Photography Blog | Tips For Photographers | Camera, Lens, Kit Reviews

Get To Know Your Camera

A look at the important settings and dials, how to adjust aperture and shutter, focusing skills and low light tips.

By , 5th October 2017 in Tutorials

This guide is for anyone who wants to get more from their camera, be it a DSLR, compact or bridge camera. Learn about the key camera controls and how to use them to control exposure, shutter speed, use the flash and get great shots.

The tips below are written using a Canon DSLR, however, they are all perfectly valid for other makes and other camera types. The menu options may be in a different place, or the button may have a different icon, so you may have to check your manual, but the overall principle is the same for every camera.

Setup Your Camera

It is important to configure your camera with the base settings which work for you, so here are some of the basic camera settings which will help get the best possible shot.

Select High Quality Pictures

Digital SLR Image Quality Settings
Digital SLR Image Quality Settings

When it comes to file format, shoot in RAW rather than JPEG. The extra data that is collected in the uncompressed RAW format gives you more flexibility to adjust your shots post-shoot if necessary. Keep the ISO as low as possible to reduce unwanted noise, and set the white balance to auto. For the most part, auto white balance makes a good decision and as you get more confident you can change this yourself later on.

Choose the right Exposure Mode

Digital SLR Shooting Mode Settings Dial
Digital SLR Shooting Mode Settings Dial

SLR's offer a range of exposure modes, from fully automatic, to fully manual. In between these two extremes are the semi-automatic modes, aperture priority and shutter priority which provide lots of control. Aperture priority allows you to set the aperture and the camera will work out the best shutter speed. Likewise, setting shutter priority mode allows you to set the shutter speed, and the camera will adjust the aperture accordingly. Which mode you need will depend on what you are photographing.

Choose the right Metering Mode

Digital SLR Metering Mode Selection
Digital SLR Metering Mode Selection

Metering options depend on the camera, but generally, there is evaluative, centre-weighted and spot. Evaluative metering takes a reading from the entire scene and uses an average to work out the exposure. Centre-weighted looks the central 60% of the frame to take the average, while spot metering takes a single reading from the selected autofocus point. Evaluative metering is useful when photographing landscapes when you need the entire scene well exposed. Centre-weighted is useful for portrait photography when the background isn't as important as the subject.

Aperture and Shutter Speed

Digital SLR Aperture and Shutter Speed Information Display
Digital SLR Aperture and Shutter Speed Information Display

Aperture and shutter speed affect not just the amount of light you let into the lens, but also the way the images look. The aperture is used to determine the depth of field, which is the amount of the scene which is in focus. If you want a blurred background, you need a wide aperture such as f/2.8 and if you want everything in focus, from front to back, you need a small aperture such as f/22. The shutter speed controls whether a moving subject is frozen or blurred; the slower the shutter the more motion is captured.

Set the Focus and Drive Modes

Digital SLR Drive Modes Settings
Digital SLR Drive Modes Settings

To ensure shots are razor sharp, SLR's offer a number of focus modes. The two main settings are single shot, for stationary subjects, and servo drive for moving subjects. Most SLR's have the ability to select from a range of focal points (AF points), or individual points. These can help when your subject is off centre.

The cameras Drive Modes allow you to select whether a single image is taken when you press the shutter or a burst of photos. You can also use the timer to control the delay between pressing the shutter and taking the picture.

Get Better Exposures

Reduce the amount of time you spend trying to rescue under and over exposed images in Photoshop by getting it right the first time, in camera.

Getting your head around exposure can be daunting, so let's start with the basics. When taking photographs, an image is recorded by light reaching your camera's sensor. You need a certain amount of light to expose the scene correctly; too little and the image will be too dark, or under exposed. To much light and it will be too bright, or over exposed. The trick is getting this just right.

The amount of light reaching your sensor is controlled by three key components, aperture, shutter speed and ISO. These three form the exposure triangle.

The aperture controls how much light enters the lens, the wider the aperture the more light can enter. The shutter speed determines how long the camera sensor is exposed to the light and the ISO is how sensitive the sensor is to the light.

To determine the aperture and shutter speed required to expose a shot correctly at a given ISO, your camera measures the amount of light reflected back from a scene using a built in light meter. The problem is that the camera does not know what you are photographing, so it assumes that the scene contains a full range of tones and tries to expose accordingly. There are however certain lighting conditions which confuse the camera.

Westonbirt Arboretum

Dark Scenes
A built in light meter will try to produce an even exposure made up of average midtones. A dark scene that's been exposed so it's dominated by midtones will look overexposed.

Pip playing in the sea at Luce Bay

Midtone Scenes
Scenes containing a relatively even mix of shadows, midtones and highlights won't give your cameras metering system much trouble.

