Better Photography, Part I: DSLR

Digital SLR’s are perhaps the most versatile cameras ever made. Knowing how to utilize your camera is crucial. Here, I present a simple guide with tips for taking better photos.

DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. DSLR’s have interchangeable lenses and are the most widely used cameras by both professionals and amateurs. For example, almost every image that appears in this newspaper was taken with a DSLR. For many people, these cameras are somewhat intimidating, and this article aims to provide some simple tips to take great photographs with your DSLR.
Any DSLR is good for a beginner and just about any model will do. Don’t worry about megapixels; anything over six is plenty. The top producers of DSLR’s are Canon and Nikon. Used Canon Digital Rebels can be found for less than $350. A good source for used camera gear is CragsList.org. The 18-55 mm kit lens is fairly good for the price. However, if you want to really get your feet wet without draining your wallet, look for a 50 mm f/1.8 lens. They can be found new for less than $100. For less than $500 you can have a very capable digital photography setup.

Get to know your dial. Most DSLRs have a dial of various settings, such as the typical letters ‘M, Tv, Av, P,’ a green box and a bunch of nifty symbols. Don’t ever put it on the green box or any of the symbols again. The M, Tv, Av and P stand for manual, shutter priority, aperture priority and program, respectively. Experiment with these, as they will give you the most control. Your camera does not know how to shoot great photos. You do.

There are two things that control how much light reaches the sensor: the aperture and shutter speed. The aperture is an iris (not unlike the pupil in your eye) that can open or close to control how much light is let in. The shutter speed is how long the shutter is open to expose the sensor. On your camera, shutter speeds are represented as numbers. If it displays 500, it means that it is set to expose for 1/500th of a second. Aperture can be a little confusing. A larger aperture lets in more light, but is indicated by a smaller number. Aperture priority (Av) and shutter priority (Tv) will allow you to choose a particular aperture, or shutter speed, and the camera will choose the correct aperture or shutter speed to compensate. Manual (M) mode lets you choose both. I usually shoot with Av or M.

ISO is the ‘speed’ of the sensor, like the speed of film. Lower numbers indicate slower film and better quality, while higher numbers require less light (allowing for faster shutter speeds), but the quality isn’t as good. As a general rule, use ISO 200 or 400 when shooting outside or with plenty of light. Shoot with ISO 800 or 1,600 when indoors. For example, when I shoot portraits or surfing, I use ISO 200. When I shoot Anteater Basketball, I shoot at 1,600 or 3,200 ISO.

Observe all four corners of the viewfinder. Be conscientious of all four corners of your viewfinder, not just the center. Make sure there are no distracting objects in your composition. It sounds obvious, but make some effort to be conscious of everything that you see in the viewfinder. The difference between a good photograph and a great photograph is often very subtle. Getting to know those details is essential.

Get used to shooting with available light. Take a walk outside during the day and practice shooting in Av and Tv modes. Just mess around and take some photos, but don’t just ‘spray and pray.’ Taking 1,000 photos does not guarantee that you’ll get even one good one. It’s far better to take one meaningful and conscientious photo than 1,000 on the fly. This is perhaps the one advantage of learning photography with film