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Top 5 Camera Features You Don’t Use But Really Should

by Philippe Dame on April 28th, 2011

When I spend time with other people’s DSLR cameras, I realize how much I depend on a few “advanced” settings that I use all the time. You probably use some of these but you probably don’t use them all. Beginners certainly don’t know about them or choose not to use them (I certainly grew to like and use them over time).

In order of importance, they are:

  1. Single Point AF
  2. Highlight Alert
  3. Custom White Balance
  4. Back Button AF Lock
  5. Electronic Level in the Viewfinder

Before I go further, I think it’s important to say: “read you camera manual”. Yes, read it front to back. You won’t regret it. Learn how your equipment works now or you’ll kick yourself later. Keep the manual with you for a while so it’s there for quick reference.

So here’s the top five advanced camera features I use that I didn’t use when I got started. Most of these are not Canon 7D specific but I’m speaking with that camera in mind. Check your manual!

#1: Manually Select Your Autofocus Point

If you want sharp photos, don’t let the camera pick the autofocus point unless you’re shooting a moving object. Even then there are modes that make sense with the continuous focusing option (AI Servo). Single AF point selection becomes CRITICAL if you shoot with a fast prime lens like the Canon 50mm f/1.4 or a 28mm f/1.8.

Luckily, you can easily go between various autofocus modes while shooting. That said, I only go to full 19-point autofocus if I’m handing my camera to someone else to use! Nearly all other times, I have a single point selected and even have my preferred point move with me as I rotate the camera (a custom setting you can enable).

As shown above, select “Single Point AF” from your camera’s menu. Once selected, press the AF Point Selection button on the back of the camera (usually furthest to the right for your thumb).

Then use the finger and thumb wheels to select an ideal single AF point. For most people, that will be high and centre (e.g. it’s where people’s faces will appear as you compose).

To make effective use of it, you must place the AF dot on the exact element you want in focus (e.g. closest eyeball). and press the shutter half-way. Now recompose your shot without letting go of the shutter. When ready, press the shutter fully. Be sure not to move forward or backward while holding the shutter as every millimeter can matter with apertures like f/1.4 and f/1.8.

If your subject is moving, enable AI Focus or AI Servo (two types of continuous autofocus) and position the point where you need it as there won’t be time to recompose. AI Focus holds your point unless the subject moves. AI Servo causes your camera to constantly hunt for focus so it’s constantly evaluating the scene while the shutter is depressed half-way.

Extra Credits…

On the Canon 7D, you can enable a couple of other interesting focusing modes. Use the Custom Function menu III, option 6 to enable them as they’re not on by default. Enable “Spot AF” (dot in the square) and “AF Point Expansion” (square with four smaller squares). Select “Register”, turn on all the checkmarks and then select “Apply”. Make sure “Enabled” is select (blue).

Spot AF is new to the Canon 7D so this doesn’t apply to other Canon models. It is well explained in this Canon article:

You can manually choose any single AF point (as outlined immediately above), but now actually reduce the size of that AF point. This allows you to read an even smaller area of the subject, and focus even more precisely on one particular element in a scene — such as the nearest eye in a portrait, or a precise part of a flower in a macro photograph.

The benefit of Spot AF — its ability to let you pin-point focus upon a tiny area of a scene — has obvious potential benefits and applications, and we’re sure advanced users and pros will come to appreciate this new feature. But this can have a possible downside, too. By forcing AF upon only a tiny area of your subject, if that happens to fall upon a part of your subject that’s relatively plain, solid and lacking detail, the AF system may have trouble focusing upon it. This can be a real problem with fast moving subjects, especially if they’re moving erratically. At times like these, actually having a larger area can be a more effective way to shoot.

AF Point Expansion is also well explained in the same Canon article. It’s not new to Canon but it’s new to the mid-range line of cameras:

AF Point Expansion allows the user to manually choose any one AF point to be the primary point he or she wants to use to focus on their subjects. Again, it can be the center point, or any off-center point. But now, additional surrounding points are active, and if the primary point for any reason loses sight of the subject, or can’t find sufficient detail, the surrounding AF points are immediately called-in to assist in focusing upon the subject. This occurs whether you’re shooting a stationary subject in One-Shot AF mode, or tracking a moving subject in AI Servo AF. In fact, AF Point Expansion can be very useful for sports photography and other moving subjects, especially if there’s concern that your AF point may pick up plain, solid areas of a player’s uniform, an animal’s body, and so on.

