10 Things You Should Know About Your Camera

By Geoff Harris

Test Yourself: How Many of These 10 Things Do You Already Know?

DSLRs (and system cameras like the Micro Four Thirds range) are packed to the gunnels with features and functions. Fortunately, it's not necessary to use each and every one whenever you pick up your camera (I'll let you into a little secret, there are features on my camera that I've used so infrequently that they're got metaphorical cobwebs growing on them). However, it's useful to know that they're there and what they do. You never know when you may need them...Here's ten that it's worth being familiar with.

Custom white balance

Auto white balance is all very well but it occasionally gets things wrong. Creating a custom white balance for a particular shooting situation is far more accurate.

Walkers hiking across a snow-covered field near Housesteads Roman Fort in the Northumberland National Park, England

Positive exposure compensation is often necessary when shooting snow scenes.

Exposure compensation

You camera meter's not infallible either. Being able to step in and override the exposure is invaluable, particularly when shooting scenes that are above or below average reflectivity (snow scenes for instance).

Alnwick Castle framed by trees on a summer's morning, Northumberland, England. The earliest parts of the castle date from the 11th century, though much has been added on over the intervening years

The depth of field preview button is very useful when shooting landscape that require front-to-back sharpness.

Depth of field preview button

Typically when you look through the viewfinder you see the scene with the lens aperture wide open (regardless of the aperture you've set). This means that depth of field is at its minimum, making it hard to judge what will be sharp or unsharp in the image. Holding down the depth of field preview button temporarily closes the aperture to the set value. This will make the viewfinder darker but enables you to see the extent of depth of field. Depth of field preview often works in Live View too.


Focus confirmation

Different cameras have different ways to confirm focus. Most beep and also light a focus confirmation symbol either in the viewfinder or on the LCD. What's even more useful is when the camera illuminates the focus point at which focus is determined. This makes it easy to judge whether focus is in the right place or not. Which leads on to...

Statue of Sir Henry Percy or Harry Hotspur in Alnwick, unveiled by His Grace, the Duke of Northumberland on 20 August 2010

If your subject is off-centre, move the AF point over the subject to ensure that your camera focuses correctly.

Selecting the focus point

A camera doesn't know where you want to focus. In auto focus point selection it often just settles on the nearest object to the camera. Switching to manual AF point selection will allow you to decide which focus point is used to focus. It's a useful feature if your subject is behind something else or is off-centre.


Shooting modes

The shooting mode you choose determines how much control you have over the shooting process. Modes such as Portrait or Landscape are great for specific shooting situations but you do get locked out of making useful adjustments (such as custom white balance). Modes such as Aperture Priority and Manual give you more control, with the downside that it's easier to make more mistakes.

Favourite menu options

It can be a chore wading through menus to find the function that you want. Most cameras have a facility to save menu options to a custom menu (frequently called My Menu). Saving your favourite or most used menu options is a useful time saver.

Dimly lit spiral staircase in Belsay Castle, Northumberland

Auto ISO is a useful function if you're without tripod and are spending the day swapping between scenes with radically different light levels.

Auto ISO

If you handhold your camera Auto ISO is invaluable for maintaining a shutter speed that's fast enough to avoid camera shake. The downside is the potential for increased image noise, but that's a small price to pay for sharp photos.

The Madness tribute band 'Badness' performing in Gateshead, June 2007

Spot metering is invaluable if your subject is spot-lit – evaluative metering may get fooled by the large areas of black around the subject.

Metering modes

Most cameras default to evaluative (or matrix) metering. For most shooting situations this is perfectly accurate. What's more accurate, particularly if you want to meter from a small area of a scene, is spot metering. This is especially useful for accurate metering of subjects that are spot-lit.


AE Lock

Occasionally there's a need to meter a scene and then recompose (such as when using spot metering). Pressing the AE Lock button locks the exposure at the metered value. You can then recompose without the exposure altering. It won't unlock until you either unlock the exposure again, take the shot at the locked exposure value or the camera automatically powers down after a few minutes' inactivity.

If you would like to learn more about digital photography why not consider taking one of my 4 week online photography courses

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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