10 steps to taking your camera off Auto.

Get to grips with your DSLR in 10 simple steps!
So recently I’ve been asked by a few people how to take that first step to understanding a DSLR, whether you’re a hobbyist photographer, about to start studying or simply wanting to understand a little more, here are my top 10 tips on how to start.
I won’t be tailoring this to a specific model but I will be using my Nikon D800 as a basis to explain from; and I’ll be keeping everything as simple and “idiot proof” as possible!
Hope it helps!
Also, if I had something like this to refer to and explain it to me when I first started out it would have felt so much nicer – it’s often hard to ask for help, especially in such a technically heavy industry. You can easily be made to feel stupid, whether by yourself or someone else. But never be afraid of even asking for help over the most simple things! Even I have to refer back to these elements regularly to make sure I’m developing and changing structures.



1) Understanding Aperture.


In simple terms, the aperture is the opening in the camera, much like the pupil of our eye, this determines how much light is let in.
For example in the dark, our pupil dilates in order for us to see more, and let more light in.
In the light, our pupils are much smaller, to reduce the amount of light let in, as we don’t need any more than is already naturally created.



As you can see here the aperture is measured using “f stops”.
The lower the number, the more light is let in, the higher the number, the less light is let in.
You can also see how it mimics the pupil of the eye here.
2) ISO
The origin of this term/acronym is not necessary for beginners, and has several different aspects to it. But all you need to know is that it refers to the light sensitivity.
The lower the number, the less sensitive the camera is to light. Ideally you want to keep your camera somewhere between 100 and 400 ISO for the majority of the time, and then in low light situations you crank it up depending on the situation.
You may wonder why you don’t always bring the ISO up in dark situations instead of trying the aperture/shutter speed first? Well, using a higher ISO comes at price as you can end up with very grainy images.
When I was first learning I didn’t realise this as you can’t see it that easily on camera unless you zoom in, and I ruined an entire shoot because I was shooting in daylight with a high ISO.
So the lower the ISO number, the less light sensitive the camera’s sensor is providing sharper images, and the higher the ISO number, the more light sensitive it is however you risk the grain factor.
Example using ISO 5000 in lower light conditions (7pm and indoors with no flash):
Then when you zoom in you can see the grain damage…
This isn’t such a big bother if you’re taking photos for fun or have no other options in low light, but if it’s for a course or client job, it could be a simple mistake that will haunt you for a while! Trust me, I’ve been there!
3) Shutter Speed
The shutter speed is exactly what it says on the tin. The speed the camera’s shutter works to.
You can hear the shutter when you click the button, you’ll also begin to hear the speed of it once you’re aware of it.
This, much like the aperture and ISO is also another factor when it comes to working out how much light enters the camera when taking the image.
The faster the shutter speed, the less light is let in.
The slower the shutter speed, the more light is let in.
You may also have seen images where people ‘light draw’
In order to create this kind of image I used the “B” setting on my camera, this allows you to manually decide how long the shutter speed will be rather than setting it on a camera.
For instance, the shutter will stay open for the length of time you keep your finger on the button.
To create an image like this, you first must use the flash to freeze the image, and then get someone else to run behind the subject using either a torch, sparkler, camera phone light etc (anything that emits light) and simply draw around them, write words, or do anything you like!
As it’s simply burning more light into the image whilst the shutter stays open.
This is a super simple one that until you know about it, it sounds terrifying.
So when you first got your camera, you probably shot in the file format JPG/Jpeg right?
Well when you discover RAW, you will only ever want to use jpg as a backup file format.
RAW in idiots terms collects much more data within the image when you take the photo.
In order to access this file type you must use specific programs for it i.e. Lightroom/Photoshop.
You will be endlessly thankful for the extensive control over exposure, colour balance, clarity, shadows and highlights etc. There are also many more options to adjust the image for example correcting where some lenses may warp images.
5) Lenses!
This is an obvious one, but sometimes it’s all a bit baffling.
I’m not going to go in depth here, I am just going to explain an overview.
The type of lens you need will be determined by what job you are doing – and that subject requires a blog of its own!
All I will say here is that the lower the number ie. 28mm or 35mm the more you get within your shot when using that lens.
50mm or 85mm is ideal for portraits and is in between wide angle and macro.
Then something like 105mm or 200mm is much closer in – commonly known as a macro.
There are also two different types of lenses – “prime” ie. fixed distance, and zoom lenses where you can well, zoom in and out…
Both have their own charms and it just depends on your personal style, how you like to work and what you’re shooting!
6) Camera Modes.
ie. A/M/P/S (based on Nikon D800 settings)
So we all know Auto (A). It’s fairly obvious, it automatically sets the camera settings for you so you can merely point and and shoot.
M is Manual. This is the mode I predominantly shoot in and allows you full control over all elements. ie. Shutter Speed, ISO, Aperture etc.
P is the Flexible Program mode. What this does is choose the shutter speed an aperture for you, however you can adjust this. Hence flexible program mode. This however makes me nervous as I know how I shoot, and like to decide myself, but it would probably work well for new shooters who want to break away from Auto but aren’t confident enough to use Manual straight away.
S is Shutter Priority mode. In simple terms this does exactly what it says, the shutter speed is prioritised over any other settings. So you can adjust your camera to whatever shutter speed you want and the camera does the rest for you!
Obviously there are a lot more elements to each setting and quite a few more modes on most cameras, but these should get you a little understanding of where to start, and make you feel a little less clueless when it comes to using your brand new DSLR and seeing how scary and long the instruction manual looks!
7) Memory Cards
This is a quick one – I work with both SD and CF (compact flash) cards.
The SD cards are the smaller looking ones, and CF are larger.
My camera takes both types, so I use one for RAW images and the other takes Jpeg copies as a back up. Sometimes I will set them to be an overflow memory card so I don’t have to keep changing cards around.
SD cards can be a little flimsy, CF are much more durable however if you look after them they are both great to work with.
I tend to work with 32GB or 64GB size cards as RAW files are much larger than jpeg so you need more space.

