Set up your camera the easy way…


One of the most important things about photographing people is not to worry about the technical side – you don’t need to know many things about your camera to be able to take great pictures.

It’s far more important to be able to relate to your subject, and be relaxed about shooting. If you are constantly worrying about which F-stop to set your camera on, and which dial does what, you will lose all your confidence and it will make it so much harder. Particularly if your client is standing in front of you at the time!

You need to set up your camera simply and easily so you don’t have to think about it again. It’s rather like your car; you can drive a car without understanding exactly how it works. You just learn to use the bits you need and let the rest take care of itself.

When using your camera becomes as simple as driving your car, you can add as many new techniques as you like. But for now, just stick to the simple way. In fact I’ve pretty much stuck to this method for 20 years and it hasn’t done me any harm!

The great news is you don’t need to understand everything about aperture and shutter speeds either.

If you follow the simple instructions given in this blog, using your camera will become second nature and you can concentrate on what you enjoy most – taking photos!  You won’t have to make any on-the-spot decisions about your camera, and you’ll learn to concentrate on the people in front of you.


In my opinion, the most important aspects of people photography are:

  1. Rapport with your subject
  2. Light
  3. Backgrounds
  4. Equipment

… In that order!

I always have my camera set up so all I need to do is switch it on and grab that picture! The only time I ever change it is if I want the background even more out of focus for a specific look. I spend the first 90% of my time on a shoot on exactly the same settings – the main reason being that  I need to concentrate entirely on getting my client relaxed and getting the best pictures I can of them. Once you start looking at your camera and fiddling with dials all the time, I find it breaks the rapport. The camera should just be an extension of your eye really! Plus of course, if I change the settings I will forget to put them back, because I’m too busy concentrating on my client.

I’ve learnt all sorts of ways to cheat and work in all kinds of weather, with any person, clothing, and backgrounds – and still get great shots. You have too much to think about when photographing people, without having to change things on the camera too!

Changing dials on your camera does not necessarily give you better pictures. Spending time changing backgrounds, clothes, positioning, expressions – that’s what makes great pictures of people.

What kind of camera do I need?

You need the camera you feel most comfortable with. If you were out enjoying yourself at a party in the evening, you would probably not feel comfortable with a big DSLR and lens hanging round your neck. You would be much better off with your camera phone.

But if you were on an important shoot with a paying client, or needed more control over your shoot you would need a DSLR.

If you want to keep a camera handy at all times to capture things you see in everyday life, then my advice is to use your phone. Consider upgrading your phone to one with a really good camera on it – the obvious choice is the iPhone; the iPhone 4S has everything you need, and with the right provider deal, it is cheaper than buying a compact camera, and will give you much more flexibility, as you have it with you most of the time. It is also incredible fun playing with the apps – there are some amazing photo apps on there, which will really take your photography to another level. Try Camera+ and Hipstamatic – these are my personal favorites. Check out my blog on these – HOW TO: Shoot Great Portraits on your iPhone

If you want to get more serious about your photography, you might want to consider a DSLR. There are so many out there, it’s really hard to tell you which one to buy. You need to buy the one you feel most comfortable with. There are some cameras that feel really uncomfortable – these are the ones that when you half press the shutter down to focus etc. the image wobbles – I don’t know why – but it feels really weird! I have tried some of these on seminars and I find them really annoying! I want my image to look steady immediately, because I need to be concentrating on the person, not whether the camera is ready or not.

Concentrate on WHAT you are photographing, rather than what you are photographing WITH. Particularly if this is your subject - ha ha!

Concentrate on WHAT you are photographing, rather than what you are photographing WITH. Particularly if this is your subject – ha ha!

I tend to use Canon, because I find they are very user friendly – I have handled many cameras on seminars, and some are definitely harder to use than others. You really don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a good DSLR camera – around £500 buys you a very decent camera these days. Once you’ve experimented with setting it up in a simple way, you will see that it really doesn’t matter how many zillion things a camera can do – you are only likely to be using a few of them! However, of course if you only spend £50 on a new camera it is not going to produce a good quality image (unless it’s an iPhone 4S deal!).

Perhaps you could take these instructions (below) to the camera shop when you buy your camera, ask them to set it up for you, and then practice with it in the shop. If it feels uncomfortable or tricky – try another camera. The main thing to remember is that there is no wrong and right camera – there is no perfect camera that will give you perfect shots – it’s what you do with it that matters, and there are plenty of reasonably priced cameras out there that will do a great job. Concentrate on setting it up easily and just taking pictures. Don’t worry that there might be a better one out there!

How do I set up my DSLR to make it easy?

I’m going to tell you how I set my camera up below, but don’t be afraid to start off by using Auto. It doesn’t make you a lesser person! (Despite what the camera snobs say!) In fact it helps you to concentrate on what you are photographing, because you don’t have to worry about any of the other settings. Everything is built into the Auto setting to help you get really good pictures. It’s only when you start wanting to do specific things, like getting the background more out of focus etc. that you may want to change it.

