Since I’ve started leading photography workshops, I’ve noticed something quite unexpected: attendees would turn up with great cameras, sometimes even better than those of their instructors, which they did not know how to use.

More than once I found myself explaining which settings (aperture, ISO, shutter speed, focusing mode) to use for a particular scene, only to be asked by some students how to change the shutter speed or the focus point.

While I usually try to answer each question that is posed to me, this presents a few problems. The first is that no instructor, no matter how knowledgeable, can possibly know how to operate every camera model on the market.

The second is that wasting time fiddling with menus, buttons, and dials on your own camera cuts into the time you can dedicate to finding the right composition and selecting the correct exposure, no matter if it’s in the context of a workshop or if you’re shooting on your own.

Knowing your camera like the back of your hand

In order to get the best shot in every situation, it is essential to be so familiar with the camera that one can change any setting without even looking at it. With this article, I want to give some tips and suggest some exercises you can do to know your camera like the back of your hand.

Aside from shooting as much as possible, a useful training you can do consists in putting the camera inside a bag and then trying to change a particular setting with your hand inside it. Repeat this exercise for the most important settings until you become able to change them reliably in the dark.

The list below includes all the settings that I believe one should be able to access and change even without looking at the camera. These are for a typical DSLR or Mirrorless, so not all of them might apply to your camera, but you can use the list as a starting point and personalize it according to your needs.

  • Mode (P,S,A,M or P,Tv,Av,M, depending on brand)
  • Aperture
  • Shutter speed
  • ISO
  • Exposure compensation
  • Focus point
  • Metering mode (Evaluative, Centered, Spot)
  • AF mode (Single, Continuous, Manual, …)
  • Drive mode (Single, Continuous)
  • White Balance
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing
  • View mode (EVF, Live View, Play, etc.)

Knowing your camera like the back of your hand

While I do not consider it strictly necessary to be able to set any one of those controls to a specific value without looking, since you can always use the LCD or the viewfinder to read it, I still think it is important to find the exact button or dial, even in complete darkness.

The drawing below, taken from the user’s manual of the Nikon D3300, shows the position of the exposure compensation button and of the control dial. To compensate the exposure, one has to keep the button pressed and turn the dial.

Knowing your camera like the back of your hand

Can you find the button on your camera without looking, assuming it has one? Do you know which direction to turn the dial in order to get a positive or negative compensation?

Think about shooting a portrait of your significant other on the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset. If you are in aperture or shutter priority mode, you will probably need to dial in some positive exposure compensation to avoid your subject coming up as a dark silhouette. Can you do that quickly and reliably, before your model loses patience and the sun sets beneath the horizon?

Knowing your camera like the back of your hand

Exercises

Here is a set of exercises for you to do in order to become more knowledgeable about the layout of controls on your camera and quicker in accessing them.

  • First of all, set your camera to some known state, like manual mode, an aperture of f/8, a shutter speed of 1/125s, ISO 200, zero exposure compensation, sunny white balance or another set of default values that you know how to return to before doing each exercise in the list.
  • Then put your camera inside a bag and, without looking, do the following:
  • Change aperture and shutter speed by one stop, either up or down. That is, go from f/8 to f/5.6 and from 1/125s to 1/60s.
  • Do the same, but in the opposite direction, e.g. from f/8 to f/11 and from 1/125s to 1/250s.
  • Change the ISO from 200 to 1600 and then down to 400.
  • Change the exposure compensation to +1EV and to -2EV.

These are all settings that you should be able to change even without looking at the viewfinder, since you are starting from a known value and they require turning some dial or ring by a specific amount of clicks.

Moreover, all of these affect directly exposure, which is probably the highest concern, when trying to get a good image, so it is imperative that you can change them knowingly, even without taking the time to look in the viewfinder.

Knowing your camera like the back of your hand

Then, with the camera still in the bag, find the controls for the following functions and change them to some value, it doesn’t matter which one. In a real life situation, they are not changed as often as the previous ones and you should be able to check the current value in the display or viewfinder anyway:

  • Focus point
  • Metering mode (Evaluative, Centered, Spot)
  • AF mode (Single, Continuous, Manual, …)
  • Drive mode (Single, Continuous)
  • White Balance
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing
  • View mode (EVF, Live View, Play, etc.)

Finally, go outside at night or do this in a dark room, so that you are not tempted to peek. Put the camera on a tripod and stick your eye to the viewfinder. Repeat the exercises above, finding the controls with your fingers and taking note of how the display changes as you manipulate them.

If you have someone to help you, give them a list of the controls and ask them to pick one at random and say its name. Your task is to find and change it without taking your eye off the viewfinder.

Knowing your camera like the back of your hand

Repeat this until your fingers know where any given control is. Bonus points if you always know which way to turn a dial to change a value in a specific direction. E.g., if you know that, to open up the aperture, you need to turn the dial to the right (or to the left).

By doing these exercises and by repeating them regularly, say every month, I can guarantee you will never fumble with your camera again, whenever the situation requires that you change its settings quickly and reliably.

Knowing your camera like the back of your hand
If you were to ask me what do I do, I would say that I am an educator who helps photography enthusiasts sharpen their skills, so that they can take amazing pictures. I do this in various ways. First of all, by providing a wealth of free content here on CaptureLandscapes and on my own website. I lead photography tours and workshop via Mediterranean Photo Tours, a company offering photography holidays in the most inspiring locations of the Mediterranean. I co-host and publish a weekly podcast about travel photography, The Traveling Image Makers. Every week, we pick the brains of famous and not-so-famous travel photographers to learn what it means to travel for the love of photography and photograph for the love of travel.