How to Master Your DLSR in One Afternoon a Beginner’s Guide

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As the Editor-in-Chief of CLARITY, I believe that photography is one of the most unique forms of visual art. As a photographer, you must possess an ability to express yourself visually and also be technically proficient with the tools of your craft.

Thankfully, the technology is relatively simple to understand. Given a small amount of time, anyone can master the mechanics of their DSLR very quickly. I’m referring to the technical side of photography, or more specifically, how to use your camera.

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I’m sure you’ll agree, digital SLR cameras are pretty appealing contraptions. They constantly evolve with new bells and whistles, and shiny attractive buttons and dials, but at their very essence, a camera is quite simply a box that captures and records light through a small opening. Light enters the camera and hits a sensor for a certain period of time, and that’s it. Too much light and the photo will be over-exposed (too bright). Not enough light and the photo will be under-exposed (too dark). By the end of this article, if feel stuck in Automatic Mode you will be able to break free and let your true creativity reign!

So how do you know when you have the optimal amount of light? Thankfully, when you are shooting in Manual mode, your camera has a built-in light meter to show you if your exposure is going to be too dark, too bright, or just right. You simply need to know how to control the amount of light that enters your camera, and for how long the sensor is exposed to that light.

Start Right Here – learn how to master your DSLR

There are three ways to control the amount of light that enters your camera, and all three are used to make your photograph either brighter or darker.

The Exposure Triangle

The first is the size of the opening through which light enters, called the aperture of your lens. The next is the duration of time that your camera sensor is exposed to the light, referred to as the shutter speed. The final option controls how sensitive the camera is to light, known as the ISO. These three controls all interact with one another in a give-and-take relationship, and the following “Exposure Triangle” is a great tool to help you understand the dynamics of these relationships.

Now, the trick is to balance these three options to achieve a perfect exposure. Typically, you will choose two ways of controlling how light enters the camera, and then compromise on the third. The two choices you make are solely dictated by the aesthetic you would like to achieve. Aperture size, shutter-speed, and ISO all have individual benefits, but they also produce side-effect consequences that lend an aesthetic component of their own. Let’s explore how they work in more detail.

Part One – Aperture

The size of the “hole” through which light enters your camera is called the aperture. Mechanically, the aperture is a little diaphragm inside the lens that you can widen or narrow by telling your camera what f-stop you would like to use. The f-number is a funny measurement because a small f-number (like f/2.0) equates to a wide opening, whereas a large f-number (like f/22) equates to a small opening. As you would imagine, a large opening allows more light to enter the camera resulting in a brighter photograph, and a small opening lets in less light resulting in a darker photograph. Pretty straightforward stuff so far right?

Side Effect of Aperture

The aesthetic effect of varying the aperture is that light entering a wide aperture translates into less focus between the foreground and the background in the photograph. This is how photographers blur out the backgrounds in their photos. When you want to isolate a subject by blurring out the background, you would use a wide aperture.

DOF f2 8 Dave Seeram

Light that enters through a smaller, tighter, aperture is more focused than light entering a wide aperture, and light that is more focused translates into sharper focus through the foreground-to-background depth in a photograph. So if you want everything as sharp as possible through the depth of your scene, you would want to use a narrow aperture.

DOF f16 Dave Seeram

Part Two – Shutter Speed

The shutter is basically a little curtain that opens and closes behind the aperture. It can be open for a long amount of time (like seconds, minutes, or even longer), or a short amount of time (like quick fractions of a second). As the shutter stays open longer, more light is captured by the sensor resulting in a brighter image. The shorter the shutter speed, the less light is captured resulting in a darker image.

Side Effect of Shutter Speed

The aesthetic effect here is that a fast shutter speed allows you “freeze” any motion in the scene, whereas a slower shutter speed blurs any motion. Imagine taking a photograph of a falling water droplet. If your shutter speed was set to 1/1000th of a second, the shutter is open for such a brief fraction of time that the drop would appear frozen in mid-air when photographed.