Winter Snow from Janurary 2013

Bright Scenes
As with dark scenes, because the built in light meter will try to render any scene as an average midtone, very bright subjects like snow will end up looking grey rather than pure white.

Control Aperture

Set the right combination of aperture and shutter speed and you'll notice an immediate difference in your photography.

The aperture is simply the hole in the front of the lens through which light enters. It is a diaphragm which can be made larger or smaller to control how much light reaches the sensor. The aperture size is measured in f-stops and is fractions, with f/4 being twice as large and f/8 which is twice as large as f/16. Lens apertures are typically in the range of f/4 to f/22. Each f-stop halves the amount of light reaching the sensor, and this can be compensated by doubling the exposure time.

The depth of field is a measure of how much of the photo is in focus, both in front, and behind, point you've focused on. Wide apertures of f/2.8 will produce an image with very shallow depth of field, which is great for macro and portraits, while narrow apertures, like f/22, will maximise depth of field and is ideal for landscape photography.

Shutter Speed Explained

You can control the way that movement is captured in your photos by getting to grips with your cameras full range of shutter speeds. Like the aperture setting, the shutter speed you choose isn't simply a way of controlling the overall exposure. It also has a visible effect to your shots enabling you to control the appearance of a moving subject.

Fast shutter speeds freeze movement, ensuring pin-sharp pictures no matter how unsteady your grip on the camera or how fast your subject is moving. Slow shutter speeds tend to blue movement, and so can be used for creative effects.

Shutter speeds are measured in seconds, or fractions of seconds. 1/10 is one tenth of a second, 1/250 is one two-hundred and fiftieth of a second.

If you're shooting handheld you'll need a fast enough shutter speed to ensure that camera shake doesn't cause blurred shots. As a general rule, you need to use a shutter speed greater than the focal length, so for example, if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/250 sec or faster.

Take Control of Focus Modes

Focus and drive settings are often overlooked, but they are essential for coping with challenging situations.

Nissan 200SX Flaming

When you look through your viewfinder and half-press the shutter you will see multiple autofocus points flash when they have achieved focus and you may hear a beep. These are cues designed to help you take pin-sharp photos. However, if you shoot using basic modes (auto, portrait, sports, landscape etc) the camera will select the autofocus points automatically based on what it thinks you are taking a photo of. This is usually what is closest, but this may not always be the case.

You can manually set the focus points, either to a region or specific point. This means when shooting portraits for example that you can focus on one of your subject's eyes, even if it's off centre in the frame.

In general, single point AF is best used when shooting stationary subjects. It allows you to fine tune the autofocus point manually. The centre AF point is always the most accurate. Dynamic area AF is great for shooting fast moving subjects. Some camera allows you to select a group of AF points to help provide a compromise between the speed of single point and the flexibility of dynamic area.

Lenses

One of the main benefits of having an SLR is the ability to change lenses and most of us start with kit lenses, cheap everyday lens bundled with the camera to get you started. The key here is that they get you started. There will come a time when you want to add to your creative equipment, and expanding your collection of lenses is a great place to start. Here are the main points to consider when choosing a lens.

Examples of various lenses
Examples of various lenses

Crop Factor
The size of your SLR sensor affects the angle of view of your lens. The smaller the sensor the longer the effective focal length. A full frame sensor has the same physical dimensions as a frame of 25mm film. Smaller APS-C sensors, used in the majority of mid-range SLR's, capture a smaller proportion of the image projected by the lens. This has the effect of increasing the focal length by a factor or 1.5x or 1.6x depending on the manufacturer.

Lens Speed
We're not talking focus speed here, but rather the light gathering ability of the lens. Fast lenses have a wide maximum aperture, such as f/1.4. They let in more light which allows you to use faster shutter speeds.The downside is that they are often heavier and more expensive.

Floating of Fixed Aperture
Another factor is that determines the cost of a zoom lens is whether it maintains the same maximum aperture throughout the zoom range or if the aperture gets smaller as you zoom in.

There are five main lenses you should consider.

  • Telephoto Zoom - Has a focal length of 70mm or larger which has the ability to zoom in on a subject.
  • Wide-Angle - Anything within the 10mm to 24mm range is considered to be a wide angle lens, and are a natural choice for landscape photography on APS-C sized sensors.
  • Macro - True macro lenses will allow 1:1 magnification in close-up photography so subjects appear life size on the sensor. This means that you can fill the frame with objects that are an inch or two wide.
  • Prime - Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths. They have fast maximum apertures and are generally of superior optical quality compared with zoom lenses.
  • Superzoom - Superzooms offer an enormous range of focal lengths, such as 18-200mm in a single lens which makes them ideal for travel photography.
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