Congratulations, you've graduated from a smartphone camera or a cute little point-and-shoot to a full-blown digital SLR. You probably feel like quite the pro photographer with that beast of a camera in your hands. The question is, are you actually shooting like a pro, or are you simply using it as a point-and-shoot replacement in one of the automatic shooting modes?
You're hardly to blame if you're in the latter camp. Digital SLR photography can be a complex skill to master – a fact that isn't helped by the preponderance of intimidating dials, buttons, and settings on the camera body. That said, if you want a quick and dirty intro to mastering your digital SLR, you've come to the right place.
The fastest way to look like a pro photographer is by holding your camera like one. This one little detail is what separates the rank amateurs from the seasoned shooters at a glance, and you'd be surprised at how many digital SLR owners hold their cameras like they're point-and-shoots.
To hold your digital SLR like a pro, hold the right side of the camera with your right hand (it usually has a handgrip there for this purpose), and with your left hand, cup the underside of the camera lens.
This configuration not only reduces camera shake (the main culprit for blurry photos), but it also ensures all of the camera controls are within easy reach – you'll be able to reach all of the buttons and dials with your right thumb, and you can adjust the lens zoom and focus with your left hand.
Say goodbye to automatic
The next step is staying away from the automatic mode – for most of your shots, at least. Using this setting every now and then is fine, especially if you don't have time to fiddle around with the camera settings. The automatic modes on the latest digital SLRs in particular have gotten exceptionally good at guessing the right settings to apply for each photo, and without any effort, you'll be able to pump out photos that are several times better than what you can achieve on a smaller camera.
But as clever as a digital SLR is, it's still just a machine. As the sentient human being in the equation, you're always going to be a better judge of the settings that need to be tweaked to get that perfect photo. If you don't have the time or inclination to wrap your head around settings like white balance, metering, ISO and aperture, a quick way to adjust a whole bunch of settings at once to suit particular styles of photography is by using one of the scene modes.
Every digital SLR has a different selection of scene modes. Some cameras, such as the Canon EOS 700D and the Nikon D3200, have the scene modes easily accessible on the mode dial on top of the camera, while others, like the Sony Alpha SLT-A99V, have a 'SCN' mode on the mode dial, and the scenes themselves are selected through the on-screen menu. The main scene modes are portrait (for people shots with nicely blurred backgrounds), landscape (for shots with boosted colours and sharper details), sports (for freezing fast-moving objects such as children and pets), and macro (for close-up photography).
Get with the program
The nasty thing about automatic mode is that it thinks it's smarter than you. In this mode, you can't change any of the camera's settings, not even the flash, which is a nuisance when you're shooting in dimly lit bars and you want to stick to the ambient lighting.
This is where swapping over to the Program mode (depicted as 'P' on the mode dial) comes in handy. Left untouched, it works just like Auto in that it automatically adjusts the aperture and shutter speed to get the right exposure, but you also have the freedom of changing various camera settings like the flash mode, white balance, and ISO.
The raw deal
Once you venture out of the safety net of automatic, it's natural to make a few mistakes here and there. Image editing software on your PC can help fix common issues such as exposure, red eye and brightness, and even if all of your photos already look peachy out of the camera, giving them an extra spit-shine on your computer will almost always make them look better.
Out of the box, cameras save photos in the common JPG format, and this has the advantage of small file sizes and universal compatibility with every image viewer/editor. However, this format also compresses all of the data in your images in-camera. One of the advantages of shooting with a digital SLR is that you have the option of saving your photos in RAW.
RAW is the digital equivalent of a film negative, as it captures all of the data recorded by your camera for each photo. Shooting in RAW has two benefits: first, you'll get a better result processing the image from RAW to JPG on your computer than you will in-camera, as the former is far more powerful. Even better, when it comes time to editing your photos, your image editor will have a lot more information to work with compared to JPG, giving you more leeway for correcting things like white balance, blown highlights and sharpness.
Each brand of digital SLR has its own proprietary RAW file format, so you'll need to use the software that your camera came with to edit those photos. Some third party image editors such as Adobe Lightroom also support most of the RAW formats.
Sometimes blur is good
Feeling adventurous? Aperture priority is best semi-manual mode for everyday photography (denoted by the 'A' on the mode dial), and it will get you producing professional-looking photos in no time. This mode affects how much of an image is in focus – also known as its depth of field.
A large depth of field (generally f-stops of f16 and over) makes everything in the frame sharp, and this is good for landscapes and group shots. A shallow depth of field, on the other hand (apertures of f4.0 and lower), makes the point of focus sharp and the rest of the image blurry. The lower the aperture, the 'creamier' the background blur is – a desirable trait for portraits, as it removes any distracting elements in the background.
There are two caveats when it comes to shooting in aperture priority mode. Since the aperture has a direct correlation to the camera's shutter speed, setting the aperture too low (which, unintuitively, is represented by higher f-stop numbers) can result in shutter speeds that are too slow for shooting without shaking the camera.
The other thing to bear in mind is that the maximum aperture (represented by smaller f-stop numbers) you can shoot at is dependent on your camera lens – the more expensive it is, the wider you'll be able to shoot at. That said, you can get amazing results out of your camera for very little money by picking up a cheap 50mm f1.8 lens. For most camera brands, these are available for under $200 and are well worth the investment.