Once you are happy with the feel of your camera, you can start to set up the camera to make your shots look more professional, but still allow you to work easily and quickly, whilst concentrating on your subject.

The key technical things I want from my photos are:

  1. Emphasis on the person
  2. Most flattering exposure for faces
  3. Eyes in focus
  4. Background usually out of focus

If this is what you want too, then check out the settings below.

And don’t forget – you can always reset your camera to AUTO at any time, and it will override all these settings. (But as soon as you go back to AV 5.6 the new settings will come back, provided you didn’t move anything when it was set on Auto).

I have taken a couple of pages from my book “99 Portrait Photo ideas” because I think it’s easier to understand in this format.


Once you’ve set it up like this, it’s REALLY IMPORTANT that you read the page below and practice using your camera set up in this way. It may feel weird at first, but you will find it doesn’t take long before you’re hooked!



1.  RAW or JPEG? That age old question! Again, it really depends on what you are using the images for. If you want to have total control over your images, then shoot RAW as you will be able to get much more detail out of the shot – however you will also need TONS of storage space, and you will fill up your cards very quickly.

If you take pictures for fun and don’t want to spend hours downloading, editing and filing stuff – do not be afraid to use JPEG – there is nothing wrong with this at all. It does not make you less of a serious photographer – honestly. In fact I know several professionals who use jpeg. I did too, until I got Lightroom, and can use raw files in a much quicker way. However it still drives me mad how much storage I need. If you are working on a laptop, you will need ALOT of hard drives for storage. Your laptop will fill up very quickly if you don’t.

2.  ISO – I tend to use ISO 800 in the UK, because of the weather! This means I don’t have to worry about the picture blurring. I use ISO 400 in countries with brighter light.

Adjusting the ISO has a direct effect on your shutter speed. The higher the ISO, the higher the speed, which means you decrease the chances of your picture blurring in low light. But if you have your ISO really high (say 1600 or 3200 etc.) then the grain (or noise) will be increased in the picture. Not a problem when you really need to get a picture, say in a dark church on a wedding – but generally you want to keep it at 400 or 800 to get consistent results without blurring.

Techies will tell you to use a flash to decrease the risk of blurring. However I just don’t like the effect a flash gives when used in natural light – it looks false and also shows up every blemish on someone’s face (not flattering). Far better, in my opinion to use natural light, and set the camera to expose for the face.

Apart from the ISO (in tricky conditions) I would only ever change my settings once I have done most of my shoot, and even then only if I want a specific look. The only setting I occasionally change is the aperture, which I move to F2.8 – because I have a 2.8 lens which is wonderful for portraits. HOWEVER – I do not do this until I know I have most of the shoot in the bag. Why? Because the first time I ever used it, I forgot to change it back and shot everything on 2.8 which resulted in many of the images being half out of focus. When you zoom in close to a face on F2.8, a lot of the face will be out of focus – which can be very effective if you want that look – however it can be a disaster if you don’t. From experience I have found that if you stick to F5.6 – the background will be out of focus but all parts of the face will be in focus.

Now you are going to ask: What happens if there are two people in the shot?

Again – technical books will tell you to change the aperture to F8 or F11 – which will give you more depth of field (the amount of the picture that is in focus). If I do this, I find it takes my attention away from the client, and the background will come into focus and spoil the shot (in my style). So, rather than moving the aperture – I move the people. I ask the one that is behind, to move closer to the one that is in front. (I ask them to move their head forward, usually). That way they are in the same plane and will both be in focus.


Rather than move the aperture – move the people! Bring all the people into focus by asking the adults to lean forward. This puts them in the same plane as the child and keeps them in focus at F5.6.

Also the further away you are the more they are in focus anyway – so if suddenly you are doing a group of 10 people at a wedding, you will be standing further back, or zooming further out, and therefore the heads of the people will be in the same plane.  If you were to zoom into the shot of 10 people and focus on just one of them – then the others would start to go out of focus (which can also look great when it’s deliberate). Try it and you will see.

I tend to use just one camera with a 75-200 lens for most of my work; however occasionally I use another one with a 35-70 lens when I want a wider shot. (It’s important to have a spare camera with you on a professional shoot, because you’re stuffed if one breaks down!). So if I am doing a large group shot I tend to use the wider lens, which will keep the heads more in focus than the longer lens would.

Remember – this is all relevant to photographing people – that’s what I do! If you want to do landscapes etc. then you may want to change your settings. This information is given specifically for photographing people to get flattering portraits of them.

People often think that to take great pictures it has to be highly technical and complicated. In my opinion, it’s the opposite! The simpler it is, the better. Less worrying about the camera, means you can concentrate on getting the absolute best from your subject.

Annabel x