On December 28, 2013 In Tutorials

(1) Your (my) first DSLR – First step towards Photography

** Note: writing in context of Canon DSLRs **


Decided to do a write up for users new to shooting and photography. This will be part of a multi part post and will include my personal experience, opinions that I have gained while shooting. Hope it will help fuel your passion and technical aspects of photography.

Your first DSLR

Congratulations on your first DSLR! DSLR being said, it applies to Mirrorless, Compacts & iPhones/Smartphones, as they’ve grown to be very capable these days compared to 5 years ago. No, I am not going to start by writing up where cameras come from and how they evolved. Let’s get right to it!

Your first shot IMG_0001, save it.

You’re probably happy snapping away now and meaning to find some tips, hints or tutorials related to taking better photos, but take a moment and hold your horses!

So what was your first shot when you have finished charging the battery, checked the lens for dirt, looked at the detail of your DSLR body, guessed your way through the buttons? I hope it’s not been deleted!

We all started photography for a reason, mine was for capturing the moments in life, the places I’ve been and ultimately, create some good photos along the way that you can be proud of.

First DSLR Canon 500D with 18-55mm Kit Lens

First DSLR Canon 500D with 18-55mm Kit Lens

This was my first DSLR kit! Although, it was the ninth image (IMG_0009), this was the first image in my 500D photo collection.

6D First image IMG_0001

6D First image IMG_0001

Read the manual

Yes. If you are wondering how would you be able to understand all the technical features/details that your DSLR holds, you will soon. If you are reading this post, you will, in the future, continue to dwell into many other online tutorials that will almost definitely use all the terms in the manual unknown to you now.

Some time back, I had a chance to shoot with a Nikon body which I wasn’t familiar at all. The user had its AF points set to auto and it took me 3mins fiddling around (Japanese menus) just to set the AF point to center. It would be rather embarrassing, if you don’t know how to change AF points in your own DSLR. (Maybe I have to work on my Japanese instead)

5D II Manual

I actually read manuals. Good time killer while battery charges.

Mode dial – Av

Turn your DSLR’s mode dial to Av (I’m writing in context to Canon’s models. Read up your manual for your own DSLR!)

Personally, I didn’t use P or Tv much when I first started with the 500D, I was on Av most of the time. (Aperture priority)

Yes, do it now.

and tell yourself to never ever touch the Green Auto mode in the next few months. If you are not planning on shooting for awhile, get your camera, turn the mode dial to Av and leave it.

Set your AF point to center

Go through the manual, and find out how to “move” the AF point around, and set it to center.

Set your ISO Speed to Auto

Same as above, set your ISO speed to Auto (for now). If your DSLR comes with options for setting minimum and maximum ISO speeds, I would recommended Min: 50 ~ Max: 6400 range.

I’m sorry

If you have read till this point, you might get the feeling that I am forcing you to do the steps that I have written above. I am, really.

Now here’s the explanation and reasoning behind the steps

DSLRs are easy to use, as the manufacturers has made it, the Green Auto mode. It allows anyone to take a shot, but it comes with a downside, you can’t change any settings as its automatically chosen for you by the camera. You probably have encountered focusing issues before, not the ones when it is too dark.

The ones where you are like “why are you focusing on that [object], I want [object2] to be clear instead!”, you start from the beginning and try to re-focus again, while hoping the camera gets it right the next time. It might get it right the next time, but no, it focuses on [object3] which is in between [object] and [object2].

Geez, you get fed up and wonder why your camera sucks.

  • Saving your first shot
    • Yes, for memories’ sake. And also to let yourself know how crappy your shots were when you first started shooting with your brand new DSLR. Hopefully it turned out to be better along the way!
  • Read the Manual
    • You will know how to operate your camera and make it produce what you, as the photographer wants.
    • Customization options are important! You need to feel comfortable with your own camera.

One or few step(s) as a time

During my 5D2 days, it was difficult trying to understand what Aperture, Focal Length, ISO, Shutter speed means, and how it all works together.

Start with one factor at a time. By using the Av/Tv mode, you are in control of one factor. (Hey, at least you are in total control of one!)

  • Av Mode
    • Journey to understanding what f/ numbers means and! Producing bokeh shots. (blurred out backgrounds, subject/object is sharp)
    • A quick practical experiment is to line up 3-5 cans of drinks or objects in one straight line vertically from you. Shoot close, from a side angle, and on the same height. Set your f/ number to the smallest number it can go eg: 2.8 , 3.5
      Start by focusing on the first object, then slowly move your way down to the 5th object. You will see how your lens “blurs” out the objects that you are not focusing. This includes the front too!
      Notice the “focusing plane”, the plane that is clear, and the plane that is blurred out.
    • If it doesn’t focus as you are too close to the object, you also learn to know how “close” your lens can focus. Move further back till it can focus and go at it.
    • Likewise, set the f/ number to a higher number eg: 5.6 and higher. Don’t jump to f/8 , increase a few stops, till you reach f/11
    • Notice how the background becomes sharper whenever the f/ number increases. Note: as you go higher in number, your photos will become noisier, and your shutter speeds become longer.
    • IMG_6759

But I can only focus on the center! I can’t focus the back or front!

  • Recomposing – center point AF
    • Thought you’d never ask. Half-press on the subject which you would like to focus, then while keeping the shutter half-pressed, you move the camera till you get the frame/shot that you like, and then full-press on the shutter button. Give yourself 5 minutes of practice, and it should come natural to you in no time.
  • Why?
    • You don’t want the subject focus to be in the center of the frame, you will need to use the technique above to accomplish that.
      • More – Composing, framing & the Rule of Thirds
      • You do not have to use center AF. Most cases, moving the AF point itself by changing your camera settings is sharper as recomposing usually comes with some blur on your subject.
      • IMG_2930
      • For the shot above: Focus (half-press) on the bottle first, then move your camera upwards to move the subject towards the bottom of the picture, then full-press to take the shot
  • Auto ISO
    • Leave it as it is now. Will touch on that on the next post.

Now get out there and shoot

Without spoiling the fun, (photography is fun!) take your new skill that you have learnt and start shooting! Experiment with different subject placements, top, bottom (above), left, right, whatever, just take some photos that you think looks good!

Stay on Av mode with center AF

Summary for this post

  • Looking back on your photos and learn from your own mistakes
  • Getting intimate with your new DSLR by reading the manual
  • Be in control of one factor rather than letting the camera decide for you
  • Aperture ; what does a low f/ number do
  • You can practice at home by placing objects however you like them
  • Bokeh?! Bokeh!
  • Recomposing

Extra: For the curious and willing

Bet you will be spending most of your time viewing the photos on your DSLR, scanning through every one of them. But wait, there is actually lots of information you can learn from the pictures you have taken.

Playback Display Options

Set your DSLR to show information of the photos that you have taken while in playback mode. You can learn quite a few from it just by looking at the shutter speed that was used to take the photo. You don’t need the one with the histogram/graph for this post.


Mirrorless, iPhones, Smartphones, Tablets that offer touchscreen focusing, you can recompose by just tapping on the area you want to focus. Easy, now hold that hand steady.

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