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Alternatively, if you set a much slower shutter-speed such as half a second, then the movement of the falling drop would be captured as a blur.

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Give-and-Take

Typically, fast shutter speeds require a larger aperture for the sensor to capture enough light to produce a well-exposed photograph. Conversely, slow shutter speeds tend to require a smaller aperture to limit the amount of light coming in over the longer duration. You can see how these factors are all starting to work together.

Part Three – ISO

The third way of adjusting the overall brightness of your photograph is the ISO, which controls how sensitive the camera sensor is to light. A low ISO (like 100) results in a darker photograph, while a high ISO (like 6400) results in a brighter photograph.

Side Effect of ISO

Of course, there is a trade-off here too. The aesthetic compromise of using a higher ISO means that while you will produce a brighter image, a higher ISO also introduces more grain (or “noise”) into a digital photograph.

Usually, you will first decide upon your aperture and shutter speed based on the combination of their aesthetic effects to your vision for the final image, while aiming to keep your ISO as low as possible. If you know that you need a certain shutter speed along with a certain aperture and the resulting image is still too dark, that’s when you increase the ISO.

Generally speaking, when you’re shooting in an environment that is dark or dimly lit, you’ll want to raise the ISO to make the sensor more sensitive to light. When the lighting conditions are bright, you can keep the ISO low.

It’s all about finding a balance between these settings to achieve the best exposure. Once you decide upon one or two of these settings, the camera will require some compensation on the other.

Photographybb exposure triangle

The Exposure Triangle is a great reference to demonstrate how increasing or decreasing any one of these three settings affects the exposure of the image. This stuff can be learned quite quickly, but it’s best to experiment with these settings to see how they operate in the real world. This will help you gain a technical understanding of how to use your camera, but there’s still a long way to go with regards to making photographs that communicate. Remember, photography is a visual language. Once you learn how to use the camera, you can then learn to translate your vision into captivating photographs.

Both the technical and artistic aspects play important roles in the making of a beautiful photograph. At CLARITY, we show our readers how to quickly learn the technical side, but we go even further to teach the importance of developing your creativity. We’ll show you step-by-step techniques to making stronger photographic compositions, and what to do when you feel like your vision and results don’t line up. Join other DPS readers, and we’ll give you everything you need to know to make great photographs with ease, in any situation. Get a subscription to CLARITY on sale now at SnapnDeals.com.

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Dave Seeram

is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of CLARITY: PHOTOGRAPHY BEYOND THE CAMERA, a digital magazine for beginner to intermediate level photography enthusiasts. Dave is the owner of PhotographyBB, a supportive and positive environment for new photographers to learn photography and image-processing skills. Dave also enjoys pixel-twisting in Adobe Photoshop and has authored several free and premium Photoshop Actions for photographers.

  • manicdee

    I can’t help being a pedant: triangular graphs have the axes passing through the centre of the object, not running along the edges. Here’s a proper exposure triangle: http://photo.stackexchange.com/questions/6598/what-is-the-exposure-triangle (check the answer by matthias). Note how for any given sized triangle (“LV”) you can position it within the red/green/blue lines to get a “proper” exposure by adjusting ISO, aperture and shutter speed: you need to adjust two at a time (i.e.: a faster shutter speed means you have to either open up the aperture or increase the ISO).

    It’s all very mathematical and sciencey so I guess it will confuse a lot of people. There’s an incredible amount of information in those graphs, especially with “blur” and “diffraction” mentioned on the aperture scale.

    This article could be 100% better by providing a simple practical example for people to work on.

    As an example for learning about depth of field, the example almost given with the pink bunny is something that anyone can set up at home. You already know that with a 50mm focal length, on a D7000, aperture F/2.5 and distance to subject of 2m, you’ll have a “depth of field” of about 16cm (how? you use a Depth of Field Calculator: http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html).

    So get a 50mm lens (or set your zoom to 50mm), set up some objects on a table (indoors or outdoors, spread them out at 5cm intervals between yourself and about 2m away), determine a good exposure (e.g.: by using Auto mode and getting the camera to fix the settings for you) then switch to Aperture Priority mode. Try different apertures, see how they alter the look of the photo you’re taking.

