Demystifying the DSLR


Disclaimer: I feel like I'm constantly learning about photography, be it about DSLRs specifically, which settings work best for a given situation, wildlife, etc, the list goes on. If something contained within this blog is blatantly wrong, forgive my ignorance, correct me, and I'll correct the text.

Modern DSLR cameras bring with them a host of amazing features but unfortunately this can be a double edged sword, a high number of features brings with it a high amount of complexity. I'm going to try and help break down some of these features, and the core concepts of photography, to lessen the barrier to entry a bit. These same pieces of advice can be found in a myriad of places across the web, but it helps me to write these things down and it can't hurt to have it in one more spot on the Internet, right?

The three pillars

In photography there are three very important settings that determine the exposure, crispness, and depth of field of a photograph: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

ISO - ISO dictates how sensitive the sensor in your camera is to light. The lower the ISO the less sensitive it will be to light, while the higher the ISO the more sensitive it will be to light. Generally lower ISO numbers result in less "grainy" looking photos but require a good deal of lighting, while higher ISO numbers will result in more "grainy" looking photos but by itself requires less light, but this isn't always the case.

Shutter Speed - Shutter speed is the amount of time, usually measured in fractions of a second, the shutter remains open to allow light into the sensor. The faster the shutter speed, the less light that makes it to the sensor. It might seem a good idea to shoot with lower shutter speeds to allow for lower ISOs, but after a certain point it becomes counter productive in a lot of situations. Blurriness, introduced by camera shake or subject movement, starts to creep into photos the slower the shutter speed becomes.

Aperture - The aperture functions much like the pupil in an eyeball; the more narrow it is the less light that's let in, and the wider it is the more light that's let in. A wide aperture number would be something like f/2.8, whereas a narrow aperture number would be something like f/22 (or f/42 if you're legendary Tom Mangelsen). This will also affect the depth of field of the image your camera takes, with f/2.8 having a very shallow depth of field while f/22 and above will have a deeper depth of field, offering more detail at varying depths in the photo.

Common shooting modes

Auto - This shooting mode is probably the most common starting spot for beginning photographers, as the camera takes care of all the settings for you on the fly. However, it also removes all creative capability from your control which unfortunately often times leaves your photographs coming out not nearly as dramatic or artistic as you had hoped.

P (program) - The P stands for program mode, which allows for much more control. ISO can be set manually (or set to Auto, allowing the camera to do the number crunching for you), Shutter speed can be increased or deceased, single shooting vs continuous shooting can be selected, and much more. This option opens up a wide range of configuration, putting the creative control back in your hands. I have found what works well here is setting your shutter speed range and Auto ISO range in your camera menu, and allowing the camera to figure out the settings within those ranges to best expose the shot.

Tv(shutter priority) - This is the shutter priority mode, which allows you to choose the shutter speed while the camera does the math on other settings like the aperture value to ensure a properly exposed image.

Av (aperture priority) - Similar to the Tv mode, this allows you to set the aperture value yourself while the camera does the math on what the shutter speed needs to be for a properly exposed image.

M (manual) - Perhaps the most daunting mode for beginner photographers, this puts absolute creative control in your hands by allowing you to set ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and more, to whatever values you like.

B - This is the Bulb mode, which will keep your shutter open for as long as you keep the shutter button depressed.

Common pitfalls

Some of the common pitfalls I've come to notice, mainly in my self, are:

Underexposing - When first starting out, I thought "why don't I just shoot with a lower ISO and then increase the exposure in post processing, with Lightroom or something? That way my shots will be super crisp!" No. Unfortunately a 10 second search on Google could have saved me a hard learned lesson, but the moral of the story is: do not do that. Never underexpose your images with hopes of correcting exposure in post processing, you'll introduce a vast quantity of digital noise and your photo will look much worse than if you had shot it at a higher ISO.

Single Shooting - Also when first starting out, so as to save myself time later during post processing, I would only shoot a handful of images of a subject over the course of watching them. I figured ten or fifteen shots of a moose was fine, I just had to be on the ball and paying attention and I wouldn't miss the perfect shots. No. I think there is rarely a scenario in which you get "the shot", and wild animals are a constant source of movement and personality. It's well worth taking tons of shots and sifting through them later; digital cameras afford us ample space so taking a ton of photographs costs virtually nothing. You might even be surprised at some of the moments you captured, not realizing you had captured them in the moment. High speed continuous shooting or continuous shooting, depending on your camera, is the way to go for subjects that move a lot or are otherwise unpredictable- I know, it seems obvious.

Check your histogram - The histogram can be a little confusing at first, or even after reading about it, but the gist of it is this: it's a visual graph representation of the brightness and color make up of a photograph. There is no real "right or wrong" histogram for the most part, assuming you're properly exposing photographs, but it's something to keep an eye on while you're photographing in the field. If you notice spikes at the beginning or end of the X axis, you may want to adjust some settings. I'm no master on it personally, so I advise reading more about it here: Reading Your Camera's Histogram

Learn your camera - This is an important one. Too many times I've been out taking photographs and have thought to my self "why don't I know how to do X right now, it would be so handy". Take the time to read the manual, play around with the settings, take tons of pictures inside and outside to get a feel for different lighting, as well as different subjects. It's not just enough to point and click, unfortunately.

Final thoughts and advice

I'm sure there's a thing or two I missed, but overall I hope you found this helpful. My real big piece of advice is that practice really does make perfect; I've seen a huge improvement in my own photography just within the last two years, and even within the last 6 months.

Don't get discouraged by another's work or compare yourself to them, photography is an art and as such everyone's is going to be different. You've got a unique perspective on this world, so don't try to mold it to someone else's.

I feel it's worth stating I could never put into a blog post, or multiple for that matter, so I recommend you check out the book "Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs" by Henry Carroll. You can find it fairly cheap on Amazon, and it's a really good intro to photography.

- Sean McKinley

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