Pokémon Snap was about as far as I got with photography.
October 27, 2008 9:13 AM   Subscribe

What are some absolute beginner DSLR tips and tricks my wife can pick up on quickly and start using today?

My wife has recently become interested in photography as a hobby or potential career, but has always been a point-and-shoot person. Instead of sinking money into a nice camera and lenses, I decided to borrow a nice DSLR from a friend and let her use it for a day or two to see if it's something she would like.

I know about ISO and white balance and shutter speed in the sense that I know what they are, but not how to utilize them effectively. I want to help her be able to maximize her experience of using the camera, but neither of us have ever really used a DSLR before.

I know that these days you can set a camera to auto and just snap away, but are there any absolute beginner techniques to make your pictures pop like the pros? I know she's not going to be an expert in a day or two of using a DSLR, but is there something that would just take here a few minutes/hours to "get" to really see some results and room for potential growth?

(If it matters, the camera she was looking at buying is a Nikon D40, and the one I was able to borrow is an Olympus E-410.)
posted by joshrholloway to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Why not go to Flickr and search for pictures taken by the respective cameras?
There are numerous books and sites available for each camera and techniques in general but frankly nothing beats the Carnegie Hall method of photography - practice. Lots of practice. Lots of what works here and what doesn't. And then more shooting. And then shoot some more.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 9:27 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't worry about white balance; save that for much later. I might not even worry about shutter speed. Just put the camera in Aperture-priority mode and go out and play with depth of field.

I suggest doing this because it's one of the hardest things to do with a P&S camera, and it's an effect that just about anybody can notice.

Go out into a garden, or somewhere else that has subjects that don't move too much and you can get close to, and have her open the aperture up to the maximum allowed by the lens (probably only 3.5-5.6 on a kit lens, but that's okay) and observe the difference compared to f/8 or whatever the camera would do on full-auto. On a sunny day, taking pictures of flowers where there's a subject-to-background distance that's much greater than subject-to-camera, it should be pretty striking. If the camera has a DOF-preview button, all the better.

Another fun thing to play with is general composition. Almost all DSLRs have a 'focus lock' that lets you focus on one part of the scene, then move the camera around to recompose without having the in-focus part right in the center. Typically this is done by holding the shutter down halfway, then moving the camera once it locks. Although some P&Ss have this, some don't, and that can make a very visible difference in the resulting photos as well.

The real reason to use a DSLR versus a P&S isn't just for the sake of using a SLR, the point is (or ought to be) because it lets you take better pictures that you wouldn't be able to take any other way.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:29 AM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Learn the three things that control exposure and their inter-relationship: Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Learn how aperture controls depth of field.

Always be aware of the background, not just the subject. You can change the composition dramatically just by moving your feet.

Panning is fun. Turn the flash off, use a slow shutter speed, and move the camera with a moving subject.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:35 AM on October 27, 2008

You might find this thread helpful: What Is YOUR Best Photography Tip, Secret, Trick, Lesson, Technique, or Hack?
posted by nitsuj at 9:38 AM on October 27, 2008

but are there any absolute beginner techniques to make your pictures pop like the pros
  • The absolute easiest way to improve any photographs of people is to shoot very, very open. Get a fixed prime that goes down to f/1.8 or 1.4 (you can get them for peanuts) and shoot it wide open (that means you set your camera for Aperture-priority--as mentioned above--and dial it down to the smallest number). Your depth-of-field (the amount of stuff that's in focus) will be very shallow, so you have to be careful to focus on the eyes--everything else will fall into gentle, flattering blur (or bokeh as the snobs like to say).
  • Photoshop curves and color saturation are your friend. A little dab'll do you.
  • Get in closer. Fill the frame. Pick what it is that you're taking a picture of and leave out the rest. This is hard.
  • Sunrise and sunset are usually the best times to shoot. Once the sun is overhead, you can put your camera away. Night shots are an entirely different matter. The short of it is this: you're going to need to get a good tripod at some point. You can whine and complain about it and fight against it for years (I know I did) but sooner or later you're going to come to the realization that night shots taken on a tripod are much, much better than hand-held. Unless you've got very powerful strobes. Actually, forget I even said that word.

