Unlock rarely-used features of your DSLR

By Bill Hatcher | March 12, 2014

Are you getting the most out of your DSLR camera?

I KNOW, THE instruction manual is huge, and reading it front-to-back to learn about every menu feature is a daunting task. And, of course, each new model comes packed with even more new features and an even thicker manual! Many photographers don’t care to explore too deeply into the complex settings and menus of a DSLR, and are content to keep the camera’s factory-default settings and shoot in auto. The thinking goes, “It’s an expensive DSLR, so it should be able to produce great images.” But that’s not necessarily true.

If you fall into the trap of using a DSLR like a camera phone or pocket camera, you’ll miss out on its truly creative possibilities. I thought I would share some of the seldom-used DSLR features that are easy-to-use, creative tools to launch your camera out of that unexciting auto, default, same-same mode.

1) Use Aperture Priority for depth of field control

It’s just as fast to use as the auto setting, can help you create a shallow depth of field and isolate your subject. Try using this when shooting a portrait with a moderate telephoto lens, such as a 105mm. For shallow depth of field use a low aperture such as f2.8. This aperture number will appear in your viewfinder. Your sharply focused subject will stand out from the background, which becomes a soft (and professional-looking) blur.

2) Use the Shutter Priority to create artistic motion blur

Shutter priority allows you to set a specific shutter speed. I like to use this feature to create motion blurs. When I follow action with my camera the light will often change my metering. Using shutter priority, my shutter speed is locked in and the camera automatically adjusts aperture and ISO for correct metering in changing light.

When shooting this kayaker on the Kananaskis River in Alberta, Canada, I turned my metering dial to shutter priority and in the viewfinder selected a shutter speed of 1/20 sec. For high-speed action, such as cycling/mountain biking, I might choose 1/60 or 1/125, depending on how fast the rider is moving.

3) Use long time exposure for night shots and light trails

Most of us never use the camera’s shutter speed below what’s comfortable with handholding: about 1/30 second. But most DSLR cameras can be set for as long as 30 seconds and, with a shutter release cable, for minutes or hours. Long exposures (over one second), allow you to create remarkable images at night.

You can find the camera’s long exposure controls on the shutter-speed dial. The camera needs to be attached to a tripod and you should turn off the lens and camera vibration and stabilisation features.

Because your hand motion can move the camera when you depress the shutter, you need a wireless or cable release. If you don’t have one, just go into the menu and set the shutter-release timer to the shortest time, usually one or two seconds. I use long exposures when shooting moving lights at night, star trails and landscapes after sunset or before sunrise, when there is just a bit of light in the sky.

4) Check out your Auto Focus Lock

All DSLRs have this feature, but few people ever use it. If you use the camera’s auto focus you’ll notice it has one big weakness. The auto-focus sensors are all clustered in the middle area of the frame. I have learned to use the auto-focus lock so I can lock focus on my subject and then re-frame my composition, so the subject is in the corner of the frame.

In the menu, you can set your shutter release to focus lock when the shutter is partially depressed. My Nikon D-800 also allows me to enable this feature on buttons in the front and back of the camera for finger or thumb control.

5) Learn about the Custom White Balance Kelvin setting

You’ll have to read more about this in your camera’s instruction book. White balance is a creative tool that can set the right emotion in a photo. Without using Photoshop or altering image quality with filters, you can intensify the blues of a morning lake or warm the tones in a rock-climbing photo.

To cool a photo and impart more blue to a scene, set the white balance Kelvin (k) setting to 3000. To warm a scene, set the Kelvin to 7000. Generally, the default Kelvin setting for outdoor in sunlight is 5000 Kelvin.

6) Try out the Live Picture Mode

Most DSLR cameras have a continuous viewing feature on the camera back. All point-and-shoot cameras have this feature. It’s great because you don’t need to keep your eye on the viewfinder.

The live view let’s you set the camera on the ground – for example, to shoot a mountain biker hucking over the camera. You can even attach your camera to a tripod and use a remote cable and live view to capture a high view of the action.

Now go explore and engage the creative possibilities of your DSLR, and stop using it like a camera phone!