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Ash Burton

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10 Tips for Digital SLR Beginners

Having had my Canon 400D for around a year and a half now I no longer consider myself a beginner, I'd say perhaps that I'm an intermediate-level amateur and so I'd like to share what I think are my 10 top tips that I've learned over the past year or so. I appreciate that it can be a bit daunting going from a point & shoot camera up to a fully-fledged DSLR with interchangeable lenses and so I'm aiming here to provide a little bit of guidance that worked for me that said these tips might not work for everyone and you don't have to do them all on day one, if you have any questions feel free to get in touch. 1. Don't get disheartened - not all shots are good ones!

It's easy to think that you're doing something wrong, or it's just too difficult but that's most likely not to be the case. Photography is a learning experience but it's not like learning your times tables by rote, over time you'll develop a sense for what works and what doesn't but even then you should push yourself beyond that and experiment as it usually pays off. Some days you'll go out shooting and come back with loads of great photos, other days you'll come back with a card full of average shots but don't let that get you down - if you take 100 shots and only one of them turns out to be a 'keeper' then it was still worth the trip for that one shot. I've taken thousands of shots and I'd probably only pick out 10 that I really like, then again - they're not the same ones that other people like so I guess it's down to taste!

2. Learn how your camera 'sees' light.

This one is all about research, I won't provide precise suggestions for where or how you do this but if go down to your local book shop or library you should find plenty of books that talk about photography in general otherwise you could always go on the Internet - remember Google and Wikipedia are your friends. In terms of what you research, you really need to understand how light gets into your camera and how that affects your photography - key concepts you'll need to grasp are:

  • Exposure
  • Aperture an F-Stops
  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO and Grain
  • Depth-of-Field
  • Light Histograms
  • Composition
  • Rule of Thirds

3. Get used to Manual settings

Once you've done your research you'll be in a good position to start using the manual settings on your camera, I strongly recommend that you immerse yourself in the world of manual settings (leave the lens on autofocus though) and completely ignore any of of the automatic or semi-automatic (Tv, Av, etc.). modes. At first you will find yourself being quite slow and you may miss a shot or two through fumbling with the controls but with practice you'll be as quick as you like and you'll really understand when to use the semi-automatic modes and when you need full control. From the moment I first bought the camera I pushed myself hard to understand the manual settings and it really paid off for me, now I spend 80% of my time on manual but I'm beginning to use the semi-automatic modes when I'm shooting in variable light conditions (e.g. tracking a flying bird).

4. Replace your kit lens

This tip depends on which lens(es) came with your camera but as a rule, the kit lenses are not the 'best of breed' lenses and usually compromise on both build and optical quality. A dead giveaway is to compare the 'body only' price and the 'kit' price for your camera, my 400D cost £500 with a kit lens but if I wanted to buy a body-only package it would cost £490. No lens that retails for £10 is going to produce great results! I replaced my 18-55 kit lens with the Tamron 17-55mm f2.8 and it revolutionised my photography, it's probably the best £300 I've spent ever. My advice for you here is whatever you do, make sure your replacement lens is wide (goes down to 17mm or 18mm), goes up to a 'normal' focal length (e.g. 50mm) and make it at least an f2.8 - the Tamron is perfect because it is f2.8 at 17mm and 50mm.

5. Buy a tripod and a cable release.

One problem of shooting with the camera in your hand is that you're limited in the shutter speed you can select, if you choose a slow shutter speed there's a good chance that you'll get blurring due to unsteady hands. In low-light conditions you can always increase the ISO but that introduces grain, a pretty simple and straight-forward solution is to buy a tripod to keep your camera steady. When you choose a tripod go for one as light as your budget can afford but you don't have to spend a fortune to get the benefit, I picked mine up for £45 and it's far from the lightest tripod out there but it does the job. Another addition to your kit is a cable release, I picked up an unbranded one on eBay for £10 and it does the job perfectly. Cable releases for DSLRs are not quite the same as on old film cameras, mine is a small thumb-sized box with a button and has a 1m cable that plugs into the side of my camera. This allows you to take a picture without even touching the camera which is important if you're on uneven ground, also the button can lock down so that if you're doing a variable 'bulb' exposure you can keep the button held down for as long as you like and you're finger won't get tired or slip off.

