Advice for a first-time DSLR owner?
August 4, 2009 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I've just ordered a learning DSLR, so please help me learn!

I did a lot of reading, held a bunch of cameras, and between the Nikon D60, Rebel Xsi and Alpha 350, I've ordered in the Xsi kit. I know the kit lens is only 'okay' but it will do for now while I learn. It also has the advantage of sharing some accessories with my point-and-shoot Powershot S5 IS that I will be keeping for now.

What I really need is advice. I've read a few books, I have the basic SLR concepts down and I'll be ready to shoot when it arrives. However, real advice is far more valuable than a book and I don't know anyone that shoots an SLR on a regular basis, so I've come to the Hive Mind.

What I'd like to know:

- Best hints for a hobbiest starting out?
- What accessories should I budget for first? Tripod? Flash? Lens?
- Tips or tricks on the Xsi?
- Good starting subjects and/or studies for learning on?

Of course, any other advice is really welcome!
posted by WinnipegDragon to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I think your next investment should be a good flash. I've used the Speedlite 580ex with my XSi and it made taking pictures at parties a lot of fun. It's a big step up from the onboard flash and will give you more opportunities to enjoy bringing your camera out and actually using it.
posted by malapropist at 12:29 PM on August 4, 2009

What do you plan on shooting? Subject matter?
posted by notsnot at 12:30 PM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: I don't think you'll want to use many of the accessories that you already have. Maybe for learning purposes, but that's about it.

Go for a lens first. The nifty fifty is nice and cheap, but produces some great results. Beyond that, figure out what you want to shoot most often. We can give you much better advice on lenses after we know that.

You can go without a flash for a while. Same with a tripod in most cases, although a good one of those is a lot more useful at this stage. But don't ask me about those, I got mine from Freecycle and haven't had much time to do anything really photography related lately.

As you can probably tell from the conflicting advice from malapropist and me, what you should get next is really a matter of opinion. How you plan on using the camera helps with a lot of these decisions, and without knowing that we're really only throwing out personal preferences.

Digital Photography School is a forum I go to a lot (I'm a moderator over there but otherwise have no real stake in it). It's mostly a good group of people who know what they're talking about and are pretty photo-newb friendly.
posted by theichibun at 12:33 PM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: Here's a great website for digital photography techniques.

You'll probably want to buy a lens first, as they have the greatest influence over the quality of your photos, last forever, and are the most expensive. I'm actually looking for a Canon lens myself, and here are a few useful websites I've found:

* Lens or Camera?
* Canon EOS Beginner's FAQ
* Your Camera Doesn't Matter
* some ranked Canon lenses
posted by archagon at 12:35 PM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: LearnDSLR is a site that is designed for people just like you who are new to SLRs, but the kicker is that it's centered around the excellent 450D/XSi so you'll be able to apply everything you read with the kit you actually have.

I would recommend that you purchase Canon's 55-250mm IS lens which runs about $220-260. It's a great lens to supplement the already pretty good one it comes with in the kit.
posted by cgomez at 12:38 PM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I had a similar set up when I started (Rebel Xt). Second the advice to get the 50mm f1.8--for the price, it can't be beat. But I found it was too long on the crop-sensor body for indoor use. If you want a zoom, definitely consider the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8 which is very fast and has great picture quality at a great price. The only draw back is its loud auto-focus motor.

As for accessories, flash is good, but a Speedlite 580ex like malapropist suggest is way too pricey. When I started out, I just used a Lightscoop. It's basically an angled mirror you attach to the flash hotshoe, allowing you to bounce the onboard flash to the ceiling. It only costs 30 bucks and you'll love it for your indoor shots. Later on you can get a dedicated flash, but even now, I still use the Lightscoop over my speedlite because it weighs next to nothing.
posted by reformedjerk at 12:41 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What do you plan on shooting? Subject matter?

Sorry, I should have answered this.

