If you’ve never used an SLR camera before, coming to grips with the many controls and settings on a …


If you’ve never used an SLR camera before, coming to grips with the many controls and settings on a DSLR camera can be daunting. And, even if you’re familiar with the mode dials and menu systems on a film SLR, things are often done differently on DSLRs as additional settings are involved.

Powering up a DSLR is like powering a compact digicam. Models that use AA batteries are ready to go the moment the batteries are loaded, whereas those that use rechargeable batteries are usually shipped with the batteries uncharged so you must allow between one and five hours to charge them up. With a fully-charged battery, most DSLRs power-up within a second.


The second issue to address is fitting a memory card because, unlike digicams, DSLRs lack built-in image storage. Most DSLRs use CompactFlash cards, although a few use SD cards and some have dual card systems. We recommend buying at least a 1 GB card when you purchase the camera. Always format the card in the camera before taking any photographs. This sets the file system in the card to the camera’s parameters and ensures no glitches will occur when images are stored. We also recommend re-formatting the card on a regular basis (for example, every second time you return it to the camera) to ensure it is correctly set up for shooting.

Formatting Memory Cards


Formatting a memory card deletes ALL files on the card. It should only be done when you have transferred the shots on the card to a PC or other storage device because, once a card has been formatted, it can be difficult (or impossible) to restore the deleted files.

The format control is usually found in the camera’s set-up menu, which is indicated by a tool icon. Scroll down until you find format and select it using the four-way controller. Some cameras will post a message to remind you that all files on the card will be deleted. If this is what you want, select OK; otherwise select ‘Cancel’ to exit the format menu.

Getting to Know Your DSLR
Although different manufacturers may produce radically different-looking cameras, some features are common to all DSLRs (Many of these common features are also found in enthusiast digicams.) In this chapter we’ll take a brief look at the most frequently-used controls on a DSLR camera and outline their main applications. More details on key camera controls are provided in the next three chapters.

The illustrations on this page show the location of key controls on a typical enthusiast DSLR. Note that different manufacturers may locate controls like power switches, mode and command dials and function buttons in different locations. Refer to your camera manual when checking your own camera.


The top panel normally contains the shutter button, a command wheel, mode dial and on/off switch. The pop-up flash lifts up above the lens axis and you can see the hot-shoe for accessory flash units. Note the AF/MF slider on the camera lens for setting auto or manual focusing.


The rear panel carries the LCD monitor plus the arrow pad for adjusting menu settings. Buttons ranged along each side of the monitor access key controls.  

The Mode Dial
The mode dial on a DSLR accesses the main shooting modes. The number of settings varies between four and about 12, depending on the type of camera. Most professional DSLRs have only four settings: Program AE, Aperture-priority AE, Shutter-priority AE and Manual (known as ‘PASM’ shooting modes). Enthusiast and ‘pro-sumer’ DSLRs also have PASM settings, along with an Auto mode and a range of commonly-used Scene pre-sets (typically Portrait, Sports, Landscape, Night Portrait, Night Scene and Close-up). Details on using the PASM shooting modes are provided in Exposure Adjustments.


The mode dial accesses the main shooting modes. On enthusiast DSLRs it may also carry a number of scene mode settings.  

Shooting and Playback Menus
As in compact digicams, the four-way arrow pad (or multi-selector) on a DSLR is used to navigate through the menu screens and select individual settings. It is also used for focus area selection, where this function is provided.


The four-way arrow pad (or multi-selector) is used to navigate through the menu screens and select individual settings. On this camera, it also provides quick access to the ISO, autofocus, white balance and metering settings, along with the Picture Styles.

DSLR menu systems are similar to digicam menus although they are usually more straightforward and easier to read, often thanks to the camera’s larger LCD monitor. Some manufacturers display the current settings on the LCD so users know which controls have been applied before they start shooting. This substitutes for a data display.

Most manufacturers split the menu into shooting, playback and set-up menus. Several pages of lists are provided for each. To change a setting, simply select it from the menu using the four-way arrow pad (see below). This highlights the item and takes you into a sub-menu containing all settings. Use the arrow pad again to select the setting you want. To exit the menu, press the shutter-release button halfway or press the menu button again.

