Camera settings for photography on safari

While cameras can vary widely by manufacturer, or even model, these 10 settings can still be found on just about every digital camera.
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While cameras can vary widely by manufacturer, or even model, these 10 settings can still be found on just about every digital camera. Most digital cameras are operated with a PASM switch. This is the dial on the top of the camera that allows you to choose between Program Mode (close to Automatic), Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority Mode, and Manual Mode.

All DSLR cameras function this way, as do most compact cameras and mirrorless cameras.

A few companies have avoided this dial in favour of the inclusion of an aperture ring on the lens and a dedicated shutter speed dial. This makes this type of camera feel more like an old-school film-style SLR. Your particular setup will depend on the camera you purchased. While a concert violinist can pick up any violin and produce beautiful music, they will know every aspect of their particular instrument.

You need to utilise your camera to its fullest potential, and you should be completely comfortable with the controls. That way, when you see a shot you desperately want to capture, you won’t find yourself fumbling around. The best place to start is with your camera’s manual.

If you’re not interested in reading the entire manual, this guide will let you know the critical points to research. The first three that I will cover are the most important. They are the ‘big three’ that control your exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.


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If you rotate your PASM dial to A (this designation may vary by manufacturer), your camera is now set to shoot in Aperture Priority, or Av mode. Av mode is one of the most commonly used camera modes, even by professionals. It allows you to set the aperture while the camera decides the shutter speed.

So what is your ‘aperture’?

Aperture is the variable opening inside your lens that allows a designated amount of light to pass through to your camera. While the shutter controls the length of time that light hits your sensor, the aperture controls the amount of light. Aperture is measured in f/stops: f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4 and so on. The numbers are related to the powers of the square root of two, and are found by a mathematical equation It is important to note, however, that each f/stop lets in twice as much light as the one after it.

Lenses with a low maximum f/stop, such as f1.2, allow in more light, and are called ‘fast’ lenses. They are usually more expensive and are highly prized by photographers. This is because they allow the use of a lower ISO or a faster shutter speed. Also, with the right focal length and a wide aperture you can blur the background of your images in a pleasing way. Conversely, using a large f/ stop, like f/22, will result in a large depth of field, making more of the image in focus. This is commonly used in landscape photography, where we usually want the entire image to be in focus.

On cameras with a PASM dial, once you have rotated the dial to A, you can usually control the aperture with a dial near you’re forefinger, or at the back of the camera. You will also use this dial to control the aperture when you are shooting.



Shutter speed is very simple – it’s the amount of time that your shutter stays open to allow light to pass through and hit the sensor. Rotate the dial on your camera to S (this may vary by camera manufacturer) and you are in shutter priority mode, or Tv (Canon designation). While adjusting the brightness of your exposure, the shutter speed also has an effect on motion. A very fast shutter speed of 1/4000 will perfectly freeze motion. This is useful for wildlife shots. A slower shutter speed, like 1/4 of a second will blur motion.




On many cameras, you will find a button specifically labeled ISO. On others, you may have to enter a menu to change the ISO value. Some professional grade cameras even give ISO a dedicated dial.

Like aperture and shutter speed, you’re ISO will change your exposure, or how bright the image is. However, there is a cost to using a high ISO number (increased sensitivity). Most cameras start with a base ISO of 100 or 200. ISO is adjusted by changing the sensitivity of the digital sensor. Unfortunately, the cost of using a high sensitivity ISO with a digital camera is called noise – the digital equivalent of film grain (although perhaps less pleasant looking). While noise-free images are nice, make sure you don’t completely avoid using a high ISO. A noisy shot is better than a blurry one from a slow shutter speed.

Almost all digital cameras have the ability to use ‘Auto ISO.’ This is a very useful function, as it allows the camera to choose the ISO for you, while you alter the f/stop and/or the shutter speed. You will find this in the same menu as the ISO sensitivity selection. Some more advanced cameras allow you to set upper and lower limits for the Auto ISO – this keeps the setting within a range that you’re comfortable with.



Metering is how your camera determines the exposure. The camera will use its built- in light meter to give you an indication
of whether you are properly exposed, overexposed, or under exposed. Different cameras have different metering modes (patterns) – make sure you consult your manual to understand the options available to you. Most cameras feature spot metering, which takes a light reading from one small part of the frame. This can be useful to ensure that an important area of your picture is properly exposed. A common metering option is called ‘averaging or matrix.’ This mode attempts to create a well-balanced exposure by averaging the darkest and lightest parts of the scene. It’s particularly useful for landscape shots.



You have some ideas on how to use your metering system, but what if, despite your best efforts, the camera creates a poor exposure anyway? This does happen. Strange lighting can trick the camera’s metering system, and sometimes you simply want a lighter or darker shot.

Under these circumstances, you can simply dial in as much positive or negative exposure compensation as you need when using auto shooting mode such as aperture priority, shutter priority, or program mode. Not every camera will have the exposure compensation function. However, most do, and increasingly camera manufacturers are making the exposure compensation controls more direct and easy to access.

Most of the time the exposure compensation function will range from +3 stops to -3 stops, usually in 1/3rd stop increments. The compensation will occur differently depending on which shooting mode you’re using. For example, in aperture priority the compensation will occur in the shutter speed setting – unless you’re using Auto ISO, in which case the camera may alter the ISO sensitivity. If you’re in Shutter Priority Mode, then the reverse happens – the aperture is adjusted.

There is an additional advantage to the live preview function on some cameras. As you dial in the exposure compensation, the EVF (or LCD) preview will get darker or lighter in response.




Becoming familiar with your autofocus system is key to getting the shot you want, when you want it. Regardless of manufacturer, most enthusiast or advanced cameras have at least three options: single, continuous, and manual focus modes. Single focus occurs once when you half press the shutter button, and it then locks. Continuous focus mode continuously focuses non-stop, even as the camera is firing. Manual focus mode allows you to take full control over your focus; you must focus the lens yourself. For general photography, single focus is perfect. Save continuous mode for action shots, and manual focus mode works great for close-up work or poor lighting. Of equal importance is the knowledge of setting the size and position of your autofocus points.

Some cameras offer a dedicated joystick to move the autofocus point around the frame, while others require a little menu diving. Many manufacturers now allow you to choose your point using a touchscreen. Read your manual and make sure you are comfortable with placing the autofocus point where you need it.



Regardless of which file format you choose, you should memorise the location of your quality control setting. This way you can switch between raw, .JPEG, or raw + .JPEG as needed. Raw + .JPEG is especially useful as it gives you the best of both worlds. Some photographers may complain that it wastes memory; however, digital storage has become so cheap that it shouldn’t concern you.



Another common feature on modern cameras is the AE/AF lock buttons. These features are all too often overlooked.

AE means auto exposure. When you are shooting in Program mode, aperture priority, or shutter priority, your camera is choosing settings required to properly expose the scene. The AE lock button simply freezes the camera’s thought process at a given moment. This “locks” the exposure to that last setting.

AF lock is even simpler. The camera will auto-focus on a particular point. By using the AF lock feature the focus mechanism will stay locked on the position, even if you reposition the camera. Sometimes the AE and AF controls are doubled up on the same button, and you will have to assign which function the button will utilise.


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