Starting out with a dSLR

Recently I tried to show a friend how to use a dSLR, and realised that shooting on full manual is a bit like driving – after a while you forget how many things you’re actually doing at once. It turns out it’s too much to explain in a twenty minute sitting, so, I thought I’d write it down. I’m going to stick to real key stuff – if there are some unclear parts, hopefully Google will lead you to more comprehensive explanations.

Settings – shutter speed and aperture

The light metre shows you whether a photograph is correctly exposed. There are two major settings you need to play with to expose a photograph correctly – aperture and shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds require larger apertures (lower F numbers) to get enough light into the camera for a correct exposure. The aperture is a feature of the lens, while the shutter speed is a function of the machinery in the camera body – not all lenses can create a large enough aperture settings to support high enough shutter speeds in all settings.

Shutter speeds slower than about 1/125 require a tripod, as this is slow enough for the shaking of your hands to blur the image. If you’re shooting outside, most apertures will be fine for shutter speeds faster than this. Inside, you will quickly run into trouble unless you have a lens with a lower limit of say F1.8 (compared to say, F4 for a cheaper lens or a lens intended for outside use).

For moving subjects (sports, kids, animals), you will want a high shutter speed (say 1/1000) and then whatever aperture will correctly expose the photo in the light conditions. For moving subjects in low light (live music), you will need a good lens capable of a wide aperture, since you would need to use a very long exposure with worse lens, which would result in a blurry photo. For portraits (outside), you will often want to use a large aperture (a low F number), since this will give selective focus – blurring the background behind the subject.

In both of these scenarios on a dSLR instead of shooting on full manual, you can select either the shutter speed (moving subject) or aperture priority (portraits) settings, and then let the camera do the work of determining what the other setting should be.

White balance

Lighting conditions interfere with photography vastly more than they interfere with eyesight – this is why photographs taken indoors often come out strange colours, for example with either an orange or blue cast. The automatic white balance functions on a camera are designed to compensate for commonly encountered lighting situations – fluorescent, incandescent, cloud cover etc, and address the colour problems this creates.

Have you ever noticed that when you take a smartphone photo of a sunset, all the colours disappear? This is your phone attempting to “fix” the intense colours you’re trying to photograph. (The solution to this is to ask to the phone to meter off the brightest part of the sky – this way you can trick it into making the rest of the image darker, which will preserve some of the colours).

If the pre-set white balance modes on your camera aren’t cutting it, you can also use custom white balance settings, but this is a bit of a pain.

Focusing

One important difference between point and shoot cameras and dSLRs is the ability to focus manually. This can be useful, but to be honest the auto focus is often pretty good. Part of what you are paying for with a more expensive camera is more nuanced autofocus processing, and faster processing – auto focus won’t often be fast enough for a moving subject, for instance. This is less of an issue with a high F stop, since the field of focus is so deep – a child taking a step forwards or back in a park won’t move out of focus. This can be a problem with live music photography, though, for instance, where you are stuck with a low F to compensate for a slow shutter speed, photographing a fast-moving subject. I tend to use autofocus in most situations with the exception of live music and macro photography, where I don’t expect the camera to be able to work out what part of an image I want to be in focus.

Composition

This is the least technical component of photography and the most artistic, but one useful bit of advice I can give people starting out is to look out for things cluttering the edges of your images – this is almost never good. You don’t want a portrait of a friend of yours with half of someone else’s arm in the frame if you can help it. Likewise if you’re photographing a cool building, you don’t want half a car sticking into one side of the photograph. Keep objects either all in, or all out, when possible.

Finally, prepare for some disappointment. Your brain does a tremendous amount of processing for you, and a camera can’t do that. You will see a lot of things that are striking, but that don’t photograph well because there is a bunch of stuff cluttering up the space around them. I often notice a particular building or tree, and take my camera out only to notice power lines, cars, traffic lights, or plants between me and it. My brain was helpfully ignoring them, but the camera won’t. On occasion this results in pleasant surprises – one friend of mine was busy photographing a shark once, and got home to discover she hadn’t noticed the manta ray above it.

What’s the difference between a $300 smartphone, a $500 dSLR, and a $1,000 dSLR?

This seems like a relevant question for a lot of people. Realistically, your iPhone is not going to be much worse than a point and shoot around the same price point. Both cameras rely mostly on software, and iPhone and Samsung have invested big in making that software in their cameras really good. As you move up the price brackets with dSLRs, you are buying a bigger sensor (which can capture more detail), and more processing power (which helps with auto focus, metering, white balancing, etc). The difference between my dSLR and my iPhone in the park on a sunny day isn’t that large – it doesn’t really matter for Facebook happy snaps. The difference between the two at a gig in a dark bar is vast – my dSLR can take a detailed photo of a moving subject in low light, which my iPhone absolutely cannot. You’ve tried taking a picture of your friends in a dark bar with a smart phone, right? You get a red grainy mess. If I do that with my dSLR, I get a portrait that I can edit until it looks almost like it was taken in daylight. The sensor is capturing detail that my iPhone can’t see, and the software is correcting out the worst lighting and colour problems before the photo gets to my laptop where I can finish fixing it up. Likewise, my smart phone is not up to the task of taking a sharp, in-focus photograph of someone skateboarding or playing basketball, but my dSLR is.

Now, where the diminishing returns point is for you price-wise depends on what you want to do with your camera. If you want to take good portraits in low light, or do sports photography or something else that places a lot of mechanical or processing demands on the camera, you have to cough up. If you just want to take nicer pictures outdoors, then a lower end camera will do you fine. If you do want a mid-range camera, I recommend buying second hand – lots of people upgrade semi-regularly and the resale value isn’t great, even though the cameras are usually fine. Even an entry-level dSLR is the kind of thing people buy, use for a few years, take good care of because it cost them $500, then sell when they upgrade to something fancier. Ebay is your friend.

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