A Quick Guide to Understanding Your DSLR Camera

Hi guys! With Labor Day weekend coming up, I know a lot of us are going to be out there taking pictures! 🙂 Since we have a long weekend to practice, I wanted to share with you this basic intro to SLR photography. If you have an SLR camera and are nervous to take it out of auto mode, this is the tutorial for you. You may have heard words like aperture, exposure, and shutter speed and wondered just how on earth they come together to give you a better photo. I’ll give you a brief introduction on what they do and how they affect your photos turning out too bright, too dark, too blurry or JUST RIGHT. 🙂 This guide will show you how to get the most out of your SLR camera and give you confidence to take it out of auto mode in no time!

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Left: Canon T2i. Right: Nikon D40.

To start, let’s put your camera in Aperture Priority mode or Shutter Priority mode. On a Canon, this is AV or TV. On a Nikon, this may be represented as A or S.

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1. Aperture Priority

Let’s talk a little bit about Aperture. On both cameras above, the aperture is set to 5.6.

Photos taken with a low aperture let in more light, allowing you to take pictures in situations where there is not much light (like indoors and at night).

A low aperture will also give you a shallow depth of field. You know, the photos where one thing is in focus and the background is blurred?

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Canon 50mm f/1.8
1/200 sec
ISO 800

In the photo above, the aperture was set to 1.8, a low aperture. One earring is in focus, the rest is blurred.

Top of the Rock NYC Skyline

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
1/60 sec
ISO 100

In this picture, the aperture was set to 16, a high aperture, allowing everything to be in focus. However, when you take pictures with a high aperture, you need to have a lot of light, like outside during the day.

Note: Depending on what lens you have, you may not be able to set your aperture much lower than 3.5. And at 3.5, you may not be able to achieve much of a blurred background. If you like the blurred background look, you might consider purchasing a lens with a low aperture.

Now you try!

Turn the dial on your camera so that you are shooting in Aperture Priority mode. That means that you will be setting the Aperture, and the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed. The camera will attempt to give you a correct shutter speed so that your photo turns out just right– not too bright, not too dark.

Set your aperture. In most cases, you can change the aperture by turning that little black dial on top of the camera, but double-check your manual if you can’t find it.

Set it to a low aperture if you want a blurred background, or a high aperture if you want everything to be in focus.

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Left: Canon XSi. Right: Nikon D40.

Look on the LCD screen of your camera for a grid that looks like the image above. That’s your exposure. The exposure determines if the picture is too bright or too dark. Usually when it’s set to 0, that’s just right. In Aperture Priority mode, it will always stay at 0 unless you specifically tell it to move. (Check your manual for setting the exposure compensation.) If you tell it to move higher (to the right of the 0) the picture will be brighter. If you tell it to move lower (to the left of the 0), the picture will be darker.

Try taking a few pictures in Aperture Priority mode with the exposure set to 0. If the pictures need to be brighter, move your exposure to the right a few notches, until it looks right to you. I like bright pictures, so my exposure is usually set above 0! 🙂

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Note: Be sure to keep an eye on your shutter speed as you do this. See the number 125 in the picture above? That number represents the shutter speed. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t really want to let the shutter speed get below 50, unless you have an extremely steady hand. If the shutter speed gets below 50, the camera cannot take the picture fast enough to compensate for the shakiness in your hands, so the picture will be blurry. If the shutter speed is getting low, try using a tripod or table to steady the camera, or lean against a wall, door frame, or tree to steady yourself.

If you find it difficult to get a high enough shutter speed when trying to take pictures inside, you can try setting your ISO higher…

2. Let’s talk about ISO real quick

The lower your ISO (100-200), the smaller amount of light your camera will use. So if it’s a really bright sunny day and you’re taking pictures outside, set your ISO to 100. The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will use. So if you’re trying to take a picture inside without a flash, and need more light, you can try setting your ISO to 800 or higher to see if you can get a high enough shutter speed to hand hold your camera. The catch with using a high ISO is that it makes your pictures pretty grainy, and it shows up REALLY bad in reds and oranges, so I always try to use the lowest ISO possible.

3. Shutter Priority

Now turn the dial on your camera so that you are shooting in Shutter Priority mode. That means you will be setting the shutter speed, and the camera will be adjusting the aperture. Shutter speed is how fast the camera records the picture.

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Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
1/4 sec
ISO 100

In the photo above, the shutter speed was set to 4. That’s a slow shutter speed, allowing me to capture the movement of the water. A tripod was used to take this photo.

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Canon 70-200mm f/4L
1/640 sec
ISO 200

In this photo, the shutter speed was set to 640. That’s a fast shutter speed, allowing me to stop my boston terrier (and the water!) in his tracks!

To change your shutter speed, you will probably use the same little black dial you used to change your aperture. When set in Shutter Priority mode, the dial will control your shutter speed. Turn it to the left for a slower shutter speed and to the right for a faster one. I generally keep my shutter speed around 125 when taking portraits of something that’s going to be relatively still. If there’s movement, you might want to go higher.

