Many cameras have a button or menu item called Custom Settings (or something similar), but on the first 24 DSLRs I owned, I never used it. When I did try using it, I used it poorly and I’d bet most of you are like me. Let me show you how I use it now; maybe it’ll help you refine your technique, too. 

How’s it work?

Custom Settings work by saving all the settings you currently have on your camera into a button or dial or menu selection. And I do mean all the settings. White balance, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus mode, focus area, color profile, crop mode and anything else your camera is capable of doing. Having all those things set by flicking a switch can be pretty handy. 

Rookie setup

You know how it is: When you’re shopping for a new camera you read up on all kinds of specs. Anything quantitative is great because you can compare it directly with another model (which is why megapixel counts are always hyped up, even though they’re not that important). Then after you buy the camera, you go to your favorite blogger’s page and copy all their settings. This is a great way to get started setting up your camera because as you learn what you like you can make changes. 

So you hear how cool it is that this camera has two Custom Setting modes and you set them up for shooting action and for shooting stars, just like your favorite blogger suggested. 

And then you forget they exist. 

You’ve got this new camera that does so many cool things and it’s totally normal to forget some features.

The real problem is that when you suddenly find yourself in a situation with some action worth photographing, you don’t remember that you’ve got a Custom Setting for that. And most of us photograph stars so rarely that we have to re-learn how every time. So your Custom Setting button remains unused. 

And that is ok! They are only useful if they are useful, and when you’re ready you’ll realize when they are useful. 

Advanced setup

Now that I’ve been shooting for several years (this is my tenth year) and have owned way too many cameras, I’ve realized a few things. First, the camera model I use is not that important — I can make the picture I want with almost camera body. Second, there are finally a few things I do repeatedly that make it worth using the Custom Setting modes. 

I don’t need it for action and stars — each time I shoot those the situation is different enough that the custom setting isn’t helpful. But I do shoot a lot of portraits in studio setups that use the same lighting and camera settings, and the Steve Jobs Portrait Project uses the same settings each time.

Once my lights and backdrop are set up, I just click over to C3 and I’m ready to roll. I know I’m getting a consistent look even though I photograph hundreds of people hundreds of miles apart. 

Pro Setup

Why do I use C3, the last one on the dial, for something I use all the time? The reason is my last idea for you. 

I’ve been photographing and filming lots of wildlife and hunting, lately. On my Lumix G9, I can click the dial to Manual mode for photos, click once to switch to video mode where all my settings are as I left them, and then click once more to C1. The photo and video settings are constantly changing depending on the time of day and location and subject, so I alter them at each set and they stay there even when I change the dial. 

I use the C1 for slow motion settings. These are also different for each shoot, so I set the camera to the right settings, then save them from the menu. 

The key thing is that I know have all three modes I’ll use today ready to go on three dials in a row and I can switch them quickly without looking. When I’m in the studio, there’s is no reason I need to switch immediately to the #SteveJobsPortraitProject settings without glancing at the dials. That’s why those settings are best left on the least convenient dial. I change C1 for every situation I’m working in, but C3 stays the same. 


As you grow in your skills and become more familiar with your tools, your uses for them evolve. The Custom Settings buttons on your camera are a terrific tool, but you should use them as fits you best and you should change them as your situations change. Allowing my most convenient Custom Setting to be flexible has helped me create the pictures I need to more quickly.