So You Bought Your First DSLR — Now What?

Back in 2005 when I was pregnant with my son I bought my first DSLR because I knew I’d want to document his life without the two-second lag a point-and-shoot camera provides between the time you press the button and when the photo is actually taken. So I got a Nikon D70, slapped on the kit lens that came with it, and didn’t take that sucker off the Auto setting for well over a year. In retrospect, I feel as though I missed a lot of photographic opportunities because of my fear of the unknown, but we all have to start somewhere. That being said, here’s some advice I wish someone had given me during that first year of floundering:

1. Buy a “Nifty Fifty.” Both Nikon and Canon produce inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 lenses. Why spend money on a grubby old fixed focal length lens when you have a perfectly good zoom lens that came with the camera, you ask? Well, I’ll tell ya. The magic is in that number behind the “f.” It refers to the maximum aperture of the lens, or, in layman’s terms, how wide the lens can open up.

Oh Karo, you’re making my head hurt with your talk of aperture and math!

I know, I know. Bear with me. The smaller the number behind the “f,” the wider the maximum aperture. And the wider the maximum aperture, the more light the lens lets in. Ever notice how your flash always pops up when you take photos inside with your kit lens? Put the 50mm f/1.8 on your camera and you’ll see a world of difference. It’s millions of times better at taking low-light photos, and it creates really lovely “bokeh” (the Japanese word for background blur that’s pleasing to the eye):

Taken with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 with the aperture set to its widest at f/1.8. Notice how the background is nicely blurred to draw attention to the subjects.

Taken with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 with the aperture set to its widest at f/1.8. Notice how the background is nicely blurred to draw attention to the subjects.

2. Read the manual. I know, I know. First the aperture and the numbers, and now I’m telling you to read the manual. You thought this was supposed to be helpful, and instead it’s torture. But seriously. I guarantee that if you read the manual (you can skip the really involved stuff like bracketing that you’ll never use), you’ll walk away knowing how to use your camera better.

3. Experiment outside of Auto mode. At first you’ll want to rely on the camera to make the decisions for you, and that’s totally ok. Generally when you first start using a DSLR, the camera is much smarter than you are. But if you’re hanging around outside with your kids, take a moment to try something new. Put the camera in A mode and set the aperture to f/1.8. Take a picture. Now change the aperture to f/8 and take a picture. Then try f/16. See? The bigger that number behind the “f” gets, the more of your photo is in focus.

Now try the same thing in S mode. Set your shutter speed to 1/250 of a second and take a picture. Now set it to 1/20 and take a picture. Did you get something blurry? Bet you did, because 1/20th of a second is pretty slow in terms of camera shutter speed, so chances are either you or your subject moved a bit.

4. Zoom in all the way. Still prefer that zoom lens over the 50mm? That’s ok, you can blur the background for portraits with that lens, too. Zoom in as far as you can (step away from your subject if you need to) — a longer focal length also creates nice bokeh!

5. Read my 5 tips on taking better people pictures. Not to toot my own horn, but these tips apply to any camera at all!

  • June 12, 2009 - 11:02 am

    Shawn McAdams - Great tips, Karo. Love my Nifty Fifty, but was just curious that when you put your aperture on f/1.8, do you use manual focus? When I tried opening it that far, my Nikon D70 would focus on say, the shirt sleeve in the picture above, and the people would be in the “bokeh” effect. :)

  • June 12, 2009 - 11:12 am

    karo - Hey Shawn! At f/1.8, the depth of field is super narrow, for sure. I still use autofocus with it, but I use the 51 focal points that are on my D300/D700 and select the one that’s on my subject. It’s been a really long time since I’ve used the D70, so I can’t remember how many focal points it has … maybe 9? In any case, what you can do is focus and recompose — focus on the eyes of your subject, and depress the shutter release button halfway. That locks the focus, and then you can shift your camera to get the photo just how you like it. At f/1.8 you definitely have to make sure you’ve focused on the face because there’s no wiggle room!

  • December 16, 2010 - 2:38 pm

    Jordan Thomas - Hello! I seen your picture and I have been trying to get this effect with my camera. Please helpe me!! I have a Nikon D300. I know that if I put it on A mode it lets me change the aperture, but I don’t know if I am doing this right any help or tips will be great. Thank you :o)

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