

After the successful shot >>

Clip’s on the right? Something’s not right!

Find something similar that works for you. This easy visual reminder – right in your face – worked well for me. The only challenge is remembering to move the clip. 😉


  1. Get off to a good start with a pre-shoot check list
  2. Make changes during the shoot in a logical and consistent way
  3. Force yourself to remember to reset changes
  4. Enjoy your great images! (and review your EXIF data when you get home, as a double-check on yourself)

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0 thoughts on “OOPS! My Camera Settings Were ALL Wrong”

  1. Oh so easy to do – especially for your type of shoot with people and rapid changes. Less excuse for me with no people & nothing much changing (except the seasons, but that doesn’t count).

  2. I saw myself in #2 above. I’ve done that several times – making changes mid-shoot and forgetting to change the settings back! Case in point, I was doing a first birthday session. I shot a bunch of photos before at f/8 and then wanted to do a close-up of the cake, so I changed the aperture to f/2, bumped up the shutter speed a bit and was happy blowing out part of the image (high-key shoot). Then I forgot to change it back and shot twenty images before I realized it. Unfortunately, the child had already ripped into the cake. I lost a few images due to overexposure and I was able to save some. Lesson learned, however! Until the next time …

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