Again, during actual shooting, the camera will always try to focus using the one primary AF point you’ve chosen. So it remains an effective tool when you want the camera to focus on one area whenever that’s possible — for example, a photographer shooting tight shots of a horse race, with the animal running straight into the camera, could put focus with his or her long telephoto lens right on the horse’s nose as it charges down the straightaway. But if for whatever reason that single point isn’t able to track the subject, the surrounding points instantly kick-in, lessening the chance of losing focus on the subject. But if one of the surrounding AF points is used, it will change from a tiny spot-only rectangle in the finder to a full AF point.

Accessing AF Point Expansion follows the same pattern: first, press the rear AF point select button, then press the M.Fn button. When you see a display like this, you’re in AF Point Expansion mode. Now, turn either dial, or use the Multi-controller, to move your primary AF point where you’d like it to be.

#2: Monitor Your Exposure with Highlight Alert

Everything tends to look in focus and to be well exposed on your camera’s LCD. Don’t trust it. You can zoom in to check focus but how do you check for exposure? Turns there is a visual alert that tells you when and where you’ve overexposed but you have to enable this feature.

Even if you know how to read the camera’s histogram, it won’t tell you which parts of the photo are overexposed. A background window might be blown out and that may be intentional but you rarely want your subject’s face or clothing overexposed (unless you’re purposely “exposing to the right”).

Once enabled, any areas of a photo that are overexposed simply blink. It can be a bit distracting at first but it can really guide you. Based on what you see, you then ride your exposure compensation setting up or down accordingly.

Here’s how it looks when part of your scene is overexposed. Sometimes, it’s ok to have a lot of these “blinkies” (e.g. trying to make snow appear white).

#3: Save Time With Custom White Balance

You probably shoot with “Auto White Balance” (AWB). This is still a setting I use frequently but I often regret not locking in my white balance at the start of a shoot. Setting a custom white balance is fast and easy to do and it makes all your pictures and videos look better (at least more consistent from shot to shot). It will save a lot of time post-processing your shots as well.

If you shoot JPEG instead of RAW, this this is a must for most indoor photography in my opinion. Remember that JPEG images have white balance “backed in” while a RAW images do not. I don’t tend to shoot in JPEG anymore for this reason (plus the ability to fix overexposure).

I’ve previously covered the topic of colour temperature and I have the exact steps to follow to set a custom a white balance (scroll down to about 1/3 of the post or search for “custom white balance”).

#4: Lock Focus with Back-Button Autofocus

Most DSLR cameras include a dedicated autofocus button on the back (thumb position). On Canon models, the button is labeled “AF-ON”.

I use this button to lock my focus across multiple exposures (without switching to manual focus on the lens itself). It saves time and lets me preset focus when needed (e.g. I lock my focus while waiting for a child to look my way).

I also enjoy the ability to lock my focus without locking in the camera’s light meter reading. The reason for this is that I might radically recompose my shot after I focus lock. Pressing the shutter halfway locks both settings so that can be limiting (note that you can re-program your shutter button to do one one or the other but this can complicate things for friends and family using your camera).

The back button AF is so useful that I’ve already written an entire post about how and why I use the back button AF.

#5: Use the Electronic Level in Your Viewfinder

Both the Canon EOS 7D and EOS 60D have built-in electronic levels. This is great to have as it’s often tough to find a vertical or horizontal reference line in a scene (especially when shooting odd angles).

The Canon 7D is unique in that it has dual-axis level but this will surely be included in the upcoming Canon 5D Mark III. Here’s how it appears on the 7D while using Live View:

The Canon 60D has only a horizontal level but that’s the most useful of the two for sure. Here’s how it appears during Live View on the 60D:

To see it during Live View, you must repeatedly press the “Info” button until it appears.

For both cameras, the electronic level can ALSO be accessed inside the viewfinder. You must customize your camera controls to assign a dedicated button. I set mine to be the “M-Fn” button which is close the shutter release. The 60D doesn’t have that button but any other button can be used (I recommend overtaking the rarely used “depth of field preview” button which is found near the lens base at the front of the camera).

Once setup, you can quickly enable the viewfinder level without taking your eye away.

On the 7D, the AF points are re-used to show how level you are along both axis.

On the 60D, the exposure meter is used to show horizontal axis as shown below:

If you don’t have an electronic level, you might want to spend $13 (B&H) on a simple bubble level that slides into your flash hot shoe. Only issue is you can’t look at it while looking through your viewfinder.

Conclusion

These are all great features and there are others. Are any of these features new to you? Which one will you try first? Are there advanced camera features you consider a “must have” which I haven’t covered here? Please comment below.

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