2017 July 31  Digital   Photography Articles


Did you ever contemplate a DSLR but didn't want to read a big, complicated manual?

Nowadays, digital cameras have so many features.  Having to spend days or weeks poring over a manual can take the fun out of photography.

Isn't there just some way to use the camera without all this?

Perhaps there is...

In This Article

The Smartphone Effect

What's Old Is New Again

System Cameras

A Choice of Camera

Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

Other Basic Controls

Quick Summary So Far

Another Way

Aren't There More Features?


The Smartphone Effect

Smartphones achieved popularity for many reasons;  one is their apparent simplicity.  But if you really look at what's being offered, it's not that simple.  If you want the advanced features, you end up having to download and use apps.  There are tons of add-on gadgets for these phones, even lenses. 

For me, a smartphone might as well have hieroglyphics on it;  it's a whole set of unfamiliar symbols, combined with an unfamiliar control interface. 

Maybe a DSLR is like that for you. 

Let's see if we can fix that.

What's Old Is New Again

After World War II, many people got into photography.  The only truly simple camera on the market was the box camera.  Well, there were probably others, and people are constantly finding these obscure film cameras that I never heard of;  but the point is, the cameras on the market were all-manual.  Aside from the box camera, there was a fairly steep learning curve.

The huge breakthrough in camera tech was the invention of Aperture Priority Auto.  I think the first aperture-priority camera was the Yashica Electro 35, introduced about 1966.

You point the camera at the subject, adjust the aperture, and the camera takes care of the shutter speed for you.  Saving that one extra step was a huge deal.  Now, at last, there was something much more capable than a box camera, yet it was almost as easy to use. 

Remember this feature, because it's going to help us use a DSLR without the manual.

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System Cameras

Whether you buy Canon or Nikon-- or something else, like an Olympus-- it puts you on a track to buy their lenses.  Usually, people who buy into one of these system cameras end up knowing the basic ways of any Nikon or Canon DSLR. 

It would be really dumb for Canon or Nikon to change the control sets, because the cameras would no longer be familiar.  Yes, they now have touchscreens (which I don't especially care for), but leave those buttons there!

I may not know every control on a Canon 5DS, but I could figure out the basics pretty quickly.  Some buttons might be shifted around, and there might be extra features, but the basics are still there.

But what if you don't know this control set already?

We're going to get to that.

Don't try to learn it all in one day.  Let's just look at the essentials, so we can just start using the camera.

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A Choice of Camera

It almost doesn't matter which DSLR you choose today;  they're all pretty capable.  If you don't mind the toy-like shutter sound of a low-end DSLR like the Rebel T5, even that can produce great images.  Or, pick a bridge camera or an even better bridge camera: they all have control sets that are somewhat DSLR-like. 

Each brand of camera has certain features that you can reliably expect across the product lines.  Canon DSLR's have "Picture Styles", etc.  You don't need to learn that particular feature right now, but here's what you'd see:

See that symbol at six o'clock on the dial?  That's Picture Styles.  It looks like a stylized asterisk with a hollow center.  Press that, and it brings up a menu.  The camera is already set to "Standard", so you don't even need to change this if you just want to get started immediately. 

Same thing with menus.  We're going to try to skip the menu system as much as possible.

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Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

Let's start with these two, assuming you know how to turn the camera on:

1.  The Mode Dial

First, look for the Mode selector dial.  Typically it looks something like this:

That's a Panasonic FZ1000, great camera.

Here's one from a Canon DSLR:

(Also a fantastic camera;  review here.)

Set the Mode dial to "A" or "Av" (depends on the camera).  This is for "Aperture Priority Auto" mode.

2.  Adjusting the Aperture

When the camera is on and the lens cap off, you'll be able to adjust the aperture.  Look for a little, cogged wheel.  This is the Scroll Wheel.  It should be located either where your right thumb or your right index finger would be.  Three examples:




As you look through the viewfinder, you will see the aperture number changing as you turn that cogged wheel.  That will also make the shutter speed change automatically, depending on the aperture.

Just to get started, you could leave the aperture set to f/5.6, f/6.3, or f/7.1 for a while.  That'll work for many situations.  But you should learn how to change this setting, because there are other times you'll want to control the depth-of-field. 

And sometimes, you'll want to open the aperture wider so the camera doesn't resort to the higher ISO settings.  If your camera is set to AUTO ISO (which they usually are when new), you'll see the ISO number increase as the aperture number gets higher.  And when the ISO number increases, your pictures can get more noisy, grainy, and blotchy.  Although if you have a super low-light camera like this one or this one, that won't be as much of a concern.

Again, you could just set any of these cameras to "P" mode and not even think about aperture settings.  But Aperture Priority is the original "Auto" mode for cameras, and I still like it better.

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Other Basic Controls

Many cameras have a little flat saucer- or donut-shaped button on the back of the camera.  This has multiple functions, typically marked on there.  Usually it has a Menu or Set button in the middle.  So generally it's a four-way button, with another button in the center.

