Mastering your camera menu

All camera menus are not created equal. Therefore, it's impossible to cover each and every nuance that might appear on your camera menu, especially if your camera was hatched last week. Yup, they do update them that frequently. What I do in this section is cover what I think are some of the things you should know. Your camera may also use one or more dials to access certain functions. To find out where these gems are hidden in your multi-faceted, mega-page menu, or on the dial on which they appear on your Swiss-Army-Knife camera, you'll have to consult that manual that came with your camera. Sorry if the manual is boring. And if the manual is really boring, tell them you know where they can find a Dummies author who can add a bit of spice to their boring drivel. Figure 3-4 shows two camera menus side by side. The camera menu on the left side of the figure is the shooting menu from a Nikon D5000, and the menu on the right is the shooting menu from a Canon PowerShot G10.

AF Frame


[ Off ]

Servo AF


AF Mode


1 Off ]

Flash Control...

q Active D-Lighting ■ Auto distortion control y Color space

Long exp NR — High ISO NR ^ Active folder Movie settings

Figure 3-4: A tale of two menus. Vive le difference.

Setting image quality

The combination of image size and quality determines the file size. Image size is simply the largest image you can print given the number of megapixels your camera is capable of capturing. Image quality, in this context, is the amount of compression that is applied to the image when the camera processes it. When you let the camera process the image, in almost all cases you get a JPEG image. The camera compresses the image and data is lost. Letting the camera process the image is like having a digital Polaroid; you can't do much with the image after you download it to your computer. If you shoot RAW, the image isn't compressed and takes up the most amount of room on your memory card. However, when you shoot RAW, you can process the image in your computer. In essence when you capture pictures using your camera's RAW format, you end up with a digital negative.

So the size you select also determines the overall size of the image in pixels. Combined with the camera's native resolution, this determines the maximum size at which you can print the image. Most camera manufacturers feature the following image settings: S (small), M (medium image size), L (largest image size), W (widescreen with a letterbox), RAW (the camera manufacturer's proprietary RAW format).

The Quality setting determines how much the image is compressed, which also determines the resulting file size, and how many images you can fit on a card. If you choose a format other than RAW, you can specify a quality setting. My Canon G10 offers the following quality settings: Superfine, Fine, and Normal. When I choose Superfine, the camera applies the least amount of compression, which gives me the best image quality, Fine applies more compression, and Normal applies the most amount of compression. To give you an idea of how compression equates to file size, consider the following. With a 4GB memory card choosing the largest image size, I can fit 2080 images on the card with Normal image quality, 1013 with Fine image quality, and 602 images using Superfine image quality. I strongly recommend shooting RAW, but if you are going to let the camera do the processing, choose the largest image size, and the best image quality. Then you can use the images for prints, the Web, or e-mail.

To find out how to adjust these settings, you can explore your camera's manual and menus. If your camera has the option to capture RAW images, you'll find that option on the image quality section of your camera menu as well. On some cameras, such as the Canon G10, you'll find that image quality settings and many other features appear when you press a Function button on the back of your camera to display a menu similar to that shown on the left in Figure 3-5. Other cameras require you to press the Menu button and scroll to the image quality section as shown on the right in Figure 3-5.

Figure 3-5: Setting image quality.

Some digital cameras that capture lots of megapixels may offer more than one RAW setting. For example, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II has three RAW settings, which capture different numbers of megapixels. The photographer can choose a smaller megapixel capture to conserve space on the memory card. If you know you're only going to print your images on 4x6-inch paper, you can get by with a RAW setting that captures fewer megapixels.

Changing to a different metering mode

Your digital camera has a built-in metering device that measures the light and sends the information to Mr. Camera Brain, who determines the proper exposure for the scene. But you have control over how Mr. Meter reads the light in the scene. The choice you make depends on the lighting conditions for the scene. To find out how to change the metering mode on your camera, you'll have to resort to the camera manual. The list that follows shows the metering modes you can choose from and the conditions in which you should use them.

✓ Evaluative or Matrix: This is the default mode for most cameras. You can use this mode for most of your work, including backlit scenes. The camera divides the scene into several zones and evaluates the brightness of the scene, direct light, and backlighting, factoring these variables to create the correct exposure for your subject.

✓ Center Weighted (Average): This metering mode meters the entire scene, but it gives more importance to the subject in the center of your scene. Use this mode when one part of your scene is significantly brighter than the rest — for example, when the sun is in the picture. If your bright light source is near the center of the scene, this mode prevents it from being overexposed.

✓ Spot: This mode meters a small area in the center of the scene. Use this mode when your subject is in the center of the scene and is significantly brighter than the rest of your scene.

The icons shown are for Canon cameras. The icons for your camera may be slightly different. Please refer to your camera manual to see which icon equates to which metering mode.

Your camera may have the option to spot meter where the auto-focus frame is. If your camera has the option to move the auto-focus frame to your subject, you can accurately spot meter a subject that isn't in the center of the frame.

Adjusting white balance

The human eye can accurately register white no matter how it is lit. Digital cameras automatically adjust white balance so that whites under different light sources look white. But under some lighting situations, digital cameras need help. If your subject looks a little green under the gills, automatic white balance (AWB) isn't doing its job. When this happens, you can change the way your camera responds to light by choosing a different white balance setting. The location of the white balance options depend on the camera you're using. Refer to your camera manual for further instructions. Table 3-1 shows the different white balance options available on most digital cameras.

Table 3-1

Adjusting White Balance


White Balance Option




The camera automatically sets the white balance based on lighting conditions.