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:47 AM on October 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Here's everything I learned in film school, in two minutes or less:

First the absolutes:
* Turn off your flash. Don't use it. Ever. 90% of good photography is good lighting, and flash is crap lighting.

* Which camera you use doesn't matter. The lens matters. A good quality lens will let through more light, which gives you more creative options when it comes to deciding on your shutter speed and aperture, and will have fewer unwanted distortions. They also cost more. Zoom lenses are more convenient, since you don't have to keep changing the lens, but tend to cost more and let through less light than fixed lenses.

* Always use the lowest ISO setting that still gives you adequate exposure for the shot. Higher ISO = more noise in the image. In film this can be desirable if you want a grainy effect; in digital photography, not so much.

Now the creative decisions:
* Lens length. A long lens will tend to flatten out distances. A short, wide-angle lens will tend to exaggerate them (and at the extreme, looks distorted and fish-eye). So if you take the same shot by standing way back and using a long lens, things will look flatter than if you get in up close and use a wide-angle lens. (Stereotyped usage: a long-lens portrait may look more flattering; a wide-angle lens may have more "character".)

* Shutter speed and aperture. This is what makes the difference between a point-and-shoot and a SLR. A point-and-shoot takes a lot of creative control away from you, by setting the aperture and shutter automatically. It's convenient, and sometimes you luck out and the camera chooses settings that are what you would have chosen anyway. But sometimes it doesn't. Knowing this stuff is what makes the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.

So: for any given shot, you can get the same exposure by shooting with a higher shutter speed and an open aperture, or vice-versa. But each of these will give you different effects:

A smaller aperture (e.g. f-22) will give you deeper focus. Things very close to you will be in as clear focus as things far away. A very wide aperture will give you shallow focus. Neither of these is "correct," you want each of them in different circumstances. (You can use deep focus and a long lens to show a huge crowd and make it look even more crowded than it really is. Or you might use shallow focus to draw attention to one detail and let the rest of the shot blur into the background.)

Shutter speed: if what you're shooting isn't moving, then you can set this to anything and it won't matter; all you're doing is balancing out whatever aperture decisions you made. If what you're shooting is moving, then this becomes another creative choice: fast shutter will freeze movement, slow shutter will let it blur out into motion trails. Again, which you want depends on what you want the shot to say.

From a technical standpoint, that's pretty much all there is to it, until you get into lighting (which is a whole other story.)

The best thing your wife could do is spend a couple days systematically experimenting with the above. Take the same shot with as many different settings and lens lengths as she can, and compare the results. Take notes of what settings you used for each shot, so you can remember what gave you which effect.

Choose an outdoor scene, so you're not always bumping into light-level restrictions, and with elements that are both very close and very far, so you can see the effects of focal depth.

And play.
posted by ook at 10:25 AM on October 27, 2008 [10 favorites]

There are a lot of tutorials around for getting to know things like aperture, lighting, etc. I recommend photo.net for a lot of good info. In my opinion, there are two big but subtle advantages to DSLRs that are going to help offset their learning curve.

The first is that you can shoot in RAW format. RAW is basically an unprocessed image -- you'll be able to take this and then do a lot of tweaking later without losing any image quality. If you're shooting in JPEG, essentially you're letting the camera decide how to process the image best, and you're losing the ability to make those decisions yourself without having to make destructive edits to the image. The software (and there are a few options here, depending on your camera) to process RAW images and turn them into JPEGs takes a bit more to learn, but the basics are pretty simple, and the results are tremendous.