The shooting menu covers image size/quality settings, ISO speeds, white balance, AF area options, auto exposure modes, AE adjustment and bracketing settings, processing parameters (sharpness, contrast and colour settings), file numbering, auto rotation (for vertical shots) and noise reduction. Some cameras include a setting that locks or unlocks the camera when no memory card is loaded.


The Quality menu lets users select from a range of image size and resolution settings. It also accesses raw file capture.

Many DSLRs include direct button access to at least some controls, such as ISO, white balance (See ISO and White Balance), AE compensation and flash modes. However, if flash output adjustment is provided, it is normally found in the shooting menu. Some adjustments are made by rotating a command dial (enthusiast DSLRs usually have one dial, while professional cameras have two) in conjunction with either the menu or one of the buttons on the camera body. Having several options for accessing key controls gives DSLR users much more flexibility than most digicams offer.

Playback menus (See Image Playback) are structured similarly to shooting menus but access settings for storing, displaying and rotating image files, as well as the card formatting function. Many DSLRs also have settings for marking images for automated printing, displaying slideshows of images on the memory card and creating small copies of shots for emailing. Users can also delete images individually or clear all shots from the card – without formatting it – via this menu.

Most cameras give photographers several playback options. As well as viewing shots individually (the normal default setting), some cameras can display index views showing four, nine or 16 thumbnails covering the last few shots taken. Photographers can navigate these ‘index’ displays via the arrow pad and command dial and zoom in on selected shots by pressing the magnifier button on the camera back. Selected shots can also be deleted in playback mode by pressing the delete button (indicated by a ‘rubbish bin’ icon).

The set-up menu covers language selection, date/time settings, auto power-off and auto rotate controls, LCD brightness settings and file numbering systems. It also allows users to select how images will be displayed on a TV set (PAL or NTSC) and how the camera communicates with other devices. Most cameras have a function that clears all camera settings and restores the manufacturer’s default modes. Some include the Format setting in this menu, while others have the Custom settings in a sub-menu on these pages. Users can normally check the camera’s Firmware version via the set-up menu (see below).

Custom menus have become common in both enthusiast and professional DSLRs and allow photographers to pre-set certain camera parameters to their individual preferences. Common functions covered in custom menus include EV compensation increments, flash output adjustments, power-off times, bracketing options (AE, flash and WB), metering patterns, AF modes, AE/AF-lock options, remote control settings and auto shut-down times. Professional cameras provide a wider range of custom functions than consumer DSLRs and usually allow photographers to save sets of pre-determined adjustments that are used on a regular basis. As camera menus vary widely from one manufacturer to another – and often between different models from the same manufacturer – photographers should be guided by the camera’s instruction manual when determining which setting does what.


Custom menus allow photographers to pre-set certain camera parameters.

Firmware Updates
Camera manufacturers periodically post updates to camera firmware on their websites. These updates solve problems that have been identified after the camera has been released as well as adding new functions that will make the camera work better. They can also boost the performance of image processors, data transfer systems and other camera functions.

It’s worth checking the Support pages on your camera manufacturer’s website to find out whether new firmware updates are available. Full instructions are provided for downloading the new updates and loading them into your camera.

Camera LCDs come in two types: monitors and data displays. In most enthusiast cameras, the monitor doubles as a data display; in professional cameras separate LCDs are provided. The monitor, which sits on the rear panel, is used for viewing and adjusting menu settings and checking shots on the memory card. In most DSLRs it can’t be used for shot composition. A data display acts like a control panel by showing the current camera settings. Separate data displays can be located on the top panel, just behind the shutter button or just above or below the monitor LCD.


An example of a separate data display panel (no data is displayed when the camera is switched off.)

As well as showing camera settings data LCDs usually also display the battery status, selected metering pattern, the number of shots remaining on the memory card and the drive mode. Use the data display to check the key shooting parameters before beginning to take pictures. The display can also be used in conjunction with the command dial(s) to change certain camera settings.

Many cameras can display histograms that show users how image tones are distributed. Normally provided as one of the playback options, these histograms are often available in the detailed (or ‘info’) playback mode and it is common for cameras to present a reduced-size view of the image with detailed exposure data (aperture, shutter speed, etc,) at the same time.

The horizontal axis on the histogram corresponds to the pixel brightness level, with dark tones to the left and bright tones to the right. The vertical axis shows the number of pixels of each brightness in the image. This display can be used as an exposure guide. In a correctly-exposed shot, the distribution of tones should be even across the horizontal access with a vertical peak around the middle of the scale. An excess of pixels on the left of the graph indicates under-exposure, while an excess of pixels to the right shows over-exposure.


