5 Tips for Getting the Most out of your New DSLR Camera

5 Tips for Getting the Most out of your New DSLR Camera

Christmas has been and gone, the New Year’s resolutions have been made (and broken) and we’re now slowly getting back into the swing of normal life again.

The shiny new DSLR that you got for Christmas is still sitting in its box, having only been out a couple of times since the big day.

I remember getting my first ever DSLR. I was given it as a wedding present from a close relative and I took it out on my honeymoon and excitedly clicked away at everything and anything I could see. The images looked great on the back of the camera and when I got home I was excited to get the images up in Photoshop to see what master pieces my new camera had produced.

And the results were overwhelmingly……………

…….….disappointing!

Many of the images were soft (not as sharp as they’d looked on the back of the screen), the exposure was way off, often either far too light or far too dark, the focus was often in the wrong place and I was just generally really disappointed with the majority of my images.

Now it is worth pointing out that I had been photographing for several years prior to getting a “proper” camera and I had previously shot on a film SLR back in the dark and distant past. I have also studied art at a reasonably high level, so I was not a complete beginner and I did have some understanding around composition and light.

The problem was that I had no idea how to use my new camera.

I didn’t know what all the buttons and dials did, what all the menus were and so I was unable to get the best out of it. My pictures were worse than my compact “point and shoot” camera – which I was not expecting!

It didn’t take long to learn the camera basics

It didn’t take long to learn the camera basics

However, with a bit of study and a lot of practice, I very quickly got the hang of my camera and my images started to improve hugely. It really didn’t take long to start getting images that I was happy with.

So, to help you get the most out of your new DSLR camera (and so hopefully avoid the mistakes that I made), these are my top 5 tips to help you get the most out of your new DSLR camera.


Tip 1. Learn your way around your new camera

One of the first and most important ways to get the most out of your new DSLR camera is to learn your way around it.

There are many ways to learn the functions of your new camera and to find out where all these functions are. The camera manual might be a good place to start, but often these are really complicated, hard to follow and if you’ve never had a DSLR before, the manual might seem a little overwhelming and technical.

If you’ve looked through the manual and felt your brain starting to hurt, don’t worry as there are loads of other resources available to help you find your way around your camera.

Books

Unless you have an obscure camera from a virtually unknown brand, you should be able to find a book that will walk you through your new camera. There are loads of books on sites like Amazon and Ebay that promise to help you find your way around your camera and break down the complicated manual into easy to understand, jargon free, plain English.

When I got my first DSLR camera, I bought a “D7000 for Dummies” book and I found it a hundred times more useful than the manual that came with the camera. It really helped me to understand where all the buttons, dials and menu options were and what they did.

If there isn’t a Dummies book for your camera, just type your camera name followed by “user guide” or “book” into Google, Ebay, Amazon etc. and you should find a decent, user friendly book.

YouTube

YouTube can be a great learning resource

YouTube can be a great learning resource

Again, unless you have a really obscure camera, I would be surprised if there wasn’t a YouTube tutorial for your Camera. YouTube has revolutionised the way we learn with free content from some incredibly knowledgeable people, however I would still recommend getting a book as a reference.

Try typing your camera model into YouTube and see what comes up!

Other online resources

Blogs can be a great resource when you are learning all about your new camera. There are some great blogs out there that are very good at breaking down complex information into easily digested chunks

Online learning sites, such as Udemy, often have short photography and camera courses and again, these can be a fantastic resource to help you learn your way around your camera.

Handle your New DSLR camera as much as possible

Learning is one thing, but to really get to grips with your camera, you really need to practice with it. In this context, I’m not talking about going out and actually taking pictures with your camera, I mean just handling it and getting used to how you camera feels.

When you’re watching TV in the evening, instead of reaching for your phone and scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, pick up your camera. Change things in the menus section, change the ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture, play with the different functions, find the bracketing button and change it. Try to become as familiar with your camera as possible, so when you are out taking photographs, you know how to make changes quickly and easily, without needing to refer to the manual.


Tip 2. Don’t be scared of using it – your new camera might get dirty!

This one might sound a bit silly at first, but I have met so many people who appear a little afraid of their DSLR camera.

I completely understand why you might be scared of using your new camera. They are expensive, complicated to use (at first) and, if you’ve been saving for ages to get one, you might be worried about breaking it.

I have a friend who visited Iceland a few years ago. Before she went, she bought a new DSLR as she had wanted to get into photography for a long time. When she came back from Iceland, I asked to see her pictures. She immediately took out her compact point-and-shoot camera and showed me all her images. When I asked her about the DSLR, it turned out that she was worried that the Icelandic dust might scratch her lenses and sensor, so she left her DSLR at home and took her cheap camera……….on a trip to Iceland - the photography capital of the world!

I will just say that it is very difficult to completely break a modern camera (not impossible, but very difficult).

I’ve dropped mine in mud and on rocks, got drenched in rain storms, been out in blistering heat, stood in lakes and rivers and photographed in dusty and dirty locations. My camera has never let me down!

Now I’m not for one second advocating being reckless with your camera. I love my camera and take every precaution to keep it (and the rest of my kit) safe, but accidents will inevitably happen when you use a camera regularly. I could wrap mine in cotton wool, leave it at home when the weather’s bad or not venture into wet or dusty locations, but that would mean missing out on getting some of my favourite shots.

So take precautions, be sensible, get your equipment insured if you are really worried, but above all else, remember that your camera is a tool that needs to be used – you will only get more comfortable using your new camera if you use it regularly!


Tip 3. Get off the Auto Setting as soon as possible

Many new DSLR cameras will boast about their auto settings and how accurate the camera can read the scene and decide on which setting will best suit it.

