My 5+ Tips for using a DSLR

by Henry B Posted on April 27, 2010

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Welcome to the wonderful world of the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). In this article, I  intend to give my top 5 (+) tips for getting the most from your DSLR.

1 – Choose your focus (depth of field)

Depth of field is the range of distance (within the subject) that is sharp. The aperture (f-stop) of  a lens controls the depth of field. Larger apertures and closer distances produce a shallower depth of field. The f-stop is specified by a fraction such f/4 and f/16. The larger the number the smaller the fraction – for example an  f/16  is a smaller aperture opening then a f/4.

Here’s an example in pictures. Notice the backgrounds in these photos. The background on the left is more blurry compared to background on the right. This is a result of the smaller f-stop on the right which results in a greater distance being  in focus.

Here is another photo taken with the  f-stop  fairly wide open (f/8) to keep the field of focus narrow so the flower is shown against a blurred out green background which is actually the grass in the distance.

Another way to use the aperture is to use a smaller f-stop to increase the  depth of field. This is useful when you want things at different distances to be in focus. Here’s a photo  which I took with an f-stop of f/20 because I wanted all of the flowers in focus:

2 – Minimize distractions with lenses

Objects, people, or animals which are not the point of focus of the photo are distractions which should be eliminated or minimized whenever possible. If you notice these things before you take the picture, you have the opportunity to move or otherwise change your shooting position to minimize the distractions. This is obvious.

What may not be obvious is how using a different lens can reduce distractions as well. This is especially true for telephoto lens because they narrow the scene which means that both foreground and background distractions can be effectively removed or changed.

For example, compare the backgrounds in the following two photos:

The left photo was taken with a 250 mm lens which only allowed me to get the nearby street as the background. However, by using a 500 mm lens for the right photo, I was able to get the distant patch of grass as a background. Notice that the perspective of the flower changed slightly because I had to be farther away in order for the 500 mm lens to focus.

3 – Use Shutter Priority for those on the move

These days, I mostly shoot birds and other animals. Since the subjects rarely listen when I say “hold it”,  I shoot shutter priority to ensure that I use a fast enough shutter speed to get a non-blurry bird.

For example, here’s a picture of a hummingbird I shot at 1/640 sec. with a 500 mm telephoto lens:

Since this was shot at f/6.3, notice the effect on the focus of the flowers. This type of out of focus is okay in my mind since I really only wanted the bird in focus and the wings stopped.

In contrast to a fast shutter speed, there are times when a slow shutter speed is useful. If you have ever wondered about photos where flowing water look silky, it’s just a matter of using a slow shutter speed. Most often, this is done with the camera secured to a tripod or other fixed support. Notice the differences in the following  two waterfall pictures:

4 – Use a higher ISO when necessary

ISO indicates how sensitive a camera is to the amount of light available. The higher you set the ISO, the easier it is to capture images in low-light. There’s just one catch. Using a high ISO usually means you’re going to sacrifice some quality.

However, there are times when a higher ISO is necessary just to capture the image. For example, a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 sec was used to shoot the following photo where the bat shattered on contact with the ball:

Since this was a night game under the lights, I had to use an ISO of 3200 in order to shoot fast enough to capture the action. While there is some image degradation because of the higher ISO, I was able to get the picture. Thus, don’t be afraid to use a higher ISO when it makes sense.

5 – Always shoot RAW

Many high-end cameras have the ability to shoot in RAW mode. This mode does not compress the images at all and leaves them completely unprocessed. As far as I know, all DSLR cameras give you a choice of shooting JPG, RAW, and both. Shooting JPG seems like a natural thing to do because it is a standard which is used everywhere from printing to the web (Shutterfly). Plus JPG files take up a lot less room.

So, why would anyone say use RAW? The main reason is that a RAW file functions similar to a film negative. That is, you can create multiple JPGs from it, each with different parameters for effect. Additionally, once you crop a JPG file, that’s it. You cannot get the original back unless you have saved a copy of the original.

5+ – Don’t be intimidated. Just take photos!!

The most important thing is to start using your camera, so I encourage you to just pick it up and take pictures – tips or no tips. When you’re ready to discover more possibilities with your DSLR, my suggestions will be here waiting for you. Enjoy!

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  1. Joey Says:

    Super article Henry and very informative. I have been waiting for yours to come out. I need to read up on the aperture settings – i have just been kind of turning dials and i see the f and a number but now I’m getting a better idea of what it all means.
    This is very helpful and your pictures are extraordinary, as usual!
    Thanks for doing this article. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it. :)

  2. BarbaraJ Says:

    Henry I love this article. I needed this so I am going to copy it so I can refer to your detail information. Thank you so much for your help.

  3. rsheedy Says:

    This information is so helpful, and it’s in language that I understand! I will definitely be referring back to this, as I still have a lot to learn about my DSLR. Thanks!

  4. conniee4 Says:

    What a fantastic article! I think you explained everything perfect! One thing I like to do with my flowers/bugs is to make sure my shutter is set at at least 1/250 of a sec on windy days to freeze the motion. Great article! Super informative. I can’t wait to read your next one. PS. Love the hummer!!!!

  5. Earl J Says:

    What a great blog this is, Henry. You covered topics that books have been written about but you cut right to the important stuff. I’ve been in SC this week and shooting a lot of waterfalls and I happen to prefer a higher shutter speed so that I do not get the milky effect that many people prefer. Hey, we shoot what appeals to US.

  6. AnnAbbott Says:

    The basics right there in black and white…examples and all. Clear and understandable.
    .

  7. ElleSnaps Says:

    Wow Henry, thanks for the great article. I love the info and I loved having a visual referance. I can see me using this info too!!

  8. curicogirl Says:

    Henry! This article is so super duper helpful! I am really exploring my SLR lately and will definitely take you up on your tip to shoot in RAW.

  9. shannonr Says:

    Thank you so much for this information, I think i live by #5…LOL. After reading your article I immediatley picked up my camera and started playing with somethings you had mentioned. I definitley learned something new by reading your informations, thanks :)

  10. jennyd Says:

    I can definitely recommend shooting in RAW. As a graphic designer, I can say that there are so many more photo editing capabilities available to you in Photoshop if you import your photos in RAW format as opposed to JPEG. They are much larger files, but you can make them look so much better!

  11. Heidi Says:

    Thanks for this article. I am starting to ‘get it’ especially with your examples. I’ve been so intimidated with all the steps to take pictures out of auto-mode, but the pictures can be so worth it! I definitly agree with your 5+ (bonus) tip. I love digital where you can take tons of picture and delete the bad ones!! I’ll be looking for more articles from you! Thanks again!!

more about Henry B

I first became interested in photography in 1969 when I purchased my first 35 mm SLR. I switched to digital photography in 1999 and bought my first DSLR in 2003. I retired in 2004 which means I can spend more time doing what I like. I got involved with photo books because they allowed much more than merely organizing photos. Additionally, stories can be created or documented much more clearly with a combination of photos and text.

View all articles by Henry B »

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