Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography

8Jul/10Off

Your First D-SLR: Best Ways to Use It

Sunrise over Tahiti

Sunrise over Tahiti

Congratulations! You've purchased your first D-SLR and now it's time to start taking pictures. Many of my friends have also purchased their first D-SLRs too. For those without any background in photography (or who haven't yet read lots of books and magazines), you may not know where to start with your new camera. With all the buttons and new terminology, it can be easy to fall into the trap of just setting your D-SLR to “Auto” mode and letting the camera do all the work.

D-SLRs are capable of taking stunning photos. Before we begin, please allow me to let you know where it’s best not to start. Try to avoid using your new D-SLR like it’s just a larger version of a compact camera. A D-SLR offers much more important features than just great picture quality. D-SLRs enable you to create images that are not possible with point-and-shoots. That's what this article is about.

The easiest and best way to improve your photography is to embrace these features and use them to create photos that can't be taken with a compact camera. That will immediately set your photography apart from the crowd.

What are those features? There are quite a few of them and we'll go through them one-by-one so you understand what each feature is and how to take advantage of it for your own pictures:

First, D-SLRs enable you to take photos where the subject is in sharp focus but the background is intentionally blurred. This makes the subject "pop" out of the picture, and can be one of the best ways to make your images look professional.

Pina Colada, Mexico

Pina Colada, Mexico

These types of photos are not possible on a compact point-and-shoot. The physically small size of a point-and-shoot camera's sensor and lens prevents you from blurring the background on most shots. Because D-SLR sensors and lenses are bigger, you're able to blur the background. Blurring the background is important because it eliminates all the clutter behind your subject and draws attention right to what’s important. In order to achieve the blur, simply use a very wide aperture on your lens such as F4 or F2.8. You can set this by using either Aperture Priority (Av) or Manual (M) mode. The closer you are to the subject and the more you have your lens zoomed in, the greater the effect. So set a wide aperture, zoom in, and get close and you'll achieve that beautiful blur. Try this technique on portraits and sports. Portraits look amazing when the subject is in sharp focus and the background blends to a silky blur of color. Be sure to focus on the eyes of your subject when shooting with wide apertures. Sports are another great time to blur the background. The background at sporting events can often be cluttered with other players, the crowd, advertisements and signs, etc. By blurring the background, your bring the attention right on the athlete. Shooting food this way also produces great results.

Second, D-SLRs are much better at taking pictures in low light than point-and-shoots. D-SLR sensors are larger and are better at gathering light, so the picture quality is improved. You can often shoot with no flash. Use this to your advantage to get shots that would otherwise be impossible with a compact camera.

Statue of Atlas and St. Patrick's Cathedral

Statue of Atlas and St. Patrick's Cathedral

Set the camera to your widest aperture and the ISO to 800 (or even higher if the picture quality looks good) and get out there at night, or indoors in dark scenes and start taking pictures. With a wide aperture, a shutter speed around 1/40th, an ISO of 800 or 1600, and a steady hand, you'll be amazed at what you can capture in very dim lighting. Use it for everything from night photography on the streets to indoor photography at concerts, children’s recitals, birthday parties, weddings, etc. Remember, since there’s no need for flash, this is also great for taking pictures of people that are far away where the flash wouldn't reach, such as on a stage.

Third, D-SLRs allow manual control of the shutter speed, enabling long-exposure photography. Most point-and-shoots except for a few of the advanced models do not allow control of the shutter speed. Using long shutter speeds on your D-SLR can be one of the best ways to produce stunning images with loads of impact and movement.

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Mount your camera on a tripod or rest it on something steady, and set the shutter speed to anywhere from 1/4 second to 30+ seconds depending on what you're photographing. You can use either Shutter Priority (Tv) or Manual (M) mode. Try 1/4 second for moving people in a busy place to show the “hustle and bustle”, or 30 seconds for cars and traffic, to capture light trails at night.

Wall Street, NYC

Wall Street, NYC

A shutter speed of a few seconds is great for capturing the glistening lights of a city skyline.

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

Use your camera’s Bulb mode and a remote control and you can take photos that last several minutes and show the stars streaking across the sky! Using long exposures is also one of the ways that photographers can capture photos of lightning striking during a storm. For all shots, it's important to use the camera's 10-second self timer or a remote control to trigger the shutter, because touching the shutter button will blur the shot.

Fourth, capture high-speed action. D-SLRs are very fast in two ways: (1) There is very little lag between when you press the shutter and when the photo is taken and (2) The shutter speeds can be very fast, such as 1/4000th of a second, allowing you to freeze action and capture images that you can't even see with the human eye.

Sunrise, Mexico

Sunrise, Mexico

Use this for capturing an athlete mid-air diving for a ball, bicycle riders racing down a mountain, raindrops splashing in a puddle, or birds swooping down to land on a lake. Find anything that moves very fast and see if you can freeze its movement. Use either Shutter Priority (Tv) or Manual (M) mode to set the shutter speed.

Fifth, use wide-angle lenses. Most compact cameras have a widest angle of about 28mm, with the occasional compact going to 24mm. By contrast, D-SLRs can go as wide as 15 or 16mm with fairly common lenses, and even wider with specialty lenses. While this may not sound like a lot in terms of millimeters, it is actually much wider and produces photos that are very different and often extremely dramatic.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

If your D-SLR has an APS-C size sensor, a lens that goes to around 10mm will be ultra-wide. If you're using a full-frame camera, a lens around 16mm will be ultra-wide. Capture wide sweeping views of a landscape, or get every person at the family reunion in the photo, even in a small room.

By using wide apertures to blur the background, high ISOs for low-light photography, very long or very fast shutter speeds for motion, and wide-angle lenses, you will immediately start taking photos that set you apart from the crowd.

One last comment -- I love compact point-and-shoot cameras and I use them all the time. I even have a few of them for different types of photography. They're perfect for carrying with you wherever you go, and they enable you to capture images that you otherwise might have missed. Today's compacts also have fantastic picture quality. There is a time and a place for everything, and using your existing compact camera along with your D-SLR for more dramatic images will give you the greatest amount of photographic possibilities.

If you have any questions, please let me know. I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Best,
Paul

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

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