Your Canon EOS camera is packed with sophisticated features and functions that make the technical side of photography a breeze. But how many of these do you use regularly? Do you know which settings give you bags of control, but ensure you grab high-quality pictures with zero fuss? Are you using all the EOS camera short-cuts that make photography fast and fun?
For this essential Canon tutorial, we’ve put together 24 expert DSLR tips that will make sure you’re not missing out on some of your Canon camera’s biggest tricks. From setting up your EOS camera to streamlining menus and matching the right shooting mode to the right subject, there’s a stack of advice for Canon photographers of all abilities to take away and start shooting like a pro with your EOS camera, whatever it may be.
Tip 1: Raw + JPEG
We always bang on about shooting RAW files, as they enable you to make lots of edits without degrading picture quality. JPEGs are less tolerant to editing, but they’re often perfectly usable straight from the camera. Choose the RAW+JPEG setting (under ‘Quality’ on your Canon camera’s first Shooting menu) for the benefits of both: JPEG for speed and RAW for back-up. Bear in mind that as you’re doubling up on each picture, memory cards will fill up faster; you can reduce the resolution/quality of both RAW and JPEG files on higher-end EOS bodies like the 60D and 7D, so capacity becomes less of an issue.
Tip 2: Highlight Alert
Your EOS camera’s Highlight Alert ‘blinkies’ give you an at-a-glance guide to areas of an image that are likely to be overexposed, enabling you to reduce the exposure before taking another shot. Highlight Alert is an optional feature that can be switched on and off through the Playback menu (you can also do this through the Quick Control Screen during playback mode if you’ve got an EOS 60D). The flashing highlights warning is visible in both the full-screen preview and the array of information screens, although they disappear if you zoom in.
Tip 3: Tone it down
If pictures that look fine in-camera seem a little dull on your computer screen, it’s probably because the brightness of your EOS screen is set too high. To calibrate your LCD, take a test shot using the Standard Picture Style and best quality JPEG setting. Copy this to your computer, without deleting it from the memory card, and open the file in Photoshop. Now press Play on the camera and compare the two images. If the image on your EOS appears lighter or darker than the one on your (calibrated!) computer monitor, use the LCD brightness scale in your Canon camera’s Setup menu to adjust it.
Tip 4: Let’s get it AF-ON
Half-pressing the shutter release to lock both autofocus and exposure is a simple system that works. So why does Canon put a separate autofocus button on the back of many of its EOS DSLRs? Because operating AF independently of metering and exposure can be useful. Take action photography, where the AF-ON button lets you switch off focusing if a subject is temporarily obscured by an object. It’s handy for portraits too; you can focus on an off-centre subject, then take your thumb off AF-ON to recompose without the focus shifting.
Tip 5: View clipping in colour
As well as using the brightness histogram to help you judge exposure when reviewing a shot, you can call up a set of more precise RGB colour histograms. Digital images are created from the three primary colours of light – red, green and blue – and the RGB histograms enable you to check if any of these colour channels are ‘clipped’. As with the brightness histogram, if data falls off the left or right of the graph, that channel is clipped, and picture detail – in a bright red coat for example – can be lost. Note that these histograms reflect in-camera settings; if you shoot RAW, you’ll capture more highlight and shadow detail than indicated.
Step 1: Call up the RGB histograms Strongly saturated subjects, such as this rose, can often cause one of the colour channels to blow. To check if it has, repeatedly press the INFO or DISP button during image playback until you reach the RGB histograms screen.
Step 2: Spot the problem channel You can see that the brightness histogram for our shot indicates a good exposure, but the red channel is clipped. The histograms are different shapes, but that’s down to the relative colour mix and brightness of the image.
Step 3: Adjust the exposure You need to ensure that detail in the most important colour channel isn’t overexposed or underexposed. As red was most important here, we reduced the exposure and shot again. It’s still ‘clipped’, but more detail is retained.
