First-Time Digital SLR Owners

Two friends recently got their first digital SLRs and wondered about the specifics of how to use their cameras' features, and what learning resources are available to them. I thought I'd write this in case others are interested. 

Quick Tips

Here are 4 quick tips that take years to identify for beginners and amateurs, but can be employed quickly and easily.

1. Get Closer. Get Closer. Then Get Closer (use this tip with your point-and-shoot camera and phone) Get closer to your subject! Not being close enough is the BIGGEST mistake people make. If you think you're close enough, take two steps forward. Then take another step forward. Do it! This is most helpful when photographing people. People are much more interesting when you can see their faces close up.

2. Review the basics of Shutter Speed and Aperture
Here's a short 2 minute video on the relationship between your camera's Shutter Speed and the lens Aperture (as measured by f-stop).

To employ these concepts, choose one of these shooting Modes:
--S (nikon) or Tv (canon)=Shutter Priority
--A (nikon) or Av (canon)=Aperture Priority. When you vary one setting (A), the other setting (S or Tv) will compensate automatically to ensure a good exposure. (see the major section below to read more about this topic)

3. Rent or buy a "prime" fixed lens with a low f-stop
This is the best-kept secret among pros: a prime lens that's "fast" (fast=low f-stop number). Most DSLR kits come with a decent zoom lens, but these "kit" lenses don't compare to a high-quality prime lens for clarity and fast aperture. A lens with a low aperture number (e.g. f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.0, or f/2.8) will provide two critical advantages:
  • Increased "bokeh" when shooting people, flowers and other close objects. You'll get a pleasing, professional look of a very blurry background, while keeping your subject in focus. This provides realistic depth, instead of that flat, ordinary, 2D look everyone else's photos have.
  • Shoot in lower-light conditions without a flash. Photos look more natural and have more depth without a flash.
Get the most expensive 50mm (or lower mm) prime lens you can afford. Canon makes an excellent 50mm f/1.8 AF for $100 and an amazing 50mm f/1.4 for $370. Nikon makes a 50mm f/1.8 for cheap. Be aware that a 50mm lens won't be wide; it's best for portrait photography. Also understand that a prime lens cannot zoom and is fixed at the stated focal length.  (an f/1.8 lens can shoot between 1.8 and 22, while an f/1.4 lens can shoot 1.4, 1.8 and up to 22)

To take advantage of this lens, choose Aperture Priority shooting mode (A), then choose the lowest number you can.

4. Rent before buying or instead of buying
Try stuff out before you buy. ALWAYS ALWAYS rent before you decide to buy (unless it's something cheap like $100); you'll get a good idea of how often you'll use it. It makes no sense to tie up $1,000 in a lens you'll use once a year. is cheap and excellent, and so is  Your larger local camera store probably offers rentals. Don't be intimidated by the rental store; they're usually very nice!

Basic Understanding of ISO, Shutter speed, Aperture

Everybody is different in their starting knowledge. Those new to digital SLRs but have SLR film experience are certainly at an advantage; basic knowledge of ISO, camera shutter speed, and lens aperture can help you make more satisfying photographs. But if you haven't mastered these, read below...
This knowledge, however, isn't required to take good photos because DSLRs are so advanced in their automatic features. But consider learning these basic concepts in the future as they can vastly improve your photography because you'll have precise control over how your images look. For example, controlling the lens aperture (as measured by "f-stop") to create a shallow depth-of-field can make your background very much out of focus (a look called "bokeh"), while keeping your foreground subject in focus. Using this particular technique will give your photos much more depth. 
TIP: Try this technique using Aperture Priority shooting mode, usually indicated by "A."  Make the f-stop the lowest number your lens will allow.


Learning Resources

There are two learning categories for approaching digital SLR photography: 1. Equipment & Technique (for capture) and, 2. Software (for processing and sharing)

1. Equipment & Technique (capture)
Targeted Learning

DVD: Magic Lantern offers a learning dvd for most camera models. Check on Amazon. Rebel. Nikon D90.

PODCASTS: This is where I get most of my continuing education. Just search under photography. Consider the video tutorials you find. Try Photofocus to start.

IPHONE: Check out PhotoCaddy, a well-reviewed photo education app for $2.99.  It provides specific scenario-based tips for amateur photographers.  It's comprehensive and easy to understand. It's convenient because you'll have tips right there with you in your pocket if you're out taking photos.

Continuous Learning
If you learn best in a group setting with your peers and want to advance your skills over time, classes are the perfect way to learn from and connect with others. Check your local camera store for workshops that cover the basics. And if you want a more complete series of courses to help you learn beyond the basics, check your local community college. Also try your vocational school geared specifically to photography education.

LOCAL CAMERA CLUB: Search for camera clubs in your local area. Camera clubs discuss photography and are usually geared towards amateurs.


2. Software (processing and sharing)
INSTRUCTOR-LED: Look at the above discussion for Equipment learning resources and search for the software you choose.

PCNW and Glazer's offer workshops that discuss both equipment and software, so be sure to read the class descriptions closely.


  • Check out for software training (low cost)
  • CREATIVELIVE:  find a broad array of online classes. Live classes are free. See their calendar.
  • is a great resource for online training
  • Search online for a vast array of free online videos on YouTube or any search engine

BOOKS: Don't forget about books. Keep it simple and get books authored by Scott Kelby, who is writes in an easy-to-follow, scenario-based style.

At a basic level, Windows Live Photo Gallery (free), Picasa (free) and iPhoto (for Mac) are very good for library management, image editing, and online sharing; Adobe Photoshop Elements is cheap and pretty amazing for beginners and advanced users alike; Adobe Lightroom 2 ($250, Windows+Mac) is suitable if you become an advanced amateur or pro, while Apple Aperture 3 is the competing option for Mac users that now includes basic video editing.


  • offers a free online toolset for adjustments, cropping, sharing, and printing. I use it regularly for sharing photos with family and friends.
  • Picnik is a powerful, fun, and REALLY easy way to edit and share your photos for free. It even connects to Facebook and Flickr. Google recently acquired this Seattle-based startup.


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Nikon or Canon SLRs: what should you shoot?

I get asked sometimes what brand of equipment I shoot with. The short answer is, Nikon, though I've shot both extensively. But it doesn't matter what pros shoot with when you're deciding what kind of camera and lens to get. So what matters when choosing a brand? What your friends shoot. Really. It's that simple. What's more complicated is which model is best for you, but that's for a future post.
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