7 Essential Camera Pre-Shoot Checks

Uncropped image of a rider

Uncropped image of a rider

I recently took pictures at a bike ride, discussed in an earlier post. My intention was to get pictures of one particular participant, and not necessarily cover the race in general. This changed when I didn’t see other photographers around, and was confirmed when riders waved at me like they were expecting their picture to be taken.

I was a little disappointed with some of the results. Initially I put it down to inadequate preparation and not scouting the course for good shooting locations, but later realized the real problem was inappropriate camera settings. I make a habit of running through a checklist before each shoot, then if time permits, re-checking during the shoot. For the first part of the event, I overlooked this essential step. Later while reviewing my list, I felt it needed an update, and thought it might be a good idea to share it. The list is based on the Nikon D200 camera, a few years old, but still pretty sophisticated. Camera features and controls differ from model to model, and different manufacturers may have their unique nomenclature, but your camera should have similar functions, so you should be able to translate the steps.

Lucky Shot Detail - taken at 1/160th and 200mm.

Detail of Lucky Shot - less than recommended - shot at 1/160th and 200mm.

Modern cameras, even simple point-and-shoot’s, can have a bewildering combination of settings. I approach most shoots with pretty much the same setup. These lists help me to prepare for and think through the shoot, make any camera adjustments, but most important, reset any changes from the last time out.

On the subject of confusing camera settings, if you don’t have a “Cheat Sheet” for your camera, I suggest you make or buy one. I purchased a laminated version together with my camera. It’s by Bert Sirkin at


7 Essential Camera Pre-Shoot Checks

1. Quality: Set to RAW. I shoot almost exclusively in RAW mode, but occasionally I will change to highest quality JPEG.
2. ISO: This depends on the shoot. Action at ISO 400, general subjects at ISO 200, and studio or high quality at ISO 100. With this camera, noise is noticeable at about ISO 800, so I avoid going there! Current high end cameras offer much better noise control at higher ISO’s.
3. White Balance: If light conditions are changing frequently, set WB to Auto, otherwise set to the appropriate setting for daylight, cloudy, flash etc. If the conditions are stable, like in the studio, set to a custom value via a gray card target. I use a 14” Pocket Digital Calibration Target from Photovision.
4. Exposure Mode: Aperture Priority. Most of the time I use Aperture Priority, sometimes Manual, seldom Shutter priority, and never Program mode. Aperture Priority is my personal preference, a hang over from the early days of exposure automation adopted by Pentax (my first real camera) and Nikon. Aperture Priority is better suited for static subjects, while Shutter Priority is better suited for action.
5. Exposure Compensation: Turn Off. Some situations call for over or under exposure, but remember to reset to normal afterwards!
6. Focus: This consists of several settings, and varies by manufacturer and model. My preferences are:

  • Camera: Usually set to AF C-Continuous (constantly tries to re-focus on moving subjects while the shutter is pressed 1/2 way), sometimes AF S-Single (focus and hold when shutter is pressed half-way) or AF M-Manual.
  • Auto Focus Area: my order of preference.
    • Single: One small selectable focus area – good for stationary subjects or action where subject moves on a predictable path.
    • Group Dynamic: Select a group of focus areas, the camera will follow within the group – good for action within a small area.
    • Dynamic Area: multiple focus areas, if the subject moves to a different area the camera will follow – good for unpredictable action.
    • Dynamic Area Closest Subject: Focus on the closest subject – good for action when there is nothing between you and the subject.
  • Lens: If the lens has an auto focus switch, set it to Off when the camera is set to AF M-Manual, otherwise set to On.
  • Manual Focus: Set camera to one of the AF areas (usually a Single area), then you can use the viewfinder display to confirm manual focus.

7. Lens Aperture: Start by setting the lens to 2 stops down from wide open. Example: for a f 2.8 lens set to f5.6, for a f4 lens set to f8. Note: Nikon G lenses, don’t have a physical ring to set the aperture, but other lenses do. On these non-G lenses, exposure can’t be calculated correctly unless the lens is manually set (and locked) to the smallest aperture.