■ -iff


Use this option for photographing bright sunlit scenes.



Use this option when you're taking pictures on a cloudy day.



Use this option when photographing a subject lit with tungsten and bulb-type 3 fluorescent lighting.



Use this option when photographing a subject under fluorescent lighting.

Flash Use this option when lighting your subject with a flash.

Flash Use this option when lighting your subject with a flash.


Your digital camera may have other white balance options, such as Fluorescent H (daylight fluorescent) or Underwater (for taking pictures under water with the camera in a water-tight enclosure). But what happens when you're photographing your subject under every kind of lighting known to man? Your camera's brain goes apoplectic and chooses a white balance setting that doesn't result in great pictures. When you review an image in the monitor and the color isn't right, your only choice is manual white balance. The process differs from camera to camera. In a nutshell, what you do is photograph something that is pure white in the same position where your subject will be. Then you use a camera menu option to set white balance based on this photograph. When all else fails, this will save your bacon and give you photographs with the proper white balance. Refer to your camera manual for the exact instructions for your camera model.

Remember to reset your white balance setting to Auto (AWB) when you've finished taking pictures with a different setting. If you don't, the rest of your photos will have the wrong white balance and look just plain weird.

Formatting your cards

Make sure you know where to find the command to format your memory cards. When you format a card, it's the same thing as formatting a hard drive, you wipe all the images off the card. You can erase images, but it's always best to format your cards after you download them to your computer.

Many image-editing programs offer the option to format cards after images have downloaded. Don't accept this option. Only your camera is best equipped to optimally format your memory cards. Besides, if something goes wrong with the download to your computer and you let the computer format your card, your precious images are lost forever.

Manufacturers are creating memory cards with huge capacities, in some cases up to 32GB. A memory card is a mechanical device that will eventually fail. When it fails, you'll lose all your data. If a card with a large capacity fails, you lose a lot of your prized images. Pack several small cards in your camera bag. That way, when one does fail, you don't lose as many photos.

Back up your images to an external hard drive after you download them to your computer and before you format the card. You never know when disaster will strike and corrupt the data on your hard drive. If you don't own an external hard drive, back up your images to CDs or DVDs. If you back up to CD or DVD, consider buying the archival discs (they're usually gold in color) that have life spans of 20-30 years or longer.

Setting other useful options

There are lots of other useful options on your camera menu. Of course, they vary from model to model. That's why there are many manufacturers and a plethora of models. Competition is a wonderful thing for the digital photographer. The cameras keep getting cheaper, with more bells and whistles. . . . But I digress. Here are a couple of other useful features that may be lurking on your camera menus, or on one of the dials:

✓ Custom auto-focus point: This gives you the option to move the autofocus point (the object in the frame that the camera uses to focus on) when you're photographing a subject that isn't in the center of the frame. If your camera has this option, you may also have the option of moving the metering point (the place in the scene from which the camera measures the lighting to determine the best shutter speed and f-stop) to the auto-focus point when using Spot metering mode.

✓ Single auto-focus point: This gives you the option to change from multiple auto-focus points to a single auto-focus point. This option is handy when you're photographing people. Center the single auto-focus point over your subject and then press the shutter button halfway to achieve focus. You can then recompose your picture as desired. When you take pictures with a single auto-focus point, the camera won't be fooled into locking focus on something else in the scene, such as the slats in the venetian blinds behind your subject.

✓ Face tracking: This option is useful if you're photographing a couple of people and you want the camera to focus on them and not other stuff in the scene. Don't ask me how the camera does it, but when you select this mode, the camera draws a square around each face (but it doesn't show up in the final print, of course), or uses some other method to track a face. My Canon G10 detects a maximum of three faces, so if you're shooting a group of four, one will be low man on the totem pole. Your camera may also have the option to move focus to a specific face.

If there's something in your scene that looks like a face, say a bust of Mozart, the camera may mistakenly think it's a human face, in which case your picture may be a bust.

✓ Servo or Continuous AF (Auto Focus) mode: This option keeps focusing on a subject as it moves closer to or farther from you. This option is handy if you're doing candid portraits of someone at work or play. After you achieve focus, the camera keeps your subject in focus as it moves through the frame. This option does use more battery power, though. Your camera may use another name to refer to continuous auto focus. Refer to your camera manual for specific instructions.

✓ Image stabilization: This option is handy when you zoom in tight on your subject in low lighting conditions. Image stabilization compensates for any operator movement — that would be you — when you press the shutter button. With image stabilization, you'll be able to shoot one or two shutter speed stops slower than you normally would. Some camera manufacturers claim you can shoot even slower shutter speeds than these. Of course, if you hold your camera very still, with image stabilization, you'll be able to shoot at even lower shutter speeds than claimed by your camera manufacturer.

To find out how slow you can go with image stabilization, zoom to your longest focal length, and photograph something with a lot of detail like a leaf on a tree. Shoot several pictures and choose a slower shutter speed each time. Download the images to your computer and examine them at 100 percent magnification. Examine the edges of the leaves and the veins. When the lines start getting a little blurry, you know that the next fastest shutter speed is as slow as you can go.

✓ Neutral-density filter: This option lowers the amount of light entering the camera, which enables you to shoot at a larger aperture (smaller f-stop number) in bright light to reduce the depth of field.

✓ Second-shutter synch: This option fires the flash at the end of the exposure instead of the beginning. Use this option when you're using flash with slow shutter speeds. Any motion will appear to be coming toward the subject, instead of away from it, giving your image a more natural appearance.

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