Canon DSLR Techniques, Camera Skills

Discover how to shoot with confidence by following our D-SLR field guide to mastering the Mode Dial and more...


The Image Zone (part of the Basic Zone) is home to the 'picture' modes. These fully automatic modes are helpful for beginners, as your EOS D-SLR will take full control over the exposure, focus points and other settings to help you obtain a good shot. But you'll be working within restricted parameters, with little control over your results - your camera will focus on what it wants (usually what's closest in the scene), will expose averagely for the scene or subject, may not set the best aperture or shutter speed for your shot, it won't know if you're using a tripod and so may set an unnecessarily high ISO creating image noise, and on older cameras you will be restricted to shooting JPEGs rather than Raw images. Each shooting mode in the Image Zone has its own settings, and own benefits and restrictions, as we reveal in detail...

The 650D/T4i
Picture Modes

The 650D/T4i (and above) has two additional shooting modes in the Image Zone. Handheld Night Scene helps you to capture shots after dark without using a tripod. It does this by pumping up the ISO and combining consecutive shots to create a 'stable image'. HDR Backlight Control helps when shooting something with bright and dark areas in your frame. It fires three bracketed exposures and combines them in-camera to try and improve shadow and highlight detail. Both modes only record one JPEG.


Not just for sports, this mode is suited to anything that moves - such as children and wildlife! It uses your D-SLR's fastest Continuous Mode (eg 5fps) and sets a fast (around 1/500 sec) shutter speed to freeze the action. To do this, your camera often sets a high ISO, especially in low-light situations - and could be as high as ISO6400.

Priority: Freezing movement
Exposure program: Sets the fastest shutter speed it thinks suitable for the lighting conditions
Picture style: Standard
Drive mode: Continuous
AF mode: AI Servo
Flash: Disabled

Image Zone modes take control of camera settings for foolproof photos


Helpful for shooting at night when you want to capture a well-exposed background behind your portrait subjects. Your camera will judge light levels and, if very low, will suggest you use a tripod for sharp shots as it will set shutter speeds sometimes too slow to shoot handheld without camera shake becoming an issue. Depending on the widest aperture of your lens (if it's only f/5.6 and not f/2.8), your camera may or may not use the built-in flash.

Priority: Balanced flash exposures in low light with nearby subjects
Exposure program: Sets the shutter speed slow enough so the background is not dark
Picture style: Standard
Drive mode: Single
AF mode: One-shot
Flash: Auto


In this auto shooting mode, your EOS D-SLR will use a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field to blur the background and make your portrait subjects stand out. It will also make skin tones and hair look softer. Check that the AF point covers your subject's face or eyes. Flash pops up automatically if light levels are poor.

Priority: Restricting depth of field
Exposure program: Sets the aperture to the widest it thinks wise for the lighting, in order to blur the background
Picture style: Portrait
Drive mode: Continuous
AF mode: One-shot
Flash: Auto (with red-eye reduction option)


For those used to newer EOS D-SLRs, you may not realise that older models didn't have the ability to record video. Now all Canon D-SLRs are ready to shoot home movies - this is found on the Mode Dial on most cameras, but on newer models it can have its own switch; on the 650D/T4i, Movie mode is initiated by the On/Off/Movie mode switch under the Mode Dial, while on the 5D Mk III, there's a Live View/Movie Mode switch by the eyepiece. For all cameras, you need to press the Record Start/Stop button to begin recording video.


Use this Image Zone setting when you're photographing close-ups of smaller subjects such as flowers and insects. It sets a wide aperture and assumes you're shooting handheld - and automatically increases ISO for a fast shutter speed and sharp result. It works best when you shoot as close as possible - and use a telephoto or macro lens.

Priority: Restricting depth of field
Exposure program: Sets as wide an aperture as it thinks wise for the lighting conditions, so as to try to blur the background
Picture style: Standard
Drive mode: Single
AF mode: One-shot
Flash: Auto


Ideal for landscape photographers who aren't confident manually setting their apertures. Best used with a wide-angle lens to further increase your depth of field so scenes are in focus from near and far. Your camera will set a narrow aperture as possible (but could be as wide as f/5.6 in low light) to maximise depth of field, and will capture vivid blues and greens and sharp images suited to landscape shots.