Tip 6: Highlight tone priority
As the name suggests, Highlight tone priority (HTP) prioritises detail at the right side of the histogram, preserving up to one stop of extra detail in the highlights for optimum brightness without underexposing the rest of the picture. HTP is disabled by default, but it’s a useful feature to enable (via the Custom Functions: Image menu) when photographing high-key scenes, such as sunsets, snowy landscapes or a bride in her wedding dress. It’s in these situations that highlights could typically ‘blow’ and lose all their delicate detail. HTP has a subtle effect though, and one trade-off of using it is that you can’t select the lowest ISO setting while it’s active.
Tip 7: Bracketing
Taking a series of shots at different exposure values – aka ‘bracketing’ – is a tried and tested way of guaranteeing that you capture at least one usable picture of a scene in tricky lighting conditions, particularly if you’re shooting JPEGs. Sometimes a slightly darker or brighter take on a subject can be more aesthetically pleasing, too. Although you can take a sequence of exposures manually, your Canon camera’s Autoexposure Bracketing (AEB) feature offers a much more efficient route. The bracketing options are identical on most Canon cameras, enabling you to shoot three frames with bracketing of between +/- 1/3 to 2 stops, applied in 1/3 or 1/2-stop increments. The 60D and 7D offer an increased bracketing range of up to +/- 3 stops.
Step 1: Select the increment Set the exposure level increments in the custom function menu – you get a choice of 1/3 or 1/2 stops (1/3-stops offer more accuracy). Next, scroll to the Exposure comp./AEB setting in the shooting menu, and you’ll see this screen.
Step 2: The compensation option In Av, Tv and P mode you can set both exposure step size and exposure compensation, so the sequence will be centred on the exposure compensation that’s applied (useful if you’re likely to want to under- or overexpose a scene).
Step 3: Choose the bracketing order In addition to controlling the exposure step size you can also set the order of bracketing in the Custom Functions menu. Using the sequence ‘-, 0, +’ is often a benefit when it comes to processing a sequence of HDR shots.
Tip 8: Compensation
Canon’s Evaluative metering may be sophisticated, but it isn’t foolproof. It may end up brightening up a dark scene (overexposing it) or darkening a lighter scene (underexposing it). Using exposure compensation is a way to tame hot highlights or bring back the detail to blocked-up shadows. Whether that’s achieved by pressing the +/- button and turning the main dial, or simply by rotating the Quick Control Dial depends on your EOS camera model.
The result is the same: pictures that hold more detail. It’s rare that you’ll need to dial in more than two stops of exposure compensation. Always remember to reset your exposure compensation to zero after each shoot; it’s easy to forget, and you could end ruining your shots next time you’re out!
Tip 9: Metering modes
The metering modes common to all EOS cameras are Evaluative, Centre-weighted Average, Partial and Spot (although the latter is unavailable on the 1100D). Each covers a progressively smaller portion of the image, with the default Evaluative metering mode taking multiple readings across the entire frame to create an exposure it calculates as the best possible. Evaluative is reliable, but be prepared to check the histogram and dial in some compensation. Centre-weighted, as the name suggests, biases its reading towards the middle of the frame, so it’s a good choice for portrait shots. For precise exposure readings, use Partial or Spot metering in conjunction with the Exposure Lock (AE-L or asterisk) button.
Tip 10: Auto Lighting Optimizer
Canon’s ALO dynamic range booster is available in all current Canon DSLRs. Essentially, ALO flattens out the contrast in an image, revealing shadow detail (and a touch of noise) without having a marked effect on highlights. It’s a great solution for photographing backlit portraits without flash, or if you’re shooting a high-contrast subject in bright light. ALO can be applied in three strengths or switched off altogether, and its effects are only applied to JPEGs. You can, however, apply an ALO setting when converting compatible RAW files in DPP.
Tip 11: How to get perfect focus
Canon EOS cameras have three basic autofocus modes: One Shot, AI Servo and AI Focus. One Shot locks the focus once: even if you have Continuous Shooting enabled, the focus won’t shift unless you take your finger off the shutter release, so it’s good for stationary subjects such as portraits and landscapes.
