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Get into a habit of checking your settings before each shot

I am an “opportunity” photographer. I rarely scout locations or stand in the same spot for hours waiting for that perfect lighting. My photographs are essentially by-product of tourist explorations. I walk around, stop here or there, something catches my eye, I pull my camera up, et voilà. That results in an embarrassing number of shots that are weak on visual mass and compositional balance, but I am at peace with that. As much as I love photography, I lack patience to work on a perfect shot when so many things beckon in an unfamiliar locale.


Staying in that exploration rhythm does not leave much room for reviewing the shots either. At best, I quickly glance at the camera LCD screen to ensure that exposure and sharpness are reasonable. Unless I see something obviously wrong, I will assume the shot having a decent chance to become a great one in post-processing. But when I open the file on my big computer screen, I belatedly realize that the image is noisier than it should be because I had jacked up ISO for the previous series of shots inside a church and forgot to lower it again when I stepped outside; or the depth of field is more shallow than I wanted because I had accidentally switched to shutter priority which resulted in a wider aperture; or, most embarrassingly, I forgot to switch off exposure bracketing and kept shooting individual scenes as if they were different exposures of the same one (at least this last one is easily caught by even a cursory glance at the LCD screen).

Some people will argue that this is exactly the reason to thoroughly review every shot you take while on location, to give yourself a chance of correcting it while you still can. That also helps you improve the composition if your original vision did not come off. Nonetheless, I strongly feel that it is better to minimize the possibility of technical mistakes before you press the shutter button.

You do that by getting into a discipline of checking all of your key camera settings before every shot – or, at least, before the first shot of a new scene. A glance at the information display is all it takes, and once that becomes a habit, you will never spend more than a second or two on it. If adjustments are needed, make them before you press shutter release. Skip that one glance and you may end up still needing to perform the same checks and adjustments after taking a throwaway shot or even a few – or worse, never noticing that those shots were throwaway until it’s too late.

Here are the settings I emphasize in my mental checklist:

  1. ISO,
  2. Shooting mode,
  3. Actual aperture or shutter speed or both, depending on which mode I am in,
  4. Exposure compensation,
  5. Bracketing.

If you are shooting .JPG, you should strongly consider adding White Balance too. If you always leave it on Auto anyway it is not a significant consideration.

Everything on the information display should really be part of the checklist, but settings that you rarely modify are probably not very likely to cause you problems.

Put your own key settings on an index card and make sure that it is constantly in your way to remind you to run through your checklist. You’ll quickly reach a point where performing this check becomes a natural part of your picture-taking flow. And while it is not going to help with the compositional quality of your photos, it will certainly reduce the chances of spoiling that perfect composition with a silly technical mistake.