    Now do the same thing with objects spread between 5 and 9 metres away from you (5m, 5.5m, 6m, 6.5m, 7m, 7.5m, 8m, 8.5m and 9m means 9 objects: I have used garden gnomes and flowerpots in my back yard).

    Then set yourself goals: get the third, fourth and fifth objects in focus but not the rest? That’s achievable: you want a near limit of 6m, far limit of 7m (setting the 50mm lens to f/2.8 will almost achieve this). Remember that as you open up that aperture you have to reduce ISO or increase shutter speed (reduce shutter opening time), and as the subject moves further away your depth of field will increase too (and then you get the “hyper focal distance” which is the point past which focussing on the subject will bring everything behind the subject into focus too).

    Then aim to get as many objects in focus as possible with a blurry background. Using the DOF calculator you can see that you should be able to achieve this with a 50mm focal length using an aperture of F/11.

    But that’s just theory. Go out and actually practise this, noting that theory and practise rarely agree with each other 🙂

    Set the aperture for the depth of field you want, then adjust the shutter speed to compensate for hand motion (the “reciprocal rule” means you want a shutter speed of no less than 1/50 for a 50mm lens), then adjust ISO to make up the difference.

    As for this article being a teaser for Clarity, you could then tie these simple example in with a “hook”: “in Clarity issue X we provide more examples to help you have fun learning the impact of aperture on composition and exposure. Learn about the reciprocal rule in Clarity issue Y.”

    You have to give something to get something 🙂

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    lol, i only able to master my DSLR in 3 years… perhaps i am not intelligent enough.. 😉

  • Pruthvi

    best article ever on the exposure triangle

  • Michael Shake

    It’s ridiculous to say a beginner can “Master” a DSLR in an afternoon. First off this article is about exposure and has nothing to do with individual DSLR camera settings and how to use them or find things in menus or how to even change to the correct shooting mode or focus mode…It should be called “Basics of the Exposure Triangle”.

  • Julia Santos

    Michael, you’re right. This article is about exposure, but understanding exposure is exactly what DLSR photography is about! If you’re looking for a detailed guide to “individual” camera’s modes and menus as you say, that’s what the manual is for. 🙂 Sure, the headline of this article is probably to draw people in. I think this article is about getting people off auto and into full manual, and if that’s the case, this is one of the easiest to understand articles on exposure that I’ve come across but that’s what works for me. 🙂

  • Richard Taylor

    Mastering the DSLR is not the real problem, mastering “photography” is.
    You may want to revist this tutorial (it is similar to this Blog post) in the tutorial section in the DPS Forums.
    https://digital-photography-school.com/forum/tutorials/134022-exposure-1-balancing-act.html

  • Jlames

    Good article! Thanks for sharing!!!!

  • manicdee

    The correct shooting mode is always manual, right? 🙂

    This article is about exposure, depth of field, and freezing action. It’s very high level advice and doesn’t provide much in the way of practical guidance, but all the essentials are there.

  • Michael Shake

    I disagree, it’s not about mastering your DSLR it’s a very simple explanation of what exposure is. I agree that you need to know and understand exposure but If you think a beginner with a DSLR can read this article and pick up a DSLR and know what there doing in one afternoon your kidding yourself. That’s exactly what the article says you can do and it’s just plain wrong and misleading. I’m a professional Photographer and I tutor beginners so I see for myself how students struggle with the concept of exposure and DoF and then transferring that to using their DSLR and it’s settings.

  • Michael Shake

    The correct shooting mode is the one that gives you the look your going for. You can indeed always shoot in manual if you want but a lot of people like to use Aperture Priority mode to control DoF and Shutter Priority to control motion or movement. I agree the essentials of exposure are in the article and that’s why it should be titled a “Guide to Exposure”. Not how to “Master a DSLR in an afternoon”.

  • I’ve never heard the exposure triangle referred to as a graph before, it’s simply a way to illustrate they are related. That’s it.

