If you’re struggling to understand what every little dial and button on your camera does…
…then you’ve come to the right place.
Because here’s the thing:
Every facet of your camera exists for a reason.
So if there’s a part of your camera that you’re not using, then you could be missing out.
That’s why it pays to understand exactly what your camera can do–so that you can use it to its full extent when you’re out shooting!
Let’s dive right in.
The Shutter Button
Here’s the first camera control that you should be familiar with:
The shutter button.
Hold it down halfway, and your camera will acquire focus of your subject.
Press it down all the way, and your camera will take a photo.
Keep holding the shutter button down, and–assuming you’re in a continuous shooting mode–your camera will fire off shots until the buffer fills.
The Mode Dial
Pretty much every camera offers some form of the Mode dial.
It sits on top of the camera, like this:
The Mode dial is one of the most essential camera functions out there. That’s because it determines how you control your three basic camera settings:
For instance, the Mode dial offers an Auto mode, which tells the camera to select the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for you.
It also offers an Aperture Priority mode, where you choose the aperture and ISO, while your camera chooses the shutter speed. Shutter Priority mode is similar, but instead of selecting the aperture and ISO, you select the shutter speed and ISO.
These modes are designed for beginners, and they optimize your big three camera settings for the type of subject they’re programmed to deal with.
The Pop-Up Flash Release
Most cameras include a built-in flash (though there are some higher-end models that have ditched the flash altogether).
I don’t recommend using the flash, because it’s harsh and far too direct.
But if you’re desperate, then you can access it via the pop-up flash release button, often painted with a lightning bolt.
If you’re using an interchangeable lens camera, chances are you have a button on the front of the camera body, right next to your lens.
It’s called the lens release.
Hit that button, and it unlocks your lens; that way, you can unscrew your lens (making room for another).
Depth of Field Preview
Quite a few cameras offer a depth of field preview button.
To understand what this button does, you first have to understand depth of field.
It refers to the amount of your photo that’s sharp.
In other words:
Is the shot sharp from front to back, like this:
Or is the shot sharp in one tiny place?
In the former case, we say the shot has a deep depth of field, because the image is sharp throughout.
Whereas in the latter case, we say the shot has a shallow depth of field, because the image only offers a sliver of sharpness.
Now, depth of field is controlled by the aperture. The smaller the aperture, the deeper the depth of field.
But the aperture generally doesn’t close down to its programmed amount until once you take a photo, which means that you’re not actually getting a good look at the depth of field in real time.
Hence, the depth of field preview button–which allows you to see what your depth of field will look like in advance.
(This is extremely useful for anyone trying to maximize their depth of field, by the way; you can use the depth of field preview button to check whether your images are exactly as you hoped.)
If your camera offers Live View, it means that you can shoot while seeing the scene in real time.
But only on your rear LCD.
So by pressing the Live View button, you tell your camera to begin using Live View as the method of display, rather than the viewfinder.
If your camera has video capabilities (and, these days, just about every camera does), you’ll see a button that’s designed to begin recording when pressed.
It looks like this:
And you’re not going to want to hit it on accident.
The top LCD is present on hobbyist and professional cameras, but is noticeably lacking on beginner models.
It indicates key camera settings, such as ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
Plus, the top LCD sometimes includes small buttons that you can press to quickly change, say, white balance.
The rear LCD sits at the back of the camera. It’s designed for two basic purposes:
Viewing photos you’ve taken.
And shooting in Live View.
Recently, the rear LCD has taken on another purpose, thanks to well-implemented touchscreens:
Choosing the point of focus. Previously, you had to use the up and down keys or an AF joystick to pick where the camera will focus. But with the proliferation of touch-sensitive LCDs, focusing is now easier than ever.
OVFs, also known as optical viewfinders, are present in all cameras that feature mirrors.
Optical viewfinders allow you to see directly through the lens.
The image is very crisp and clear, thanks to high-quality OVFs.
Note that optical viewfinders often include a readout across the bottom of the screen that indicates relevant details, such as exposure.
EVFs, also known as electronic viewfinders, are very much in vogue these days.
Because with the rise of mirrorless cameras came their signature EVF technology, which allows you to check exposures as you’re taking them, rather than after the fact.
Electronic viewfinders also allow for focus peaking, focus aids, and more.
EVFs are positioned just the same as OVFs, except that they project the image on a small screen for you to view.
Note, however, that not all mirrorless cameras offer an electronic viewfinder. Some lack a viewfinder entirely, in which case you must turn to the rear LCD for focusing and image inspection.
Camera Controls: The Next Steps
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’ll know all about the different buttons and dials on your camera.
So don’t be intimidated; everything is pretty easy to use, once you get the hang of it.
And if you’re not feeling totally comfortable with your camera, then get out and practice!
The key camera controls to know are the Mode dial and the shutter button. Together, these two buttons will ensure you have the proper exposure settings–and that you’ve actually taken the shot!
An electronic viewfinder (also known as an OVF) is a part of many mirrorless cameras. It allows you to preview images before they’ve been captured, and will even simulate exposure in real time.
No, not really–both have their place, and both work well for different types of photography. I’m a fan of electronic viewfinders, myself, but the EVFs with low resolution specs never really turn out very good. Optical viewfinders, on the other hand, are great for shooting fast-moving subjects that are hard to track through viewfinder lag.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.