Whilst advances in technology have certainly improved the auto function on modern DSLR cameras, taking the time to learn about the exposure triangle (I will be writing a post on the exposure triangle soon) and how to use this to create the image you want to make will open up many more creative doors for you.

In landscape photography, I often use the manual setting. By shooting in manual, I have complete control of everything that the camera does and by learning to shoot in manual, I found that I learned the functions of the camera and how changing one thing (such as aperture) effected another (such as shutter speed) very quickly. It forced me to learn how to use my camera and how to expose an image creatively for the effect I desired.

However, I also regularly shoot in Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority. These settings are semi-automatic settings where you (the photographer) have control over one aspect of the exposure and the camera makes the decision over the other. I will be writing about these functions in far more details in a future post. But in the mean time, look up aperture and shutter priority and have a play with them – learning to use these will open up far more creative possibilities than just relying on the automatic setting.


Tip 4. Learn the basic principles of composition

Many people look at images online and in magazines and then look at their own pictures and wonder why their photographs just aren’t as interesting to look at.

I remember wondering how an experienced photographer could stand in roughly the same place as me, looking at the same view and yet produce an image far more interesting and far more beautiful than anything I could produce.

The “rule of thirds” and other elements helped me compose this shot

The “rule of thirds” and other elements helped me compose this shot

To get the most out of your new camera, its worth knowing that there are many techniques and tricks that experienced photographers use to make their images interesting to look at and pleasing on the eye. These can range from editing techniques, camera settings, filters, lens choice, their use of light, choice of composition and many other factors. All of these will be covered in more detail in future posts, however having a basic understanding of composition can greatly improve your photography.

Many people have heard of the “rule of thirds” (if you haven’t, keep an eye on this blog as I’ll be covering the rule of thirds in detail in an up-coming post). The rule of thirds is great place to start when composing your images. Many modern DSLR cameras have a rule of thirds grid that you can select to overlay your image on the back of the screen which can really help to position the elements within the frame.

Other things to think about when learning the basics of composition include:

Foreground interest – having something in the foreground to add interest, anchorage and to lead the eye into the image

Leading lines – using lines or patterns to draw the eye into and around the image

Giving space – giving the subject “room to breathe” within the image

Checking the corners – making sure there are no distractions or poorly framed elements along the edges or in the corners (a part of the frame that’s all too often neglected).

Spend some time learning about the rules of composition, practice using them and, once you’re happy with the rules, you can start breaking them!


Tip 5. Don’t expect too much at first

I recently read a comment in a photography Facebook group that went something like this:

“I’m selling all my photography gear on Ebay. I’ve had enough! I tried to take pictures of my children bouncing the flash off a wall and yet again, they looked terrible. Ive had enough of this photography lark!”

I’ve seen several other comments or posts similar to this over the years and I think it’s a real shame!

In the comment above, the person writing the comment was selling his Nikon D850 and lenses and flash (a very expensive kit list to say the least). I know professional photographers that don’t have kit anywhere near as high spec as this and they produce beautiful work.

Now I’m not saying for one minute that gear isn’t important, I love photography kit as much as the next person; but if anything, I think that comments like the one above remind us that a top of the range camera doesn’t make a top of the range photographer!

Assuming that having a decent camera will somehow turn you into the next Landscape Photographer or the Year is really doing a disservice to the years of study, trial and error, practice, all the mistakes and bad pictures, all the frustrations and highs and lows that accomplished photographers have all gone through. Photographers like Mark Littlejohn, Simon Baxter, Nigel Danson and Rachel Talibart aren’t great photographers because they have the newest camera’s, they are great because they have spent years learning photography, practicing their art and perfecting their craft.

It is also worth mentioning that you will only ever see the portfolio level images from a photographer on their website or Instagram feed. What you will never see is all the photo’s that don’t make the cut. All the poorly focused, badly exposed, terrible compositions get seen only by the photographer. We look at our bad shots, learn from them and ultimately delete them. As Ansel Adams once famously said:

“12 significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” – Ansel Adams

So practice, don’t be put off by bad pictures and persevere through the bad times and you will find that your photography improves


***Bonus tip***

If you have some form of RAW processing software, Try to shoot in RAW instead of Jpeg

Not everyone can do this one, but if you have access to Lightroom or some other Raw processing, try to shoot in RAW (NEF for Nikon users) instead of Jpeg.

RAW files are much larger than jpeg files simply because a RAW file is the equivalent of a digital negative – all the information has been saved, whereas the smaller jpeg files have been processed by software in the camera and then compressed.

There are many benefits to shooting in RAW, but one of the biggest benefits is that the uncompressed version of the image will allow you far greater scope when it comes to editing your image. You can easily change things such as the white balance and exposure and you will find that, as you get more and more proficient with editing, you will be able to return to your earlier images and tweak them further (something I wish I’d known about when I first started shooting with a DSLR).

One thing of note – When you look back at your RAW images on your monitor, they may seem a little “flat” when compared to a Jpeg image. Don’t worry about this at all. Remember that a Jpeg has already been processed by the camera and a RAW file hasn’t. You can bring the contrast and colour back into the image during the editing process to a far greater or lesser degree than you can with a Jpeg.


 

So there you have it, 5 tips to help you get the most out of your new DSLR camera.

  1. Learn Your Way Around your New Camera

  2. Don’t be Scared to Use It

  3. Get it off the Auto Setting

  4. Learn How to Compose a Shot

  5. Don’t Expect Too Much at First

This should hopefully be enough to get you started. So go out, take your camera with you and start shooting as soon as possible!

Do you have any other tips for people new to the world of DSLR photography to help them get the most out of their new camera? Do you have any questions about your new camera? If so, please leave a comment below!