Well I have a 24-day old at home, so he'll get a lot of time in front of the lens :) Outside of that, I tend to like Architectural detail, wild life, I'm sure I'll do some macro shooting as well. Landscapes might be down the road, but it's not my first priority.

Already some great advice here, thanks kindly MeFis!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 12:43 PM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: Buy a tripod.

While the first instinct for a new photographer and an interchangeable-lens camera is almost always "I want a bigger telephoto lens", that's almost always wrong.

Let me explain.

Most people use zoom lenses to "make things bigger" until they fit the frame, or "make things smaller" until they can "Get it all in".

Both of these concepts are wrong.

The use of differing focal lengths should be to change the relationship of objects in the frame.

You'll be much better off as a photographer if you next buy a fixed focal length lens, perhaps in the 28-35mm range, and learn to use your feet to move around and change backgrounds, and see how the relationships change.

Buy Adams' The Camera to learn more than you ever thought you could know about lenses and cameras. There's a reason this book is still a classic on the subject, even though it was written in the days of large format view cameras: It's an exhaustive treatise on the basics of photography and how the interactions happen between focal length and view.

Best hints:

Shoot. Shoot some more. Shoot still more. Then, when you've done that, go out and shoot some more.

Try to shoot 1000 frames a month.

The more you shoot, the more you will attune your eyes to "seeing photographically".

Look at the light, everywhere you go. In the restaurant at lunch, in the lobby of a movie theater , outside on a cloudy day, in the hour before sunset. Note how it's different.

Look at shadows. Learn to look into shadows, to see what's there.

Look to see what things do to light. Watch how light in the shadows changes on the street when a large truck rolls by. (Large trucks often act as reflectors, because they often have large areas of white).

Now that you've practiced observing light, use those observations to make your photography better. If you see something interesting, go ahead and shoot it now. If you're unhappy with the results, try to decide what needs to change or be different, and reshoot with that in mind. Never be afraid to reshoot if you can see what went wrong. This will help you develop a style.

Look at Flickr or Picasa, find groups on subjects that interest you. See what and how other people shoot. Use those ideas.
posted by pjern at 12:55 PM on August 4, 2009 [9 favorites]

Bring your camera everywhere and take pictures of everything. Look at each shot you take and try to objectively decide a) whether you like what you did and b) what you like and dislike about it.

It really helps to join a site like Flickr - not for feedback (it's usually rubbish on Flickr) but to find some work that you like and follow the artists. Find a group that does something you're interested in (be broad - nature, architecture, street photography, portraits, etc.), then find a handful of pictures that look good to you. Why do they look good? Follow the photographers and keep track of their work. It could especially be helpful if you find someone that you like that also just dumps every frickin' thing he's ever shot on to the site. This way, you can compare the shot that you like to similar shots that may be better or worse. Why is one better than the other?

When you have a few answers to those questions, try to incorporate them into your own work. Compare your work back to the pictures you like and make some objective assessments about them.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:56 PM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: The thing that will help you more than any piece of advice or equipment is to go out and use the camera. Take lots of pictures of whatever interests you and try to recognize the ones that you like and why you like them. Try to take that knowledge and push it back into the picture making process and improve your photos.

As for other stuff, it really depends on what you want to do.

* A tripod is a pretty good accessory to have, but I'd advise you to get one with a ball head. Trying to use a head designed for video with an slr is pretty painful. As for which tripod, I'd look at a Velbon Ultra Luxi SF or a set of basic manfrotto legs with a decent ball head. The Velbon is pretty short, but it folds up small and doesn't weigh too much. The best tripod is the one that you have with you. The Manfrotto set up is going to go higher and be more stable. Also, that ball head has a quick release, unlike the Velbon, although you can swap the Velbon's for something better (that's what i've done). Using a tripod will force you to slow down and think more about composition. It will also let you get a lot of shots that you couldn't otherwise, since you will no longer have to worry about shutter speed so much.

