For those of you who know what you are doing and what settings you want to use this blog is not for you - it's to help beginners find a safe selection of settings to use before venturing out on an unplanned shoot where they don't really know what they will be photographing and are not entirely sure what settings to use. It's also the settings that my cameras are always at unless I have it on a tripod in manual mode preparing for some 'experiments'.
The photos here are of my D90, taken with my D5200. I don't care which of the two I grab to take pictures with, it depends which lens I am after. The D90 usually has the 18-200mm on it and it's the one I grab for most walkabout shoots. The megapixels mean nothing to me, if I need the 35mm f1.8 lens I grab my 6 meg D40 because I have never needed more than 6 megapixels.
First I will mention the basic setting my camera is on for image quality. I only shoot in jpeg mode. If you want to shoot RAW then I advise setting your camera to RAW+jpeg and comparing the two files after editing them and see if you need to shoot RAW. RAW is superior in every way except the amount of memory space it wastes and the fact that you have to edit it before sharing. Having said that I shoot in jpeg mode to discipline myself to get as many settings as possible right in-camera when shooting. if I did photography for a living I would shoot RAW.
I set my image quality to "large" and "fine". If you print out two photos, one taken in "fine" and one in "basic" they will look exactly the same - unless you edit them, and almost every photo needs a fine tweak of some sort no matter how well you have your exposure set - there are too many variables to get it right in-camera every time besides the limitations of the sensor itself.
A jpeg fine is like a thick slice of bread, it looks exactly the same as the thin slice [basic] from the top but if you put them both in the toaster [Photoshop] the thin slice will 'warp' while the thicker slice will handle it better. This means that jpeg fine has more information to 'throw away' to achieve the desired result when you edit. RAW is like a quarter loaf of bread in comparison, you can choose where you cut it before putting it in the toaster - within reason of course. :)
I leave my wb on auto as well. Auto settings are by no means perfect but they generally get the images close enough to be able to save them through editing later. If you set white balance manually you need to be fast enough to change it with changing light and have the memory [in your head] to do so. I don't have a good memory so I let the auto modes do some of the thinking for me.
I also have my iso set on auto. I set the actual iso manually to the lowest - iso 200 in this case because "lo-1" is a trick mode that loses quality. I have it set to be able to choose the maximum iso necessary to allow me to use my other settings with a minimum speed of 1/125th. That way it will keep increasing iso to prevent my shutter speed dropping below 1/125th because "you can fix noise but you can't fix motion blur!". What's the point of staying at iso settings for the best image quality if your shutter speed is so slow that the subject is a blur? In any case it's perfectly fine to have some noisy images in a set, many non-photographers will think it's artistic :)
I have my AF area mode set to 'dynamic' so it uses all the focus points for its calculations but I choose the main one myself. This prevents the frustration of it choosing a subject that is closer if it is in fully auto mode. I set the centre focus point to "narrow" because I find that when I have it at "wide" it doesn't focus as well, usually on something behind my subject.
First it will open the aperture to its widest, then it will lower the shutter speed, but not below that 1/125th sec that was set for auto-iso. Once it hits 1/125th sec it now only has one setting left, iso. It will then increase iso to the point where it reaches what it deems to be 'correct' exposure [I have a long chapter on this in my ebook]. So you may end up at let's say f3,5, 1/125th sec and iso 800 - but you couldn't go wider on the aperture, you don't really want to be shooting slower than 1/125th for motion blur so all that is left to save the shot is an increase in iso - or you can't get the shot. If it gets to its maximum iso [iso 3200 for my D90] it will do the only thing it has left to do and use a slower shutter speed which may or may not get you the image you wanted but there isn't much else you can do in a hurry.
Then I put my camera in shutter priority where you tell it what speed to use.
my photovan and saw this truck coming past. Knowing that I had shutter priority set to 1/30th and wanting to make the speed look a little more dramatic it simply involved moving the dial to "S" and I got my shot. Then straight back to "P" again to continue shooting.
It's not about letting the camera do the thinking for you, it's about learning 'how' your camera thinks and using it to your advantage when time is limited. When you know why you choose these settings you are generally competent enough to shoot the same way in manual mode when time permits.
What about Aperure priority? I very seldom use it actually. perhaps indoors but most of the time I know that Program mode is going to choose settings very close to what I would choose while taking snapshots. If I'm indoors perhaps I may select the widest aperture my camera can go to but then again I know Program mode will do that anyway.
When I go to manual mode the settings for Aperture priority and Shutter priority are there as a base point to work from before turning off auto-iso if I have the time.
But there is another trick to turning off auto-iso [kinda] without digging into the menus - so you know it is ready to work for you again at the flick of a dial. Switch to Shutter priority and dial the speed slower than 1/125th sec.
As you dial the shutter speed slower the iso will drop back to 'base iso' [200 for the D90] and once it reaches this and you keep going slower it will start closing down the aperture to get the correct exposure. So basically you can set your camera to take a 1 second exposure at f11 and iso 200 even if auto-iso is turned on - without going into the menus. As soon as you flip back to Aperture priority or Program mode auto-iso will work exactly as before. :)
There is one other mode I use occasionally. Sports mode is handy when something happens in a hurry and you don't have time to change many settings. If I suddenly need to shoot something fast moving I simply flip to sports mode, there's no shame in using an auto mode if you actually know what settings it will choose and why - because it means you could choose the right settings if you had the time.
And just keep in mind that a jpeg could easily be published in a magazine :)