I’ll admit, I’m starting with the topic “Know Your Camera” in my Contemplative Photography Lesson Plan because it’s the easiest. Teaching you about your camera isn’t something I can do it a blog post, or even on location during a workshop, unless you happen to be using an Olympus 410-R just like mine. There are just too many differences between cameras (configuration and software) to be able to teach these things to a whole group of people with different cameras all at once. So really, this lesson is about you teaching yourself, which makes it real easy on me.

But this is also first because the more comfortable you are with the technical aspects of your camera, the less you are going to have to worry about when you’re in the field. When you’re intimately familiar with all the buttons, menus and controls available, then you won’t have to stop and fuss with things before you take a shot. Or rather, you can spend more time thinking about why you want to make an adjustment, rather than just how to do it.

Below, I’m going to present a few of the essential functions you really should know how to use. Keep in mind that not every one of these functions will be available on every type of camera. Phone cameras have less functionality than most point-and-shoot models; point-and-shoot models have fewer features than most DSLRs; and film cameras — well, film cameras are in a class all by themselves. Don’t ask me to go there – I haven’t used a film camera since we retired our Kokak Advantix over a decade ago.

What it comes down to, though, is that features on all types of cameras vary wildly depending on the price point and age. The only way to really get to know what YOUR camera does is to actually read the manual. Read it straight through, once. Even if you don’t understand everything you’re reading. If you’re new to photography, you may not have a clue about things like ISO and White Balance, but at least you’ll have a vague awareness whether or not you can make manual adjustments to those settings if you wanted. When you’re ready to learn about those aspects of photography, you can return to the manual (and to supporting books, magazines and web articles) for a deeper understanding of how they work.

Keep this in mind: you don’t have to learn everything all at once. Pick a feature which you want to learn, and practice with it a while until it becomes familiar to use without having to think about it. Then you can move on to something else. There is a lot to learn in photography, and if you try to learn it all at once it you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed and anxious, which is exactly the wrong sort of mood you want when practicing contemplative photography.

So here we go: a generalized list of what I think are the most important features to know how to use on your camera. This list is aimed primarily at point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras, though I may throw in a phone camera tip where appropriate.


A digital camera can have a dizzying array of buttons and dials for you to interact with. Some of them are pretty intuitive, like a trash can for deleting photos, while others may leave you scratching your head. Your manual probably has a diagram mapping out what each of these does, but it can be overwhelming to take in all at once, especially if you’re not familiar with what everything means.

My recommendation is to not try and learn all the buttons at once. Learn the essentials at the outset, then learn additional buttons as you are learning about the functions they control.

The essentials are:

  • Power – Duh.
  • Shutter button – This is the button that actually takes the picture. But find out if your camera is equipped with a two-stage function. This lets you push the button down halfway so the camera can make adjustments like focus and metering; when it beeps, you push the button the rest of the way to take the picture. Low-priced cameras may be missing this feature.
  • Zoom – On point and shoot camera’s the zoom control is usually a little lever up on the top, but not always. For DSLRs, you zoom in by manipulating the lens directly. On an iPhone, you zoom by pinching the screen, and then adjusting the slider (I don’t know about other smart phone cameras).
  • Play – Switches into View mode, so you can review the photos you’ve already taken.
  • Menu – This allows you access to the various settings and controls.
  • Scroll wheel – Not really a wheel, this is usually four separate buttons you use to navigate through menu options. In View mode, they typically allow you to scroll through photos (right and left) and zoom in and out (up and down). It usually has an “OK” button in the middle for making selections.

Screen View

The LCD screen on a digital camera is one of its most prominent features, and also one of it’s most useful. Not only does it allow you to immediately view the pictures you just took, but it also displays a lot of technical information about each shot, and provides access to the advanced controls and settings. It also uses a lot of battery power, so learning how to turn it off and on should be one of the first things you learn. Other things to look for:

  • How many different screen views does the camera offer, and how can you switch between them?
  • What information is available on the different screens?
  • What buttons do you push to access the menus, and how do you navigate through them?
  • How do you switch between “shoot” and “view” modes?
  • How can you zoom in on photos while viewing them, for a close look at details?


When the battery goes dead, you’re done taking photos for the day, so knowing how to manage battery is an essential skill!

  • Where is the battery compartment, and does it use rechargeable or disposable batteries? Can you plug the camera in directly to charge it, or does the battery need to be removed?
  • How can you monitor the battery level?
  • Will your camera turn itself off if you forget to? After how long?
  • How long can you go before the batteries need to be recharged or replaced?
  • The answer to that last question may not be found in the manual, but it’s something you’ll learn over time and use.

Memory, Picture Size & File Format

In digital photography, picture size corresponds directly to how many pictures you can take – the smaller the photo, the smaller the file size, and the more photos you can fit on a memory card. I’m not going to get into the topic of image sizes right here, but just keep in mind that smaller isn’t always better. If you’re photo file size is too small, you won’t be able to get decent prints. If you go with larger photos, you won’t be able to save as many on your card. So you’ll have to decide what you’re going to use photos for before you start shooting.