AI Servo is Canon’s focus- tracking mode: the camera will constantly autofocus, so it’s perfect for following moving subjects, especially when combined with high-speed continuous shooting. AI Focus rolls these two modes into one, so it’s worth trying if you’re photographing wildlife that might leg it/take flight at any moment, although it’s not quite as quick to pick up a moving subject as AI Servo.
Tip 12: Customise Canon Picture Styles
Whether you want to capture a faithful representation of a scene, or a more vibrant version, the Picture Styles menu can help you achieve it. However, apart from Monochrome there’s not a lot between the default settings. Try customising them for extra impact, or cook up your own recipes and store them in one of the User Defined slots (just go easy on the sharpening). If you shoot JPEGs, you’re stuck with the setting that was active when you took the picture; if you shoot RAW, you can alter the Picture Style setting when processing the image in-camera with compatible models, or with DPP.
Tip 13: Controlling shutter speed
Time Value (Tv on mode dial) autoexposure mode, aka Shutter Priority, is the opposite of Aperture Priority: you choose the shutter speed, and the camera sets a complementary aperture for the conditions. Shutter speed becomes the priority if you’re photographing moving subjects and want to control whether the action is frozen (such as when photographing sports) or exaggerated (if you want to blur the movement of water).
Tip 14: Forget about Full Auto mode
New to digital SLRs? Then Creative Auto mode (CA) is a good way to start taking over some of the decision making from the camera. Functionally, it sits somewhere between point-and-shoot Auto (the green box) and Program mode (P). Hit the Q button with CA mode selected, and a simplified set of controls is displayed on the rear screen, enabling you to change the degree of background blur, drive mode, flash and image tone.
Tip 15: Find the best aperture
Aperture Priority (signified by Av for ‘Aperture Value’ on the mode dial) is a widely used autoexposure mode that gives you control over how much of an image appears in sharp focus. You manually select the aperture (the size of the hole in the lens) and the camera matches it with an appropriate shutter speed to create a balanced exposure. Wide apertures let in more light, but crucially also give the image a shallower depth of field, which can be useful for blurring distracting backgrounds in portraits and wildlife shots. Small apertures have the reverse effect, giving extended depth of field that’s perfect for landscapes and macro work.
Step 1: Small for landscapes To get as much of a landscape shot as possible in focus, you’ll need a small aperture – so stick to the large f-stop numbers, such as f/16 and f/22. This might lead to long exposure times, so increase ISO if you’re shooting handheld.
Step 2: Watch the settings As you turn the dial to alter the aperture setting, you can monitor the changes through the viewfinder or top-plate screen, if your camera has one. You can also tweak the aperture through the Quick Settings screen (shown here).
Step 3: Use the preview The image in the viewfinder is always shown at the Canon camera’s widest aperture. To ensure that you’re getting everything crisply in focus, use the depth-of-field preview button to stop down the lens to your set aperture.
Tip 16: High ISO noise reduction
This custom function is available on all current EOS cameras, and offers three noise reduction settings – Standard, Low, Strong, plus Off. These do a decent job of removing chroma speckling that can plague high ISO shots. There are compromises to be made, though, the biggest of which is that fine detail is often softened. Stick with Low for the most part, and avoid Strong unless you really can’t face editing a shot later. High ISO noise reduction can also reduce the camera’s shooting speed, as it takes longer to process each shot.
Tip 17: Canon Auto White Balance
Your Canon EOS camera’s Auto White Balance (AWB) setting can be relied on to give neutral results in most situations, so colours will be captured as you saw them. Shooting under artificial lighting often presents a challenge though, and pictures can end up with a colour cast as the system struggles to compensate. If you shoot JPEGs, it’s at times like these that you should reach for one of the white balance presets for a more faithful result – there’s a reason Canon includes them, after all. However, for total accuracy and consistency, you can’t beat a Custom White Balance. Here’s the process for creating one on a Canon EOS 60D…
Step 1: Don’t rely on the presets Your Canon camera’s white balance presets have their limits, as not all light sources are created equal. Here, using the Tungsten preset has still resulted in an image that appears too ‘warm’.