* If you want to get into doing flash photography, check out strobist, especially their lighting 101 series. You can get into doing a lot of really cool stuff this way, for not too much money. Also, if you get to the point where you are thinking about saving up for PocketWizards, you might consider these. I have a set and they work really well out to a couple hundred feet.

* Which lens you buy next depends on what you want to shoot. However, the one lens that you will probably want to get fairly quickly is the 50mm 1.8. It will let you shoot in much darker light than the kit lens, costs about 100 dollars and will probably be the best lens you will own (optically, anyway) for quite some time. If you do decide you want a wide angle though, I can heartily recommend the this tokina.

* A nice camera bag is something that I've always found very useful. It's hard to make recommendations here, since people's taste in bags tends to vary widely. Your best bet is to find a nice camera store and try a bunch of them out. Failing that, check out Lowepro, Tamrac, Crumpler and Domke.

* Shooting in RAW is something you should probably do eventually. It will give you much more control over your photos. I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 to manage and edit most everything I do. You can get it for pretty cheap if you are a student ($100 or so).

* Two website that have a lot of good material are the Luminous Landscape and Cambridge in Color .

Ok, I guess that's enough for now.
posted by pwicks at 1:02 PM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding Flickr.

As for tricks just starting out... playing around in manual mode is good practice, but read pages in your manual about the "Av" and "Tv" settings on your camera and master those. (ISO and exposure compensation settings, too).

You might be tempted to use your on-camera flash for portraits of the little one indoors, but the lighting will just be really unflattering. Get yourself close to a window -- or the nifty fifty lens.
posted by starman at 1:04 PM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: First off, get a 50mm lens as theichibun mentioned. You'll appreciate the flexibility in low light and nifty depth of field that's great for portraits, and even better for baby portraits (at least in my experience). For architecture and landscapes I advise you look into a wide angle lens. Well, the XSI kit lens will be alright for some landscapes, but it could dissapoint you when it comes to architectural detail.

Another option is a higher quality 17-50 f/2.8 ($450ish) like reformedjerk mentioned, if you don't mind the loud motor. You'll get much finer detail in your wide angle shots, and still be able to shoot pretty portraits with the benefit of a high depth of field. Here you can see a variety of photos taken with that lens.

Your second priority purchase would probably be a lower-end flash, which will come in very handy in all kinds of situations... especially when that kid starts moving fast in low-light situations. :P Later on you'll be able to experiment with a lot of really interesting lighting techniques. Something like the Speedlite 430EX, which retails for $270 (and can be found as low as $240), is probably your best bet.

As for the learning process itself, I'd just advise you to experiment and have fun. Your photos aren't going to be perfect at first, but read up a bit on some photo fundamentals (exposure, composition, etc.) and you'll improve rapidly. For that I'd recommend purchasing Understanding Exposure.

posted by csjc at 1:10 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, I forgot about tripods. I'll also recommend the purchase of a good quality ball-head tripod like the one pwicks mentioned above. Oh, yes, shoot in RAW- memory is cheap. Try programs like Lightroom to organize and edit your photos. Flickr is also a brilliant place not only to upload and chart your own progress, but to get in touch with other photographers and participate in photography-related discussion.

If you're buying equipment (I see you're a fellow Canadian), try B&H. They have the best prices and service anywhere, even if it does end up costing a bit more to ship across the border.

That should be it!
posted by csjc at 1:17 PM on August 4, 2009

I forgot to mention... start off by shooting in aperture and shutter priority as you start learning about exposure and so on. Nothing worse than auto mode.

(Apologies for the comment flood!)
posted by csjc at 1:18 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't buy anything yet. Just take a few thousand photos of whatever interests you. As you take more and more and compare your pics to others (Flickr is great for that, as others have mentioned -- trying to replicate others' pics is also very helpful), you'll become frustrated by what you CAN'T accomplish with your current setup. Then you'll know what to buy.

I'd wait 6 months or so.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:49 PM on August 4, 2009

Best answer: Great advice, all.

