Despite what seems like a relatively well put together Instagram, I am definitely not the worlds best photographer. I have a pretty neat Nikon DSLR, but I still manage to take pictures of beautiful rooms with perfect mood lighting that end up looking like the corner of some sleazy 70’s night club. All my sunset photos are horribly washed out. And let’s not even get into my selfie game…
Basically, it’s clear I need to develop my skills here. The best way to learn is to teach others, so I’ve compiled a handy wee DSLR 101 below. Hopefully it’ll inspire you to aim to become part of the upper echelon of photographers and channel your inner Andy Warhol.
Or at least allow you take better pictures of your avocado-based brunch for the ‘gram!
So, let’s start with the basics – What even is a DSLR camera?
What is a DSLR Camera?
DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex – But this still doesn’t explain much, so let’s strip this down a bit.
With DSLRs, you are able to see exactly what you are taking a photo of because behind the big, main lens of the camera, a mirror reflects the image into the camera viewfinder – You are seeing everything through the one lens. When you take a picture, this mirror quickly flicks down to allow the photo to be taken, before snapping back up ready for the next shot.
With other cameras, like basic point-and-shoots, the viewfinder has it’s own, separate lens, so you aren’t seeing what the camera will truly capture. P.S. – The viewfinder is the little window you look through to see what you’re snapping.
Big DSLR brands include Canon, Nikon, Sony and Leica, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, which I won’t go into here – There seem to be some weirdly intense debates raging online about the favourite brand!
One of the most appealing factors about DSLR cameras is that you can change the lens to suit your needs. At the moment, I have one lens that allows excellent zoom, and another everyday lens that I find fantastic for doing close-up shots with a single point of focus. Most big camera brands will have a huge selection of lenses that fit their models, and some of the main types include:
- Ultra Wide Angle / Fish Eye – When you really need those 90’s skater video vibes. These are good for wide panoramic shots, but you’ll find distortion around the edge of your photos.
- Wide Angle – Good for taking photos of landscapes and buildings.
- Standard – As described – A general, all-round lens, these usually come with the camera, and are also called kit lenses.
- Telephoto – Best for portraits, sports and allow for fantastic zoom.
Using a DSLR – What are all these buttons for?!
DSLRs are absolutely covered in buttons, knobs and dials, and this can be very daunting for newbie. I have to admit that I used to rarely venture from the Auto setting, because even if you do stick solidly to that auto setting on your DSLR, you’ll still snap some fairly decent photos. But if you really want to develop your skills as a photographer, and take outstanding shots, you’ll need to take off the training wheels and tackle manual adjustments.
Notice how I’ve handily crossed out Auto mode on the photo? This is your DMZ now, no-man’s land. The brave new world of the manual adjustments is where you party now!
Firstly, there are the two semi-automatic modes Aperture and Shutter Speed priority. These are semi-automatic, as you adjust one aspect yourself, and the camera automatically adjusts the other. For example, if you manually change the aperture, the camera will select the best shutter speed to go along with it. Then, we have Program and Manual modes, each with more control than the last. Click along the slides below to get the details on each mode!
Aperture is how wide or narrow the opening in the lens is, and alters the amount of light that can get through. The wider the aperture, the more light.
As it would be too simple to have a nice, neat numbering system, aperture is selected by it’s “f-number” which is the focal length (f) over the diameter of the aperture. For example, selecting f/2.0, a small f-number, results in a wider aperture. Narrower apertures have higher f-numbers such as f/11 or f/22. I find it easy to think of the “f” as 10 – So 10/2.0 would be more than 10/11 i.e. wider over narrow.
Controlling the aperture allows you to change how much of your image is in focus. If you were taking a wide landscape shot, you’d want as much as possible to be in focus. A narrow aperture would be best for this.
If you wanted to focus on a particular subject, and have the background out of focus or softer, a wide aperture would be best for this – Remember, a wide aperture is a small f-number. Taking portraits is best done with wide aperture.
