Getting a new DSLR camera is an exciting moment!
Finally, you’ll be able to take awesome, crisp pictures of your family and friends. Props, outfits, scenery, the possibilities are endless! Your social media accounts are going to be exploding with great portraits and action shots in dreamy colors with creamy skin tones…
Oh wait…You have no idea how to use this thing.
What do all these buttons mean?… How do I shoot in manual mode?… What does manual mode even mean?…
If you’re anything like me, you just wanted some pretty pictures of your kids here and there. You’re not looking to launch a small photography business, shoot for a magazine, or become famous. Just some nice shots of the family on vacations, holidays, and more.
Well, I’m not here to tell you it’s not incredibly easy, but it’s definitely possible. However, you need to be willing to put in the time and energy into really learning your camera.
I’m no pro, but I know enough to get by and take semi-decent pictures here and there (some examples below). So let me give you some tips on where to begin.
Step 1: Keep your gear simple
DSLR base camera + Lens + Memory Card
Ok, so you have the DSLR camera and I’m assuming it came with a standard kit lens. This and a memory card is all you need to get started. Yes, you can upgrade your lens, and believe me, you’ll get there. But trust me, dumping a ton of money into something you hardly know is not going to get you to taking beautiful pictures any quicker.
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My biggest and most valuable tip would be: learn your camera through and through before you upgrade. I have had my Canon Rebel T2i DSLR for 4 years. 4 years! I bought it used on Craigslist for $250 for my honeymoon from a kid who used it for skating videos.
And with that same old camera, I’ve gone from shooting stuff like this:
Last Christmas, I treated myself to my first big-kid lens, a Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8. Before that, I invested $100 for a used “nifty fifty” (50mm f/1.8) lens. I used the kit lens until I felt like I couldn’t get any better, then I bought the nifty fifty and learned on that until I couldn’t get any better, and then I invested in the Tamron (which I’m still learning on how to get better on!). Aside from a memory card here and there, I have invested very little into any actual gear and have instead chosen to invest my money (and time) in classes to learn the basics.
The reality is this – until you truly understand how to work your camera, you will never be able to unlock it’s full potential, even with every expensive lens available. So practice with your kit lens until you’re ready to move to the next upgrade.
Step 2: Learn the basics
Ok, so there’s literally a TON of info out there on getting started with a camera. I’m going to walk you through a few starting pointers in layman’s (me) terms.
The Exposure Triangle is ISO + Aperture + Shutter Speed
A couple quick definitions.
- The exposure triangle is the combination of ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed to properly expose your subject and allow the camera to record what it sees.
- ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light, higher ISO means being able to shoot in lower light, but the trade-off is a grainier, lower-quality picture.
- Aperture is how much the lens actually opens, which controls what’s in focus and what’s blurred. Lower apertures (i.e. f/2.8) means that the lens is really wide open, and that a close subject will be in focus and the background will be blurred. Higher apertures (i.e. f/18) means the lens is a super small pinhole and all objects in the frame will be more focused (crisp).
- Shutter Speed is how fast the lens eye opens and closes. It’s in the top right corner as a fraction (1/200, 1/120, 1/80, etc.). A really fast shutter speed (1/200) allows you to take a quick snapshot of something moving very fast, whereas a slower shutter speed (1/80) allows more light in over a longer period of time.
Ok, so now that we’ve gotten those basics covered, let’s talk about shooting modes. I’m only going to cover a few here since we’re not business photographers and we’re really just trying to get good pictures. Plus, I only really understand a few of these anyway.
Automatic (Green square on Canon)
In this mode, the computer in the camera does all of the thinking for you. It’ll take a look at whatever you’re shooting at and determine how much light is available. The camera will then assign what it thinks is the proper ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Most likely, outdoor pictures will turn out OK in automatic mode. Indoor pictures will probably result in the flash popping up.
- A quick note on FLASH – I hate it. I really, really hate it. I also hate that I feel like the tell-tale sign of a person shooting in automatic is the flash popping up. Your best shots will be shot when you control the light completely, and that will require you to move away from using Automatic Mode.
