Canons for Dummies: Using Your New Digital Camera

If you got a fancy new digital SLR (“single-lens reflex”) camera for Christmas (or whichever holiday you celebrate), lucky you! You’re not alone. I got the Rebel T1i last year and even though I knew most of the basics, I wish I could have been given the quick camera rundown. This guide is designed to be very simple and easy-to-use (don’t bother reading it if you already know how to use manual mode on your camera) and will help you get higher quality images from using your manual settings.

I’ll be using pictures of a Canon Rebel to show you how to use the manual setting on your camera, but these basics can even be applied to film cameras. This is a post full of simple camera knowledge so that you know how to troubleshoot when your pictures are turning out too light/blurry/etc and you don’t just stare at someone like an idiot when they tell you “to try adjusting your ISO to 800 and changing your white balance.” Canon dummies, read on!

I heart manual mode!

How to Use the Manual Mode on Your Camera

First turn the wheel at the top of your camera to “M” (for Manual). Manual photos often look much better than Automatic ones (the little rectangle on your wheel) because you can adjust the settings to match the lighting perfectly. (The “P” mode also functions similarly to manual, but it does not have specific settings to capture motion – read: no blurriness control.)

Next look at the screen on your camera – if you are seeing a preview of your shot you need to switch back to where you can see all your settings on the screen – you can do this by clicking the button with the “switch” symbol (in blue on the Rebel) next to it. (Note: If your DSLR has a top screen as well, you don’t necessarily need to do this.)

Now you can mess with the settings to get the best shot possible, so let’s go through them one by one. You can also click the links for each setting to get more detailed information.

ISO | Your ISO determines your camera’s sensitivity to light. (You may also hear it referred to as film speed.) Basically, your ISO can help you adjust to the light around you. If you’re in a very sunny place, you’re going to want a lower ISO (100 or 200). If you’re in an area of darker lighting, you can go up to 1600 or 3200, depending on your camera. Take test shots and see what looks the best – getting the right ISO is important! The Rebel T1i has an easy-to-use ISO button on the top of the camera, but you can also just highlight it on your screen and press “Set” to change it. (Also note that higher ISOs, mainly 1600+, can produce grainy images.)

Shutter Speed | Your shutter speed is how long the shutter stays open when it’s capturing the image (in film photography, it’s how long your film is exposed to light). Faster shutter speeds work best for sports games (I usually use at least 1/1000 of a second) and when you need to capture a lot of motion without blurriness. It also helps control blurriness for day-to-day photography – go slower than 1/60 of a second and you have to be very careful to hold your camera steady or use a tripod (1/8, shown above, is a very slow shutter speed). There is a trade-off: the faster your shutter speed, the less light your camera lets in, and the darker your image becomes. You have to compensate for this by using a higher ISO or a smaller f-stop (keep reading for more info on this). Conversely, you can also use a very slow shutter speed (seconds or even minutes) with a tripod to capture time-lapse shots, in which case you’ll want a lower ISO.

F-Stop | The actual definition of this one still confuses me, but what you need to know is that your f-stop controls your focal length. If you have a higher f-stop, your camera is letting in less light. The f-stop will adjust automatically to your focus, but sometimes you can try changing it manually to get a brighter picture in a low-light situation.

White Balance | I usually keep my white balance on auto (“AWB”), but if your photos are turning out funny-looking (for example, features look too harsh under fluorescent lighting), you can change your white balance and see if it looks better with a quick test shot. (If you’re using flash or a flash attachment, there’s also a separate white balance setting for that, which can be helpful.)

Image Quality | You can change your quality settings on your camera — boxed in above. Some settings (like shooting in RAW) will create very big file sizes (so you can’t take a lot of photos on one memory card) or will be a pain to edit, if you use Photoshop. I don’t know much about the logistics of quality settings, but I recommend the setting shown above – the L with the slope.

AF Mode | Your AF mode determines your focal mode if you’re using auto focus (which you probably are). You can select from “One-Shot,” “AI Focus,” and “AI Servo” on the Rebel. One-shot is good for regular shooting, AI focus is good for close-up, detail shots, and AI servo is good for sports/performances/etc. If you switch to manual focus mode (using the switch on your lens), you won’t need to change this setting.

Drive Mode | Drive mode determines your shooting mode – as in, if you want to only take one shot at a time, put your camera in continuous drive mode (it’s like rapid fire shooting), or use a self-timer. Just helpful to know how to change if you need it. I usually use continuous drive mode because I can capture a bunch of images really fast and choose my favorite later. I like using it for portraits to capture just the right moment in a smile, as well as for sports to get good action shots.

Well, that’s all for now – I hope you found this guide helpful if you’re trying to figure out how to use the manual mode on your new DSLR. For more seasoned photographers, I do apologize that it’s very basic. I’m not much of a camera expert myself, but I’m always learning new things my camera can do!

Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday!

{Source: All camera images used in this post via this article on Other image via}