The Basics of DSLR Photography in 4 Simple Steps

D-SLR stands for digital single lens reflex, and it differs from ordinary point-and-shoot cameras because it exposes and image by use of a mirror rather than directly onto the CCD image chip (or film strip in non-digital cameras). D-SLRs are preferred by professionals because of their improved image quality over point-and-shoots.

Although many professional and consumer model D-SLRs have an automatic setting, learning to use the manual settings in your camera can allow you to have more flexibility, capture unique or artistic effects, and match your camera controls to your setting, light level, and specific needs. Although D-SLR photography can become almost infinitely complex when you delve deeper into it, there are essentially only 4 variables you need to memorize to understand the basics.

1/ Choose your lens

Wide-angle lenses capture more information than the human eye can see by distorting the edges of the frame.

A lens length of 50mm perceives the image identically to the human eye. Any number higher than 50mm magnifies the image. Any number lower than 50mm includes more of the image than the human eye can see, by distorting the edges (think of the “bubble” effect of a fisheye lens).

There are two kinds of lenses, prime and zoom. Prime lenses have a fixed length while zoom lenses have a range. Primes are considered to capture a higher quality image, but with modern zoom lenses the difference can barely be noticed, and for most photographers, a zoom lens can be much more convenient.

A few other notes on lenses:
* Keep in mind when purchasing a lense that it is the same brand as your camera body, or has a mounting adapter.
* Lenses range in quality. Some lenses are brighter (let in more light), some are darker. Lenses have an f-stop of their own that is distinct from your camera’s f-stop setting, but since you don’t need to memorize that number or change it on the fly during a photo shoot, we won’t go into detail on that topic in this article.

2/ Set your ISO

After selecting your lens, set your camera’s ISO. ISO is a measurement leftover from 35mm film photography. On a 35mm film strip photo-sensitive chemicals change colour when exposed to light. Higher ISOs expose faster, which means they need less light to expose the photo, but they also have more grain. Lower ISOs expose more slowly, and therefor need more light to expose, but they produce a finer image with less grain. With digital cameras, the highest ISOs are even higher than what’s possible with film, but the principle is the same: higher ISOs have more pixelization but require less light. Lower ISOs need more light but have less visible pixel grain.

Set your ISO as low as possible.

3/ Set your F-stop (aperture)

There are two ways to calculate your camera’s settings from here: set your shutter speed first and then calculate your aperture, or set your aperture first and then calculate your shutter speed. For the purpose of this article, we will set our aperture first.

The camera’s aperture is the size of the hole through which light passes. A higher number means a smaller aperture. A lower number means a larger aperture. Lower apertures let in more light and blur the areas that are not in focus. This is often used in portraits to blur the background while keeping the subjects face in focus. A higher number means a smaller aperture. Higher apertures let in less light but have a wide range of what appears in sharp focus in the image. High apertures are useful for landscape photography where details in the both foreground and the far distance need to be in focus.

A middle aperture setting that would be useful in a wide variety of situations would be F5.6 or F8.

4/ Set your shutter speed

After you have set your camera’s ISO and F-stop, look through your camera’s viewfinder for the built-in light meter. The light meter will have a scale with 0 in the middle, +1 and -1 on either side, etc. 0 is the perfect exposure, as calculated by your camera’s sensors, however in some situations exposing up or down can produce a better photo (for a darker or brighter artistic effect, or in unusual light situations that are fooling your camera’s sensors).

Shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open. The longer the shutter is open, the more light gets in. Long shutter speeds are brighter, but they have more motion blur (which might be useful as an artistic effect). Shorter shutter speeds let in less light. Short shutter speeds are darker, but they capture motion in freeze frame, which may be desirable for sports or other fast-moving subjects.

As a rule, anything lower than shutter speed 60 needs to be set on a tripod to capture a photo without blur.

If you find that you cannot set your shutter speed where you want it (60+ without a tripod, higher for sports and motion shooting), and still expose your shot properly (to the centre of your light meter), go back to your ISO and F-stop. If your shot is too dark raise your ISO (brighter, more grain), and/or lower your F-stop (more open, blurred background). If your shot is too bright, make sure your ISO is as low as possible, and raise your F-stop (smaller aperture, wide range of focus).