Priority: Maximising depth of field
Exposure program: Sets the aperture to the narrowest it thinks wise for the lighting conditions, for maximum sharpness
Picture style: Landscape
Drive mode: Single
AF mode: One-shot
Flash: Disabled


Within the Basic Zone - next to the Image Zone picture modes - are full automatic and slightly more advanced auto modes. On older EOS cameras, like the 550D/T2i and 60D, you have Full Auto (green square), while on newer EOS cameras like the 600D/T3i, 700D/T5i and 5D Mk III, you get the improved Scene Intelligent Auto (A+) mode instead. In both Full Auto/A+ modes, all you need to do is point and shoot, your camera sets everything automatically. Most EOS cameras (from the 500D/ T1i onwards) also have a Creative Auto mode, where you can change a few more advanced settings, but in a simplified way...

Full Auto is fine for quick snaps but offers little control - this shot is underexposed, the f/6.3 aperture gives very limited depth of field, and white balance is a bit too cool


Whether your EOS camera has Full Auto (green square) or A+ (Scene Intelligent Auto) mode, they both work in a similar way - you concentrate on framing your pictures, while the auto mode analyses the scene and automatically picks the best settings to capture it. In A+ it will also set an 'Auto' Picture Style, which makes fine adjustments to colours. So, you simply aim at your scene or subject, press the shutter button halfway and wait for an AF point to highlight and beep to confirm you've achieved focus, then fully press the button to take the shot. Your camera sets everything from exposure brightness to ISO to metering, and will also change the autofocus mode from One-Shot AF to AI Servo AF if your subject moves. The flash might pop up if you're shooting indoors, it's dark or lighting conditions are low. Full Auto/A+ is a good all-rounder for shooting 'everything', but of course, like the Image Zone picture modes, you have no control or ability to tweak settings if your shots are too bright or dark, if the flash pops up, if the ISO is too high or low, of if the aperture is too wide or the shutter speed is too fast, or white balance a little off.


Also found within the Basic Zone modes is Flash Off, which does exactly what you'd think and ensures the built-in flash doesn't pop up. This can be helpful if you're shooting indoors in places that have a ban on flash photography (eg art galleries, sporting events, churches) or if you're shooting a portrait and don't want flash interfering. It effectively sets a high ISO setting (and suitable shutter speed) to prevent camera shake.

Creative Auto offers a simple way of determining your depth of field


The Creative Auto (CA) mode (found on D-SLRs like the 500D/T1i and 7D and later) is perfect for enthusiast photographers looking to break out of the auto modes. The CA mode enables you to change a few key settings - in a simplified way. Press the Q button, then on the rear LCD you can use the dial to change the amount of background blur by moving the index mark left to blur the background more, and to the right to sharpen the background. This, basically, is a simplified (or perhaps more complicated!) way of adjusting depth of field by changing the aperture from wide to narrow.      
In CA, you can also adjust the Drive mode (from Single Shot to Continuous to Self-timer) and turn the flash firing from auto to on or off. Plus, as in the Image Zone picture modes, you can set the 'ambience' of your shots - from standard, vivid, soft, warm, intense, cool, brighter, darker and monochrome.



Entry-level cameras have the most auto shooting modes as beginners will be comfortable with the picture modes found on compact cameras they've upgraded from.


Mid-range models have the usual Image and Basic Zone modes, the Creative Zone of P, Tv, Av, M and B - and also C for registering a custom mode of your choosing.


Semi-pro models forego the Image Zone modes altogether, but offer custom exposure modes for creating your own presets for different shooting scenarios.


The higher-spec the EOS, the fewer shooting modes you get. Note that 1D-series cameras don't even have a Mode Dial - and only have P, Av, Tv and M modes!


Welcome to the Creative Zone. This is where your D-SLR journey to greater pictures begins as you learn to take more control of your Canon EOS camera. The semi-auto P, Av and Tv modes are great if you're looking to advance your D-SLR skills, and start to understand how your camera captures photos, as you'll have access to a bunch more settings, without being given the key - or responsibility! - to full manual control. Find out how these settings enable you to control exposure and much more...

P mode will only take you so far: by using Av mode, and combing two images exposed for the sky and foreground, you can take your shots to the next level!


