These days, aspiring photographers have the power to create highly professional images with a digital SLR camera. This technology used to be prohibitively expensive, but now it's well within reach for many consumers. It might look intimidating, but with enough practice, anyone can learn how to use a DSLR camera for their personal projects. Below, we've outlined the camera's basic functionality and how to take advantage of the manual settings, which offer remarkable control over your final image.
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How Does a DSLR Work?
DSLR is short for "digital single-lens reflex", which means it takes the classic design of single-lens reflex cameras, but adds a digital imaging sensor as well. A DSLR only uses one lens, but typically you can exchange it with a variety of lens types. Most models have a standard viewfinder and an LCD display, which is useful for situations when the viewfinder is inaccessible. Many DSLR cameras released after 2008 can also shoot high-definition video, and this has made them a popular choice for indie filmmakers.
Before learning how to use a DSLR camera in manual mode, there are a few other shooting modes that are easier for beginners. These can help you quickly dial in a setting, so you don't miss the shot. They're also a great starting point for learning your way around a new camera. After taking a few shots in Automatic mode, try experimenting with these settings:
Shutter Priority: This semi-automatic mode allows you to fine-tune your shutter speed (the length of time your shutter stays open for a photo), and the camera takes care of the aperture.
Aperture Priority: Like shutter priority, this mode lets you set the exact aperture (the amount of light allowed through your shutter), while the camera figures out an appropriate shutter speed.
Program: This mode bridges the gap between semi-automatic and fully manual control. If you change the shutter speed or the aperture, your DSLR will adjust the corresponding settings to retain the same exposure. It's a smart mode to use when you're dipping your toes into the world of manual photography.
Manual: Finally, this mode provides full control over your camera. To help you settle on the right exposure, DSLRs usually have an exposure indicator in the viewfinder to use as a guideline. However, you're still free to choose whatever settings you like.
Setting Your ISO Speed
After getting comfortable with the main camera modes, we recommend playing around with the ISO speed settings. The higher your camera's ISO speed, the more sensitive it is to light. For example, if you take a photo with a slow ISO speed (around 100) and then take one at the highest speed (around 800), you can immediately tell the difference.
The slow ISO shot will likely have less pixelation, but it will also lead the camera to use a slow shutter speed, so it stands a good chance of being blurry. On the other hand, the fast ISO image will be sharper in low-light conditions. In most situations, you should choose the lowest ISO speed that lets in enough light and doesn't blur your image.
Setting Your Aperture
Meanwhile, the aperture (or diaphragm) setting determines the width of an open shutter. It's measured with the fraction "f/[number]", where "f" is focal length and the "number" is aperture size. That means f/8 is a larger aperture than f/13. The larger the number, the smaller the aperture. This measurement is also known as an "f-stop".
With a large aperture (i.e. small f-stop), you start to get more depth of field, which causes the image background to blur. On the other hand, lowering the aperture (raising the f-stop) brings more of the frame back into focus, but it also allows less light into the camera.
Setting Your Shutter Speed
Finally, play around with different shutter speeds to see how your DSLR performs. Short shutter speeds allow you to capture a fast-moving subject with sharp results, but less light enters the camera, so the image will be relatively darker. Conversely, long shutter speeds can create a mesmerizing blur effect that visualizes motion (i.e. a cheetah dashing towards its prey) and also lets in more light. This makes it a smart setting for really dark environments.