6 of the Most Essential but Underused Camera Features

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If you are just getting started in photography, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find these six often overlooked features in the menu of your DSLR. While each one can be used to create professional quality results, extensive experience is not required to leverage their usefulness. Best of all, there’s no need to upgrade to a high end model. These settings are now found on even the most entry-level camera bodies. With the ability to take full control of your camera, you’re more likely to get the shot right at the time of the exposure.

1 roar

1) Flash Exposure Compensation

The pop-up flash gets a bad rap, and this is unfortunate as it’s actually a very useful tool when set properly. Out of the box, it simply provides too much light, resulting in a bright, washed-out appearance. The trick is to adjust the flash exposure compensation to a reduced output. As a starting point, bring it down to negative two (-2). This creates a soft quality of fill flash that’s immediately more pleasing. Should you need even less light, you can further reduce the flash to negative three. While it’s rarely necessary, you could even add intensity to the flash by raising it towards the positive. Just remember, effective use of flash is meant to soften, not eliminate shadows.

2 fill flash

2) Two Second Timer

This rarely used setting can open up a whole new world of creative possibility for you. It’s typically found in the “drive” menu, along with single shot, multi-shot burst mode, etc. If you’re in a place that doesn’t allow tripods, it’s still possible to take sharp photos, even with long exposure times.

Select the two second timer and rest the camera on a chair, or the ground. You can use the folded camera strap to angle the camera upwards if necessary. When you press the shutter, the camera will move initially. Don’t worry, you have two seconds for it to settle down before the camera actually fires. This is also helpful for tripods that are not as stable as they should be. If you don’t have a cable release, the timer is a terrific wireless alternative.

3 two second timer

3) Histogram

Think of the histogram as a visual cheat-sheet for photographing bright tones. To render a subject as true white, you want the data on the right hand side to be as close to the edge of the graph (histogram) as possible. This will indicate a crisp exposure rather than a muddy, grey appearance. As you change the exposure to let in more light, the histogram will inch towards the right. Keep adjusting your settings until it’s literally just a hair from the outer wall. You are now maximizing all of the wonderful dynamic range of which your camera is capable.

Once the data actually collides with the right hand wall of the histogram, you’ve technically overexposed part of your scene. This means there is no detail in the highlights, but rather a hotspot that is impossible to recover, even with sophisticated software. While this data is valuable, it doesn’t tell you exactly where the trouble spot is in your scene. This is where the “highlight alert” becomes a helpful aid.

4 histogram

4) Highlight Alert

By default, many camera models have the highlight alert turned off so you’ll need to enable it in the menu. Commonly referred to as “the blinkies”, this feature alerts you to the precise location that’s overexposed. With this knowledge, you can make a quick adjustment to the exposure, or even change your composition to eliminate the unwanted area. That translates to more consistent exposures with no washed-out areas. You’ll also be rewarded with less time in the digital darkroom, trying to fix problems that could have been prevented in the field.

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5) Live View

If you’ve ever struggled to achieve autofocus at night, or desire more accuracy for macro work, Live View will be your new favorite mode. With it, you can zoom in on a tiny portion of a subject at 5x and 10x magnification. This extreme close-up gives you the ability to carefully micro-focus on whatever is most important in your scene. Just note, the enlarged view on your LCD is not representative of your lens’ effective focal length. Upon pressing the shutter, the entire scene will still be captured in sharp detail. You’ll be amazed at the level of precision possible. For the ultimate in control, use this with manual focus and a sturdy tripod.

6 macro

Live View is not only useful for focus, but composition as well. For example, if your DSLR lacks a tilt or swivel screen, shooting from ground level can be a real challenge. With a live image on the LCD however, there’s no need to crane your neck for viewfinder access. The same idea can be applied to those crowded situations when you must raise the camera over your head. Instead of shooting blind, you can use Live View to better compose the shot.

6) Single AF Point

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Allowing the camera to automatically choose your focus point is one of the biggest causes of blurry photos. Don’t get me wrong, you can still use autofocus, but it works most consistently when you manually set the autofocus point. Otherwise, the camera will choose incorrectly, leaving the fence post sharp and your subject out of focus. While some cameras offer clusters of focus points, a simpler approach will often work to your advantage. By placing a single active AF point on what you want sharpest, you eliminate the guess work, and your percentage of keepers will soar.

Do you have any other hidden gems on your camera you’d like to share? What have you discovered in the menu of your camera?

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Chris Corradino is a professional photographer and head student mentor at the New York Institute of Photography. His work has been published internationally with credits including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Newsday, and National Geographic Online. For more, visit online at www.christography.com.

  • Theresa634563
  • Melissa

    Help.
    I also shoot manual and always use live view…is there a reason this might produce a lesser quality shot?

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  • margarettcornett

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  • Tim Williams

    Single point AF is always set on my DSLR and I wouldn’t dream of turning my histogram off!