Some DLSRs can display histograms for the red, green and blue colour channels along with an image thumbnail and detailed camera settings.

Some cameras display separate histograms for the red, green and blue colour channels, while others only provide a brightness histogram. Many cameras include highlight and/or shadow alerts, which cause underexposed or over-exposed areas where detail is not recorded to blink. This allows photographers to adjust exposure levels to compensate and re-shoot the picture.

Drive Modes

All DSLRs offer the choice between single and continuous drive modes. In the former, pressing the shutter button takes a single shot. In the latter, the camera transfers each image to an internal ‘buffer’ memory, from which they pass to the camera’s image processor and then on to the memory card. When the buffer memory can’t accept any more images, the camera can’t take any more shots. Most cameras display a ‘busy’ light until the buffer memory empties, to indicate when you can recommence shooting.


The continous shooting mode is used to capture a sequence of shots recording an event.


The Bulb shutter speed setting is ideal for long exposures at night.

Many cameras offer two continuous shooting speeds with varying capacities. The number of shots a camera can record in continuous mode depends on the size of the buffer memory in the camera, the shooting speed and the size of the image files. Slower burst speeds allow more shots to be recorded and reducing the image size and quality usually increases the capacity of a single burst. You may not want to do this as it will compromise picture quality but, if the camera’s buffer memory is small, it may be the only way to record a long sequence of images.

Self-timer settings are often found in the drive control. This function delays the shutter release – usually by 2, 10 or 12 seconds and is commonly used when the photographer wants to get into the picture. In most cameras, a beeper sounds or a light blinks during countdown, with the beep/blink rate increasing as release time approaches.

The camera should always be tripod-mounted for self-timer shots as focus is measured from the time the shutter release is pressed. Consequently, photographers should always trigger the self-timer from behind the camera. Self-timers can also be used to ensure the camera is quite still before starting a long exposure.

In most DSLRs, the slowest shutter speed you can set is 30 seconds. However, you can make longer exposures with the ‘Bulb’ setting, which is next to the longest shutter speed. In this setting, the shutter remains open for as long as the shutter release is held down and closes when it’s released. Bulb exposures are great for night scenes and shots of fireworks and star trails. Some cameras display an exposure countdown on the data LCD; others don’t.

To avoid shaking the camera while the shutter is open, it is best to trigger a bulb exposure with some kind of remote control. Tethered electronic triggers are available for virtually all DLSR cameras and some can use wireless remote triggers. Note: exposures longer than 30 seconds are usually affected by image noise and will, therefore, look quite grainy (see ISO and White Balance). Most DSLRs have a noise-reduction setting to reduce this granularity. Sometimes it’s located in the camera menu; otherwise it may be a Custom Function. Either way, it’s likely to double the time taken to capture and process the image so you must avoid shaking the tripod until capture and processing are completed.

Enthusiast – and most ‘pro-sumer’ – DSLRs usually have a built-in pop-up flash, while professional cameras have a hot-shoe that accepts add-on flash units. Professional photographers have specific requirements when it comes to flash capture and may want more powerful flash units than it’s practical to build into camera bodies. In full auto mode, a built-in flash will pop up automatically when low light levels or severe backlighting are detected by the AE sensor – unless the photographer has selected the flash-off, or a non-flash shooting mode.


Enthusiast DSLRs – and some pro summer models have pop-up flash units to aid low light shooting.

In most cameras, control over flash exposure is similar to normal exposure controls. In P and full auto modes, the lens aperture and shutter speed are set automatically, with the shutter speed usually set to the camera’s flash synch speed (1/60 to 1/500 second, depending on the camera model). In A mode, photographers can determine the lens aperture and the camera will set the shutter speed. In S (or Tv) mode, the photographer determines the shutter speed while the camera sets the lens aperture.

Setting a slow shutter speed is known as ‘slow-synch shooting’. For subjects against dark backgrounds, using slow shutter speeds with flash allows both subject and background to be exposed correctly. Note: check the range of your flash before using it at night. Most built-in flashes can’t reach subjects more than four metres from the camera at ISO 100, although they can cover up to 10 metres at ISO 800.



Canon. Advanced Simplicity. Visit canon.com.au for more details.