The second is that you can shoot a lot more photos than you would with a film camera. Get a at least 2 gigs of storage space for the camera itself, and then get in the habit of taking lots of pictures. Take the same picture five times with five slightly different settings, different angles, different compositions, etc. Then be absolutely brutal about deleting them later. I cull probably 70% of my pictures without even processing them, and wind up putting fewer than 5% on my Flickr. This is one of the secrets of good photographers: they don't show off their bad photos.

One thing that doesn't get touched on quite as much is setting up a good digital workflow -- it really helps to be organized and consistent about how you take photos, then cull the bad ones, then process and store the decent ones, and finally select the best ones to publish. This just comes down to what works for you, but it is definitely worth thinking hard about.
posted by toxotes at 10:34 AM on October 27, 2008

May I suggest Fred Parker's Ultimate Exposure Computer? It can be a little technical at times and isn't the shortest of reads, but will give you and your wife a better understanding (plus a wonderful chart for figuring out what the correct exposure should be).
posted by robtf3 at 11:05 AM on October 27, 2008

I think the biggest advantage of DSLRs is not that they have manual controls, but that they can take lenses that make the manual controls worthwhile. As others have noted, a fast lens (f <=1.8, or maybe even f2.8) opens up a lot of options. You can shoot in lower light, without the complication of using a flash (this is helped also by the fact that the larger sensors in DSLRs are more sensitive to light). Perhaps more importantly, you can have meaningful control over the depth of focus, which helps isolate subjects from the background. If your loaner camera has the cheap kit lens then your wife isn't going to be as able to take advantage of this. You might look into renting a suitable lens for a few days.
posted by Good Brain at 11:21 AM on October 27, 2008

Although I actually had to take two photography classes in college, I never really grasped the concept of a lot of what was talked about until I read it in layman's terms - The Pioneer Woman has a good section on photography on her website and I'll be honest, it really helped me "get" aperture settings. If your wife gets muddled by jargon, it's worth a look.
posted by kerning at 12:01 PM on October 27, 2008

90% of good photography is good lighting, and flash is crap lighting.

This is staggeringly wrong. Flash lighting is not inherently better or worse than sunlight. Yes, it's a much shorter duration, but your camera doesn't care since it's only open for a few tenths of a second anyway. 90% of the photographs you see taken at night on advertisements or in magazines involve a flash.

The only really good reason you should stay away from flash is because using a flash is harder that not using one.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:31 PM on October 27, 2008

C_D: I thought it was pretty obvious that I was referring to in-camera flash, but I guess that wasn't clear enough.

In-camera flash means the light is coming directly from the camera, which washes out any shadows and tends to make the image flat and uninteresting. The light also tends to have harsh reflections and uneven coverage -- unless you're going for a retro weegee look or something, I'll very much stand by the statement that the in-camera flash is crap and should never be used.

Now, if you're talking about standalone strobe units synched to the camera -- which is what pros would be using -- that's of course a whole other story, because with those you can control the light's position, color, and texture (using reflectors, gels, diffusers, etc.) But if you're advanced enough that you've started investing in that sort of equipment, then you're probably not asking basic questions like the one asked here.
posted by ook at 12:46 PM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

The rule of thirds is your friend. When all other ideas fail, you can go a long way towards good looking pictures if you can mentally divide your frame into a grid of 3 equally spaced horizontal lines and vertical lines. Now try to frame your subject into those boxes (bottom 1/3 land, upper 2/3 sky, left 2/3 horse, right 1/3 empty).
posted by specialfriend at 12:59 PM on October 27, 2008

I would suggest that you keep in mind that the quality of the photograph depends primarily on the skill of the photographer, not the sophistication of the equipment.

The things that really makes a difference, that really contributes to that "pop" in my opinion are (1) the ability to do portraits with zoom lenses in which the face (or the main subject) is in focus and the background is blurred, (2) the ability to use an off-camera flash effectively, and (3) a willingness to put yourself into embarrassing and awkward positions and situations, often getting into people's faces, that give you the angles and perspectives that no one else is willing to do. You don't really need a D40 for any of those. Finally, photography can be a very satisfying hobby, but a very frustrating career.