Also you will see here “90 MB/s” and “120 MB/s” – this refers to the speed of the cards themselves, not the size. So for example, the faster the cards are, the quicker you can take photographs, and the quicker it will be to upload to your computer. This is very important when it comes to shooting weddings and events for example.

Also – ALWAYS format your memory cards in-camera when you’ve emptied the images on to your computer, because merely pressing “delete all” won’t get read of all the messy hidden data.

The only time when you don’t want to format your memory card is when you’ve accidentally wiped it, and you want to try and retrieve the images. There are programmes that can delve deep into the information on them to get back accidentally deleted images!

8) White Balance
So I’m going to sound like a knob here as this whole post is about not using auto, but I tend to leave my WB on auto. Because I’m lazy and well, if I don’t, I end up leaving it on the wrong one and confusing myself. Yep guys, I’ve been doing this 10 years…

We can’t all be perfect.

So essentially adjusting the white balance is so we can remove certain colour casts that happen in-camera. Sometimes you may find you’re photographing an object and it has this blue tint to it, however when you use a different white balance preset you will find you photograph the colours you see.

There are different in-camera presets for this in the form of cloudy, sunshine, flash, incandescent etc, or there are options to set you own white balance by going into the settings for WB, and follow the instructions in which you shoot a plain white background to assign the “white” to your camera, in that particular light.

These are 8 different frames of the same subject, all using different WB presets, this should give an example of how changing it can affect the image until you achieve the results you are after.
9) Metering
There are 3 main metering modes.
– Spot Metering
-Matrix Metering
– Centre-weighted Metering
This is essentially a built in light meter.
– Spot Metering takes readings from one small section of the frame, you will see these readings change at the bottom of the screen when you look inside the camera. The best time to use spot metering is when you’re working in extremely contrasted conditions – ie, into the light or on a dark background. This was you avoid an under or over-exposed image.
– Matrix Metering is the default mode for most Nikons. This analyses the entire scene and develops a reading over several separate sections.
With all metering if you watch the meter with the + and – on, as you are moving the camera in and out of different lights, you will notice the arrow move between the + and -.
Closer to the + and you have too much light coming in for the exposure settings so the image will be over exposed.
Closer to the – and you don’t have enough light and it will be under exposed.
– Centre-weighted Metering simply covers the central circle. Again, what it says on the tin!
10) The difference between semi-pro cameras and pro cameras. 
Another really simple point that I never wanted to ask about because it seemed so obvious to everyone else. I never used to know the difference between the Semi-Pro range and the Pro range!
Semi-Pro is a cropped frame (often referred to as DX)
Pro is a full-frame.
For example my D3000 is a semi pro, and my D800 is a pro.
Both of these images were taken with the same lens (50mm) – and you can see the cropped frame in action on the semi-pro (D3000), and then how much more of the image is included when it’s used on the pro (D800)
D3000 CROP:



So that’s it! Those are my 10 top tips when it comes to getting to grips with breaking away from the “auto” function.

Other photographers may work or explain things differently from this, but I’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible for those of you who know absolutely nothing when it comes to picking up a DSLR!

So good luck, and feel free to drop me a line if you need any more of it explaining!


Elspeth x


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