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I don’t think you’re a dummy, but I was one when I first bought my DSLR camera. I wanted to learn how to use it so badly, but didn’t know where to start. I would Google tutorials and be overwhelmed with photography lingo, and give up in frustration. I just wanted the basics in simple english. I tried Googling “DSLR for dummies” but didn’t get many valuable hits, except offers to buy the book. All I wanted was an easy one page tutorial for someone who has never held a DSLR or taken a photography class. I wanted to read it (quickly, short attention span here) and be able to take that information and immediately start using it to practice taking amazing photographs. Is that too much to ask? I have yet to find a website that does all of that in a short, simple, clean format without clicking all over the place through ads and frustration. So if you know of any please let me know!

I am by NO means an expert. But I wanted to use my tiny corner of the internet to create a basic overview like I was looking for, and hopefully it can help others who find themselves overwhelmed like I was three months ago.

This is a combination of things I learned from browsing various websites, practicing on my own, and also advice from a friend who has patiently walked me through my frustrations of learning thus far (thanks LL!).

So, I bought a DSLR, now what…

The basics, in a nut shell:

There are a few camera functions that if you know what they control, you can play around with them to achieve different types of photos with any type of lens. Here is a short summary, but the links will take you to a more in depth description.

  • ISO – The lower the number the less sensitive your camera is to light and the finer the grain. Higher ISO settings are generally used in darker situationsto get faster shutter speeds (for example an indoor sports event when you want to freeze the action in lower light) – however the cost is noisier shots.
    • If there is plenty of light, I want little grain, I’m using a tripod and my subject is stationary I will generally use a pretty low ISO rating.
    • However if it’s dark, I purposely want grain, I don’t have a tripod and/or my subject is moving I might consider increasing the ISO as it will enable me to shoot with a faster shutter speed and still expose the shot well.
  • aperture– is the size of the opening in the lens when a picture is taken. It is measured in f-stops. Large apertures (where lots of light gets through) are given f/stop smaller numbers and smaller apertures (where less light gets through) have larger f-stop numbers. So f/2.8 is in fact a much larger aperture than f/22. It seems the wrong way around when you first hear it but you’ll get the hang of it. The darker it is, the lower the F-stop number should be.

    slow shutter speed

  • shutter speed – is the amount of time the shutter is open. When you want a crisp shot of a fleeting object (a runner in a marathon), you want shorter (faster) shutter speed. When you want that blur of motion in your photo (a moving waterfall, a passing train) you want longer shutter speed. The bigger the denominator the faster the speed (1/1000 is much faster than 1/30).
  • white balance is what you adjust to get your photographs colors at their truest. When you are indoors using outdoor settings, photographs come out looking very yellow. This was my biggest problem when I started and I couldn’t figure out why. In the preset white balance settings you can change it to your appropriate surroundings: sunny, cloudy, tungsten lighting, fluorescent lighting, etc.

Putting it all together- How do you know you have set the shutter speed, white balance, aperture, and ISO correctly? The light meter indicator on your camera display!

Exposure meters, or light meters, are light sensing devices that are good at doing what the human eye can’t–quantifying light. With an exposure meter you can relate the brightness of light reflected from a subject toward the camera, or the brightness of the light illuminating the subject, to the sensitivity of the film. The meter expresses this relationship in terms of lens openings and shutter speeds.

When the red indicator is aligned at “0,” it means your settings are adjusted properly and your subject will come out in the correct lighting!

You can play around with this to get the best combination to your liking. That’s where knowledge of each comes in to play. It depends if you want movement shown in your photo (shutter speed), or what kind of depth (aperture). It takes time, but the indicator helps get there!

Prime lens: the 50mm lens

A DSLR camera comes with a basic kit lens (18-55mm). It is great to practice aperture and take basic shots. But to get fun and different photography effects, you need different lenses. I have been told that the 50mm lens is the “gateway drug” of photography. The lens offers a lot of cool effects at a much lower price than the others, so it’s easy to get hooked and want to splurge for some of the more expensive ones! I am not there yet, and unless photography becomes my main form of income (highly doubtful), there’s no way I could justify making those investments! At least for now 🙂

About: The greatest thing about this lens is the f/1.4. That super-low number means two things:

  1. You have a very shallow Depth of Field (DOF), which means that your subject will be in sharp focus and everything else will be out of focus. This can be beautiful if done correctly, or a nightmare of blur which I experienced at first!
  2. You can shoot in very low light conditions without a flash, giving your photos a very natural look.

example of bokeh

This means that you have to manually adjust the focus, and practice so that when you are shooting you are getting what you want in focus.

This lens is best for people pictures. Portraits, family parties, still lifes.

Tricks: The best use for this is for the bokeh effect. According to wikipedia: bokeh – is an adaptation of the Japanese word meaning blur. Bokeh occurs for parts of the scene that lie outside the depth of field.

Other tips I’ve learned:

  • Avoid using the built in flash. It tends to give the picture a white out, flash blow out effect that cannot be edited later. Better to be darker (and edit), than too light.
  • Pay attention to light. Light is your best friend! It can make or break a photo.  My best photos come out in daylight, which is tough for my food photos because I rarely cook when there’s daylight.
  • The LCD screen lies, so don’t delete your photos until you actually see them on your computer. Sometimes I take hundreds of photos, and the first one ends up being my best one and I don’t even know it until I see it blown up.
  • Taking photos in RAW vs JPG format. RAW takes up more memory but it enables you to make more edits and transform the photo once you upload it to your computer.
  • Google’s Picnik application (via Picasa) is my favorite editing software, see my tutorial here. (it lets you go as far as whitening teeth and tanning skin, too much fun).
  • Take lots of photos! Practice, practice, practice. Experiment with different angles, compositions, and lighting.

sources & other helpful links:

This is only what I’ve learned so far, and I know there’s plenty more to come.

Is this helpful? Do you know any other tips that I have missed or more good websites for beginners? Is it worth it to just take a photography class instead?