First camera crash course: simple solutions for mastering your new DSLR


So you bought your first camera... now what do you do? If you're struggling with your first steps in DSLR photography, rest assured you're not alone. And we're here to help.

Whether you've just bought your first camera or just need to brush up on your shooting skills, we've got an all-in-one guide to getting to grips with your new DSLR.

First camera crash course: simple solutions for mastering your new DSLR

We'll start off this photographic crash course by explaining - in simple terms - how exposure works, so you can capture perfectly exposed shots every time with your first camera. We'll show you the importance of choosing the best aperture and depth of field for different subjects.

We'll also reveal all you need to know about shutter speed, for freezing subjects or capturing a sense of movement in your scene. And we'll pass on expert advice for getting the best possible results with your first camera when the light is getting low.

Then we build up to focusing, to help you get sharp shots whatever you're shooting, and how to avoid common autofocus pitfalls. We'll round things off with a photo composition masterclass, explaining the best ways to approach and compose your shots.

First Camera Crash Course Lesson 1: Aperture explained

The two main elements you use to take an exposure are aperture and shutter speed. The aperture of a lens ranges from wide to narrow, and is measured in f/stops, such as f/4 (wide aperture) to f/22 (narrow aperture).

The wider the aperture, the more light is let in to reach your DSLR's sensor - brightening your shots. The narrower the aperture, the less light is let in - darkening your shots.

Shutter speed, on the other hand, dictates the how long your DSLR's shutter stays open for, and so also controls how much light reaches the sensor.

Aperture and shutter speed act in unison to determine your exposure, so a wide f/4 aperture and fast 1/500 sec shutter speed lets in the same amount of light as a narrow f/16 aperture and slow 1/30 sec shutter speed, giving an identical exposure. However, you may still end up with two very different shots…

First Camera Crash Course Lesson 1: Aperture explained

Wide aperture

  • When taking portraits, always make sure you focus on the eyes to draw people into the shot
  • A mid-range focal length of 55mm decreases the angle of view, as well as helping to further decrease depth of field (see top right)
  • Using a wide aperture of f/3.5 ensures your subject is sharp but the background is blurred, helping them stand out

First Camera Crash Course Lesson 1: using a narrow aperture

Narrow aperture

  • A wide-angle focal length of 18mm increases the angle of view and also increases DoF
  • A narrow aperture of f/16 has made sure the scene is sharp, from the rocks in the foreground to skyscrapers in the background
  • Use leading lines to draw the eye into your photos

What is depth of field?

When you change your lens's aperture setting, you affect depth of field (DoF). The depth of field refers to the amount of your scene that's acceptably sharp.

Using a wide aperture (such as f/5.6) will result in a 'shallow' depth of field. This is why wide apertures are ideal for shooting portraits and wildlife, as you can blur the backgrounds behind your subjects to really make them stand out in the scene.

Using a narrow aperture (such as f/16) results in a greater depth of field. This is why narrow apertures are perfect when shooting landscapes and cityscapes, as you want to ensure your scene is acceptably sharp from the foreground through to the background area.

Final tip
Use Aperture Priority mode to control your apertures. In this semi-auto mode, your DSLR will then set the shutter speed for a standard exposure.


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First Camera Crash Course Lesson 2: using exposure compensation

Use Evaluative Metering mode to get a good starting point for your exposures. You can then brighten or darken them quickly using Exposure Compensation when shooting in Av (or Tv) mode.

Use the Av+/- button on the back of your DSLR and the top dial to set positive/negative exposure - using the Exposure Level Indicator in your viewfinder (or rear LCD) to dial in Exposure Compensation. Turn the dial to the right to brighten your shot, to the left to darken it.

First Camera Crash Course Lesson 2: using exposure compensation

This shot is underexposed - a common problem when photographing white scenes or subjects.

First Camera Crash Course Lesson 2: using exposure compensation

Use Exposure Compensation to brighten shots, but too much will result in it being overexposed, such as in this image.

First Camera Crash Course Lesson 2: using exposure compensation

By dialling in +1-stop of positive Exposure Compensation the shot is now well-exposed.


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