Step 2: Take a reference shot For more accurate results, take a reference shot of a piece of white paper or card in the prevailing light. Now select Custom White Balance in the Shooting menu and scroll through to your shot.
Step 3: Save the WB setting Press SET to store the neutral reading from your reference shot as a Custom White Balance setting. To use it, go to the White Balance menu and select ‘Custom’. It’s a bit of a faff, but worth it!
Tip 18: Autofocus points: man vs machine
When should you manually select an autofocus point, and when should you leave it to the camera to do the job automatically? Well, automatic selection is commonly used in conjunction with AI Servo Focus for photographing moving subjects. If the subject’s framed against a clean backdrop (such as a bird flying in the sky), then automatic selection does a fine job. But if the subject moves against a detailed background, you may well find that the camera refocuses on the background instead.
For more accurate results, choose an AF point manually, and then track the subject with the point positioned over it. The centre AF point is the most precise, so start with that one. It’s also a good idea to select a focus point manually when shooting portraits – you want eyes to be sharp, not noses!
Tip 19: Using Live View
If you want the most precise focus, then make the most of your Canon camera’s Live View. It might not be as responsive as the traditional viewfinder system, but the big advantage is that you can zoom in to check sharpness on a bright screen and fine-tune accordingly, making it a great option for low-light landscape photography. The vari-angle LCDs on the 600D and 60D enable you to use the camera at seriously awkward angles, too, whether that’s at ground level for macro shots or held above your head for shooting over crowds.
Tip 20: Cool the flash
As with your camera’s ambient light meter, its flash metering system is reliable but not infallible. It measures the light reflected back from the subject, and switches off the flash when it calculates that it’s received enough. However, dark subjects can cause it to pump out too much light, leading to overexposure, while bright subjects and reflective backgrounds can cause it to kill the flash too early, underexposing the subject.
By dialing in flash exposure compensation, you can increase or decrease the flash power to remedy this. You can do this through the Quick Control Screen, or by assigning the function to the SET button. Creatively, you might also want to dial down the flash power so as to provide just a little ‘fill’ light, rather than making it the dominant light source.
Tip 21: SET button
By default, the SET button on the back of your camera has no function during shooting. It’s definitely worth giving it one though, and you can do this via the Operation custom function menu. The 60D, for instance, has no white balance button, but you can assign the white balance sub-menu to the SET button. Similarly, the 1100D has no dedicated depth-of-field preview button, but you can register this function to the SET button. It doesn’t half speed things up.
Tip 22: C mode
Canon’s Custom Mode, available on the 60D series upwards, lets you configure the camera to your liking and then store the settings under ‘C’ on the mode dial; used well it can help you to speed up reaction times for spur-of-the-moment situations. To register a Custom mode, choose your preferred exposure mode and set up the camera accordingly, then head to the Setup menu and choose ‘Camera User Settings’. The EOS 60D lets you register one Custom mode, while the EOS 7D and 5D Mark II can store up to three.
Tip 23: Q button
The Q button gives access to all the major parameters of your camera on the rear LCD, enabling you to adjust key settings fast. You can navigate to the feature you want to change and press the SET button to open up a sub-menu, or you can simply rotate the Quick Control Dial with the feature highlighted on the Quick Control screen to change the setting.
Tip 24: My Menu
Fed up of flicking through lots of menu options to find a favourite function? Create your own custom set of frequently used controls in the ‘My Menu’ tab (head for the final menu page, indicated by a star). You can add up to six items to use in the ‘Creative Zone’ modes, and by enabling the ‘Display from My Menu’ option you can make these appear first when you press the MENU button. It does a similar job to the Quick Control Screen triggered by the ‘Q’ button, but you don’t need to navigate a fiddly control panel.