Note: Be sure to keep an eye on your aperture as your change your shutter speed. If your aperture number starts flashing, that means that the shutter speed you selected is too high to or too low to correctly expose the picture.

If it’s too high, that means you don’t have enough light, and the aperture can’t go any lower to allow in more light and your image will be too dark. You need to lower your shutter speed until the aperture number stops flashing. That means the picture will be correctly exposed again. (You can also try increasing your ISO to compensate.)

In rare cases, your shutter speed may be too low (say you’re trying to take a picture of a waterfall in bright sunlight). That means you have too much light, and your image will be too bright. You need to set your shutter speed higher until the aperture number stops flashing for the picture to be correctly exposed. (You can also try decreasing your ISO to compensate.)

4. Focusing

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Canon 85mm f/1.8
1/250 sec
ISO 400

If you’re having trouble getting your camera to focus on exactly what you want it to focus on, you might want to take a look at the AF Selection. If you’re shooting with a low aperture, this can sometimes be a real problem. Have you ever taken a picture and the camera focused on the background, and not the subject?

Check your manual on how to set the AF Area or Auto-Focus Area. If your camera is set to “auto selection“, your camera will attempt to “guess” what you’re trying to focus on, and automatically choose what it thinks you want. I get a lot of out-of-focus shots that way! Sometimes I like to change my camera to “Manual Point Selection“. That means the camera will always focus on one spot. I set mine to focus right in the middle, but you can change it to any point, whichever one you feel most comfortable with.

When set to Manual Point Selection, your camera will always focus in that one spot. If you press the shutter button halfway down and look through the viewfinder, the focus point you selected should highlight, and you will probably hear your lens focusing. That means your lens is focused on that one spot. Now sometimes, just because it’s focused in that one spot, doesn’t mean the picture is framed exactly how you want it. Just keep the shutter button pressed halfway down and move your camera until the picture is framed the way you want it. (Just don’t move any closer or further away from the subject! :)) Then press the shutter the rest of the way to take the pic. With practice you will be able to do this very quickly, and you’ll always know exactly what you’re focused on.

5. Manual Mode!

You’re almost there! Get a lot of practice shooting in Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. Some people will say that Aperture Priority mode is better than Shutter Priority mode and you should never use Shutter Priority. I disagree- they are both there for a reason and can be very useful in their own ways in different situations. With practice, you’ll learn which situations call for which shooting modes. Is a nice background blur or having everything in focus more important? Use Aperture Priority. Is capturing speed more important? Use Shutter Priority.

After mastering Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, it’s not that much of a leap to go to fully Manual Mode! To shoot in Manual mode, turn the dial on the top of your camera to M. Check your manual to see which buttons now control you shutter speed and aperture.

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Left: Canon XSi. Right: Nikon D40.

After all your practice in Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, you are probably familiar with what shutter speeds and apertures you prefer. Now you can put them together! When changing the shutter speed and aperture, be sure to keep an eye on your exposure. You normally want to keep your exposure right around 0. Again, most of the time, I keep mine between 0 and 1 because I like brighter pictures. 🙂

6. Recommendations

Any number of shutter speeds and apertures will get you a “correct” exposure of 0. Which one should you use? The book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson is a great resource. After you’ve mastered Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes, get this book and read it cover to cover. It gave me a deeper understanding of my camera and SLR photography, and explained everything in small words that I could understand! It also gives real life analogies that just made things I had previously heard, but not yet grasped, *click*. I noticed an overall improvement in my photography from day one.

One of my all-time favorite lenses is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. It’s a prime lens, which means it does not zoom in and out at all. This was hard for me to understand until I got my first prime lens. But it doesn’t move at all! 🙂 If you want to zoom in or zoom out on your subject you have to move closer or further with your feet! 🙂 It’s a great lens for taking pictures indoors, because the low aperture (1.8) will let in a lot of light. The low aperture will also give you a beautiful blurred background.

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Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
1/500 sec
ISO 100

7. What’s in my camera bag?

Photos taken on kevinandamanda.com use the following equipment.

Canon 7D. My camera. I upgraded from the XTi and I couldn’t be happier. The white balance is excellent! And the auto-ISO feature is so convenient. It can also take 8 pictures per second, which is fun when taking pics of our two boston terriers.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. This is what I call my “go-to” lens. It’s the lens I take with me when traveling. When I can only have one lens, and I’m not sure what kind lighting or space situation I’ll be up against, this is the lens I want in my arsenal.

Canon 50mm f/1.8 and Canon 85mm f/1.8. I normally use these two lenses for portraits and food photos. The low aperture gives me that super-blurred background, and allows me to take pictures in low-light situations (like my kitchen!). The 85mm zooms in a little closer than the 50mm, which means I have to be farther away from the subject than I do when shooting with the 50. So if space is an issue, I use the 50. If space is not an issue, I use the 85, because it gives a slightly blurrier background than the 50.

Got it? 50. 85. Okay.

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