Having a photo “pre-flight” checklist

Having a photo

There are several things that have to come together before you can use your camera to create great images.  One of those things is familiarity with your camera, coupled with a minimum number of  “X-Factors” for that camera when out in the field.  One of the ways to be prepared with your camera is to develop a set of standard settings you use when going forth to photograph particular subjects.  It involves creating a camera “pre-flight” checklist that becomes your standard operating procedure so much that it takes a mere seconds of checking settings before you are ready to photograph.

The important starting point is to get out of “Auto” or “Program” mode and leave it behind forever.  As a photographer, you want to maximize your creative control, not just be a conduit for a camera manufacturer to take pictures.  Find how to engage the “Aperture Priority” mode of your camera and select it; never look back.  Now, you have to understand camera metering and lighting in order to make the most effective use of this setting, but it is worth it to learn.  That, however, is the subject of another blog post.

Here is what I have used faithfully for years as my photo pre-flight checklist.  It allows me to minimize the amount of settings I adjust while out in the field, and, since it is now second-nature after years of use, helps me to quickly change my settings when the subject matter changes.

General Settings

There are certain settings that should always stay the same, whether you are photographing landscapes, macro, or wildlife.  These settings should always be set, so you minimize what you change for your various subjects:

  • White balance should always be set to “Cloudy” when outside, “Auto” when shooting in artificial light.
  • File size or format should always be set to RAW.
  • Auto focus should always be set to continuous servo.
  • Burst rate should be set to continuous high.
  • Metering should be set to matrix metering.
  • If available, engage the “long exposure noise reduction.”
  • If available, engage the “high ISO noise reduction.”
  • Learn how to turn on your histogram and use it regularly when previewing image in the field.

Landscapes and Macro

Generally speaking, many of the settings for landscape and macro are the same, with the exception of depth of field (controlled by your aperture or f-stop).  Most macro will use a shallower depth of field, anywhere from f/2.8 to f/5.6,  in order to control the background.

  • Use a tripod!  Occasionally, you can hand-hold, but that will depend on the depth of field and shutter speed.
  • Use a shutter release cable or remote control; if not available, use the camera’s self-timer.  All will minimize the likelihood of camera movement during your capture.
  • Use the mirror lockup feature to further reduce risk of camera movement.
  • Use the viewfinder blind if overcast or if the sun is behind you.
  • Set your ISO to its lowest setting, typically either 100 or 200.
  • Shoot at f/16 or higher to maximize depth of field (see noted exception above for macro).
  • Use the “Live View” feature to double-check focus.


Since wildlife generally tend to not stand still, the settings are typically going to be quite different for wildlife compared to landscape.  But, be prepared to apply landscape settings to wildlife if, for example, you want to capture the “animal in the landscape” photo, because then the subject is the entire scene.

  • Use a tripod or monopod, depending on your situation.  Sometimes, neither is available, but you should stabilize your lens as much as possible.
  • If hand holding your camera and lens, make sure that your shutter speed is the same as or higher than the longest focal length of your lens.  For example, when hand holding a 300mm lens, make sure your shutter speed is 1/500 at a minimum.
  • Set your ISO to 400 for most situations; you will need to go higher, of course, during lower light situations.
  • Shoot at f/5.6, unless you want movement and a slower shutter speed or you are photographing the animal in the landscape.

These are all basic settings and techniques that I rely on 95% of the time.  If you learn them and apply them regularly, they will become second nature.  This will greatly reduce the time you spend fumbling with your camera in the field, and will greatly enhance your opportunities to capture the photos you want when the conditions change quickly.

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