  • What kind of memory card does it use? How do you put in and remove the card?
  • How many pictures can be stored in the “onboard” memory, if there’s no memory card in place?
  • Where does the camera display how much memory is left or how many more pictures you can take? How does your camera alert you if the memory is full?
  • What is the default photo size for your camera?
  • How many different sizes are available, and how do you switch between them?
  • What file format choices are available? (JPEG is the most common, but RAW is also popular.)


When talking about a digital camera, “mode” generally refers to how much control you have over the shot. It’s usually a knob at the top of the camera, near the shutter button and on/off switch, but it might be a button on the back of the camera, too. Besides AUTO, most cameras offer: PROGRAM, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, and a variety of pre-set modes such as “Sunset” and “Sports”. Review the options available.

It’s totally okay to shoot in AUTO, but switching to PROGRAM is a great way to start learning how to play with settings. In AUTO, the camera takes care of everything. In PROGRAM the camera still takes care of everything – except for those things that you deliberately change for creative effect. So if you want to experiment with, for example, a slower shutter speed, you can do that without having to worry about making corresponding adjustments to ISO, aperture, etc. PROGRAM does that for you. Then, when you’re ready, you can step up and take more control with the manual control modes.

Flash Control

I hardly ever shoot with flash, so I don’t have a lot of advice to offer about when to use it or not.* But being able to turn it on and off at need is crucial. Some cameras offer more complex control of the flash, too, so learn what you can and can’t change.

  • How do you turn the automatic flash off and on?
  • If there a flash delay?
  • Is there a red-eye prevention mode?
  • Can you reduce the flash level so the light is not as strong?

Auto Focus On/Off

If you’re shooting with a DSLR, you have the option of manually focusing your lens in order to create a particular effect. Personally, I always shoot with auto-focus because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered and, also, I think my eyes are just not that sharp. But in case you are more enthusiastic than I – or for situations when auto-focus just isn’t cooperating – you need how to turn the feature off and on.

Focal Point

If you are using auto focus, then you need to know what point your camera is using as a focal point. By default, it’s the center of the image, but with many cameras you can change that to enhance various compositions. Choices include setting it to the left or right of center, and also up or down. Fancier cameras have a “continual focus” feature that automatically compensate for moving subjects. The focal point usually shows up as a flashing, bracketed dot in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen when you push the shutter button down halfway. Find out if and how you can change it.

 Camera phone tip: To select the focal point when shooting with your iPhone, just tap the spot on the screen while you are framing your shot. Otherwise it will select the most prominent feature in the frame to focus on. (I don’t know if other smart phone cameras work this way or not. Check the manual for your model!)

ISO Settings

Remember when you used to buy film, and you had to decide whether you should buy 100, 200 or 400 film? That number referred to how sensitive the film was – the higher the number, the more sensitive the film. ISO works the same way, indicating how much light the sensor inside your camera will absorb while the shutter is open. When light is low, you generally want a higher ISO so that the shutter doesn’t have to stay open as long in order to take a picture.

ISO detail
Click to see this full-sized. Look in the dark area around the eye to see the noise.

Most cameras will adjust ISO automatically according to the ambient light, but you can adjust it manually as well, with typical values of 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600. Newer, more expensive cameras can go even higher. The trade off with a high ISO is increased “noise” in your photos – that is, grainy flecks across the image (though more and more cameras are conquering this problem).

To test your camera’s noise at high ISO settings, set up to take an series of interior shots. Leave all the other settings the same, but change the ISO between each shot. Compare them on the computer to see how much noise is added.

Aperture and Shutter Speed

These two controls are probably the two most powerful tools you can have to control your photo’s artistry – and I’m not going tell you about them. At least, not in this post. My next post will be about the Exposure Trio, and we’ll get into how to use each of these effectively. For now simply familiarize yourself with the controls (if they’re available).

  • What buttons or dials control each setting?
  • Where are the current settings displayed?

White Balance

“Old fashioned” photographers** used light meters to gauge the light and adjust their cameras to compensate for different types of light – midday versus dusk, cloudy versus sunny, incandescent versus florescent, etc. Modern digital cameras have built-in light meters, and when you’re shooting in auto mode they will compensate as necessary.

Effects of white balance

White balance is really one of the most important adjustments you can make for good looking photos, because the color and tone the light can really affect the final picture. If you’ve ever had to put on makeup under a fluorescent light then you know exactly what I mean. Colors are just different when the light is different. You can experiment with with white balance the same way you do with ISO, but you won’t even have to upload the photos to compare. You’ll be able to see the differences right on the view screen.

  • How do you set white balance?
  • How many settings (including auto) are available and which situations is each best for?

Existential Familiarity

Aside from knowing what everything on your camera does, there is a kind of camera intimacy that only comes from actually using your camera a lot. Even if you never change a single setting, you’ll become more knowledge about how your camera works the more you take photos and look at the results. With experience, you learn how your lens sees, and you learn to maximize your camera’s unique vision to the best effect. I know it sounds a little woo-woo, but but it’s true – your relationship with your camera is like a partnership that improves the more you become familiar with it.

* Because I mostly shoot outdoors in daylight.

** And really, professionals still do.


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