The P (Program Auto Exposure) mode is suited to those of you trying to break out of the Full Auto/A+ modes, but you're not confident to know which aperture or shutter speed to set. In P mode your EOS D-SLR pairs aperture and shutter speed, but you can adjust them by using Program Shift. If you want a wider aperture or faster shutter speed, turn the top dial to the right. If you want a narrower aperture or slower shutter speed, turn the top dial to the left. In P, you can also control other settings. See the 'Benefits of using Creative Zone'.

Aperture Priority is our go-to mode for most shooting situations

Exposure compensation

Regardless of which shooting mode you use, your camera can sometimes set inaccurate exposure compared to the picture you're envisaging. To get around this, in P, Av and Tv modes, you can adjust exposure compensation in one-third stop steps (up to +/- 3 or 5 stops, depending on your EOS camera). On D-SLRs like the 550D/T2i and 600D/T3i, hold down the Av+/- button and turn the top dial - or on larger EOS D-SLRs like the 70D/7D, use the rear dial. Watch the exposure level indicator and the index mark on the top or rear LCD, or through the viewfinder. To brighten exposures, turn the dial to the right; to darken exposures, turn the dial to the left. Set between 1/3 and 1 stop of compensation, take another shot, and see if the result is dark or bright enough.

Aperture choice and depth of field

The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field - or the more blurred the background. At a wide aperture of f/4, everything behind the foreground manhole is blurred. The background gets progressively sharper as the aperture narrows and depth of field increases, and so at f/22, both the foreground and background houses are in focus and sharp.







We recommend using Av as your main shooting mode. In this semi-auto mode, you set the aperture and your camera automatically sets the shutter speed for a standard exposure. It's a great starting point to learn to control aperture and depth of field. You may need to adjust your ISO depending on light levels and the shutter speed your camera sets - and whether or not you're using a tripod. Set a wide aperture (such as f/4) for a shallow depth of field - ideal for portraits or wildlife, when you want to blur the background behind your subjects to help them stand out from their surroundings. Set a narrow aperture (such as f/16) for a larger depth of field - ideal for landscapes and city scenes, when you want to keep everything in focus, from the foreground to horizon.

Define custom shooting settings

If your EOS D-SLR has C on its Mode Dial (or C1, C2 and C3 on some models), then you can register your preferred shooting setup. These custom modes can be helpful if you want to quickly access your setups for, say, landscapes, wildlife and portraits. These custom settings work much like an advanced version of Image Zone modes, enabling you to, for instance, set the ISO high, burst mode, AI Servo, Auto AF Points Selection, and a wide aperture ready for fast-moving subjects - then register these settings under the C camera user setting.

Benefits of using Creative Zone #1

When you use P, Av, Tv and M you're also able to take control of a wealth of important settings to help capture the image you want - rather than what you camera thinks you want. You can adjust ISO speed, helpful if you're shooting handheld (high ISO) or using a tripod (low ISO); you can tweak the Picture Styles according to your subject matter; and you can adjust the White Balance in camera to warm up or cool down your image's colour temperature for a more creative result. And depending on your EOS, you may be able to set Auto Lighting Optimizer to your taste.


Your D-SLR photography journey in the Creative Zone continues. We've discussed the benefits of using P and Av mode, now we'll reveal when to use the Tv mode, and why you'll need to understand and control the relationship between ISO and shutter speed. Find out how this setting enables you to control motion and much more...



ISO speed settings
In the Creative Zone, you can set the ISO manually. This is helpful as it's up to you how high or low it needs to go. If you need to obtain a fast shutter speed (eg 1/1000 sec), and you're already at your widest aperture (eg f/2.8), then increase the ISO from 100 to 400, 800, 1600 or 3200, until you have the desired shutter speed. Bear in mind that high ISO settings can create unwanted noise, but it's better to have a noisy sharp shot then a blurred less noisy shot. If you want a slower shutter speed, keep the ISO at 100. If you're at you're narrowest aperture (eg f/22), and the shutter speed still isn't slow enough to capture movement in, for instance, water in a landscape, then you'll need to use an ND filter. Always use a tripod for slow shutter speeds shots!


The semi-auto Tv mode enables you to take control of the shutter speed, while your camera sets a suitable aperture for a standard exposure. Being in control of your shutter speed is crucial when shooting anything that moves - whether that's automobiles, wildlife, children or water in a scenic shot. In Tv mode, you're able to decide whether to freeze any action (by using a fast shutter speed - eg 1/500 sec) or use motion blur creatively (by using a slow shutter speed - eg 1/5 sec).      
Fast shutter speeds enable you to shoot handheld as camera-shake becomes less of an issue: as long as your shutter speed 'matches' your focal length, such as, 1/500 sec if you're using a long 500mm lens. For slower shutter speeds, again, use a tripod to capture sharp results.