Get a fast normal-ist prime (50mm f1.8 or f1.4 or even better the Sigma 30mm f1.4) and learn to use it. Take LOTS of pictures. Using a prime takes focal length away as a variable, leaving you just focus, shutter speed and aperture. Once you've got that down, you'll be in a good place to decide what else you want. A flash is nice, but using it right is something you just can't do until you've spent some time learning the basics. An ultra-wide 10-20mm is probably my second most-used lens after the 30mm f1.4, but every lens has its place.

I second avoiding long lenses until you decide you NEED one, and even then try renting one at first. I own a damn nice 70-200 f2.8, but it stays at home unless I'm going somewhere I _know_ I'll use it. 100mm is the longest thing I use regularly. I'd also suggest avoiding anything slower than f2.8 on the lens front (exception being ultra-wide angles that don't come in anything under ~f4). On a modern dSLR, f2.8 is good for indoor shots by artificial light...f4-5.6 usually isn't.

Tripod-wise, the Bogen 3021 is kinda the standard sub-$200 tripod and is hard to beat. Mine's been through hell. More specialized stuff is available for heavy gear or backpacking, but the 3021 is a good all-rounder. A cheap ball head by any reputable maker is probably fine.
posted by paanta at 2:02 PM on August 4, 2009

Response by poster: Lots of reading and lots to think about. I freaking love AskMe.

Thanks everyone, I'm excited to get my hands on this thing and just shoot like mad.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 2:42 PM on August 4, 2009

pjern's advice is so good it hurts.

For more unwanted lens advice, I'd recommend the excellent Canon 28mm f/1.8. It works out at a "normal" lens length on a crop sensor, and can be found for reasonable prices second-hand, plus it'll work on a full-frame camera (should you ever go there) and focuses better than the Sigma. Don't feel like you have to start investing in lenses though, I just think that would be the best one to get were to you get one.

Have fun!
posted by Magnakai at 4:06 PM on August 4, 2009

Canon 28mm f/1.8. It works out at a "normal" lens length on a crop sensor

Minor correction: 35mm is closer to a "normal" 50mm on cropped sensors (at least, 1.6x crops like the Rebel). You'd also save yourself a couple hundred bucks.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:47 PM on August 4, 2009

I am just about six months ahead of you in the DSLR learning curve. I have the same camera, and I had pretty much the same questions you have.

The advice so far is fabulous. Take lots of pictures (with a newborn you are likely to do that anyway, but it really does teach you how things interact with each other.

The first lens I bought to add to the kit lens was the nifty fifty everyone here is talking about, and that was the best eighty bucks I've spent so far. Using a prime lens really forces you to use your feet and think about composition in a way that using a zoom doesn't. It is on my camera a lot more than the kit lens these days. I used it at the local MeFi tenth meetup and didn't have to use a flash at all, which was nice.

The one thing that no one has mentioned so far, and that I will encourage you to keep in mind, is that you don't have to buy the whole cow right away. Rent lenses before you buy them! I have had great experience with but I don't know if they serve Canada. I rented a 10-22 mm lens for a trip to the Washington coast that allowed me to get photos I would have tried to get with the kit lens without success. And then I got to give it back, and pay them just a fraction of what it would cost to buy. Fabulous! Renting lenses is a great way to figure out if it will work for you before you commit.

Have fun with your new camera and your new baby!
posted by ambrosia at 4:49 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The singular best thing you can do to learn "photography" is ignore as much of the amateur photography you see on the internet (flickr,, etc) and buy, borrow or steal as many books by the great photographers of the last 150 or so years.

That could include, randomly:
Gary Winogrand
Annie Liebowitz (a great one for amateurs to study)
John Cohen
Linda Butler
Walker Evans
Josef Sudek
Cartier Bresson

Again, totally random.

