Photography Blog

The Best 5 Hacks to Get the Most Out of Your Canon DSLR

I’m a Canon guy. I have been since I first picked up a DSLR back in the spring of 2008. Over the years I’ve come to know my cameras and their features so I can get the most from them easier and faster. Here are a few quick hacks, and one crucial rule, for getting the most from your Canon DSLR.

1. R. T. M.

This isn’t a hack, it’s a rule. Think of it as Rule #1. Probably the most important one you’ll read in this post. 

Canon 5D MkIII Owners Manual

Read The Manual.

Of all of the advice I can give you, reading the manual is the most important to help ensure that you get the most from your camera. It will also enable you to get more from the other, possibly more advanced tips I’ll be sharing as you read on. Knowing your camera, the menus, the custom functions and how to change them to your liking are all in that little book that came with it in the box. 

When I talk with a client who is interested in one of my nature and landscape workshops, reading the manual is always the first thing I urge them to do.

When they’re done, I suggest they read it again. The owner’s manual for your specific camera model will be the perfect companion while you read through this article, as each camera is slightly different when it comes to changing any of the settings I’ll be discussing.

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2. Back button focus

This always the first change I make to the settings on any new Canon DSLR I buy. 

Normally when you half press the shutter button, the camera focuses and meters the scene you’re trying to photograph. This is fine for just taking snapshots, but can be very frustrating when photographing nature or landscapes. Say, for instance, you set up a shot, focus 1/3 of the way into the scene to maximize depth of field, then move the camera slightly to recompose the shot. Now, when you press the shutter button again, the camera automatically refocuses, possibly on some arbitrary background subject, and ruins your photo.

All of that changes with back button focus. Back button focus divorces autofocus from the shutter button and reassigns it to a button on the back of the camera. By doing so, you’re free to focus and recompose your photo as you see fit. Some cameras, like most of the xD and xxD series Canon DSLRs, have an AF-On button on the back. Others you’ll have to assign as a focus button using the custom settings in your camera. The menu should look something like this:

IMG_1865
As you can see, you can change or assign a new function to almost any of the buttons on the back of the camera as well.

Back button focus has a very short learning curve, but once you get used to it, you’ll probably never go back again to using the shutter button to focus your camera. 

3. Live View

DSLR camera on a tripod using Live View to frame a shot.
I love Live View, it makes composing photos so much easier than trying to look through the viewfinder, especially when I’m setting the camera up at an awkward angle, such as very low to the ground. There are several ways you can use the custom functions in the camera to customize what the LCD displays during Live View shooting. 

To enable Live View, press the button on the back of the camera just to the right of the viewfinder. On the xD and xxD models the button should have Start/Stop on it, as seen below on the back of my 5D MkIII. On all of the Rebel series cameras, such as the T5i, it will have a little picture of a camera. To deactivate Live View, simply press this button a second time.

Live View Button 5D MkIII
Here’s a list of Live View features I use regularly as aid in composition and exposure.

1. Enable the grid display. 

Assuming this feature is available in Live View on your camera model, the grid display overlays a tic-tac-toe type grid on the LCD, making composing using the rule of thirds a snap. You can see this grid overlay in the first photo at the top of this post.

2. Exposure simulation and the histogram.

On some Canon DSLRs, you can enable the histogram to display during Live View. Again, check the owners manual. If your camera supports it, having a live histogram will tell you if your photo will be properly exposed before you press the shutter. Below is the back of my 5D MkIII with the RGB histogram enabled during Live View. You can see the red, green, and blue channels in the upper right of the LCD. 

live_view_with_histogram_1912
If your camera doesn’t support a live histogram during Live View, you can use the next best thing. Set your camera to display the histogram during the image preview  that shows on the LCD after you’ve taken a photo. It will look something like the photo below.

preview_with_histogram_1915
3. Zooming in to aid focusing.

If for any reason you need to manually focus the lens, you can zoom in 5x or 10x, on the part of the image you want to focus on. This is much easier than trying to manually focus using the viewfinder. 

4. The Q button

IMG_1917
On the back of your camera there should be a button with the letter Q on it. This button will save you both time and frustration, especially if you often photograph in low light or at night. When you press the Q button, which is the small button to the right of the LCD in the photo above, you’ll bring up a menu that looks like the one above. 

By scrolling through the menu, you can change just about every setting on the camera. This means no more fumbling in the dark trying to read the LCD on the top of the camera in order to change aperture, shutter speed, etc.

5. Get to know your camera.

I’m going to finish by suggesting that you go out and use your camera. Use it a lot. Play with it, change the settings, scroll through all of the menus and see what they do. At a bare minimum, you should be able to change aperture, shutter speed, and ISO without looking at your camera. These are the three settings you’ll use most often and with practice you should be able to change them without thinking about it. The light can change fast, and you could very well miss the best of it if you’re messing around with your camera trying to remember how to change a setting. 

If you have any questions as to a particular setting on your new Canon DSLR, post it in the comments section and I’ll answer it as soon as I can.

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Learn how to get the most from your camera, for photographs that help you build a body of work you’re proud to share and display.Get My FREE Guide »

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