Beginning Photography: Your First DSLR

I have a few friends that just got their first DSLR, and I’ve promised to give some tips and mini-lessons when I have time.

I’m starting with a few basic tips, and I’ll follow up with a post that can help with composition. If you’re just beginning with a DSLR and feel overwhelmed, hopefully these will help you transition from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR. And don’t worry about shooting in manual mode yet. You have plenty of time to learn, and it’s easier if you start with some basics and get comfortable with your camera.

1. Have Fun

You got the bigger camera because you’re either in interested in photography or you just want better pictures to document your life. Or both. Either way, you’ve got to have fun with it, or it will just end up collecting dust or feeling like one more obligation. So, relax and capture what you love. Even if it’s something that others won’t “get,” take pictures of whatever inspires you. The pictures might not be exactly what you want at first, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

I (kind-of) wish I could find one particular photo I took the summer before we got married. Harper had just bought our first house, and we were re-doing and fixing it up. I knew nothing about gardening, but I loved nature and appreciated beautiful plants. We ended up buying two pink mandevilla vines for our front porch, but I didn’t really know what to do with them, so I just set them on the porch in their black plastic pots. Then I photographed them–black plastic pot glory and all. It inspired me. In fact, I even put the photo above the kitchen sink so I could look at it often. And I promise you, there was nothing artistically beautiful about the photo–it just made me happy because it was a pretty plant growing on our new front porch (even if it was still in its black plastic pot).  Mind you, I already had a degree in photojournalism, but I just hadn’t made that crossover that all my photography should be treated like “real” photography. I was still just taking snapshots when I was at home. But I was photographing what inspired me, so that was a good start.

2. Take Your Time and Take More Pictures

The only way to get better is to take LOTS of pictures. Sometimes your favorite picture will be one of those accidental shots where everything just came together. Sometimes the best ones will be the very last ones–the ones you almost didn’t take. But if you’re only taking a few photos, you might not get any that you love. For every photo I post on this blog, there are hundreds (literally) that you don’t see. Some of them are good, a lot of them are just okay, and many of them are nothing great. (I took about 10,000 photos in 2011. I was bound to get a few good ones!) The last post I did included 20 photos, but I took 120. That’s a lot of outtakes! I’m not paying for film and processing, so I might as well shoot as much as I want. I can always delete, but I can’t have that moment back to take more pictures.

1. Hold the Camera Properly

It’s important to learn the right way to hold your camera. If you’re used to shooting with a small point-and-shoot camera, it’s going to be an adjustment to get used to the weight and bulk of a DSLR. It might be awkward at first, but once you get used to it, the point-and-shoot will feel awkward. You’ll want to cup your left hand under the lens while your right hand is controlling the shutter. This support under your lens will help to steady the camera and give you sharper photos–especially in low light situations or when you’re trying to capture action.

2. Use Your Camera Strap

Securing your camera to your body is also very important. Your nice new camera is an investment, and you don’t want to ruin it. I remember feeling dorky at first putting the camera strap around my neck, but looking like a dork was less important than the thought of dropping my camera, so it just became a habit. Often I will wrap my arm through the strap several times instead of putting it around my neck.

3. Don’t Worry About Reviewing Each Image

Don’t waste time constantly looking at each shot in your LCD screen. If you are just learning, you probably have the camera set to fully AUTO mode, so there’s no reason to keep checking your images since you don’t (yet) know how to adjust settings that would change your exposure. If you spend a lot of time pausing to review shots between clicks, there’s no telling what you’re missing right in front of you.  Right now you should just be getting used to composing the shot in your viewfinder.

The exception to this tip would be if you are practicing on some type of still life photography (flowers, an interior scene, etc…) rather than shooting people/animals. You wouldn’t have to worry so much about missing something, and stopping to look at your last shot could help you make changes to how you’re composing the next shot.

4. Find Natural light

The best way to improve your images is to start seeing light the way the camera sees it. You want to use your on-camera flash as little as possible, because that will make your photos look like snapshots no matter how beautifully they are composed. (If you’re taking snapshots, don’t worry if they look like snapshots, but if you’re trying to get more artsy or candid images, forget about the flash.) Since you’re probably shooting in Auto mode, you’ll need to be outside or in a room with a lot of windows to have enough light. You might have noticed that most of the shots I share are taken outdoors. I still take some inside–mainly food or candid moments of play, but I prefer shooting outside with plenty of light.

This photo documented Tice’s first food. I knew it would be special, so I wanted “good” pics, which meant natural light. We took him outside on the porch instead of the kitchen, and it was worth it. I’ve done the same thing for food pics when the indoor light just wasn’t adequate. Below are a couple of examples.

We’ll talk more about light later since it is the most important thing in photography (in my opinion), but I had to mention it here.

5. Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! There are no dumb questions, and anything you’re having trouble with is probably something that more experienced photographers had trouble with when they were beginning. We all start at the same place! I know a lot about photography, but I definitely don’t know everything. There is ALWAYS room for improvement, and I’m still learning just like everyone else. So, if you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask me or someone else!

If you have questions or other tips for beginners, please leave a comment!

Next up, tips on improving composition.

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9 Responses to Beginning Photography: Your First DSLR

  1. MUCH needed – this is so helpful. Finally got the Cannon 5D and holy cow it is intimidating. Thanks for this – great read!!

  2. Mica says:

    Such great tips. Thanks nat. Can’t wait for more!

  3. Sarah Crosby says:

    I just got my dslr camera and am excited for more tips!!

  4. Paige says:

    You are always such a great teacher!! Heck, I owe you big time for putting up with all of my questions when I first started out!

  5. Karen Cooper says:

    Thank u so much for these tips. I look forward to more. We bought our camera mainly for our vacations when we attend MLB games and football games. We also love it for taking pics at family events. Now just if I had time to scrapbook!

  6. brooke says:

    Thanks for the great tips.

  7. Heather says:

    Thank you for taking the time to put this post together. These are great tips!

  8. Jimbo says:

    Natalie- Betty told me about your blog and I just checked it out. I got a Nikon D5100 for Christmas and I’m overwhelmed. Thanks for the tips! I look forward to your helpful advice. :)

  9. Pingback: Photography Tips for Composition: Point of View | The Shady Acre

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