10 essential camera tricks

First published:
December 30, 2022
January 31, 2024

10 essential camera tricks

First published:
December 30, 2022
January 31, 2024

Get the most out of your camera with these top techniques, hidden settings and shooting tricks

Discover a host of simple camera skills that can help you to expose your photos properly, perfect your compositions, achieve tack-sharp images and more…

1 Turn the camera upside-down

If you’re ever struggling to refine a composition, then try this. Take a test shot, review the image on the camera LCD then turn the camera upside down. Henri Cartier-Bresson - perhaps the most masterful composer of a photograph in the history of the craft - often gave this advice to those struggling to assess the merits of a composition. When viewed upside-down, it’s often easier to detach yourself from the subject matter within the image and instead concentrate on the balance of shapes and objects that form the composition.

Composition is all about the careful arrangement of shapes in a scene to form a balanced, pleasing whole. By turning the image upside down, this balance may be easier to judge on the fly

2 Get to know Auto ISO

Street girl portrait. Photo by Dejan - f/2.8 | ISO 400 | 1/160s

Anybody with a basic grasp of their camera’s exposure modes will know that if we set the camera to Aperture Priority mode we can choose the aperture while the camera works out the correct shutter speed. Similarly, in Shutter Priority mode we set the shutter while the camera works out the aperture. But what if we want to control both aperture and shutter at once? A great option is to use Manual Mode in combination with Auto ISO. This way we can set any aperture and shutter speed we like and leave the camera to adjust the ISO to suit the levels of light in the scene. It’s an exposure method that isn’t immediately obvious to those getting to know their cameras, but is the preferred method for lots of experienced photographers in the field.

Using Manual Mode with Auto ISO is ideal when shooting handheld outdoor portraits, we can set the shutter speed to 1/200 sec so it’s fast enough to freeze the action, and set a wide aperture like f/2.8 to blur the background, then leave the camera to figure out the right ISO for our scene.

3 Set up Back-Button autofocus

Galloping Andalusian Stallion. Photo by Victoria Andrews - f/7.1 | ISO 1000 | 1/500s

Most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras will, by default, engage the autofocus with a half-press of the shutter button. This is a simple way to lock on to your subject, but it may not be the best method. Especially if you want to focus on your subject then recompose the frame, as it may lead to an accidental re-focus. This is where back button focusing can help. Your camera menu will likely have a feature that lets you trigger autofocus with a button on the rear of the camera, near to your right thumb. This lets you keep the act of focusing and triggering the shutter independent from one another. Lots of photographers prefer this setup as it lets them choose exactly when to engage the autofocus, and when not to.

Back-button focusing is ideal when the subject is moving towards the camera, as you can engage the autofocus with your thumb while firing off shots with your forefinger.

4 Count the clicks

Light trails. Photo by Leonard Loh - f/18 | ISO 200 | 30s

Full manual control over exposure can be complicated, so here’s a trick to help you keep it simple. When we adjust one aspect of the exposure triangle, we need to balance it out by compensating with another. For example, if we close down our aperture by a stop - say from f/8 to f/11 - we’re making the opening in the lens narrower, so we’d need to compensate by adding a stop to our shutter speed or ISO (which can be done by doubling the value of either). Making these sorts of calculations on the fly can be confusing, so it’s often easier to ‘count the clicks’. Many cameras offer a combination of dials, with one for shutter speed and another for aperture (while ISO can usually be set by holding the ISO button and moving the dial). Each click on the dial is usually either a half or third stop (you can usually determine the increments in your camera menu). As such, you can count the clicks added to aperture, then counteract by adjusting the same number of clicks to shutter speed or ISO.

At times -especially when shooting in manual mode - you might need to speed up your shutter or slow it down to adapt to motion in the scene, or adjust your aperture to expand or contract the plane of focus. Counting the dial clicks can help to keep your exposure in balance.

5 Turn on Monochrome Picture Style

Black and white photos tend to emphasise strong changes in contrast, patterns and the play of light and shade across a scene. Shooting in monochrome mode hekps you visualise this. Photo by Chris Van Lennep - f/8 | ISO 400 | 1/2500s

The ability to visualise the world in black and white is a great skill. But when you’re out shooting it’s not always clear which scenes will look best in monochrome. As such, If you’re shooting for black and white images then it makes sense to switch your camera to Monochrome style. This way you can preview how the black and white effect will look as you shoot. As long as you shoot in raw the monochrome style will not be ‘baked in’ to the file, so you have the freedom to go back to the colour version later if you choose.

