Five Tips for First Time DSLR Owners

Canon Rebel with Canon 50mm F/1.8 on the left and Canon 5D with Sigma 85mm F/1.4 on the right

Canon Rebel with Canon 50mm F/1.8 on the left and Canon 5D with Sigma 85mm F/1.4 on the right

FACT: A DSLR will not get you better pictures, knowledge will. Think about it this way–who is bound to do better at capturing a better photo: a person with an expensive camera that knows nothing about it or a person with a cheap camera that knows loads about it?

It’s happened. Photography has exploded and more than any time previous, there are DSLRs in the hands of more people than ever before. But there are also loads of people that don’t know a single thing about what they’re doing with the camera. On many occasions, I’ve been asked to take a picture of people and have been handed a DSLR on auto. Or I’ve just randomly seen people taking pictures with the cameras and not knowing a single thing about what they’re doing with the device.



Take the Damn Thing Off of Auto

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tamron 90mm f2.8 VC sample images (3 of 19)ISO 16001-160 sec at f - 2.8

How many of you would:

– Buy a Ferrari and drive it in automatic?

– Purchase a multi-thousand gaming computer and use it just for internet browsing?

– Acquire a bulldozer just to dig some holes to add some plants to your garden?

If you answered, “I would” to any of those questions, you’ve got some other problems. But in all seriousness, you purchase a DSLR to get professional grade images and to overall just get better pictures. And in order to do that, you’ll need to take some sort of control over the camera. By putting it in Auto mode and constantly shooting in that is not only doing yourself a disservice but also wasting your money. The camera is capable of doing so much more than you think if you just use all of the features.

Pro Tip: An older camera in manual mode can far outperform a newer one in automatic mode.

Pro Tip: An older camera in manual mode can far outperform a newer one in automatic mode.

Think of it the same way that computer programmers are taught to think: a machine can only do what you tell it to. With that said, if you’re shooting in Auto, you’re telling the camera to:

– Choose an exposure for you, but not the one you necessarily want

– Choose a focusing point for you, but not the one you necessarily want

– Choose a bunch of settings for you, but not the ones that you necessarily want.

On the contrary, if you’re shooting in manual, then you’re telling the camera everything that you specifically want it to do and there is better communication between you and the camera.

Shoot RAW

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tokina 300mm f6.3 product photos (1 of 7)ISO 160

Let’s take a step back into history for a second: generally speaking when you shot a roll of film, you needed to go get it developed and then you got your prints. Otherwise, you could shoot instant film (positives), but the quality was never on par with film that you needed to develop (negatives).

Now we’ll translate that into the digital age: there are two types of images that you can shoot–RAW and JPEGs. JPEGs are the images that you see everyday on the web and they’re much more akin to that lower quality instant film that you used to see. But your RAWs are more like the negatives. In fact, they’re often called Digital Negatives. And to get even better images from your brand new DSLR, you’ll need to spend some time in the digital darkroom learning how to get a better look from them.

In the end, you’ll get something much better than your camera can give you otherwise.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Film scans (27 of 74)

Pro Tip: Something that many more experienced photographers will mention to you as a parameter of getting better image quality is Dynamic Range. Stop right there: the dynamic range of an image will mean absolutely nothing if you don’t know how to properly expose it to begin with. Proper exposures not only require knowledge of how your camera works but also of lighting. Start with window lighting.

Purchase Software

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Lightroom 5 review images (7 of 13)

Remember how not too long ago we talked about working in the digital darkroom? Well, Adobe Lightroom 5 is the standard for working with your RAW images. It will help you to get even more out of your photos than you ever thought you could.

When you start out, remember this: take baby steps. Moving the sharpness slider all the way to the maximum level might not always work out so well. Add little adjustments at a time.

Pro Tip: Changing the lens on your camera? Turn the camera off, otherwise the electronics on the sensor attract dust and dirt due to the polarity. When you're storing your camera away, always be sure that there is either a lens or a body cap covering the mirror and sensor.

Pro Tip: Changing the lens on your camera? Turn the camera off, otherwise the electronics on the sensor attract dust and dirt due to the polarity. When you’re storing your camera away, always be sure that there is either a lens or a body cap covering the mirror and sensor.

Ditch the Pop-Up Flash (Or Learn to Use it)

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Fujifilm X100s with Diana flash (1 of 1)ISO 2001-1000 sec at f - 8.0

Many consumer tech websites will tell you not to use the pop-up flash on your camera. While they’re correct in most cases, they’re not completely right. As you go through the work of many master photographers, you’ll start to see what are described as, “hard shadows” on subjects. An example of a hard shadow is what is in the photo above. See the shadow behind Matt and on his clothes? It was an intention al look.

Most of the time, a pop-up flash on a camera can give off the deer in headlights type of look. But when you have a good understanding of manual mode (and get off of auto, like we said above) you’ll begin to see that you can actually pull off some really creative looks.

Learn the Basics of Exposure, Composition and Content

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Olympus EM5 Link Cosplay shoot (11 of 23)ISO 200

Exposure means how bright or dark your image is. There are many factors that determine it such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and more. The best way to learn it is to try it out for yourself, make mistakes and observe what it does.

Composition is even more technical, and it teaches you about how to place objects in the frame of your photo. Abram, our Features Editor, has an awesome piece on this concept for the beginner.

And content? That’s really just about what subject matter is in your photo. You’ll need to figure that one out yourself based on your own creative and artistic vision. The photographers that we highlight in our Creating the Photograph series can help you with this.

But for even more, you can check out all of our useful photography tips.

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