Got an expensive DSLR camera? (DSLR = digital single lens reflex, aka a big one you can changes lenses on.)

Still using it in auto?

You’re not alone!

In an earlier blog I discussed the drawbacks of committing to a DSLR, and suggested alternatives, such as bridge cameras, compact cameras and camera phones. It’s easy to believe that all you need to take great shots is a great camera. It’ll certainly help, but only if you take some time to figure out how to get the best out of it.

But if you’re still keen, or have already invested in a DSLR, read on. Luckily there are three things that you can do without any technical knowhow whatsoever that will get you off to a flying start.

Fit a filter

Before you leave the shop, buy a UV filter for the front of your lens, sometimes called a skylight filter (tiny difference, not worth worrying about). There are pros and cons for the quality of the image of having a filter permanently attached to the front of the lens, but the overwhelming advantage to you is that it protects your precious glass from dust and scratches, and that is why you must get one. Buy one the same size as your lens (sometimes 1mm larger, read the small print).

Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode

Say, what?! Trust me on this. Day one, switch your dial to Av and leave it there until you know better. There is much to learn about aperture and shutter speed, and then ISO too, but know this one thing: If you want your subject in focus, but the background blurry (nice for portraits and close-ups) then in aperture priority mode you roll the dial till you get a small number, F4.0 or less. If you want everything in focus from the flower in the foreground to the mountain in the back (landscapes), then roll the dial the other way till you get a high number, like F16 or more.

Try for yourself with objects on a table, or even better, go outside, find a flower, find a mountain, have a play and then come back and let me know how you got on.

Different apperture values by Alison Read
Thomas and his friends are demonstrating depth of field. Low F number (also called f-stop) means only Thomas is in focus, his friends further away are blurry. As the f-stop increases, more of the image is in focus, until at F22, even Hank, way out back, can be seen more clearly.

Use autofocus properly

Now that you’re out of Auto you can make the one other vital change, from automatic AF (autofocussing) points to manual selection of an AF point. Unless you’re particularly advanced (in which case you’re probably reading the wrong blog) you’ll let the camera do the focussing, i.e. you’ll use your autofocus, not the manual focus, for pretty much all your shots.

When you use autofocus, the camera takes a quick reading to check where the subject is before swiftly focussing on that spot. A DSLR will typically have at least seven, and in some cases (although not mine or yours), over sixty points that it can use to focus an image. By default it takes a reading at each of these points and then averages it to set the focus.

Don’t let it do this.

Select only the central AF point. Hold down the AF selector button, and scroll the wheel to see the point move around the display until it’s in the middle. Your images will now be focussed on the subject in the centre of the shot.  When you look through the viewfinder you’ll see a little light (red on a Canon) light up in the centre as it focusses. Select a low number for your aperture (F4.0 or less) and take some shots with the subject at the centre of your image, and see how you get on.

Ah, I hear the ones at the front of the class! Yes, you’re right, you don’t usually want your subject in the middle of the frame. The rule of thirds tells us that you should put your subject off centre, so here’s the clever bit. When you compose your shot, you focus on the subject you want, you half press the shutter (do not let go!) and then slightly move the camera to recompose the shot. Your focus remains fixed on that subject, but you can now obey the rule of thirds happily.

The drawback to this method is that your camera will also typically take a light reading at the point of focus, and set the exposure accordingly, which would cause you trouble if you moved to an area of shadow, say.  The alternative is to select a different AF point, one that is over the subject, rather than the centre of the frame, so you could do that. And then do it again when you take your next shot. And again after that. But it’s a pain, stick with it in the centre for now unless it’s a real problem. One example of an exception, where I’ve set the AF point to something other than centre, was when photographing portraits of a long queue of kids meeting Santa, the composition is the same over and over (and over!) again, so I set it a third of the way down to focus on their faces and left it there.

For more detailed information on Autofocus selection, take a look at this link.

And there you are, three simple tips to get you out of Auto and on the road to greater things. Get yourself a filter, have a play with Av mode and AF points and then we’ll have a chat about a few other things you ought to know.

Have fun! You’re at the start of an amazing adventure!  I’d love to know how you get on, and if you have any questions, drop me a line.

(This post was written specifically for my dear brother Chris – Chrissy, pick up your camera, go and play with it!)

The three things every new DSLR owner should do