15 Advanced DSLR settings for the real photographer

Advanced DSLR SettingsOwning a DSLR and not getting intimate with all of its settings and intricacies should be considered a sin. Far too many consumers buy a DSLR to take simple holiday pictures, not knowing what kind of kit they’re holding in their hands.

You’re not one of those people.

Oh no, you are the curious explorer, the type of photographer who wants to know exactly what ways there are to manipulate her/his gear to extract the most out of it, to allow your artistic creativity to come out well and achieve exactly the look that you had in mind before you hit that shutter button.

Mastering your DSLR is like learning how to draw. Knowing what techniques and functions can help you manipulate the image you’re trying to create. It helps translate a vision of an image you may be picturing in your head into reality (without too much help from Photoshop or Lightroom).

Assuming you understand the basics already, here are 15 settings you may not have tried yet that can really make a difference in getting THAT shot.

It’s all about control – the more control you have over your shots, the better you can replicate the vision you had for the shot and your results are bound to improve if you master all your tools and learn how/when to apply them.

Know of any advanced DSLR settings that haven’t been listed here? Share them with your peers – leave a comment below!

1. Interval Timer Shooting / Time Lapse

Although remote triggers with interval timing are available for pretty much any DSLR camera, a few of the more recent Nikon models have an interval timer built in, which makes creating time lapse videos or shots like startrail photography that much easier. Canon, at time of writing, have yet to release a DSLR with in-built interval timer shooting.

On Nikon models which offer this function, set the exposure settings you’re after (and test them!), then go to the Shooting menu, select Interval Timer Shooting and:

  1. Select your start time (Now, or a specified time. Make sure your DSLR’s system time settings are set correctly!)
  2. Choose an interval at which you want the camera to take shots. Select hours, minutes or seconds.
  3. Choose the number of intervals and the number of shots taken at each interval (that’s right, you can get bracketed shots at each interval!)
  4. Start shooting by highlighting Start > On and pressing the OK button

2. Exposure Compensation

The metering system on your DLSR is an advanced bit of technology that helps you to determine whether a shot will be correctly exposed for a given scene. As with most automatic functions on your camera, metering can sometimes be off, or simply not up to the task if you’re trying to achieve a particular look and prefer using Aperture (Av) or Shutter priority (Tv) rather than full Manual.

Enter exposure compensation.

Exposure compensation allows you to partly “override” the meter’s recommendations by increasing/decreasing the exposure with one or multiple stops. This takes a bit of trial and error and as with everything else it’s something you’ll develop with experience. It’s also a function you may find handy to use with particular lenses your DSLR’s metering system can’t “read” as well.

3. Flash Compensation

Flash compensation works similarly to exposure compensation, giving you control over the level of flash output you get from your pop-up flash or eTTL or iTTL mounted flash gun.

Often the camera’s metering leaves you with an overdose of light, with a washed out look to boot (since the flash is throwing light from right on top of the lens as opposed to being directional).

The way flash compensation is normally used is by finding an adjustment (usually a couple of stops lower) which blends the light with the flash with the ambient light already available. If you get slightly underexposed shots, simply use exposure compensation to fix that. The end result is a shot with lighting that is much more evenly distributed and less harsh.

4. Auto Focus Lock (AF-ON) / Back Button Focus

There are situations where you need to take multiple shots of a subject (for example portraits) which is off-center. The most common method to do so is to either select a specific focal point or to use your center focal point to achieve focus and then recompose. That becomes tedious pretty quickly, not to mention error-prone when you need to act quickly to catch a moment, for example at weddings.

Using back button focusing or auto focus lock you can skip the refocusing, as long as you’re careful to keep the same distance to the subject, especially when shooting with a wide aperture (and therefore narrow depth of field).

There are multiple options to set your DSLR up for back button focusing, depending on your model.

