Cheat Sheet

Digital SLR Photography All-in-One For Dummies

Shooting a digital SLR camera and getting amazing photographs takes practice. dSLRs and photography have many aspects, including shooting modes, aperture and exposure settings, and composition. You can successfully capture action, macros, landscapes, and portraits when you know how to choose the right settings and lens.

Choosing a Digital SLR Camera

Digital SLR cameras come in different models. dSLR makers, including Canon, Nikon, and Sony, sell competing camera models targeted to different skill levels, from beginner and hobbyist photographer to professional photographer.

  • Entry-level cameras are for beginners or photographers with limited budgets. These dSLRs can take great photos, but have limited features and capabilities compared to the next level.

    Even the least-expensive dSLR, however, is much more capable than a compact digital or camera phone. Stretch your entry-level dSLR by upgrading your lens to something better.

  • Mid-range cameras are for amateur photographers who want more features and who can spend extra money.

  • High-end amateur cameras are for the amateur photographers who really mean business, or the professional who needs something smaller, lighter, and less expensive than a top-tier camera. Manufacturers begin adding pro-level features such as better autofocus, metering, and flash options.

  • Semi-professional cameras work professionally, but may have performance limitations and form factor compromises that keep them affordable. All the same, they're larger, heavier, and more durable than amateur cameras, and they have lots more features.

  • Professional cameras come in two flavors, both full-frame: standard pro and premier. The top premier models are as good as dSLRs get, and the standard versions nearly so.

Finding Controls on a Digital SLR Camera

All dSLRs, no matter what manufacturer makes the camera, share common buttons, knobs, and controls. For example, a camera's grip is always on the right side, an LCD monitor on the back to view settings, and a viewfinder to frame your photograph. The following illustrations of a typical entry-level model dSLR, the Nikon D3200, show the basic parts of most dSLRs, including the mode dial with exposure settings, and video recording buttons.

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dSLR Camera Lens Types and Focal Lengths

You can swap lenses on your digital SLR camera. Choose from macros or zoom lenses. Experiment with specialty lenses, from Holga to tilt-shift and pinhole. Choose the right lens based on your photography style or method:

  • Zoom lenses have a zoom ring so you can change the focal length. They come in several types. The most common, and in many ways, versatile type is called the standard (or normal) zoom lens. You also can buy wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses.

  • Prime lenses has a fixed focal length, so it can't zoom in or out. Buy the lens that matches the focal length you like best. When you compose your shots, you have to physically move closer or farther away.

  • Macro lenses specialize in photos of close-up objects with a reproduction ratio close to 1:1. Most macro lenses are primes.

  • Other specialty lenses include creative and artistic lenses like these:

    • LensBaby are untraditional and creative. Different types have different creative focus and depth-of-field effects.

    • Holga works with your dSLR and you can mount it directly.

    • Diana+ is similar to Holga, but can zoom much more. Using a Diana+ lens requires an adapter.

    • Tilt-shift: Get interesting depth-of-field and perspective effects.

    • Pinhole: There's no focus. The depth of field is huge. Exposure time is longer. Pinhole cameras create soft, dreamy photos.

Lenses are also categorized based on their focal lengths:

  • Ultra wide-angle lenses have an angle of view between 80 and 100 degrees diagonal. That equates to focal lengths of roughly 10–17mm for cropped-frame cameras and 14–26mm for full-frame cameras.

  • Wide-angle focal lengths are anything less than the diagonal size of your camera's sensor. Traditionally, this means anything up to around 24mm for APS-C and 35mm for full-frame cameras.

  • Normal focal lengths are around the same diagonal size as your camera's sensor, give or take a small range. This includes the focal lengths of 26–35mm for APS-C and 40–60mm for full-frame cameras.

  • Near-telephoto runs from 35 to 50mm for cropped-frame cameras. Full-frame cameras have a near-telephoto range of approximately 60–70mm. Also known as medium telephoto.

  • Telephoto is considered proper telephoto. It extends from the end of near-telephoto and stops before things get ridiculously expensive. Typical telephoto focal lengths are from 70–200mm for cropped-frame and 135–300mm for full-frame cameras.