5 Essential Camera Shooting Checks

Ideally these should be done before every picture, but at least before each set or when conditions change. I’m pretty good with the first step, but for the rest, not so much!
1. Auto focus area: try to lock the focus area onto the subject, or choose the appropriate AF area from step 6 above.
2. Aperture: Open up to throw the background out of focus or when more light is needed; stop down to increase depth of field at the expense of sharpness. Avoid the f-stops at both extremes of the lens. If the lens has any shortcomings they will show up there.
3. Shutter Speed: For hand-held shots without vibration reduction, always try to keep the shutter speed above the reciprocal of focal length of lens. In plain English, with a 50mm lens, shoot at 1/60th or higher, with a 200mm lens, shoot at 1/250th or higher. This is a long-standing guideline for 35mm film cameras, but still applies for cameras with smaller sensors. If you can’t meet this then either choose a wider aperture, a higher ISO, add some light, or use some tool to steady the camera – a tripod, beanbag or turn on vibration reduction if you have it.
4. ISO: When shooting on location, the light may brighten or fade, and eventually exceed the recommended limits of aperture and shutter speed. If there is no way to modify the light, the ISO will have to be changed.
5. White Balance: Unless this is set to auto, check frequently. This is essential when shooting in JPEG mode, less important when shooting in RAW mode.

Bonus: Other settings that I change occasionally and forget to reset!

• Shutter Delay: For situations where a long exposure is used, this delays the shutter by about ½ second and reduces vibrations caused by the mirror and camera itself. This is a Menu setting.
• Shoot only when in focus: Usually this is set to shoot when I press the shutter, but sometimes I’ll set the camera to fire only when focus is confirmed. I find this works well when AF is set to S-Single, but not so good when set to C-Continuous. This is a Menu Setting.
• Pop-up flash exposure compensation: I very seldom use the camera’s pop-up flash, but when I do its usually set to -1 or -2 stops for daylight fill-flash.
• Optimize Image: When shooting in RAW mode I never change these settings, but they are checked just in case. Effectively they are “turned off”; Image Sharpening: -2 (low); Tone Compensation: – (low); Color Mode: II (with Adobe RGB color space); Color Saturation: – (moderate); Hue Adjustment: 0 (neutral).

Adapt these lists to your camera and shooting style. Use them and one day you’ll avoid the feeling that your timing or perception are way off, when it’s really just your camera with a “hangover” from your previous shoot.

Duncan Moody

First Non-Family Video

See the video

I spent a day in early January at the Winter Schooling Hunter Show held at the Thoroughbred Training Center near Mocksville, NC. All through the previous week, the weather forecast hadn’t been too encouraging, and a relatively small turnout was expected. I planned to cover the event in my usual way but I also wanted to try a bit of video in the quieter moments. I have an Olympus SP-350, a small point-and-shoot digital camera capable of adequate video quality, but it lacks any real controls. The zoom is jerky and practically unworkable, and the video is limited to 20 seconds per clip. It can’t really be used for serious video work, not only because of the controls, but also because after about 5 clips it displays a message “Battery Empty”. All the other functions continue to work, but the video recording mode simply shuts down. After about 10 minutes of sulking it might work for a while until the battery empties itself again. The sample video was recorded at the show, with the camera set at 640×480 at 30 frames per second, its highest quality setting. Despite all the limitations I was happy with the results. When burned onto a DVD and played on a regular TV, the result is surprisingly good for such a tiny camera.

See the video


Cameras with Built in Flash

Have you ever wondered how many spectators in the stands actually get satisfactory pictures at large night-time sporting events? You know, that familiar scene when thousands of flash bulbs are popping in the stands? Problem is the flash on a typical point-and-shoot camera can only light a scene up to about 12 feet. Even powerful professional grade flash units can’t send a sufficient blast of light from the stands to the middle of the field. It’s because of that ubiquitous “inverse square law” you may have heard about in high school. For example, an object 2 yards from the camera will only receive ¼ of the light compared to an object 1 yard away. And 4 yards away will receive 1/16th  of the light, and so on. You can do the math if you want, but the fall-off is pretty rapid and an athlete 100 yards away isn’t getting much benefit from the tiny pin point of light on the camera. The opposite is also true. If you push your camera right into someone’s face and take a shot, not only will they be annoyed, but chances are the picture will make them look like a ghost.

If you have your camera’s manual you should be able to find the minimum and maximum flash distances. What’s that you say, no manual? Not a problem. A little experimentation is all it takes. In a darkish room place a willing subject a few feet away from a wall. Oh, and ask them to close their eyes for this exercise. Take several pictures from 1 ft away, then 2ft, 4ft, 8ft and 16ft. Unless you have a really big room, you might have to do the last pictures outdoors. Discard the images that are too bright and too dark. You now have a guide to the distances where your camera and flash work best.

Back to the night-time sports event. If your camera has a night-time or dusk setting, try it. Keep your camera steady (more on this in a future discussion) and squeeze the shutter release. The flash probably won’t fire, but the camera will do its best to get the picture. The light out on the field may just be bright enough to record that historic event.

Duncan Moody