6. Shoot in RAW

Your DSLR will likely have several options of how to record your photos, shooting in JPEG (possibly with various quality levels), shooting in RAW and probably the option to do both (JPEG+RAW). So, what is RAW? Your camera has a digital sensor that captures light and records certain information about that light (colour & intensity), if you have your camera set to JPEG mode it converts this basic information into a compressed JPG file and discards the detailed data. RAW files on the other hand contain all of that detailed data and allow you to perform a much deeper level of processing after you've moved your photos to your computer, in many cases I have taken photos in RAW that look under-exposed but have been able to alter the exposure on the computer and turn a bad photo into a good one. The down-side of using RAW is that you must process them afterwards (most DSLRs come with sofware to do this), although it may seem daunting to have to process hundreds of photos a lot of the work can be automated and it gives you a good opportunity to review the day's results.

7. Invest in software - Lightroom or Aperture

Most Digital SLRs are bundled with some software from the manufacturer, whilst it may be possible to get by with this software I would strongly recommend moving up to a premier photo editing & management tool, the leading packages are Adobe's Lightroom (PC + Mac) and Apple's Aperture (Mac only). Both packages have advantages and disadvantages but they both do a great job, if you're on a Mac and have to choose between them I would recommend downloading a trial and using both. Personally I use Lightroom and have never used Aperture, whilst I'm on a Mac now I used to do all of my editing on a PC and just moved my Lightroom catalog over to the Mac. These tools allow you to organise your photos in a variety of ways (names, keywords, collections, tags, by lens, by ISO, by camera) and also to alter many factors about the image to really make your photos 'pop', amongst other things you can alter the white balance, exposure, contrast, brightness, saturation, correct for vignetting & chromatic aberation and alter the composition (through cropping).

8. Share your photos - join Flickr

Taking your photos and looking at them on your own will only get you so far, to improve your photography and your interest in photography you should share your photos with others. For months I have been sharing my photos with the members of a video-gaming forum who are also enjoy photography over at the Gamercast Network, following on from that I joined the massively popular photo-sharing site Flickr where you can upload photos and other people will post comments on your work. There are also Flickr Groups where you can find communities of people that are interested in the same thing and these range from broad subjects such as 'Black and White' to narrow subject such as 'Graffiti', or 'Dogs'. In these groups you can ask for constrictive criticism of your photos and find tips on how to photography you favourite subjects.

9. Don't be afraid to copy others

I just mentioned joining Flickr to share your photos but remember that sharing works both ways, you should explore and comment on other people's photos and you'll learn about the composition and styles that other people like and use. The best part of looking at other people's photos is that they will often give you ideas for shots you could take and it can be a great inspiration, if you can't get the same results as someone else then you can get in touch and ask them how they acheived a certain 'look'.

10. Listen to the professionals

Now unless you come from a photographic family or know a professional photographer they're pretty hard to come by and probably don't have too much time to spend helping out beginners like us, even though many of them would like to. The solution that some professionals have arrived at is podcasting, if you don't know what podcasts are they're essentially like radio shows (although some include video) that you can download from the Internet and listen to anytime (and anywhere) you like, the most common place to look for podcasts is through Apple's iTunes store and a perfect way to listen to them is on your iPod on the way to work. I'm sure there are many photography related podcasts but the two I'd recommend are This Week in Photography and Tips From the Top Floor, I listen to TWiP religiously and find it both entertaining and informative, they regularly have professional photographers on as guests and cover everything from tips, news and equipment.

Well that's it for my tips, I hope you find them helpful - if you want to ask any questions or offer suggestions please feel free to get in touch. If you want to look at a collection of my photos please find my pages on Flickr