Canon

Advanced Canon DSLRs have an AF-ON lock button. By default, once you’ve achieved focus, you’ll need to keep this button pressed while taking shots. You can also completely shift AF functionality to this button by using a Custom Function that limits the (half pressed) shutter button to meter the incoming light instead of also locking focus. This way, you can use your AF-ON button to lock focus and the shutter button to take as many shots at that focal plain as you want without having to re-focus/re-compose for every shot. Nice.

Although menu structure differs slightly between Canon DSLRs, these are the basics to getting you set up:

  1. In the Custom Functions menu, look for “Shutter/AE Lock Button”
  2. Then select “Metering Start / Meter + AF Start” (Yes, I’m sure it’s the right option, I didn’t choose the confusing label…)

No AF-ON button? You can also use the AE-L/EF-L button for this purpose.

Nikon

Most Nikon DSLRs have an AF-ON button. All it takes is making sure autofocus is activated by using this button rather than the default half-pressed shutter button.

  1. Simply go to your Custom Settings
  2. Select Autofocus
  3. Select AF Activation
  4. Choose AF-ON only

5. Highlight alert (on preview)

Your DSLR’s preview function is something you rely on with every shot you take, but it’s easy to miss out on detail, especially when lighting conditions make it hard to view your camera’s LCD screen (or its brightness hasn’t been adjusted to suit your preference).

The highlight alert is a function that automatically highlights areas of the shot you just took which are overexposed (aka “blown out”). If you see this happening you can intervene and adjust the exposure compensation to take a better exposed shot.

Although detail in slightly underexposed images can be saved in post-processing, with blown out shots you lose detail which is difficult or sometimes impossible to retrieve, so this function can save your ass. Use it!

On both Canon and Nikon DLSR models this setting is called Highlight Alert.

Canon placed the setting in the Playback menu (screen 2) – simply enable here.

On Nikon models (in this case a Nikon D7000) you’ll find the option under Playback menu > Display Mode > Highlights (Set)

6. Mirror Lock-Up

The mirror is the small element of the optical system of your camera that flips to let the light strike the image sensor. As the shutter button is pressed, the mirror moves and causes vibrations that can blur the image.

This is especially noticeable when you use slow shutter speeds, use long telephoto lens or do macro photography. To eliminate it, you can use a feature called “mirror lock-up”. When enabled, the mirror flipping is completed before the shot is taken, thus preventing blurry images.

Setting Your DSLR Camera To Mirror Lockup, using two examples:

  • Canon 750D – Mirror lock-up is not available in the automatic exposure modes, so set your camera to P, S, A, M or A-DEP mode. Go to Custom Function 9, Mirror Lockup, to Enable. Next, select Self-timer with a 2-sec delay to avoid any minuscule vibrations after you’ve hit the shutter button. Or, use a remote trigger instead
  • Nikon DSLRs – Most Nikon cameras have an Exposure Delay mode in Custom Settings. This delays shooting for about a second after the mirror flips up.

Mirror lock-up is most effective if you use a tripod – otherwise its benefits are reduced or completely lost. The main disadvantage to using mirror lock-up is that you cannot look through the viewfinder when the mirror is locked.

7. Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB)

Most cameras provide “Automatic Exposure Bracketing” (AEB), which allows you to take numerous burst shots at different exposures without manually changing the settings.

Nikon Auto Exposure Bracketing

Nikon AEB

You can alter the variation between images by different “stops”. If you want a huge variation between shots you select a “2 stop” gap or if you want just a small variation you select the “half stop” gap.

How To Set Automatic Exposure Bracketing for Nikon Cameras:

  1. Go to the Custom Settings Menu.
  2. Select e bracketing / flash menu
  3. Choose option e4 for setting up Auto Bracketing with various options.
Canon Auto Exposure Bracketing

Canon AEB

How To Set Automatic Exposure Bracketing For Canon Cameras:

  1. Select Expo. comp. / AEB and press the Set button.
  2. Press the Cross Keys to set the exposure compensation amount. Turn the Main Dial to set the AEB amount.