Aperture Priority (AV on Canon)
The computer in the camera will control everything except aperture, which you will decide. To adjust the aperture in aperture priority mode, just spin the wheel. A lower number means a close subject in focus with a blurred background. A higher number means the entire picture is in focus. When beginning to learn your camera, I highly recommend using aperture priority mode until you understand and master the exposure triangle. It’s the closest step down from shooting in complete manual mode.
For practice – shoot the same subject in aperture mode. Try putting a glass or item a couple feet away from you on a table. Shoot at different apertures (f/2.8 – f/25 or greater).
Shutter Priority (TV on Canon)
Similar to Aperture priority, shutter priority mode will calculate everything except shutter speed for you. This is a great tool to learn how shutter speed effects your end result.
For practice – shoot the same subject still, moving slowly, and moving quickly. A kid can help you with that one! Notice how a super slow shutter speed (1/15 or 1/25) allows a lot of light in. You really can’t move the camera at all without getting a blurry picture. A higher shutter speed (1/200) should capture your subject without too much blur.
Manual (M on Canon)
Manual is the holy grail. This is where you want to be, controlling ALL aspects of the exposure triangle (ISO + Aperture + Shutter Speed), and allows the shooter a free creative license to achieve the end look they’re striving for. Most of the time, I still allow ISO to be automatically detected. I generally shoot portraits at around 1/100 shutter speed with a low aperture (since I like a lot of background blur). In order to achieve the pictures I think look good, I make sure there’s TONS of natural light in a room and adjust my shutter speed according to that.
Step 3: Practice
Did you know it takes roughly 10,000 hours to become an expert at something? Practice is what separates the beginners from the pros. Sure, professionals DO have better gear – but ask most photographers what they photograph their everyday life with, it’ll be just a basic lens on their camera.
Take your camera everywhere and take pictures of everything. Work on shooting in all modes until you learn how to really CONTROL what the picture looks like. Yes, editing can help save/clean up a picture, BUT – a great shot is not born in Photoshop. Your best work will start with great composition and proper exposure. Shoot the same subject in every aperture. Shoot the same subject in every shutter speed. This is the only way to learn how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed really affect each other.
It’s also important to work on your composition. Composition tips will help you learn where in the picture your subject should be. I really love this article on composition by Photography Mad.
Step 4: Try Post Processing
Ok, I can admit, I do edit all of my pictures before using them. Even if it’s just something as simple as a crop and temperature balance, I feel like post-processing editing helps put that final polish on a well-composed picture.
To edit, I prefer Adobe Lightroom. Honestly, every time I try to learn PhotoShop I just get overwhelmed. I’ve watched a few You Tube videos on Lightroom to learn how to do basic things like crop, manage the white balance (yellowness in a picture), smooth skin, and add sharpness.
As a beginner, I used PicMonkey (web application) to edit. This is a lot more user friendly and basic than Lightroom. Just take caution in over-editing your pictures! There are tons of great resources on learning to edit in Lightroom and/or PicMonkey so you don’t sabotage your pictures.
Step 5: Keep Learning
Even the best professional photographers take classes and continue to challenge themselves. There’s always something to learn – so be open to dedicating your time to learning new shooting techniques, gear upgrades, composition, and post-processing tips.
To stay motivated to get better, I like to follow really great photography accounts on Instagram. Pixel Kids, Candid Childhood, Camera Mama, and JJ Community are excellent accounts that feature photographers of every level and their techniques.
To REALLY take it to the next level,I highly recommend that you invest in a class. You can search for local photographers offering lessons in your area, or check out an e-course. Either way, a proper class will help you unlock the full potential of your camera, and the faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be taking great shots!
Here’s some links to some excellent online resources:
Mama’s Gonna Snap (online class, Gathering Light Photography) – $99
Photography 101 (online class, SLR Lounge) – $99
8 Ways to Improve Your Photography (ebook, Click it Up a Notch) – FREE!
Shooting 101, first steps with a DSLR (online class, Clickin Moms) – $112 for materials only, $225 for interactive
Photography 101 for Moms (online class, Creative Live) – $29
The UNmanual (online class, Momtog) – $75
If you liked this post, be sure to check out my post on Mobile Photography here!