Use Shutter Priority when the length of your exposure is crucial

Auto Depth of Field (A-DEP)

Found on older EOS cameras like the 1100D/T3, 40D, 400D/XTi, 450D/XSi, 500D/T1i and 550D/ T2i, the unique A-DEP (Automatic Depth of Field Auto Exposure) mode uses all the AF points to detect the subject or scene, and then set a suitably narrow aperture (eg f/16) to obtain the maximum depth of field for a sharp shot from front to back. Use a tripod as shutter speeds could be slow if your ISO is at 100.

Benefits of using Creative Zone #2

As we discussed on the previous part, when you use P, Tv, Av and M you're also able to take control of many more important settings. These also include the AF (autofocus) mode from One-Shot (static subjects), AI Focus (static/ moving subjects) and AI Servo (moving subjects); you can manually chose single AF points for more accurate focusing; you can adjust the metering mode from Evaluative to Partial to Spot and Centerweighted, depending on which part of the scene or subject you need to expose for; you can also set the Drive mode from Single-shot to Highspeed Continuous to Self-timer.

When shooting fast-moving subjects like wildlife, and using long lenses, use a fast shutter speed to freeze their movement and capture a sharp shot


At the top of the Mode Dial lies the holy grail of D-SLR photography, and the key to fully controlling your camera - M for Manual mode. Manual mode is often seen as a mode only for professional photographers, but hopefully we'll help give you the confidence to give it a try - if not for every shot you take, but for some specific instances where you'll see clear benefits. Read on to discover the joys of shooting in M mode...


When Bulb mode is selected, the shutter remains open as long as you press the shutter. B mode is brilliant for night shots when you need exposures more than 30 secs (the maximum available in P, Av, Tv and M modes), as you can set exposures minutes (or hours!) long. On some cameras Bulb isn't found on the Mode Dial, but is selected by setting Tv to ‘more than' 30 secs.

Don't touch that dial!

Perhaps one of the major advantages of shooting in Manual, is that once you've set your exposure, the settings are locked in and won't move until you decide to adjust them - unlike in, say, Av and Tv modes, which can change automatically every time lighting levels or your subject or composition change. This means you'll obtain consistent results. This is ideal if you're shooting portraits against changing background lighting and you only want to expose for your subject, for example. Or if you're using an ND grad filter to darken a bright sky, and want to keep the exposure locked to expose for the lighter foreground area.

In M mode, use the exposure level indicator to obtain a good exposure

When to dial M for Manual

Being able to control aperture and shutter speed independently has distinct advantages. Semi-auto modes can get confused when shooting in mixed lighting, such as when your subject is against a very bright or dark background, for example. Or you might want to deliberately shoot your subject in silhouette and expose for the bright, sky behind it rather than the darker foreground area.      
When using a flashgun or studio lights, Manual mode gives you free reign to set whichever aperture and shutter speed you like for the crispest shot (f/11 at 1/200 sec, for example), then simply adjust the power output of the flash until you get the desired exposure. In fact, the shutter speed has little effect on the exposure of the subject as this is determined by the duration of the flash (typically 1/1000 sec or faster), but it does establish the exposure of the background ambient light.


In Manual mode, as the name suggests, you manually set both the aperture and shutter speed for the exposure you want. Of course, this doesn't mean you can set any old aperture and shutter speed combination and capture a winning exposure. To set a standard exposure (which is the best starting point), you need to use the exposure level indicator and index mark on your top/rear LCD, or in the viewfinder. M mode is also known as Metered Manual as your camera is still metering for the scene and indicating on the exposure level indicator, so you're not working totally blind.
First, decide whether the most important element is depth of field or shutter speed. If you want to control depth of field, set a wide or narrow aperture first. If you want to control movement in a shot, set the shutter speed first. You can then adjust the other until the index mark is in the middle for a standard exposure. You may also need to increase/decrease ISO to achieve your desired aperture/shutter speed combination.

In Manual mode you can control aperture and shutter speed to capture truly creative shots. For this image, we also used an ND grad to darken the light sky to balance the darker foreground

*All images and words Peter Travers

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