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10 Tips for Brand New DSLR Photographers

A very good friend of mine bought a Nikon D5100 a couple of years ago. She paid around $800 for the camera body and a kit lens (an 18 – 105mm if I remember correctly). She was upgrading her point-and-shoot to “a camera that takes good pictures”. And she paid $800 for such a camera.

The problem – and the inspiration behind this post – is that she only takes photos in Auto Mode. She doesn’t deal with shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance … none of it. Set to “auto”, click. On a bright sunny day, this usually will suffice. But, what if you want to shoot at night? What if you shoot indoors?

If you are willing to spend that much money on a DSLR that “takes good pictures”, shouldn’t you want to avoid that bright-white-blown-out-flash look (you know the one: the person’t face is super white and they have a HUGE shadow cast behind them)? If you don’t care, save yourself $500 and go buy a high-end point and shoot.

In my on-going quest to convince my $800-spending friend to step out of Auto Mode, I present this post. Ten quick tips, in no particular order, for people that want a DSLR and want a quick and dirty tutorial on how to use it (please note that since I shoot Nikon, some of the specifics will only apply to Nikon; but the general ideas can be applied to Canon, Pentax or whatever DSLR you shoot with).

1. Understand Shutter speed and aperture

Let’s start with aperture. Every DSLR lens has blades in it, shaped like an iris. A lens can have five blades, seven, nine or even more. These blades open and close to let in available light: the larger the opening, the more light that gets in to the camera sensor and vice versa.

Here is an example of aperture openings. On the far left is the largest opening, letting in the most light. On the far right, the smallest opening. The numbers at the bottom are what appear on your camera display (e.g. F 22).

On the far left is the largest aperture opening, letting in the most light. On the far right, the smallest aperture opening. The numbers at the bottom are what appear on your camera display (e.g. F 22).

Shutter speed, on the other hand, is how long the shutter remains open on the camera. To illustrate, when you are taking something fast-moving, like an F1 race, you want a very fast shutter speed. If you are trying to capture star trails an their movement in the sky, you will want a very slow shutter speed.

A fast shutter on the left and a slow shutter on the right.

The image above – courtesy of FreshPhotographer.com – illustrates a fast shutter on the left and a slow shutter on the right. The fast shutter captures the windmill as a still image. The slower shutter shows a lot of motion, because as the shutter stays open, the windmill moves.

A faster shutter speed will have a higher number on your camera display. A “200” on the display is a shorthand – for Nikon at least – for 1/200 of a second. A “2” on the display indicates 1/2 of a second. A good rule of thumb (while ignoring focal length and image stabilization) is anything below 1/50 of a second should use a tripod to avoid blurry images due to your natural hand shake.

2. Change Your Vantage Point

Changing your vantage point – from high to low, from up close to far away – can have drastic effects on your photo. A great example of this was a video that made the meme rounds, by a Korean girl called “The Importance of Angles”.

Try out different angles and vantage points and you’d be amazed at the results you get by simply crouching down instead of standing up.

3. Learn how to use light

I have been trying to master this since the day I started as a professional photographer. Understanding how to light a subject and control that light to produce the shot you want is a essential skill. It allows you to broaden your horizons and shoot whenever and wherever you want, rather than letting your environment control you. Dark room? No problem. Bounce light off the white ceiling to light everyone evenly (reality is a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea).

I have found the Strobist blog to be an immense help while I progress down the road to Master of Lighting. It is because of the Strobist site and others like it that have taught me enough lighting skill to compose wedding shots with the lighting I wanted to get. The “blow up a light from behind them, flare the camera lens and keep them in focus” shot is one of my favourites from Paolo and Jen’s wedding.

Father and daughter first dance, backlit and flared with a remote strobe.

4. Create Depth of Field

While a depth of field is not always required, it can sometimes enhance a photo. A “shallow” depth of field is when only a small portion of a photo is in focus, creating the blur effect (called “bokeh”) in front or behind your focus area. This is great for portraits, glamour shots, etc and can achieved by using a larger aperture (such as F 2).

A larger depth of field leaves everything in focus and can be useful for landscape shots. A large DOF (depth of field) can be achieved by closing the aperture down to a smaller opening, such as F 16.

The left images shows a shallow depth of field; the right, a large depth of field.

In the split image above, the image on the left shows a very shallow depth of field: only the bow on her dress is in focus, while the shoulder and arms as well as the window behind her as blurred out. In the image on the right, a larger depth of field was used to keep every detail of the Arc de Triomphe in focus.

5. Use the Proper Lens

If you have options, your choice of lens can be critical. Your “focal length” is the range that a lens can capture. The higher the number on a lens, the more magnification it has. So, a 300mm lens can magnify an area three times more than a lens with 100mm as its highest number. An 18mm lens, by contrast, take a very wide photo.

