Take a great photo every time: a preflight checklist

Check these 10 settings to ensure your camera isn't about to take a terrible photo.

They say the bumpiest part of any flight is when the human pilot turns off the autopilot and takes over the controls. Photography is similar: Your camera is generally a lot more knowledgeable about exposure controls than you are, and under typical conditions, it'll take better photos than if you tried adjusting the settings yourself. Don't get me wrong--I absolutely recommend taking control of your camera to shoot better photos. But when you fiddle with your camera, that's when you can accidentally adjust settings incorrectly, leading to a ruined photo. This week: My preflight checklist of things to double-check to make sure your camera is set back to its "default" state for error-free photography.

Why It's Important

Of course, you don't need to check all 10 of these every time you pick up the camera, and your own camera might not even support all of these features. But if you fiddle with any of these settings, there's a good chance you'll forget to set one or more of them back to the normal or default position when you're done. That can have disastrous effects on your next shooting session. Worse, it's not always immediately obvious what went wrong with a photo if you're not thinking about some obscure setting you changed two weeks earlier. That's why I tend to give all of my camera's most important settings a rapid "once over" when I take the camera out of its bag.

10 Camera Settings to Check

1. Exposure mode. Even though I frequently shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual mode, I spin the dial back to Program every time. That way, if I'm surprised by an awesome photo opp and quickly capture a shot without thinking too hard about the camera settings, I know the camera will give me a decent exposure. If the camera's still stuck in Manual mode, though, the result will almost certainly be junk.

2. ISO. I recommend that you crank up the ISO to take low-light photos rather than relying on the camera's flash. But when you're done, set it back to the lowest setting, or you'll end up with noisy or even overexposed photos if you accidentally take high ISO photos in daylight.

3. White balance. Tweaking white balance can give you better color balance control for the specific lighting in a scene. But forget to set white balance back to Auto when you're done, and your photo might look like it was shot on Mars.

4. Exposure compensation. That's the control that lets you over- or under-expose a photo in small increments. This is handy for adjusting for a strong backlight, for example. But leave the camera set to overexpose by one stop, for example, and all of your subsequent pictures will be overexposed.

5. Image stabilization. Many cameras have an optical stabilization mode that reduces camera shake when you don't use a tripod. The effect is like shooting with a shutter speed up to three stops faster than you really are. If you have a digital SLR, this is often built into the lens. It's generally a good idea to turn off this mode when you use a tripod. If you don't, the camera might introduce "ghost vibrations" into your photo. It's easy to forget to re-enable this feature. Trust me: Vibration reduction doesn't do you any good if it's turned off.

6. Bracketing. Sometimes you can be too clever for your own good. You might occasionally use your camera's bracketing mode to take a series of photos at varying exposures, like one stop underexposed, one stop overexposed, and the ordinary exposure. This can help you nail the right shot in tricky lighting, or you might use the feature to make a high dynamic range photo. Regardless of why, don't forget to turn this feature off when you're done. I can't tell you how many times I accidentally left this on and spent the rest of the day taking photos that were alternately under- and overexposed.

7. Focus. The majority of the time, you probably leave your camera in autofocus mode. That makes it hard to remember to turn autofocus back on if you ever disable it, such as to take photos of aircraft or fireworks (which are "infinitely" far away to your camera lens).

8. Flash mode. I'm a flash hater. My usual advice: Turn your flash off and leave it that way. But if you do use your flash, it has all sorts of options, including red-eye mode, rear curtain, and force-flash. You might also be able to fiddle with its intensity. Just don't forget that you changed something, because this is one of the hardest camera settings to troubleshoot since its effect on your photos can be somewhat subtle.

9. Shutter setting. Your shutter release might have a smorgasbord of settings, like single shot, quiet mode, rapid fire, and more. This setting isn't that dangerous because it doesn't influence your exposure much. But it can be embarrassing to snap a photo in a quiet place (say, a church or museum) and the camera accidentally fires off a dozen exposures in rapid succession.

10. File format. Finally, most people set their camera to shoot a single file format like RAW or JPG and never touch that control again. But if you find yourself switching between them occasionally, this is another good setting to double check.

Hot Pic of the Week

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This week's Hot Pic: "Ghost Sea" by Ankush Kaul, Albany, New York

Ankush captured this stunning maritime silhouette with a Panasonic DMC-FZ100 and converted it to a black and white on his PC.

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This week's runner-up: "Tsunami" by Anoop M., Bangalore

Anoop says: "This kitty had been injured in a road mishap at night in heavy rain fall. Early the next morning we found it exhausted and took the cat to our home. It recovered a few days later, and we named it "Tsunami." In keeping with its name, Tsunami appears at any time, anywhere, without warning, and attacks you. I took this picture with a Canon EOS 450D and then added a bit of vibrancy and contrast with Adobe Lightroom."

This story, "Take a great photo every time: a preflight checklist" was originally published by PCWorld.

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