Photography by Jim Doty

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Canon 20D Camera Settings
(and other digital cameras)

Part Three - Top Deck Controls
Jim Doty, Jr.

The top deck controls are the ones I change quite frequently to match the shooting situation and lighting conditions.


This dial is almost always set to Manual (M), Aperture priority (Av) or Program (P) mode. I never use the Programmed Image settings (Portrait, Landscape, Closeup, Night etc).  I grew up (photographically) on Canon AE-1 and Canon F-1 cameras and did almost everything in manual mode so I know what kind of settings I want to use. Metering has gotten to the point where I trust auto modes enough to use them regularly, but I used to do everything with an incident light meter and or gray cards so manual was the way to go.  If I handed the Canon 20D to someone with minimal photographic experience, I would set the mode dial to the green-zone "auto-everything" mode.

MANUAL (M). This is still my preferred mode for most of my nature, landscape, closeup, and wildlife work and quite a bit of portrait photography. I pick the aperture and shutter speed based on subject tonality, lighting conditions, and depth of field considerations (see Depth of Field for more information). I adjust the ISO if necessary, but prefer the lowest ISO setting possible.

Mother nature comes in a broad range of tonalities. Too many dark green evergreens can throw off an exposures, as can a lot of snow or a bright sandy beach (or a black sand beach in Tahiti). As long as my subject doesn't run away, manual mode gives me the most accurate exposures. For more information, see Exposure article and Exposure Guide.

Most of my flash photography is done in the manual mode. I choose an aperture that does not exceed the Guide Number of the flash. My shutter speed is usually 1/60 second or faster, depending on ambient light conditions. For special affects, I use shutter speeds with flash that can be quite long. See the Flash article.

APERTURE PRIORITY (Av). If my subject doesn't have a broad tonal range (light to dark), I sometimes switch to Aperture Priority mode. I set the aperture with the control dial near the shutter button, and bias the exposure for subject tonality with the thumb wheel. It works very well.

I use aperture priority for wildlife when the lighting conditions vary. If an elk is moving back and forth from sun to shade, I switch to Aperture Priority and let the camera keep up. If my subject stays in the sun or shade, I switch back to manual mode.

If I am shooting an outside sporting event and the players move from sun to shade, I switch to Aperture Priority mode.

PROGRAM (P). I do a lot of indoor, ambient light, people event photography. Minimal depth of field is fine for most of this photography. In this kind of situation I usually switch to Program mode. I choose an ISO that gives me a useable shutter speed and let the camera set the exposure. This usually means the camera sets the lens wide open and picks the shutter speed. If lighting conditions are unusually bright for an indoor event (which isn't often), I will switch to Aperture Priority and choose f/8 for a little more depth of field. The camera chooses the shutter speed.


AF (Auto Focus). For nature, landscape, closeups and some wildlife, this is set to ONE SHOT. Quite a bit of the time, I turn autofocus off and focus manually, especially if I am using a table for maximum depth of field at a given aperture and a particular hyperfocal distance.

If the wildlife is active, I switch to AI FOCUS or AI SERVO. With AI FOCUS the camera chooses ONE SHOT mode unless it detects subject movement and then it switches to servo mode.

For sports, flying birds, car races, and similar subjects, I set AF to AI SERVO to track the subject.

WB (WHITE BALANCE).  When I am in RAW mode, this is set for AWB (Auto White Balance). If I am in JPEG mode, I set this for the appropriate lighting conditions (see the camera manual). For special affects, I will deliberately choose the wrong setting. Using the TUNGSTEN setting outside in the daytime, combined with underexposure can simulate a night scene. A variety of "K" settings can simulate color compensating filters.

DRIVE. This is usually set to single shot or self timer. Even when shooting sports I seldom use CONTINUOUS mode, preferring to choose the peak of the action. There are some exceptions of course.

ISO. This is almost always set to the lowest setting I can use, given the lighting conditions and subject movement. If the subject isn't moving, I can put the camera on a tripod and use ISO 100 in very little light. Lower ISO settings mean less noise. The good news is that ISO 400 is quite good with the Canon 20D. ISO 800 and 1600 look pretty good when processed with Neat Image software to remove the noise.

Once in a very rare while, I deliberately set the ISO to 3200 (H) to get a noisy look that simulates the grain of old high speed film. Underexposing in jpeg mode and correcting the exposure in Photoshop Elements or Photoshop CS will enhance the noise.

METERING MODE. This is almost always set to PARTIAL METERING. This gives me the most control.

FLASH EXPOSURE COMPENSATION. This is set according to subject tonality. I add light (plus compensation) for subjects that are lighter than medium tone. I subtract light (minus compensation) for subjects that are darker than medium tone.

If I am using flash to fill in shadows (fill flash) and not as the primary light source, I dial in minus flash compensation (usually minus one stop or more). One of the nice things about digital photography is that you can review the results right after you take the picture and adjust the amount of compensation as necessary.

AUTO FOCUS POINT SELECTION.  Most of the time, only the center autofocus point is turned on. In ONE SHOT aufofocus mode, I focus on the primary focus point (like an eye), recompose and shoot. I often focus manually.

For tracking flying birds (or planes) or in other situations with a lot of subject movement, I turn all of the autofocus points on.


If you've read all three articles in this series, you have figured out that my camera settings have a lot do do with the photographic project at hand. If I am doing a landscape photo, I am probably in MANUAL exposure mode, ONE SHOT drive mode, center autofocus point turned on, but probably using manual focus too and referring to a hyperfocal distance chart. If I am shooting sports, I might be in Program mode, all autofocus points turned on in AI SERVO drive mode and CONTINUOUS autofocus.

So how is my camera set up when I am running around with no particular picture in mind?  Everyone once in a while you get a chance at a great grab shot if your camera is ready (and with you).  Here is how I set up my camera when I am just out and about and not working on a specific photographic project.

DRIVE: Single shot
ISO: 400 (800 or 1600 if light levels are low)

If Elvis walks across the street (or that rare albino elk steps out of the woods) I want to be ready.

Part One: 20D Menu Settings
Part Two: 20D Custom Functions

April 20, 2005

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