A larger range lens (e.g. a 70-200mm lens) is great for sporting events when you are sitting in the stands and want to capture something far away. For a family outing, where you can get nice and close to your subjects, you can likely use the lens that came with your camera (e.g. a 18-105mm lens). You can get nice and close if you need or want to, but you would still be able to capture candid photos from a small distance.

When I bought my first DSLR, I used two lenses for about a year: an 18-55mm and a 55-200mm. I bought them used, fairly cheap and until I really stepped up my photography, I was extremely happy with these two lenses. Having a multitude of lenses to choose from is awesome, but they are not a prerequisite to great photography. Learn to use your existing lens before you expand your horizons.

6. Understand ISO

ISO is simply defined as your camera’s sensitivity to existing light. “ISO” stands for International Standards Organization, which really has nothing to do with photography or this article. The higher your ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to existing light. So, you want the highest ISO possible, right? Well, not really.

The higher you go with ISO, the more your camera digitally compensates for available light, and the end result is a grainy texture across your image (like in the image below from ExposureGuide).

The differences in grain with low ISO and high ISO.

So, the easiest way for a beginner to strike a balance between crazy-low ISO and useless-high ISO is to just “set it and forget it”. When you find the way to change your camera’s ISO, set it to its lowest setting (not the L1 level, but depending on your camera, 100 or 200.) Then, multiply this by two. So, if you lowest camera setting is 200, set your ISO to 400. The reason for doubling this is that it gives you a happy medium and it keeps the camera at a “natural” ISO (if your lowest setting is 200 and you set it to 500, the camera digitally compensates for the 2.5x adjustment, where as 400 gives it an even divisor).

The only time you should adjust this is in extreme low-light conditions. However, if you are able to control your light (see #3), you will rarely, if ever, need to adjust your ISO.

7. The Rule of Thirds

For better photographs, even if you ignore everything else on this list, follow this principle. The Rule of Thirds is a composition principle which encourages you to keep the main area of focus (tree, sunset, person, eye, etc) on one of four intersecting points. A fantastic example the difference between the two can be seen below, in an image from Wikipedia.

A demonstration of the rule of thirds photography principle.

The principle is used so that your photo does not appear to have two equally competing hemispheres, but rather, draws a viewer’s eye to the focus that you have chosen.

8. White Balance

For beginners, setting your white balance to “Auto” will suffice. It is nonetheless good to understand what it is.

White balance is simply the measure of how much a given environment skews to either “warm colours” (orange) or “cold colours” (blue). For example, a traditional indoor incandescent light tends to skew towards the orange side. Florescent lights on the other hand, skew towards the blue. The white balance level is measured in Kelvins, with 3200K skewing heavily towards the orange side and 7000K skewing towards orange. By setting your camera to 3200K, it will try and compensate for all of the orange you are telling it is in the room and will add blue to your image.

That all being said, as a beginner, set it to AUTO and move on.

9. Shutter and Aperture Priority

The step before full-on “manual” mode is to take control of one of the two main controls: shutter speed or aperture. In these modes – usually marked “S” and “A” on your mode dial – you control whatever setting you have the dial on: at “S”, you control shutter speed, at “A”, aperture. These modes are a little less daunting than controlling both, so if you feel overwhelmed by a lot of this article and just want a baby step, these two settings are for you.

To use them to their fullest however, you should understand what “metering” is, which I cover in #10.

10. Use Manual Mode

If you can get a handle on most of the above – as a bare minimum, understand how shutter speed and aperture work and effect your shots – then you are ready to take the dive into full “manual” mode. No more “auto” for you, professional photographer! The one last thing to understand before we dive in completely is what is called “metering”.

On most (all?) DSLRs, looking through the viewfinder (or the info panel on some mid-consumer level models), you will see a small bar above a graph, with + and – on either side of the scale. An example from Wikipedia is below.

Digital metering on a Canon camera.

While looking at this meter, you can watch it move one way or the other by changing either the aperture or shutter speed. If the indicator is near the + side, you are over-exposing the image (meaning it will come out too white) and should either reduce the shutter or decrease the aperture. The opposite is true if you are too near the – side: increase the shutter or aperture. The idea is to get the indicator as close to the middle as you can. While metering is not perfect, aiming this indicator towards the center can provide a great starting point for your photo.


Those are my ten tips for brand new DSLR photographers. Whether you are a new parent who wants to take better pictures, or someone who simply wants their moneys-worth from their expensive camera, following these tips will certainly help you along.

Are there any you think I missed? Do you still have questions? I can be reached on my Contact Page for any questions, or just drop a comment below.

About Take The Leap Photography

My name is Kevin Gamble and I am Take The Leap Photography. You can find out more about me (including why I'm an Awesomologist™) on the About page.

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