  • Greg Lawhorn

    Autofocus is almost never as good as manual, even with slower moving wildlife. The only time autofocus is really necessary is following quick action, and then back button focus is the way to go.

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  • Martin Mixon

    Except when you’re asking a non-photographer take a picture of you and you have to explain how to focus. The picture never comes out in focus…

  • Very rarely ever give my camera to anyone unless they are known to me and an experienced photographer.

  • wayward

    I actually use all of these

  • austinite

    I don’t use my DOF preview button much unless I’m shooting at a large (lower f-stop) aperture where I have plenty of light. If I use DOF preview at smaller apertures (f8, f11, f16, etc) so little light gets through that the viewfinder is very dark.

    What I do instead is use Live View at the desired aperture. Then I can see exactly how much DOF I have by looking at the well-lit image on the monitor.

    The only hazard, for Nikon users, is that if you change the aperature setting while in Live View, the actual aperture won’t change until you exit Live View and go back into it again.

  • sofarsogood

    I would add to this list the depth-of-field preview button, if available. Without tons of experience and practice, it’s very hard to tell in a scene that covers very need to very far just how much of that scene will be covered by your chosen f/stop. Push it, and your lens closes to whichever stop you’ve chosen, giving you the exact knowledge you’re looking for. Of course, it gets very dark in there, but not to worry, you’re looking for DOF info, not exposure info. Its a good thing to know about.

  • Nikhil Rawal

    BBF is extremely useful when shooting (with the camera) wildlife or BIF (birds in flight).

  • Tobie Schalkwyk

    Then you pre-focus and ask him to take the shot from exactly where you are standing… 🙂

  • Tobie Schalkwyk

    Agreed. I went back to ‘normal’ focus after about a year and immediately got frustrated by the camera re-focussing (or starting to search for focus) when pressing the shutter button!

  • Tobie Schalkwyk

    My main reason for using it. But also very handy for pre-focussing when you want to recompose or for a bird sitting inbetween branches – you manually adjust focus without worrying that it’s going to start searching as you press the shutter button.

  • Mark Stadsklev

    It is not advised to use flash observing bears. I know. I’ve been shooting them for 15 years. Especially if a ranger is around.
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  • NJP

    This is true. The trick to to get a feel for your own camera as to how far you can push it and use the highlights and histogram as a guide rather than an absolute. Take some time experimenting by shooting at various levels of over and under exposure then bring them into lightroom to see what you really have there. It’s usually better to push towards the over exposed side than under.

  • Sorry I never replied to this, I never even seen the notification.
    What do you mean by lesssr quality? Is this in regards to the sharpness of the image, colors or general look?

  • Melissa

    Wow, thank you for your reply. I have since acquainted myself with using the view finder and all the buttons to change exposure…without having to look to find them.
    I have a canon 70d and know now that I can get better focus by magnifying and then adjusting manually for the sharpest focus possible.
    I also realized something when using BBF…I was a little miffed using it because my internal settings had continuos focus enabled. Which now, I choose when to keep that on and when not to. I absolutely love the time I put into exploration and practicing, while getting to know MY camera.
    I have been very curious about AF micro adjustments for each of my lenses. Particularly for the newest canon nifty fifty 1.8 and for my newest acquisition and dream lens the EF70-200 f2.8L IS II USM.
    Please let me know what you think of the FoCal software for this vs printing off a sharpness guide and doing it manually. I would like to rely on my AF when doing hand held portrait work with this camera.
    Many thanks!!
    Melissa Romans

  • Haha no problem, even though it was 6 months late!
    That’s good to hear you’re more comfortable with using your camera now. The 70D has great AF so even using the AF would be easier when shooting through the Viewfinder. For me, I almost always use the VF except for when I’m doing landscapes and still life.
    I also use BBF and prefer it. You could do what I do and keep your camera on One shot, then customize the DOF preview button at the bottom to be AI Servo instead. So that way if you all of a sudden need the continous focus, you can just hold that button and release it when you want to go back to One Shot.
    The Focal does look like good software but I personally haven’t used it and I prefer to use a method called “Dot Tune Focus”. If you Google that it will come up with a tutorial on how to do it. It’s pretty much using a focus chart and Live View to find tune your AF. I’ve used that method for all my lenses with great results, they are all spot on now.
    If you have any other questions let me know!
    Thanks
    Daniel Lee

  • Kevin Rame

    But IS the histogram based on the JPEG data or RAW? I always thought that even though there is an embedded JPEG in the RAW, the histogram was based on the data in the actual RAW file. Same for the highlight alert. It doesn’t make sense to base it on the JPEG file.

  • Marian Murdoch

    Me, too. It’s the focus feature that I almost always use.

  • Michael Clark

    Fewer processor resources to compute the histogram and warning from the jpeg.

  • Michael Clark

    Processor cycles = battery life.

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