There’s not much more exciting in life than unpacking that shiny new camera and taking your first photos with it! As tempting as it might be to start shooting right away, there are a few settings you should change before taking the first shot.

What happens if you don’t set up your camera properly? You’re likely to have bad exposure or focus. These are the issues that make new photographers question whether their fancy camera is as good as it was supposed to be.

This list of settings to change for better photos will help you avoid these exposure and focus issues.

Set Up a New Camera: Change these 5 settings for great photos

  1. Change the Exposure Mode to Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual. Taking your camera off Auto is the best step you can make to controlling exposure and to making your photo match the one you see in your head. Read this tutorial for details about changing the mode on your camera. Choose one of the following modes, depending on your level of expertise:Set up a new camera - exposure modes
    • Program Mode allows you to choose your own focus point and adjust exposure compensation. The camera still controls most aspects of exposure.
    • Aperture Mode lets you choose how much or how little of your photo is in focus. Using aperture mode is the fastest way to get background blur.
    • Shutter or Time Value Mode lets you freeze or blur fast-moving subjects.
    • Manual Mode gives you control over all aspects of exposure. It’s hard to move straight into manual without a good bit of knowledge or guidance.
  2. Adjust exposure with Exposure Compensation. – Now that you are taking control of how your camera sets exposure, you can tell it that it’s making the wrong choices. Exposure compensation is your way of saying, “Hey camera. I know you’re smart and all, but you think this photo is well exposed and it’s actually way too dark. Brighten it.” How you adjust exposure compensation is going to vary from camera to camera. You can look at your camera manual for instructions on finding it, or you can experiment with the dials on your camera. On my camera, I use this dial to adjust exposure compensation: Set up a new camera - exposure compensationYou’ll know that you’ve found the dial that adjusts exposure compensation when you can look at the meter inside your viewfinder and see that the indicator is above a number higher or lower than 0, rather than being directly above 0. If the indicator is above a number on the side of the meter with the + sign, as you see in the image below, you are telling the camera to make the image brighter. If you move that indicator to the – side, you are telling the camera to make the photo darker.Set up a new cameraNote: if you are shoot in Manual mode, you probably already know that you can’t use Exposure Compensation. Instead, you’d use this technique to adjust exposure.
  3. Turn on your blinkies. In steps one and two, you took control over how bright or dark exposure is. This exposure-related camera setting will give you feedback on whether your exposure is correct. It can be hard to look at the little display on the back of your camera and judge exposure, right? Luckily, it’s easy for us to adjust exposure on our computers or phones – as long as exposure isn’t extremely bright or extremely dark. Using these blinkies will tell you if parts of your photo are so bright that they can’t be fixed. If you see blinkies over an important part of your photo – like your subject’s face or hair – you know you need to darken exposure by moving exposure compensation to the dark (-) side. However, there are times when blinkies don’t matter – if the sun, a gray sky, or the reflection on chrome is blinking, that’s generally not an issue.Set up a new cameraJust like Exposure Compensation, the method for enabling the blinkies on your camera will vary from model to model. Look in your manual for terms like “Highlight Alert,” “Highlight & Shadow Display,” or “RGB Highlights.”
  4. Choose your own Focus Point. Straight out of the box, most cameras try to tell you what the subject of your photo is. Sometimes they do a good job, but not always. And really, how is your camera supposed to know where YOU want to focus? Some cameras out there will let you change a setting so that you can choose your own focus point on Auto, but many require you to switch to P, A, S, or M in order to choose your focus point. Once you enable the ability for you to choose where to focus, you’ll need to learn how to tell your camera what to should focus on. You’ll find all of the details on changing this setting right here.
  5. Get feedback on where you focused. Just like you took control of your exposure and used blinkies to give you feedback on whether the exposure was right, you can turn on your autofocus point display to give you feedback on whether your camera focused in the right place. When you use this option, assuming that your camera offers it, your camera will place a small red dot over the point where you focused on your LCD display. If you meant to focus on an eye, but the red dot is floating over the background, you’ll know you need to retake your photo.

If you set up your new camera with these 5 settings, you’ll have gone from being a newbie to controlling of basic camera functions. You’ll still have plenty to get used to and lots to learn, but you’ll have bypassed many bad photos quickly.

Do you have questions about these settings? Or, are there other must-change settings for you when you get a new camera? Post them in the comments below.