There's nothing like unwrapping a new camera for the first time.

Having a brand new camera is an exciting time for a photographer. But before you head for the hills, the studio or a far-flung destination, it’s a smart idea to adjust a few important camera settings first. A few tweaks and adjustments up front can mean the difference between fluid work and frustration.

How you set up your menu and customize your buttons and dials is a very personal matter. It depends on what you shoot, which features you use and how you like to work. No matter what you’re focused on, there are a few common settings that all photographers need to get set right straight out of the box.

The Great Menu Expansion

Perhaps the most consistent change in cameras in the digital era is the size and complexity of the menu system. As an example of this growth consider Canon’s first mainstream DSLR, the Canon D30 from the year 2000, whose menu featured a total of 31 items on one long scrolling list. Canon’s recent pro-level R3, on the other hand, offers 433 menu items organized into 8 categories or tabs.

Canon and other manufacturers have done a reasonable job (some better than others) at organizing all these features into relatively logical categories like: Image quality, Playback, AF, and Wireless. However, they give you no clue as to which items you should adjust straight out of the box – which ones are better to turn off or keep on most of the time.

Perhaps the most consistent change in cameras in the digital era is the size and complexity of the menu system.

For this reason, many photographers tweak a few items as they need them and leave the rest of the menu for a time when they have nothing better to do than read a camera instruction manual – which is likely never. They then wind up living with discomfort in their shooting experience that would be easy to fix.

This article provides a short list of must-change items for all photographers. The out-of-the-box factory settings (or worse, the previous owner’s settings) may not have these settings adjusted for your needs. While I could go on all day about this, let’s start with a few hot items you’ll want to adjust on your new camera.


Yes, the topic of this article is on menu settings and the first item isn’t in the menu. Point noted, now let's move on. The diopter is the focus adjustment for your camera's viewfinder. Somewhere near the eyepiece is a small knurled knob, possibly with plus and minus labels. Turning this knob will adjust lens elements in the viewfinder to adapt the clarity of the view for people with different vision needs.

You'll see clearly once your diopter is correctly adjusted.

When the diopter is adjusted properly, you'll have a way better time seeing both your subject and the information displayed in the electronic viewfinder of a mirrorless camera or the focusing screen of a DSLR. If the diopter is slightly off you’ll likely still see a sharp image but your eyes will need to strain to keep everything in focus. A properly adjusted diopter will make viewing comfortable and strain-free.

These little knobs can easily be adjusted by accident and it's not uncommon to look through your viewfinder and be suddenly shocked at how bad your eyesight has gotten. While some knobs have better locks than others, almost every camera I’ve used has needed this adjusted at the start, and again at various intervals. This is a rather unglamorous way to start the personalization of your camera, but without it the whole world could be a blur to you.

File Format

There is perhaps no setting as important as the file type. We’ll sidestep the whole Raw vs JPEG debate here, and we’ll simply state that whatever you decide is right for you is something you need to set up on your camera right away.

A Raw file, for the newbies out there, contains all the original capture information in an image, far more than the efficient subset contained in a JPEG. It allows you greater leeway in post-processing to recover details from shadows or highlights and to change fundamental aspects like white balance or color. The downside is that the file size is a bit on the big side (compared to JPEG) and requires special software to view and work on the image. While your camera manufacturer provides free software to do so, many people prefer to use popular photo-editing software from companies like Adobe or Capture One.

Whether you value the flexibility of Raw files, or the convenience of JPEG, make sure you've picked a file format before heading out the door.

The JPEG file is a small convenient file that can be opened and viewed by pretty much any computer or viewing device made in the last 25 years. The downside to the JPEG is that the file is processed and compressed. While convenient for sharing online and fine for printing unaltered, it lacks the information depth of color and tones that a skilled photo editor would appreciate when working in the digital darkroom.

Thankfully, most camera manufacturers know that file type is an important setting, and it’s usually located at or near the top of the menu. You'll also often find a shortcut to this feature in the Quick or Function menu or Control grid screen.

You can shoot Raw and JPEG at the same time, but this should only be done if you truly need it. If you have a Raw file you can make a JPEG anytime you want, in any quantity, with any adjustment you like, so long as you have a computer, the right software and the time to do it. The best time to simultaneously shoot both Raw and JPEG is when you have an immediate need for the JPEG and a long-term desire for the Raw.

Thankfully, most manufacturers know that file type is important and it’s usually located at or near the top of most menus.

Get this set right first, and if you change your photography workflow from time to time be sure to come back and revisit it. The current file type status is often displayed in the viewfinder or on the rear screen for easy monitoring.

Card Format

Photos from your camera will likely be stored on a removable memory card, and like any storage area (digital or real) it should be cleared of unnecessary clutter before use. Each camera manufacturer has a slightly different way of communicating with the card and storing images on it. To create a clean, reliable line of communication between camera and card it is highly recommended that you 'format' a new card inside the camera before heading out to capture photos.

Formatting your digital storage medium with a new camera ensures they'll become fast friends.

Be advised that formatting a card will delete all the photos on it, along with any folders, seen or unseen, and will set up a new storage structure and path. Formatting is also recommended when heading out on a new shoot, so long as the photos from the last shoot have been downloaded and backed up first. There’s nothing like starting with a clean slate.

Date and Time

Mundane and trivial to some, the capture date and time of every image is stored in its metadata (extra information that can be viewed by software) and having it correct may potentially save headaches in the future. Many cameras now have simple adjustments for traveling to different time zones and adjusting for daylight saving time so that you don’t need to fiddle with the actual time setting. I’ve found that cameras are not particularly accurate in their timekeeping over the long haul, so if you're fussy about having exactly the right time stamp on your photos you may need to revisit this feature every few months or so.

Having the correct date and time set on your camera can help you remember when you captured photos.

Copyright Info

Another item in the image metadata that may be beneficial at some point in the future is setting your name and any other pertinent personal info. Be advised that this data can be overwritten by anyone with access to your digital file. This setting is for information that may be helpful to you or others, but it is not in the realm of lock-tight security options.

Adding your name in the copyright field provides a very low level of security; think of it simply as a note that it is you who took the photo, or at the very least an image that came from your camera. This can be convenient if your images have been casually mixed with others and you need to identify the owner or creator.

Embedding copyright information can help identify your photos or even recover your camera.

You can also use this setting to put in specific copyright information like 'All Rights Reserved,' to let anyone else with access to the file know what your intentions are. Once again, though, be advised that this can easily be overwritten by the laziest of hackers. A potential use for this area is your contact information, usually in email form. Should your camera be lost or stolen it could provide a link back to you. True, the bad guy won’t care about this, but the honest one who does want to do the right thing will have information on how to contact you.

Set up and head out

None of these settings will help you create great photos, but they can make the experience of shooting with your new camera a bit easier. Paging through the labyrinth of the menu system isn’t the first choice of activity for a photographer, but trust me, there’s a lot of useful stuff in there. Getting your camera set up specifically for your needs is like getting a custom tailored suit – it will prepare you for whatever may come and give you confidence when you head out into the world.

What settings and adjustment do you make straight out of the box? Tell us in the comments.

John Greengo specializes in photographic education through online training, books and international photo tours. His photographic teachings have been viewed by millions around the globe.

His website offers a growing collection of highly visual photography courses. Classes cover a wide range of photographic topics including landscape, travel and gear-specific tutorials. His impressive collection of camera guides provides viewers with detailed instruction on every aspect of the camera's operation.