You might be feeling a bit overwhelmed if you’ve just moved from a compact camera to a DSLR, which is perfectly normal. After all, you’re moving from a camera that does everything automatically when you press the shutter to one that has a bewildering number of controls and buttons.
It’s important to remember that you’ve probably made the change to a more complex camera in order to take even better photographs, and to do that you need to take control and tell the camera what you want it to do, rather than letting it make all the decisions for you.
Related: buying your first DSLR
The two main controls
Taking a perfectly exposed photograph is a lot like filling a bucket with water. Turning the tap wide open lets a lot of water in to the bucket very quickly, so it takes less time to fill it to the brim. On a camera, the equivalent action would be to open the lens wide open by using a low f number (a wide aperture of perhaps f2.8 or f4) and then having the shutter open for a just a brief period of time.
On the other hand, you can dribble the water in to a container, which will take a lot longer to fill it. On a camera this would be like having the lens stopped right down using a small aperture (i.e. a large number of perhaps f16 or f22) and having a longer exposure time. Both actions will let the same amount of light in, but they’ll produce very different photographic results.
Learning point: balancing exposure by altering the aperture and exposure time is a critical artistic technique that gives you control over the final image.
The aperture setting has a direct effect on how much of the photograph is in focus. Sometimes that is exactly what you want: this shot – taken with an aperture of f2.0 - leaves the driver’s hands blurred to emphasis the speed that is showing on the speedometer.
On the other hand, a small aperture will leave the whole of the picture in focus. This is normally used when taking photographs of landscapes, for example.
Learning point: a large aperture has a small number, and will give you a shallow field of focus. A small aperture has a large number, and will give you a deeper field of focus.
A fast shutter speed will freeze the action. For example, if you want to freeze the action – a grandchild catching a ball, water flowing out of a tap, or the wings of a bird in flight – you need a fast shutter speed. A fast shutter speed will demand a wide aperture in order to let enough light in during such a brief exposure time; this will also give you a shallow depth of field. This means that only some of the objects in the picture will be in focus, so you have to get your point-of-focus spot-on.
A slower shutter speed on the other hand will make moving objects appear blurred. This shot of a Citroen was taken with a relatively slow shutter speed because I wanted to show some motion blur in the water. It also had a small aperture of f20 to control the amount of light coming in, so everything in the shot is in focus from the front all the way to the back.
The cheat you should use
Shooting in manual is the gold standard, but there is a cheat that most professionals use, at least some of the time. Just choose which is the more important setting (aperture or shutter speed) and use that. So if you want to control the depth of field, put your camera on ‘aperture priority’ and dial in the aperture setting you want. The camera will then set the ISO and shutter speed automatically.
If you’re shooting a moving object and want to blur the background or freeze the action with a fast shutter speed, simply put the camera in ‘shutter priority’ and set it accordingly, leaving the camera to figure out which ISO and aperture to use to expose correctly.
The correct exposure
You can judge whether you’ve got the exposure correct by looking at the histogram on the screen on the back of your camera. This diagram should explain what I mean.
Most DSLRs will get the exposure spot-on most of the time. However, some conditions – snow, for example, or shooting into the sun – can confuse them. In this case use the ‘exposure compensation’ knob or dial that you’ll find on most DSLRs to dial in the appropriate adjustment and your camera will do the rest.
Your camera’s ISO setting determines how sensitive the sensor is to light. Low numbers like ISO100 are for everyday use, while higher numbers such as ISO6400 are for use in low light conditions.
The trouble is that higher ISO numbers will introduce noise into the image. Most DSLRs can use ISO numbers up to 6400 without introducing too much noise, and there are photo-editing programmes that can reduce the effect.
Your DSLR will come with the choice of a multitude of different focusing points but I’d recommend selecting the single, centre focus point initially.
If you do this (and you should!) you will need to use a technique called ‘back button focusing’. If you dig out the manual for your camera you’ll probably find that you can change the function of one of the buttons on the back of your camera to lock the focus. Set this and then when you want to focus on an object you point the camera straight at it. The centre point will focus on the subject, at which point you lock that focus using your thumb to press the button. Then move the camera to recompose (perhaps to place the subject at a Rule of Thirds point, something we’ll discuss in a second) and press the shutter button as usual to take the shot.
It will feel a bit odd after decades of doing it differently but I promise it’s a very useful technique that the pros use all the time – and if you don’t get on with it then you can still lock focus by half-pressing the shutter button as normal.
Related: garden bird photography tips
It’s all about the light
Forget the subject matter: taking great photographs is all about the light. So look around you and try to identify the times when the light is perfect; there is often a brief period just after sunrise and just before sunset in which the light is beautiful and soft and gorgeous. It’s called ‘The Golden Hour’ (even though it never lasts that long!) and is the perfect time to shoot just about anything.
Contrary to what you might imagine, bright sunlight is too harsh and throws too many shadows to make great photographs. You’re better waiting until early morning or the late afternoon if you can. And dramatic clouds make for dramatic photographs.
There are a number of photographic rules, and while most rules are made to be broken, if you understand these then your photography will instantly jump to the next level. Here are my favourites:
The ‘Rule of Thirds’: this means dividing the screen with three imaginary vertical lines and three horizontals. You then place the object of interest at one of the intersections. Like this:
Horizontal or diagonal: horizontal lines (like the horizon) create a sense of calm and peace, while diagonal lines create tension and drama.
Leading lines: another is to place a leading line in the image to draw the eye to the subject matter. Railway tracks work well, as do paths and roads. Or you use the subject matter itself, linked here with a shallow field of focus:
Create with colour: bold colours and simple lines can create stunning images. Think blue skies and a colourful house in the foreground, for example.
Black and white: silhouettes work especially well as black and white images. So if you have a busy shot of a profile that doesn’t quite work in colour, try converting it. You might be amazed at the difference it makes.
Get low: snapshots are taken from eye level, so we associate amateur photographs with this perspective. By getting down low (or high) you are changing the perspective, which will instantly add interest.
Just have fun: finally, just have fun. Photography is an amazing hobby and with the advent of digital media taking a photograph doesn’t cost you a single penny so there is no need to be shy: the more you shoot the better you’ll get, it’s as simple as that!
Visit our photography section for more on buying and using cameras.