All that said, I find Ken Rockwell to be a very reasonable voice and a good resource. Try: here (Photography is not a spectator sport), here (how to take good photographs) and here (why equipment doesn't matter).
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 1:42 PM on October 27, 2008

I thought it was pretty obvious that I was referring to in-camera flash, but I guess that wasn't clear enough.

Ah, then an emphatic yes to what you said initially!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:47 PM on October 27, 2008

I'll very much stand by the statement that the in-camera flash is crap and should never be used.

Not true. Amateurs can benefit from using flash (yes, even on camera flash) as fill light when shooting outdoors. Here's an example:

Original poster's wife want's to take a picture of him out on the beach, in full sun. To light his face, she starts taking his picture with his face in the sun causing him to squint. She puts him under an umbrella and now notices that in the pictures, either he comes out properly exposed but the sun/sand/water is over exposed or the background is properly exposed and he's dark. Using the camera's built in flash, she can meter for the background and still get a good exposure of him at the same time.
posted by inviolable at 3:03 PM on October 27, 2008

Hee. I guess my lesson today is never say never.

OK, fine, in rare situations an in-camera flash can help rescue a shot if you have no other options. Still not something to be relied upon except in emergencies; it usually does more harm than good.
posted by ook at 3:36 PM on October 27, 2008

The only really good reason you should stay away from flash is because using a flash is harder that not using one.

A long time ago, I was in a workshop with a semi-famous European photographer. He made a point of telling us all that "I only shoot with available light." Not ten minutes later, I saw him pull a Vivitar battery-powered flash unit out of his bag. In response to my obvious question, he said "This is a light. Is available."

The point is, it's not which tools you have, it's what you do with them.
posted by pjern at 4:06 PM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Take notes of what settings you used for each shot, so you can remember what gave you which effect.

Luckily. EXIF data means you don't have to fumble with a notebook any more.
posted by zadcat at 5:26 PM on October 27, 2008

Here is a complete digital photography resource for beginners she might find useful - it's got a lot of recommendations for reading!
posted by cardamine at 5:22 AM on October 28, 2008

If you / your wife normally use a digicam, and only have the SLR for a couple of days, then it makes sense to concentrate on the things that you can do with an SLR that you can't do with a digicam. Namely:

- selective focus - shoot with a wide aperture and make the background blurry
- high ISO - because of the large sensor you can get good results at much higher sensitivity
- image quality - take a look at the photos you take at 1:1 resolution on a computer monitor - they probably look a lot better than the digicam equivalents
- change lenses - could your friend lend you a couple of lenses, particularly primes (i.e. non-zooming lenses). Using different lenses completely changes the way a DSLR feels.
posted by primer_dimer at 7:15 AM on October 28, 2008

EXIF data means you don't have to fumble with a notebook any more.

Now you're just making me feel old.
posted by ook at 7:29 AM on October 28, 2008

You think that's cool? They have programs out that will generate statistics for all your photo collection using EXIF data. This creates a powerful tool to learn about yourself and your shooting habits. You could, for example, point a few directories of travel photos at it and quickly realize that 90% of your images taken with your 24-70mm lens are at 24mm. So maybe next time you invest in glass you get something wider instead of longer. Or next time you pack for a short weekend trip, you just take your wide prime that shoots in a lot lower light than your zoom, and is easier to carry around the back country than a big honkin' zoom anyway.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:53 AM on October 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Keep shooting

Fill the frame

Keep shooting

Full auto mode for now

Keep shooting

Critique each other, and look at EXIF info for shutter speed and aperture

Keep shooting
posted by Lukenlogs at 11:56 PM on November 9, 2008

« Older Rock My City   |   How do I collect backdated unemployment benefits? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.