Using a DSLR for the first time

Professional photographer Brett Turner shares his thoughts about best settings that new digital single lens reflex camera owners should use

DSLR cameraYou bought a digital single lens reflex camera for more photographic control. However, if you keep the dial set to fully automatic (green) mode, your DSLR simply turns into an expensive point and shoot.

If you’ve used a compact digital camera, you’re already familiar with its automatic capabilities.  In green mode the camera, whether compact or DSLR, selects the ISO, aperture, shutter speed and even the image quality. The camera also determines when to turn on the built-in flash.

The better option is to switch to program mode. The DSLR still does most of the thinking for you but program mode provides menu settings for more creative control. Let’s take a look at some of them.

DSLR focus points

As of this writing, DSLRs have between 3 and 45 focus points. They are all active unless you opt to choose only one.

Which focus point I select depends on the Auto Focus mode used. If I am in One Shot then I only use one point, usually center. In Servo mode, I set the camera to all focus points.

In One Shot the camera will focus faster and more accurately.  Servo modes work best when the camera uses all targets to track motion and predict where the subject will be.

RAW + JPG – shoot both

DSLRs can shoot JPEG and RAW, or JPEG + RAW, simultaneously. The problem shooting  only JPEG is that it is a one-shot deal. If anything goes wrong, there may be little chance of correcting it when editing.

When shooting RAW, most settings such as white balance and exposure can be changed with little or no harm to the original image. The downside is that RAW takes up a lot of space on a memory card and usually takes more time to process at the computer.

I shoot RAW + JPEG. It gives pictures that can be used immediately (JPEGs) and provides a safety net (RAW) if I need to make improvements when editing.

DSLR auto white balance

If you shoot RAW, leave the camera set on auto white balance. With RAW files, you can correct white balance even if it’s wrong. It can be more difficult to correct JPEGs.

If shooting JPEG only, pay closer attention to the white balance setting. As you become more familiar with the camera, use custom white balance. Just remember to change it when the light changes.

ISO – keep it low

Unlike film cameras, the ISO setting on a digital camera can be changed between shots. While DSLRs produce much better quality images with less noise at high ISO numbers than compacts, it’s still best to shoot at the lowest possible ISO.

Rather than use auto ISO, keep your camera set to ISO 100. Many DSLRs have a dedicated ISO button, so changing the setting when necessary is quick and easy.

Metering modes – use matrix

Using a DSLRDigital single lens reflex cameras have three main metering modes. In my experience, the two best are Matrix and Spot.

Matrix metering lets the camera compare different zones of the image area to decide how to get the best range of tones. Use Spot metering when the subject is in shadow and the rest of the scene is too bright, or when the subject is in spotlight and the rest of the frame is dark.

DSLR focus modes

Digital single lens reflex cameras have three main focus modes: One Shot, AI, AI Servo.

One Shot is the basic mode you push the button half way down and the camera focuses. It will not change or refocus until you lift your finger completely and repress the shutter button.

AI focus acts the same way as One Shot but is more intuitive. If something moves, or if you move, AI can choose to refocus.

AI Servo is active all of the time that the shutter button is depressed.  This would be the mode of choice for fast action or tracking a moving subject, especially if using the high frames per second drive mode.

High speed drive modes

Even entry level DSLR modes have a high speed drive mode – this is personal taste.  I leave mine on because some times I don’t have time to switch it on.  I only turn it off when the sound of the shutter would cause a problem.

Aperture Priority mode

DSLR beginnerBesides the automatic green and Program modes, DSLRs have other modes including Shutter Priority (Tv), Aperture Priority (Av), Manual (M). Some DSLRs with multiple focus points have an A-dep mode, which adjusts depth-of-field.

I find the most useful mode to be Aperture Priority.  I select the f-stop and the camera adjusts the shutter speed automatically.

Why should you care about Av mode? Because it allows you to take your first steps toward true creative control over the camera.

For example, if you want to shoot the little one’s baseball game, set the camera to Av.  With the dial beside the shutter button set to the widest aperture your lens has (small numbers = wide aperture= more light) if you are using the lens that came in the kit, it is probably f 5.6.  This will force the camera to use a faster shutter speed, which should stop the action and prevent motion blur. Of course this works best in daylight.

Changing the aperture size, also gives a photographer more control over depth of field.

Remember, no camera settings are carved in stone but a good place to begin is by using those recommended in this article.

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