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Learn the Basic Controls of Your Digital SLR

December 20, 2009

So you bought your first digital SLR camera and you want to learn how to use it so you can start taking some stunning photos! You’ve read the manual that came with your camera and you know that you can achieve a variety of effects by adjusting the aperture and shutter speed, the type of lens, and even the ISO sensitivy. When I first took an interest in photography, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what all these settings meant, and it took a lot of trial and error before I knew how to achieve the kinds of photos I wanted. In hindsight, it wasn't that hard. You can start with your camera’s fully automatic mode for now (i.e. P mode), then you can use the suggestions below for achieving very specific kinds of shots.

There are numerous Web sites on the Internet devoted to teaching you the basics of photography, so I won’t bother trying to do it again here. Instead, I’ll take some of the photos from my gallery and describe which camera settings I chose and why.

Click on any photo to see a larger version with full EXIF data in my photo gallery.

Use a Low Aperture Setting to Blur the Background

I focused on the apples in the bowl, then I set the camera’s aperture to f/2 to make the depth of field very shallow. This means that just the apples would be in focus, but anything in the background would be out of focus so the apples would stand out. This is a great technique to use for portraits because it emphasizes the subject.

Use a High Aperture Setting to Keep the Entire Photo in Focus

I focused on the fence pillar a few feet in front of me, but I also wanted the Parliament Building in the background to be in focus to give some context of where this photo was taken. Using a high aperture value like f/11 results in a wide depth of field so both foreground and background objects remain in focus.

Use a Slow Shutter Speed to Add Motion Blur

I saw this boy fixated on the water coming out of the fountain frog. To get the water to appear as a steady stream, I chose a slow shutter speed of 1/20s. You have to hold the camera steady though because at slow shutter speeds, any jerkiness while you hold the camera can cause the whole photo to come out blurry.

Use a Fast Shutter Speed to Stop Motion

You can freeze motion by using a fast shutter speed. This photo uses a shutter speed of 1/250s to freeze the motion of the water falling from the fountain. This is a great technique for freezing action in sports photography.

Use a Wide-Angle Lens for Buildings and Landscapes

Lenses like this 17mm wide-angle lens are very useful for fitting a wide subject into your photo. They have an inherently large depth of field, which on the one hand makes it harder to achieve a blurry background effect, but on the other hand it makes them ideal for landscape and landmark photos because you typically want everything to be in focus.

Use a Telephoto Lens to Get Close to Far-Away Subjects

A telephoto lens lets you zoom in to a far-away subject. I used a 300mm lens to take this close-up of Nico Rosberg in the Williams F1 car while I was sitting in the stands a thousand feet away. The motion blur requires a relatively slow shutter speed, but the trick to blurring the background is following the car while taking the shot (i.e. a panning shot).

Use a Wide-Angle Lens for Dramatic Perspective

The physics behind constructing a wide-angle lens requires it to bend light in a way that exaggerates the distance between foreground and background objects. I used a 17mm lens in this photo to exaggerate perspective and draw the eye to the ladies in the middle. This effect works best when the foreground objects are within 10 feet of the camera.

Use a Higher ISO Setting in Low-Light Conditions

One of the best reasons to use a digital SLR over a pocket camera is improved low-light performance. When I took this photo, the camera initially picked a shutter speed of 1/8s which would have been too slow for me to steadily hold the camera. I increased the sensitivity by four times (from ISO100 to ISO800) so the camera would pick a four times faster shutter speed of 1/30s.