6 Forget the pop-up, except for one thing...

Model portrait with sunglasses. Photo by Ronxoane - f/5.6 | ISO 200 | 1/60s

A camera’s inbuilt pop-up flash produces bland, flat light. The problem is the flash is so close to the lens, so it blasts subjects with straight-on light that obliterates shadows and unnaturally alters the feel of a scene. It might be acceptable for snapshots in dim interiors, but not much else. If you want to use flash you’re far better off with an off-camera speedlight fitted with a modifier to soften the light. This creates attractive directional light with a balance of highlights and shadows. When it comes to triggering an off-camera speedlight it’s best to use a wireless trigger, but if you don’t have one to hand then you’ll find there is a use for the pop-up flash after all: as a trigger for your off-camera speedlight. All you need to do is set the speedlight to optical slave mode, and it’ll trigger upon detecting the burst of light from the pop-up. If you don’t want the pop-up to play too big a part in the overall exposure, then try lowering it to minimum power.

The pop-up flash on a camera can be useful for triggering off-camera flashes in a pinch, like the flash to the left of camera here.

7 Shoot focus stacks

In-camera focus stacking can be hugely useful not just for macro subjects, but also for landscapes, as it allows you to compose with foreground details very close to the lens. Photo by Ian Shearsmith - f/11 | ISO 100 | 13s

The closer objects are to the lens, the shorter your focusing distance, and this reduces depth of field. Even if you’re using a narrow aperture like f/16 you may find it difficult to achieve front-to-back sharpness. Thankfully, lots of modern cameras offer a focus stacking feature that automatically fires off a series of frames while incrementally shifting the focus point. The sharp parts from each frame can then be combined later on in Photoshop, Affinity Photo or dedicated focus-stacking software.

8 Find the sweet spot

When shooting landscapes like this where the point of focus is far from the camera use the lens sweet spot for the sharpest possible image. Photo by Mariusz Burcz - f/14 | ISO 100 | 1/8s

The quality and sharpness of any lens will vary depending on the choice of aperture. Optical flaws like spherical aberration and diffraction can soften the image at different apertures, but there will be a ‘sweet spot’ at which the lens is at its sharpest. This is usually around 2-3 stops below the max aperture value. So if the max aperture is f/4, the sweet spot is likely to be around f/8-f/11. You can find the sweet spot for each of your lenses by setting up a simple sharpness test. Shoot a ruler or similar object with fine detail, using aperture priority and a tripod, then vary the aperture and compare the results. You needn’t always use the sweet spot but it’s nice to know where it is, and it can be especially useful when shooting for a focus stack because the sharp parts from each frame can be combined into one tack-sharp image.

9 Hold the camera properly

Cradle the lens from underneath and, when switching to portrait orientation, swivel the camera clockwise so that the left hand is on top rather than underneath, as this offers more freedom of motion. Photo by Wayne Knoesen

You can often spot the difference between an experienced and beginner photographer in the way they hold the camera. Look at the left hand - are the fingers wrapped over the top of the lens with pinkie facing out, or cradling the bottom with pinkie facing in? The latter offers a much more stable base, as it allows you to swivel the camera with ease and use your thumb and forefinger to adjust the zoom or focus rings.

10 Use the 2 second-timer for long exposures

When shooting long exposures use a remote shutter release or set your camera to a 2-second timer to avoid shaking the camera when pressing the shutter button. Photo by Brian Krouskie - f/22 | ISO 50 | 4s

When shooting long exposures with a tripod it’s best not to touch the camera when starting the exposure, as pressing down on the shutter button can cause camera shake that ruins the shot. A remote release is ideal, but if you don’t have one to hand you can simply set the camera to self-timer and allow a 2-second delay between pressing the shutter button and taking the shot. Lots of cameras have an exposure delay mode that lets you do something similar. If you’re using a DSLR then the clunk of the mirror can also ruin your long exposures, so use mirror lockup or engage Live View to prevent camera shake.

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