Shutter Speed Priority
Shutter speeds can be the smallest fraction of a second, even down to 1/4000th. These speeds are best for shooting fast moving subjects, such as sports players or wildlife.
And at the opposite end of the spectrum, keeping the shutter open for long periods (from minutes to even hours) blurs slowly moving objects like rivers, ocean waves, or even the movement of starts across the night sky. You’d need to make sure your camera is stable for this, so a tripod is vital here.
Program is basically a combination of Shutter and Aperture Priority modes – You can set either, and the camera will adjust for the other. The advantage of this is that you can change either shutter speed or aperture without having to constantly switch between the two modes – kind of like a two-in-one deal.
This is the deep end – You are totally in control of setting the shutter and aperture yourself, your camera won’t help you now.
It will give you hints though – Usually, there is an exposure indicator, and on my Nikon a small notification actually comes up if the subject is too light or dark with my settings.
As well as the modes described above, you may notice there are some other strange little symbols on the mode selection dial. These are all preset modes. Each one will have specific settings for aperture, shutter speed, etc. that suit their subject. All cameras differ, but for example mine has , from left to right:
- Night Portrait Mode – Wide aperture to capture as much light as possible and ensure subject is in focus, plus flash will be fired
- Macro Mode – For teeny tiny subjects, like insects and flowers. A macro lens is recommended for this mode, as well as a tripod. The slightst movement could make your subject totall out of focus
- Sports Mode – Insanely fast shutter speed to capture the fastest of movements
- Child Mode – A mash-up of portrait and sports mode, this compensates for the fact that children are full of demonic energy and can’t sit still for portraits.
- Landscape Mode – Small aperture and short shutter speed, to make sure the entire image is in focus from foreground to background
- Portrait Mode – Wider aperture, so the subject is in focus, and the background is softly blurred. Serve 100% face with this mode.
A Note on ISO
ISO is a throwback from the days of film photography. Different films would have differing levels of sensitivity to light, and this was standardised by the International Standard Organisation back in 1987 – Hence ISO.
ISO is pretty straight forward on DSLRs – a low ISO number (like 100) means low sensitivity, and high ISO number (like 6400) means the camera will be highly sensitive to light. In practice, low ISO settings are used when there is a lot of light available, like direct sunlight or well-lit rooms. This produces very high quality images that are sharp and not grainy. High ISO is used in low light, where it works to boost the amount of available light. Think of sunset and sunrise. However, this boost comes with “noise”, which is basically a grainy appearance to the photo.
Your camera will usually have an auto-ISO function on, even in manual mode. However, you can adjust manually – Try keeping shutter speed and aperture the same and play around with adjusting the ISO to get an idea of what works best in different lighting conditions.
A Note on White Balance
Ever noticed how some of your pictures will have a weird, cold bluish tinge? Or that some will have some strange orange haze filter going on? This is because different light sources emit light of different wavelengths, which affects their colour. For example, sunlight or candle light is mostly made up of wavelengths that translate into reddish-orange colours, so is very warm. In constrast, fluorescent lights throw out cooler, bluer light, which is why they always make you look ill AF.
Luckily, your camera can compensate for the colour temperature, and you can manually adjust the white balance with preset settings for direct sunlight, overcast or cloudy conditions and different lightbulbs such as incandescent or fluorescent.
Below, my beloved cat Tigger kindly agreed to pose in a patch of sun while I tried out all the different white balance settings (from left to right: Fluorescent, Incandescent, Cloudy and Direct Sunlight). As expected, the direct sublight setting resulted in the warmest and best photo, while the flourescent setting looks a bit strange and cold.
So, a quick run-down of all the main features of a DSLR camera, and the main factors that go into getting a better than average picture. The main factor in becoming a better photographer is, as with most things, practice. I try to take at least one photo a day, even if it’s simply a quick picture of my houseplants (it’s really hard to mess up taking a photo of a plant).
How often do you take photos? And what are your main challenges when using a DLSR?