  • Super telephoto lenses shoot incredible shots with ridiculous focal lengths. They're all primes lenses, so you can't zoom in or out.

Choosing a Shooting Mode on a dSLR

When should you choose Auto mode on your digital SLR camera, and when should you start setting exposure, aperture, and ISO yourself? How much control do you want over the camera, and for what kind of photograph? Should you turn off the flash? Should you use scenes like Landscape and Portrait?

Name Description When to Use This Mode
Automatic Point the camera, press the shutter button halfway to focus, and then press the shutter button fully to take the photo.

Some cameras have more than one automatic mode, one of which will be Advanced.
Use when you're learning about your camera and photography or when you need to transfer the workload to the camera so you can relax and have fun.
Flash Off This mode is Auto without the flash. It may be called Auto (Flash Off) on your camera. Use it when you want to be in Auto mode but can't turn off the flash.
Portrait Take photos with nicely blurred backgrounds and sharp subjects. You're photographing people.
Landscape Scenes full of scenery, processed to make the colors stand out. Photograph cityscapes as well as traditional shots of nature.
Sports/Action Optimized to photograph moving subjects with a fast shutter speed. Someone else is moving or you're moving.
Macro/Close-up A close-up. You need something close up.
Other scenes Your camera may have more scenes, such as Child, Sunset, Night View, Handheld Night, Twilight, or Night Portrait. Try them out in different scenarios.
Specialty Many cameras now have some form of automatic HDR shooting mode. Some enable you to shoot multiple exposures. Sony cameras have Sweep Panorama and Continuous Advance modes. When you want to try high dynamic range (HDR).
Program Auto (P) Program auto is like Auto mode, but you have much more control over the camera. Exposure is automatic.

You can shift the program by changing which combination of aperture and shutter speed the camera uses in a given situation.
When you want to point and shoot, but want to set up options like metering, drive mode, white balance, and so on.
Shutter priority (S or Tv) Set the shutter speed; the camera works around that to get the right exposure. In all other aspects, the camera is under your full control. Good for sports, action, and when you are moving.
Aperture priority (A or Av) Set the aperture; the camera works around that to get the right exposure. In all other aspects, the camera is under your full control. Good when you want to control the depth of field more directly. Good for portraits, landscapes, and close-ups.
Manual exposure (M) You're responsible for all exposure settings. You're ready for major responsibility.
Bulb (B) This mode opens the shutter for as long as you hold down the Shutter button. If you don't have a B mode on your dial, you may access it by increasing your camera's shutter speed.

Setting Up a Flash on a dSLR Camera

Your dSLR camera may have different flash options, including fill flash and high-speed sync. The lighting and photographic effect you want is how you determine which flash setting to use.

  • Auto TTL is automatic flash mode. The camera and flash determine the flash strength. TTL stands for "through the lens," which is how the flash assesses the scene.

  • Red-eye reduction fires a series of pre-flashes to constrict pupils, lowering the chances of red-eye.

  • Fill flash forces the flash to fire when it isn't necessary (from an overall exposure standpoint). Use fill flash outdoors to keep faces from being in shadow. Use fill flash indoors to balance bright light from windows.

  • Slow sync slows the shutter and flash to increase the amount of ambient light, resulting in brighter backgrounds. You may have to raise ISO to keep shutter speed fast enough for hand-held photography.

  • High-speed sync is for when you have an external flash mounted on your camera's hot shoe. This mode allows much faster shutter speeds than you can get with pop-up flashes. Use for action shots or in bright light when you need a very fast shutter.

  • Rear curtain waits to fire the flash until just before the exposure ends.

  • Repeating flash divides the flash into a number of discrete pulses, triggering them over the length of the exposure.

  • Wireless enables wireless mode on compatible flashes and camera bodies. When you set it up properly, it syncs the off-camera flash with your camera, so you can trigger the off-camera flash remotely.

  • Manual is the flash mode that lets you set the flash strength yourself.

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