Gizmodo DSLR Buying Guide: Top DSLR Tips For Beginners

Got your first DLSR? It can be daunting at first, but these tips will help you make the most out of your new photography gear.

Don't Use Auto (Much)

If there's one mistake that pretty much every new DSLR owner makes, it's relying way too much on automatic picture modes.

Every DSLR has them, and while it's possible to take passable pictures in Automatic mode, you're letting the inbuilt sensors make all kinds of programmatic guesses about what it is you really want to highlight.

It'll often get it wrong, and besides that, you won't learn what you or your camera is capable of if you just stay in Auto mode all the time.

ISO, Aperture And Shutter Speed

A photo is produced by capturing light, but the relationship of the factors on a DSLR (or any camera) that go into the way light is captured can be a bit tricky to grasp. There's three major factors to take into account: ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

ISO refers to the sensitivity (or gain, or volume) of your camera to the available light. Lower numbers are lower sensitivity, but with less of an issue with noise or grain in pictures. Pumping the ISO up can get detail out of the darkest scenes, but your pictures may end up being a blocky mess.

Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera shutter is open to expose light to a camera sensor. Slow speeds allow more light — but also more blur — while fast speeds freeze motion, depending on your need.

Aperture refers to the size of the area over which light hits the camera sensor. It's measured in f-stops, and this measure often trips up new DSLR users, because the area of the aperture opening increases as the f-stop decreases.

Learn The Manual Features Of Your Camera

Getting the most out of your DSLR means that you're going to have to learn what that confusing P-A-S-M section of your DSLR actually does. P-A-S-M is an acronym for your camera's Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual modes, although it's a slightly different acronym for Canon camera users. Here's a brief rundown on each.

  • Program is your gateway to fully realising your DSLR's strengths, as it selects what it thinks are the optimal shutter speeds and aperture settings, but allows you to adjust either. It'll then keep the other setting in balance to allow for proper exposure.
  • Aperture Priority modes give you full control over the aperture setting of your camera, setting the depth of field while it automatically sets the shutter speed based on its analysis of whatever's in front of the sensor. If you aren't shooting fast moving objects, or want specific depth of field, learn how to use this mode.
  • Shutter speed sets how fast the camera shutter opens or closes. At the basic level, a faster shutter speed will capture fast action, but gives very little time for the lens to capture light, so it'll adjust aperture for you. That can be great for sports shots, although you're giving up depth of field control as a result.
  • Manual mode, as the name suggests, gives you full control over every element of your camera's abilities. It can be daunting, and you will make mistakes while you learn, but there's no finer way to learn the correlation between shutter speeds, aperture settings and ISO.

Understanding Flash

The other aspect of light you can adjust with your DSLR is by using flash.

Your DSLR will have a small and in most cases fairly ineffective pop-up flash that can be useful for simple illumination or freezing scenes, because the sudden influx of light will affect whatever camera settings you're using.

They're also often the reason why photos in dark scenes can appear washed out, because they always fire directly at your subject A dedicated flash unit adds bulk to your camera, but also a lot of lighting flexibility, because it can take the lens and camera setting information into account when deciding when to fire, and at what rate.

You can also experiment with off-camera flash for specific effects and lighting situations, such as bounce flash, which, as the name suggests, involves bouncing the light off a secondary surface to modify light properties.

Zooming Or Walking Zoom?

Choosing the exact framing of your subject is the hardest part of making up a satisfying picture, and the exact distance of the shot is part of that puzzle.

There's no "right" answer when it comes to whether you should use a zoom lens to get closer to your subject or simply use your legs to get closer to the subject, but there are some factors to take into consideration. If you're able to get close enough to get a pleasing frame, you can save money and lens carrying by doing so.

Having said that, many subjects, especially wildlife, won't stay still for that kind of shot. Using a zoom lens can add specific focal interest to a shot, but you've also got to be prepared to deal with camera shudder, because the smallest of movements with a zoom lens can quickly render that perfect Bunyip shot into a blurry indistinct mess.

Review Your Photos As You Go

The quality of DSLRs' display screens isn't stellar, but checking shots as you go can give you a good "gut feel" for how a shot has come out, giving you the opportunity to retake a bad shot, learn from what works or doesn't, or move on as needed. If you've got some downtime shifting shots to a tablet or laptop can give you a more fine grained appreciation for shots as well.



    I always get a good laugh when I see idiots taping down the built-in flash because they don't know how to stop it from popping up.

      When a person who has never had experience in photography taps down his flash, it's because he's never been taught or simply doesn't know. ( myself included) to simply label a person an idiot for doing so, shows exactly the narrow minded and arrogant person that you are!

        Consider it probably takes less time to bring up a browser and google for the answer than it would finding the right bit of tape ..

        Or it shows the lack of intelligence to look in the manual... If that seems to complicated or advanced then maybe DSLR photography isn't something you should be getting into. I think it says more about the person that thinks taping the flash down is the right solution than it does the person making a comment about it.

    Why didn't you just use a picture of a P-A-S-M camera next to that section. Really doesn't help when the pic doesn't match the instruction.

    "Aperture refers to the size of the area over which light hits the camera sensor."

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

      ''Aperture'' means opening, definitely not ''size''. So A stands for the diameter of the hole in the lens that allows light through to the sensor or image plate and is inverted (upside down). So a small aperture will give a sharp image and long depth of field..f22. A large aperture will give a narrow or short depth of field with the object in sharp focus and things in front of and behind will be less sharp..f1.6. The best way to grasp all this is to get hold of an old analogue lens and turn the f stop ring and noticing what the aperture blades do as you turn to high f stops, f22 and turn the other way and see the blades opening, with the hole (aperature) diameter getting larger.

    I would actually advise beginners to steer away from Shutter/Aperture Priority modes and manual control of the camera. It's better to start with learning how to frame a good photo, how to hold the camera properly to get sharp images and so on. The program and full auto modes aren't that bad (although Canon's tend to over-expose everything). They at least ensure reasonable quality shots which will maintain enthusiasm for the beginner. Rather than frustrate them with an endless string of lousy photos when they lack the experience to troubleshoot effectively.

    With time, the other features and techniques can be explored. But even then, rather than just playing around with modes/settings, they should be learned in the context of purpose or specific goal. For example, shutter priority for sports vs night sky photography.

    It's learning like any other. Master the basics and then layer on the complexity.

      Spot on Rickinoz!

      That's a really wise view on things. Thanks for that. I'm trying to get into Dslr photography and that's definitely given me a good idea of how to approach it. :-)

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