Internet photography (broad generalization coming) is all kind of feeding off itself. There isn't much new thought coming in or reflection. A lot of people patting each other on the back. That's fine...but if you are interested in making photographs that other (non-photographer) people will want to see, I suggest you get your eyes on some really good stuff. Oh yeah, it's really fun, you look at art.
posted by sully75 at 5:50 PM on August 4, 2009

Yeah, pjern's advice is the best photography advice I've read in AskMe in a long time (though the tripod is a waste of money...). The best camera for you is the one that makes it easiest for you to take pictures of what you want. If that means a point and shoot taking pictures at parties or a hasselblad taking pictures of doorknobs, figure out which camera gets in your way the least. Or, in this case, figure out how to make your camera get out of your way so you can take the pictures you want. To wit, a telephoto will almost always require you to run across the room to take a picture of somebody sitting next to you, so more often than not you'll just skip the picture. Likewise if all you've got is a 24mm and you're trying to photograph bald eagles. Make it so you aren't fighting your gear.

And only a few have mentioned it here, but next to taking tons of pictures, the best photography practice is looking at work you like and figuring out how to achieve that look, especially as regards pjern's discussion of spatial relationship between elements in a frame as lens focal length increases and decreases. Try wide lenses (on a crop sensor, nothing wider than a 17mm, please) and try long lenses. I remember, oh so long ago now, how much of a difference I noticed in my pictures when I just started using a 28mm for everything. That also forces you to get close.

Oh, one last piece of advice; get on your knees. When I'm working, I spend a great deal of time shooting from below waist level. Doing so will raise subjects' heads above the tree/horizon/roof line when you're outdoors, or get you at eye level with a baby, or show you new perspective on something ordinary. One way to think about photography is to consider it a tool for showing an unexpected view of the ordinary. Everything you see as you walk about day to day is probably from eyes at either around 5 or 6 feet off the ground (give or take) when you're walking or a little lower if you're seated. That leaves a ton of possibilities for novel perspectives if you're willing to bend your knees a bit or climb on top of a trash can while you're photographing a parade, for instance.
posted by msbrauer at 7:40 PM on August 4, 2009

Response by poster: I know this is a few days old now, but I wanted to come back and say thanks to everyone that posted advice.

I just picked up my 'Nifty Fifty' lens on sale today, and I'll grab the tripod this week as well. I think I've settled on this Manfrotto 190XB tripod.

Considering a remote shutter switch too, seems like a good idea with the tripod.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 4:14 PM on August 6, 2009

Minor correction: 35mm is closer to a "normal" 50mm on cropped sensors (at least, 1.6x crops like the Rebel). You'd also save yourself a couple hundred bucks.

She (?) didn't say a 28mm lens works out to a 50mm lens length on a crop camera, she said it works out to a "normal" lens length. A normal lens is a lens of focal length roughly equal to the diagonal of the format used. The diagonal of a Canon APS-C sensor is 27.3mm, therefore a 28mm lens is very close to a normal lens for this format. The 50mm focal length is actually slightly telephoto on 35mm format.
posted by banter at 8:03 PM on August 6, 2009

Best answer: Just for the record, the tripod would not be my 1st priority. Tripods are good for doing product and landscape photography. The whole point of a 35mm camera is being able to move around at will. Having a tripod can inhibit this.

There are advantages in the learning can spend the time looking through the viewfinder and seeing each thing in it and whether you want it there or not. That can be helpful. But that can be done with the camera in your hand too.

I think the important thing to realize is that 99% of the great, inspiring pictures you will find were not shot with a tripod. There's a meaning to that. That excludes landscape, some sports, some wildlife, and all large format pictures (which are some of my favorites). But your garden variety great photographer is running around with his camera trying to get a great shot. He's not into putting 10 pounds more of camera on his camera.
posted by sully75 at 9:35 AM on August 8, 2009

Response by poster: I'm not sure anyone will still be reading this, but my gear is here, I'm shooting, and blogging my learning experience at if anyone wants to follow along.

I appreciated all the advice, and I *did* end up getting the tripod, really only for shooting macros. I'm happy with the decision, but I've only used it once in the first day of shooting.

Thanks again for all the advice!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 9:17 AM on August 23, 2009

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