Thursday, February 10, 2011

DSLR 101...

I've had a few people email me in the recent weeks asking me advice on which digital SLR camera they should get.  Just let me say, I am extremely flattered that they've come to me for questions as I do not see myself as any type of expert.  I am a hobbyiest who's trying to build on her skill.  But I do like to offer my feedback when I'm asked because if I were in their position, I would appreciate a non-expert's advice as well.  Someone that can speak layman terms and not go all technical on me.

So, by now I think those that's reached out to me have either already received their camera or is about to in the next couple of days.  It's very overwhelming when you first open that box and take out this giant black object. took me two years to actually want to get to know my SLR, so I thought I'd do a post to help point you towards a direction you can get yourself started.  What I'm about to tell you are all things I've experienced personally.  Of course each person learn differently and I urge you to also practice however you want to.  But hopefully I'm at least helpful to someone out there.

First of all, when you get your new camera, there's no doubt you'll look at all those buttons and think...hmmm...what do I do with this?  You'll look at the little wheel near your left thumb and think "What does this M mean?"  Well, don't worry about it!  Really there's only a few things you need to know to get started:

1. Set your camera mode to M (Manual).  On a Canon, you can find the M on the wheel at the top of the camera...towards the left of the pop up flash.  Turn the wheel until the little line is pointed at the M. 

Now lets just say, you don't HAVE to shoot in manual mode.  You can just set your camera on automatic and start taking shots.  But to me, the point of a SLR is to shoot manually.  Because if you use automatic, it just becomes a bigger, heavier (and more expensive) point and shoot.

2. Set your ISO.  Some cameras have an ISO button on the top of the camera, so refer to your manual to find how to set this function.  The ISO helps you measure your light sensitivity.  It's key to remember that the darker your area, the higher your ISO needs to be.  Your camera will limit your ISO...most will limit up to 1600.  But some more expensive cameras allow you to go up to 3200 or 6400. 

3. Set your shutter speed.  The shutter speed is how long your shutter stays open when you take a picture.  This gets a little counter intuitive and it was very confusing for me when I first started.  But if you just remember that the LOWER your shutter speed number is, the LOWER your area's light is.  Does this make sense?  It also helps for me to think that my shutter speed should be the opposite of my ISO.  If my ISO is high, that means I'm in a darker room.  Which means my shutter speed should be LOW.  The trick is though, at a lower shutter speed (say 1/30), in a darker room, your pictures might become blurry.  So you'll have to stable yourself very well.  This happens because your shutter stays open longer to let in more light.  Some use a tripod to help stabalize, which will help quite a bit.

4. Set your F-stop.  The f-stop or "aperture" is going to determine your focal length.  This is probably one of the most confusing things out of these steps, but you just need to think of the f-stop as an eye pupil.  In the dark, your pupil dialate, which allows you to adjust your sight to compensate for the darkness.  And this is what the aperture does, except you set it yourself.  The lower this f-stop number is, the wider it opens, which means the more light it'll allow to let in.  This is also very counter intuitive because the LOWER your f-stop, the MORE light it'll let in.  Keep in mind that your aperture setting will determine your ISO and shutter speed settings as well, which is illustrated wonderfully below:

The top picture was taken with a f-stop of 5.6, which means that it's letting in more light than the bottom picture at f-stop 20.  Remember how I said the more light there is, the faster your shutter speed can be?  Well, the top picture was shot at a 1/400th second, which the bottom one was 1/125 of a second to compensate for the aperture size.  Also remember the more light, the lower your ISO can be?  Since there's more light going into the camera at f5.6, the top picture's ISO is clearly lower than the bottom picture. 

Lastly, people's asked me about blurriness in pictures.  As you can see from the above example, the top daisy picture has a blurred background.  This is partly due to the depth of field...which I will go into in a later post.  But for now, remember that this blurriness can be obtained with a smaller aperture.  The f/20 aperture picture will never obtain a blurry background simply because it can not produce a shallow enough depth of field to create that out of focus effect.  More information on this later, but for now, I encourage people to play with steps 2-4 with your new cameras!  I'd love to hear about everyone's picture taking adventures and am super excited to see the pictures you take. 


  1. I am taking baby steps with my camera...I bought a 35mm fixed lens to use in Disney and just playing around with it the past couple of days I really, really LOVE it. Much more comfortable with it then I am with the big-honkin' zoom. I love your tutorials :)

  2. Jan - The 35mm is perfect because it's what a human eye would see. So it's very useful for pictures you want to take for scenery and you can adjust simply by moving up or down. I am a fixed lens geek myself and LOVE LOVE LOVE fixed lenses!

  3. Thank you Cindi for these tips. We have an SLR , but i have the faintest idea how to use it. I fiddle with all the buttons randomly hoping to get a good picture! This was great, and i will definitely refer to this post if i get stuck. You are like my SLR blogger manual :-)
    Oh and i saw that you are now doing organics?

  4. Jen - I swear some of those settings on a camera is useless! Try playing with what I've described and let me know what you think. :) But then your pictures are really nice already tho! :) And yes, we're trying to be healthier so we went and ordered some organic foods. Sounds so good and I will let everyone know what I think!

  5. Thanks, Cindi! This is extremely helpful. I am bookmarking this post so that I can reference it when I get my camera, which will most likely be in the next week or two (or possibly even this weekend:). Thanks for all of your help! I'm so excited!

  6. Thanks for this post, it is extremely useful even though I only use a point and shoot. I can adjust all three setting u mention above and I am starting to experimenting with it. my camera also has a aperture priority or shutter speed priority setting, I am not sure which one I should set to. Suggestion?

  7. Kristin - Thank you! I'm glad I'm able to help. When I think about my camera and what I do with it, I always think about how easy everything is and if I can do it, anyone can. Until I write it all down and it seems more difficult. Which results in some things I don't even know how to explain. I am excited for you to get your new camera too! Lets hope you get it sooner than later!

    Inkmark - The priority settings mean that if you set it as a priority, the rest of your settings will adjust based on that. I'm not sure how to use those in a point and shoot but I can only guess that the aperture priority setting would be used for pictures where you'd want depth of field. And the shutter speed priority setting would be used for when you are either in low or good light. I hope this helps! But I think the best thing is trial and error. :)