8. AE Lock (Locking The Exposure)

Auto Exposure Lock function freezes the camera’s exposure settings, so that if you move the camera from one object to another, the aperture / shutter speed values would not be affected.

How To Use Auto Exposure Lock:

Point the camera at the desired object – and set the exposure lock. On most cameras, you can find it on the back facing panel labeled “AE-L”. Reframe your shot to include the rest of the details and take the shot. Your main object will appear much more vivid and detailed than every other element in your frame.

As you can see below, on the left is Partial Metering, on the right is Exposure Lock.

Auto Exposure Lock

Auto Exposure Lock

Once you get more experienced at manual photography, you will use Auto Exposure lock all the time!

9. Dynamic Range Increase (Highlight Tone Priority)

Dynamic Range Increase (DRI) is a process used for recording contrast ranges that are beyond the maximum contrast range of a typical camera sensor.

Canon

Canon Highlight Tone Priority

Canon Highlight Tone Priority

Highlight Tone Priority is a setting option on Canon DSLRs that increases the effective dynamic range by protecting the highlights, while preserving the overall exposure values.

In other words, if two identical images are taken using the same exposure settings, one with Highlight Tone Priority on and one with it off, the shot taken with Highlight Tone Priority on will have fewer over-exposed highlights. Use this feature if your scene has both bright and dark areas, as it gives you smoother tones and more detail in bright areas.

This is especially helpful to wedding and landscape photographers who shoot above ISO 200 – capturing more details from wedding dresses, the sky and other bright décor elements.

Nikon Active D-Lighting

Nikon Active D-Lighting

Nikon: Active D-Lighting

This option is also available in Nikon cameras and it’s called Active D-Lighting – similarly, it improves high contrast shots by restoring the shadow and highlight details.

As you can see below, the image on the left shows the balanced lighting achieved created using Advanced D-Lighting.

Notice the dark areas in the image on the left – the foreground details are hidden in the shadows.

High dynamic range

10. ISO Expansion

All ISO levels on your camera are boosts from the native ISO – usually, expanded is applied in software, not in hardware. You can enable ISO Expansion from the Custom Function menu. Select Custom Function – Exposer – ISO expansion and select “On” – expanded ISO may range up to 12,800.

A lower number is less sensitive to light than a higher one, so the lower the ISO value, the higher the image quality. Using ISO Expansion is like turning up the volume on your stereo – the higher the volume, the more noise will come out.

Canon ISO Expansion

Canon ISO Expansion

11. Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Canon long exposure noise reduction

Canon long exposure noise reduction

The longer the exposure – the noisier your shot. The secret is to reduce or eliminate the noise without damaging other aspects of the photo.

You can usually avoid noise issues by using a low ISO speed (400 or less in most cases), but noise comes back on the table when using exposures longer than one second.

Most people may be asking why someone would use such a long exposure, and here are just some examples:

  • To portray motion (e.g. waterfalls, streams, traffic, etc.)
  • To smooth out the surface of a water and give it a nice silky effect
  • Astrophotography (capturing shooting stars in the sky requires long exposures and a large aperture)

Set the Long Exposure Noise Reduction function in the camera’s menu – to Enable, Disable or Auto. In the Auto mode, the camera will evaluate whether or not it’s required for exposures of one second or longer. When set to Enable, the camera automatically uses Long Exposure Noise Reduction to all your exposures longer than one second.

The process is fairly simple: your camera sets the exposure for the shot. Long Exposure Noise Reduction then pops in and charges the camera’s sensor for the same amount of time, creating a dark frame. The camera compares the noise in the dark frame with the noise in the image and removes any similar noise (this is also known as dark frame subtraction technique).

12. High ISO Noise Reduction

Canon high ISO speed noise reduction

Canon high ISO speed noise reduction

Every time you use a higher ISO speed, your will get some extra noise in your shots, most visible in plain, solid areas of a subject, especially if they’re mid-tone or dark areas.