On some cameras it also has a dial around the outside:

The idea is you're looking for that wide, saucer-shaped or donut-shaped button.      (On some cameras, it will be four distinct buttons that form a circle, instead of one continuous button.)  And usually it has another button in the center; on Nikon it may say "OK"; on Canon it may say "SET"; on Panasonic it may say "MENU / SET", etc.

Not every camera has the same functions on there.  Some cameras include ISO setting and White Balance;  others have White Balance but not ISO;  others have... well, other stuff.  But usually, that dial has at least four basic features that you can control.  ("White Balance" and "Autofocus / Macro Mode" are two common ones.)

Very often, once you activate one of these, you can cycle through its various settings with that little cogged wheel we talked about earlier.  (Look through the viewfinder to do this.)  For example, if you activated "ISO", you might be able to choose anywhere from ISO 100 through ISO 6400, or Auto ISO.  Some cameras have ISO ranges from 50 to 25600 or more. 

Just know that on some cameras (especially Nikons and some pro Canons), there are no markings on that donut-shaped button.  Nikon calls it the "Multi-Selector", I think.  I've become almost Nikon-illiterate;  that multi-selector dial appears to do nothing, and the display is blinking for no reason, and... well, it's because I'm so accustomed to Canon now.  But if I messed around with the same basic features we've looked at here, I'd be able to figure out how to use a Nikon again. 

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Quick Summary So Far

OK, we've looked at three basic control features to look for on a DSLR-type camera:

- The Mode Dial which has P,S,A,M modes (and others, usually)

- The Scroll Wheel or Command Wheel that you adjust with your thumb or index finger

- A flat, donut-shaped button that usually has a "Menu", "Set", or "OK" button in the center.

Once you learn these three, you probably have 80-90% of using a camera.  Use them to control Aperture Priority mode, and you can start taking pictures.

Practice with these controls and you can operate them much faster than a touchscreen.  You won't even have to look at the buttons to work them. 

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Another Way

Manual modes seem complicated, but they're actually very simple.  Once you can learn to set Aperture and Shutter Speed, you've got basic photography. 

But how do you know when you've got the right combination of those two?

Simple!  Almost any digital camera will tell you this information.  Look through the viewfinder-- or on the back of the camera (LCD screen)-- for the indicator.  Usually it's a little arrow that moves as you change the Aperture or Shutter Speed settings.  When it's right in the middle, you're at 0 EV and the setting is correct for those lighting conditions.  According to the meter.

And once again, you'll be using the basic "Scroll Wheel" and the other things we looked at here.

Manual modes and light-metering can be mind-boggling to people who are used to "auto everything".  But try it.  It's actually easy. 

Automatic features actually complicate matters in their own way.  If you really want to de-complicate things, try this.  Instead of AUTO ISO, just set the ISO to 400.  Set the Mode dial to "M" for Manual (as opposed to Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program Auto).  Now, go out and shoot for a day using nothing but ISO 400.  Or if it's a bright sunny day, use ISO 200.

But remember to put it back to AUTO ISO when you're done.  That'll be one less setting you have to adjust while you're learning other stuff.

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Aren't There More Features?

Yes.  But you're starting with the core functionality and working your way outward.  This, I've found, is the best way to learn any digital camera.  With almost any camera I've used, I don't think I've given the manual more than a cursory look before starting. 

The manual is important to have for certain things-- like how to activate Highlight Tone Priority, which you should eventually do-- but if you know the core controls of a system, you can do a lot without a manual.

Learn a simple Canon system camera, such as a basic Rebel, and you will have at least the core understanding for any Canon DSLR.  Same basic idea is true for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, Olympus, Pentax, whatever.

I know the Canon T6S is only one of Canon's DSLR offerings... but here's one reason why I chose it.  The T6S has the features and button positioning so that you could easily jump to a pro DSLR in the Canon system, if you wanted.  Get this lens for it, and you may well have the only camera / lens combo you could ever need.  I almost never take that lens off the camera.  It can't zoom as far as a bridge camera, but if you want more zoom, Canon has plenty of options for later.  On a camera like the T6S, , 80D, etc, a 400mm lens is about like having 600 millimeters of zoom.

24mm on this camera will be about like 36mm, if that's wide enough for your landscape work;  it might not be, but you could always get a Canon EF 16-35

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It's not possible to learn every feature on a camera-- even a smartphone-- in one short article.  But it is possible to get started with Aperture Priority, or perhaps Program Auto ("P" mode) very quickly.  Once you know where the three main controls are, you can branch out and start learning other features.

You don't need to spend a week in front of your computer, reading the electronic manual for your new camera.

Start with the core functions that I described here.  Then, branch out a little.  If you want to pore over the manual in detail later, at least by then you'll know where the main features are.

If this article helped you in any way, please help me out by using any of these links to buy any of your stuff.  It's the only way this site can stay on-line.

Thanks for reading!


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