Quick Guide: Getting Started With Your DSLR Camera

You've got the shiny new camera, but do you know how to use it?
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How to Use Your New DSLR

After the excitement of receiving your first DSLR camera wears off, you'll probably start realizing that there are a lot of controls and functions that you don't really know how to use, which can be pretty intimidating for new photographers. If you've purchased an entry-level DSLR camera, it may have a guide mode setting that will walk you through some of the basics. No worries if you don’t have the guide mode though, as there are plenty of reference materials available to get you on the right track. Follow this quick guide and you'll be taking pictures like a pro in no time.

Check the Manual

The very first thing a new DSLR owner should do is read the manual. It may sound obvious, but so many people throw this book away with the box. If you were one of those people, go to the manufacture’s website and download a PDF version of the manual. After you've read the manual, place it in the camera bag. Unless you have an photographic memory (pun intended), you will be referencing this book almost daily.

Get Out of Auto Mode

The point of purchasing a DSLR camera is to learn more about photography and get more control of the pictures you take. Don’t become content with auto mode. Start your introduction into DSLR photography by switching into manual mode and studying the different settings.

Manual mode gives you full control over the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings. These three elements control how light enters and interplays with the camera. Switching to manual mode is as simple as turning the dial to the letter M. Auto mode, on the other hand, chooses all of these settings for you, which means you won't have any control over how a picture turns out in different lighting situations.

That's not to say you can't ever use auto mode, just that it’s important not to become reliant on it. There are certain circumstances when auto mode makes more sense though. If you are in a situation where you may only get one shot, then auto mode is the safer bet. It can take awhile to get the hang of manual mode, and even the best photographers will tweak the settings as they go to get the best results.

Learn the Lingo

Learning common photography terms will help smooth the transition from auto to manual. Plus, reading through the camera manual can be very confusing if you’re not familiar with the lingo. Here are some of the common terms you’re bound to run into:

Fstop ISO is the measurement of how sensitive the sensor is to light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the camera is to light; a higher ISO number will increase the sensitivity.

Aperture, in simplest terms. is the opening in the lens that lets light into the camera. Changing the aperture will change the size of the hole. Aperture is measured in f-stops, so an f/1.4 will be much bigger hole than say an f/8.

Shutter Speed, (also known as exposure time), references the amount of time the shutter is open and exposing light to the camera sensor. A longer shutter time will create a blurred effect, while shorter shutter time will freeze the action.

The exposure triangle is made up by all three of the above elements - ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. The concept behind the exposure triangle is that you have to learn to balance all three of these elements. When you alter the settings of one, it will affect the other two as well.

RAW is a file format similar to JPEG. The big difference between the two is that JPEG compresses all the image data, resulting in a loss of detail. When you take a picture in RAW format, it will save all of the image data recorded by the sensor without compression. This produces higher quality images and allows you to fix problems that would be lost in JPEG form. The downside side of shooting RAW is larger file sizes.

Be Resourceful 

Books, videos, articles, photography clubs, classes and tips from other photographers are all great ways to develop your skills. Purchasing a book with an in-depth guide into what settings work best for certain scenarios, like “DSLR Photography for Beginners” by Brian Black, is a good way to get started.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for a critique. Other photographers are more likely to give you actual advice on where you need improvement. Friends and family are great for building self-confidence, but when you need more than a thumbs up or a like on Facebook, then you should turn to other photographers. Find some local photographers in your area and ask for some mentoring. Some photographers host photography walks and workshops for those interested in learning new techniques.

Practice Makes Perfect

The best way to improve your skills is to get out there and take pictures. Purchase a small notebook or download a notepad app on your phone to jot down the camera settings that you used or that you want to try. Knowing what settings worked or didn't work for various lighting situations and activities will help you improve next time. For example, if your photo of a child at play came out blurry, perhaps you need a faster shutter speed, or if your nature photography is coming out too bright, you'll know to change the aperture next time. Ultimately, you'll likely have to tweak multiple settings to get the perfect shot, but keeping track of what settings you use, and then trying different settings, will help you get more comfortable with your DSLR.

The final, and probably best, piece of advice we can offer is to take your camera everywhere. Sometimes it can feel like all the good stuff happens when you forget to bring the camera, don’t let this happen to you.

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Imagess courtesy of Thinkstock/AnatoliyKhvan, Sheena Koontz

About the Author
Sheena Koontz Contributor

Sheena is a freelance writer and photographer out of Bristol, VA. She specializes in abandoned, landscape, and travel photography. You can follow her on Facebook or check out her website here.

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