Similarly, you’re much more likely to get noise in high ISO shots from any camera if the images are underexposed in any manner. Some people will deliberately try to overexpose their high ISO shots somewhat, by maybe 1/3 to half of a stop, to lower the noticeable level of noise.

High ISO Noise Reduction is a setting available on more recent DSLRs and is completely different from the Long Exposure Noise Reduction feature. The High ISO Noise Reduction can be used for low-ISO shots – once you’ve activated the Custom Function you can use it for images taken at any ISO setting, even if you’re photographing landscapes in intense daylight at ISO 100.

Beware though, there are compromises you’re making by using this setting, the most important being slight loss of fine detail. Not sure whether you want to make that sacrifice? TEST and view the differences on your PC.

13. Depth Of Field Preview

On many digital SLRs the depth of field button is located on the front of the camera, right where your left hand stays when holding the camera, close to the lens.

Pressing the depth of field button will inform the camera to set the aperture at the selected level, allowing you to observe what the image will look like in the view finder – especially the depth of field. This helps you to see how much of your shot is properly focused.

Basically, the depth of field refers to how much of your image is in focus from near to far. Typically, most landscapes have all the elements (e.g. trees, hills, flowers, clouds, etc.) in sharp focus. On the contrary, most portraits have the subject in focus, while throwing the background and all distracting elements into a nice blur.

The depth of field preview button works best in bright sunlight situations– but in low light conditions you’ll see that using this button might make the view finder too dark for it to be useful.

One of the main reasons why the DOF button is so useful is because many people waste a lot of time taking numerous shots while changing the Aperture values between photos, until they reach a good setting that will enable them to blur the background exactly as they want it.

Try to preview the background blur (or sharpness) and correct the depth of field before you actually take the picture. This is especially useful when shooting macro and portrait images – hold down the preview button while adjusting the Aperture settings until you reach the best combination for a nice background and the focus required for your subject.

14. Setting Picture Styles / Custom Picture Controls

Getting an accurate preview of what you’re shooting can be really helpful to make sure that the final result is as close as possible to what you envisioned when you “saw” the shot.

There’s a handy little tool for that, which most users are unaware of: Picture Styles or Custom Picture Controls. The basic function is often used by those shooting JPEG to boost image characteristics like contrast, brightness, saturation and hue.

More advanced photographers, especially those who are passionate about getting the best results possible, tend to shoot in RAW, however, making this function redundant (since no processing is done on images shot in RAW). Right?

Wrong.

Whilst your RAW shots won’t be manipulated by this function, your DSLR still generates a quick preview jpg for reviewing on your camera’s LCD screen. That can be really useful to get a better idea of what a shot will look like after post-processing on your PC. So you get:

  1. A punchier preview of a shot
  2. The original, untouched RAW image

15. Multiple Exposure

Multiple exposure is a technique that was used with film photography as a special effect in the past and now comes inbuilt with some of the higher end DSLR models. The basic explanation is that the same shot is exposed multiple times, which can create an action effect, for example a car or other fast moving subject passing from in front of your camera. Three successive shots can be taken and combined into one output image, showing your car at three places in its track and creating the feel of movement.

In the case of the Canon 5D Mark III and 1DX, Multiple exposure is a setting found in the red menu and offers these options:

  • Disabled
  • ON: Function/control, usually used for slower moving subjects. Multiple shots taken separately and can be checked , though fewer images can be taken and continuous burst speed ability is reduced.
  • ON: Continuous shooting, which can be used for fast moving objects, taking a set of up to nine exposures in rapid succession

A few great examples of the use of the Multiple Exposure setting (via DIYPhotography)

Over to YOU!

Can you think of any other advanced settings that are missing here? Let me know – leave a comment below!

2 Comments

  1. by Allen Venables on March 21, 2016  6:04 am Reply

    Detailed article Christina, nice work.

    • by Christina on March 29, 2016  4:57 pm Reply

      Thanks Allen :)

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