  • manicdee

    IMHO too many photographers don’t exercise their mathematical literacy. The exposure triangle is about adjusting three settings (i.e.: three coplanar axes) to maintain the value of the fourth value (which in this case is EV, a function of the three factors we control as well as LV which is a perpendicular axis) as illustrated by the comment I linked in phototography stack exchange).

    Knowing that it’s a triangular plot helps understand the relationship between “stops” of shutter and “stops” of aperture and “stops” of ISO: they’re all adjusting EV by the same amount given a particular LV of the subject.

    Even better, knowing that LV is the perpendicular axis helps us understand how “shooting with available light” is so much easier when that available light is three studio strobes 🙂

  • Jennifer Summar

    Great article! But I wonder why digital technology can’t eliminate the ISO trade-off in noise all-together? I mean, if film, as a medium, was all that was dictating the ISO (or “sensitivity”), why not make all digital sensors void of all noise, and just be a standard sensitivity? Is that even possible? Is it where camera manufacturers are going by making more and more cameras better at eliminating noise at higher ISOs than in the recent past?

  • Bronx Judy

    I would like to see beginners’ tutorials that actually start at the beginning, with subjects like “How Do I Get The Flash Attachment to Rise Out of the Camera?” (I almost returned the camera thinking the flash was missing.); “How Do I Turn Off All the [Actual] Noise?” (Needed for photographing weddings and animals); “How do I Manually Focus the Lens?”; “A List of Good Math Tutors”; Hieroglyphics for Dummies”; or “Where Can I Get My Old Film Cameras, Lenses, and Accessories Restored, and Where Can I buy Fresh Film, Toner, etc?” Please do not ask me to read the camera’s manual. It is dry, and the black and white drawings are really bad. I bought “Canon EOS Rebel T5i for Dummies” and three videos: “Canon T5i Crash Course Made for Beginners!” – where the author tells me that if I don’t know the basic math equations, I will only be a mediocre photographer; Jumpstart jGuide to the Canon EOS Rebel T5i/700D – Everything You Need to Know in Under 2 Hours”; and “Introduction to the Canon Rejbel T5i/700D Basic Controls,” which may be the best bet. Ok. I’m done now. Thank you.

  • Mujib

    Well – A concise and to-the-point explanation of exposure if not mastering a DSLR. But first things (basics of exposure) first … right ? Thanks.

  • Lettie

    I loved this article. Thank you. I read some of the comments and have to laugh. I agree that if people want to learn how to use their camera then the manual is where to look. I found this article to be really helpful and to the point. I think if these things; Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO are understood then you are mastering your camera (or your photography). There is always room for learning and improvement. Thank you again for this article.

  • Egil Sæbø

    I’ve recently developed the four section exposure circle as a supplement to the exposure triangle. I’d be grateful for comments. Please see http://egilsaeboe.photium.com/exposure-explained-by-a-circle

  • KC

    I wanted to see where the comments went before jumping in and writing something potentially controversial, even a bit funny.

    One afternoon? That’s ambitious. I assume tnat’s one afternoon after reading the manual(s), charging the battery and getting a memory card installed. Just trying to decipher most manuals is an experience. Even reading the manual(s) can be tricky since many are on CD’s, not printed these days. That assume you have a computer with an optical drive. Anyways….

    Once you figure out where the On switch is, how to connect a lens, how to get the battery charged, installed, a card inserted, and setting the date and time, the next step is understanding what Auto and Program do. On some cameras there can be two Auto modes. Thankfully, there’s one Program mode.

    This is precisely where I get drummed out of the “photographers club”. There’s nothing wrong with using Auto and Program modes. They don’t make you any less of a photographer. Just know what they do and why. Let me explain: Way back in the mechanical camera days, we preset cameras – a lot. Auto and Program modes were “in our head”. We knew “this film + these conditions = those settings”. There were even slips of paper that came with film that said so. Auto and Program modes do the same things. The trick is to know why and how.

    What your first DSLR initially brings to game is a new level of composition and control.

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