Your camera is a tool, and you should be able to use it with total confidence. You should never have to dig through the manual or play around with random buttons trying to work out how to do something on a shoot. Here are the most important settings you need to master.

Change the Shooting Mode

At How-To Geek, we’re big fans of Manual and semi-automatic shooting modes—like Aperture Priority. They give you a lot more creative control over your images than leaving your camera in Automatic or Program mode and letting it make every decision.

On Canon cameras, you switch between different shooting modes using the dial on the top. Entry level cameras often have a lot more modes than mid-level or professional cameras—stuff like Portrait, Macro, and Sport—so check out our guide to what all the different symbols mean.

RELATED: Get Out of Auto: How to Use Your Camera's Shooting Modes for Better Photos

Set the Aperture, Shutter Speed, and Exposure Compensation

When you’re using Manual or a semi-automatic mode, you need to set some combination of aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation. On high-end Canon cameras, each setting has a separate dial. On entry level cameras, there’s only one dial located just behind the shutter button; holding down the Exposure Compensation button on the back of the camera and turning the dial controls the other setting.

RELATED: Your Camera's Most Important Settings: Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO Explained

  • In Program mode, the dial changes the aperture, although the camera may change that by itself. The Exposure Compensation button and dial change the exposure compensation.
  • In Aperture Priority mode, the dial changes aperture. The Exposure Compensation button and dial change the exposure compensation.
  • In Shutter priority mode, the dial changes the shutter speed. The Exposure Compensation button and dial change the exposure compensation.
  • In Manual mode, the dial changes the shutter speed. The Exposure Compensation button and dial change the aperture.

Set the ISO

ISO is the third part of the exposure triangle. To set it, press the ISO button on the top of your camera and then use either the shutter speed dial or the D-pad on the back of the camera to select the ISO you want to use. Press the ISO button again, press the shutter button halfway down, or the use the SET button on the D-pad to make the selection.

RELATED: What Is Your Camera's ISO Setting?

Set the White Balance

Depending on the time of day, weather, and light source you’re using, light has a different “color temperature” that varies from a warm orange at sunset to a cool blue in the shade on a sunny day. Your camera has an Auto “white balance” mode, but you should know how to set it manually if only to keep things consistent between pictures.

RELATED: What Is White Balance, and How Does It Affect Your Photos?

Press the WB button on the back of your camera and use the D-pad to select from:

  • Auto White Balance
  • Daylight
  • Shade
  • Cloudy
  • Tungsten Light
  • White Fluorescent Light
  • Flash
  • Custom

Set the Autofocus Mode and Autofocus Point

Your Canon camera has three different auto-focus modes: One Shot, AI Focus, and AI Servo. They each serve a slightly different purpose and which one you should pick depends on what you’re shooting.

RELATED: What Is Autofocus, and What Do the Different Modes Mean?

To switch between these modes, press the AF button on the back of your camera and then use the D-pad to select the mode you want.

Your camera also has a number of different autofocus points on the sensor. By default, your camera automatically selects what it thinks should be the focus of the image. To manually select an autofocus point, press the AF Point Selection button on the back of your camera and use the D-pad to select one of the points. Whatever is under that point when you look through the viewfinder is where your camera will now attempt to focus.

Set the Self-Timer and Shooting Mode

Once you have a reputation as the group photographer, you’ll regularly get called on to take group portraits. If you want to be in them too, you’ll need to use the self-timer. Every Canon camera has a two-second and ten-second timer.

The Self-Timer/Shooting Mode button is normally on the back of your camera. You can see the icon above. Press it, and select either the icon with the “2” next to it for the two-second timer or the regular icon for the ten-second timer using the D-pad.

Once you’re finished with the self-timer mode, you’ll want to put your camera back into either Single Shooting or Continuous Shooting (Burst) mode. Press the Self-Timer/Shooting Mode button again and select the one you want. This is also how you put your camera into Burst mode.

RELATED: How to Take Better Photos in Burst Mode

Put Your Camera into Movie Mode

Your DSLR can almost certainly shoot videos and movies. On any entry-level Canon DSLR released in the last few years, the power switch doubles as the movie mode switch. Push it forward an extra click to put your camera into video mode.

To start recording video, press the Live View/Record button. Even in video mode, the shutter button still takes photos.

Change the Image Quality

Camera RAW is a higher quality image file that all DSLRs can shoot. To get the most from your camera, you should be using it instead of JPEG. To switch between the two formats, press the Menu button on the back of your camera. The first option is normally Image quality. Select it, and then pick the RAW option.

RELATED: What is Camera Raw, and Why Would a Professional Prefer it to JPG?

Review Your Images

It’s essential when you’re shooting to stop and check your work occasionally. You don’t want to realize at the end of the day that all your photos were underexposed or out of focus.

To review your images, press the Play button on the back of your camera. Navigate through them using the D-pad. Make sure to use the Zoom In and Zoom Out buttons to check the details of your images. What looks good on the small view screen, might look terrible on your computer.

Format Your SD Cards Instead of Deleting Images

It’s bad practice to delete images from your SD cards since it can lead to corrupted data. Instead, you want to format (or re-format) your cards between shoots or once they’re full.

The option to format your SD cards is buried a little bit in your camera’s menu. Press the Menu button and then navigate over to the first options screen (the ones with the wrench icon). Select Format Card and then OK to wipe the SD card that’s in your camera and prepare it for your next shoot.

This isn’t a complete list of all the camera settings you can control, but it does cover the most critical settings. As you learn more about your camera, you’ll need to dive deeper into more niche settings, but for now, you should be set.

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Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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