Demystifying those buttons


I’ve had two comments already asking about all those darned buttons on the camera. So I’m bringing forward a piece I had intended to write later. This is all you need to know about those mysterious buttons … probably.

The secret that nobody tells you is that the company which made your camera really doesn’t want you to take a bad photograph. They hate bad photographs with a passion, because the word would soon spread: “Don’t buy a Nikon/ Canon/ Sony … whatever … I had one and it was rubbish.”

But that leaves Nikon, Canon, et al with a problem. They have to sell their cameras to absolutely everyone, ranging from total novices to professionals. The same camera has to hold your hand while you’re taking your first baby steps and it also needs to help a pro earn a living.

That’s like expecting a car to be both a city runabout which your granny could drive and which is also a Formula One race car. At the same time.

The camera manufacturers achieve this through a Jedi mind trick. They do their version of Obi Wan’s hand waving thing … “these aren’t the buttons you’re looking for.”

In broad terms, camera users can be split into four groups. We have snappers, fiddlers, old-time pros and tweakers.

The snappers just want to take a photograph. They want the camera to do nearly all the work. But they certainly don’t want a bad photograph. The picture they’re taking could be very precious to them. It might be a family picture, a graduation, a wedding, a precious memory.

All snappers need to know is to turn the mode dial to either “auto” or “intelligent auto”. Not the big letter A, that’s a different thing. Auto or intelligent auto is the way to go.

Now compose the shot. Zoom in or out if you want. Frame the picture up nicely. Then press the shutter button half way and keep it there. The camera will autofocus. Depending on your camera, it might beep to tell you that it’s happy. It might show you the points it has decided to focus on. When you’re happy, try to hold the camera as steady as you can and press the shutter the rest of the way down.

That’s it. It’s all you need to know to take average to good photographs. Unless you do something extreme, you are very unlikely to take a bad photograph. Auto is looking after you.

The difference between “auto” and “intelligent auto” is that auto will just take an averagely good picture. Intelligent auto will try to guess what kind of a picture you’re trying to take and it will adjust itself accordingly. Intelligent autos are getting better all the time.

If that works for you, then that works for you. You’re taking photos that you like. Happy days. Feel free to categorise almost every other button into “don’t need to know”. Take lots of photos. It’s all good.

Ignore anyone on the internet or in the pub who says you have to shoot in manual mode. That’s tosh. Content matters much more than technique.

After a while, you may want to take it a little further. Your auto pictures are okay, but you start to realise that they could be better. Welcome to the wonderful world of the fiddler.

We’re still not getting into all the buttons and you don’t need to know how this works. Need to know still applies.

If you look at the mode dial on your camera, you’ll probably see a number of little pictures, like the ones on the upper left hand side of this picture:


These are the scene modes.

Some cameras put them in a different place. I have a Sony which hides them under an option called SCN for “scene”. This is where you will need to look in your manual. Fellas, I know that goes against all our caveman instincts, but sometimes we have to do it.

All cameras are different, but you’ve probably got at least a little picture of mountains, a lady in a hat and a running man.

What these scene modes do is to tweak the camera’s settings to give you a better chance of taking a good photograph.

The pair of mountains is landscape mode. The camera assumes that you want everything in focus from the foreground to the distant background. It may pump up the greens to make grass look greener and a few other wizardly tricks besides. We don’t need to know. All we need to know is that this is our Ansel Adams mode. Great for taking pictures of landscapes where everything is in focus.

Ansell Adams didn’t have a landscape mode, but if he did he would use it for photos like this:

ansell adams chelly canyon

The glamorous lady with the hat is portrait mode. Use this scene mode when you’re taking pictures of people’s faces, like this photo by David Bailey:

scene modes - david Bailey

Portrait mode ensure that the face is in focus and properly exposed, but will blur or darken the background. Some cameras use fancy face detection software to lock onto the nearest face in the picture and make sure it’s looking good.

The running man is sports mode. This uses a fast shutter speed (I’ll explain later) to freeze the action in sports. Then you might get something which looks a bit like this:

scene modes sports

Put your camera into whatever scene mode makes sense, and then take a picture as before with a half-way press of the shutter button to lock the focus in.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it. Your pictures won’t look as good as these and these pictures were almost certainly not taken in landscape, portrait or sports scene modes. But you will get closer to these shots than you would have in auto mode.

If you want to shoot photographs like these, you’re going to need to graduate into what I call old-time pro mode. It’s time to take direct control of exposure.

This is much too big a topic to cover here, so I’ll give the briefest of introductions now and we’ll talk about it later.

There are three main things that we can control when we take a photo – aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Aperture is how wide the lens opens. Shutter speed is how long it stays open for; usually expressed in a fractions of a second. ISO is how sensitive the camera sensor is to light.

We need to balance these three things to take a photo to make sure that the picture is properly exposed. Auto and the scene modes do this for us automatically. Old timers like to set their own values. That’s where the PASM modes come into play. An old-time pro would put the camera into one of these modes and then directly control which aperture, shutter speed and ISO they wanted.

Canon have decided that the A and S of the PASM modes could be confusing. Instead they have Av and Tv, which are the same thing.

If that is gobbledegook to you, then fine. Let it stay as gobbledegook. Ignore the PASM modes. Let your camera set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. We’ll talk about them later.

But here’s the funny thing. If you are using auto or the scene modes, you don’t need to worry too much about aperture, shutter speed and ISO. And if you are dealing in aperture, shutter speed and ISO, you don’t have to worry about the scene modes.

There’s more, I’m afraid. The manufacturers have also stuffed their cameras with other toys of varying usefulness. You can tweak all sorts of settings and produce many weird effects. But only if you want to.

I have a mode on one of my camera called “sleeping faces”. It’s allows you to take pictures of someone asleep. It seems to be a portrait mode but without a flash or any noises so that you don’t wake the person up.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds a little creepy to me. I bet 99% of camera owners will never use it, but it’s in there in case you do.

When all is said and done, the buttons on your camera probably fall into four categories:

  • The basic buttons that we all need just to take a photo, including the on/off switch, the shutter release button and the zoom.
  • Scene modes for people who want to take more advanced pictures than auto will allow.
  • Direct control of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, if you are into that sort of thing.
  • Tweaking buttons to do optional extra things when and if you want to.

You almost certainly don’t need to know them all.


One thought on “Demystifying those buttons

  1. A.S. Akkalon

    That’s a great point about the camera makers not wanting anyone to take a bad photo. I’d never thought about this.

    Thank you for the non-intimidating run-down of modes. I think now I might be ready to graduate from auto-everything!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s