Cheat Sheet

dSLR Settings & Shortcuts For Dummies

You have a great digital single lens reflex (dSLR) camera and want to capture some wonderful pictures of the times of your life. To fully master your dSLR and create compelling photos, you must venture forth into a brave new world that involves making decisions about shooting modes. Knowing what focal length to use in what shooting scenario will serve you well, as will a post-shoot ritual that readies your dSLR camera for your next photography outing.

Digital SLR Camera Shooting Modes

Decisions, decisions. Your digital SLR camera comes with lots of shooting modes. Fortunately, to shoot pictures like a pro, you need to be concerned with only a couple of them. The following list describes the shooting modes used by pros:

  • Aperture Priority mode: You select the aperture (f/stop number), and the camera meters the scene and supplies the correct shutter speed for a properly exposed image. Use Aperture Priority mode when you want to control how much is in focus in front of and behind your subject, which is depth of field. Use a large aperture (small f/stop number) for a shallow depth of field, which is useful when you’re shooting portraits or any other subject and you don’t want anything but the subject in sharp focus. Use a small aperture (large f-stop number) when you want a large depth of field. A large depth of field is useful when you’re photographing landscapes and you want everything in the image to be in focus.

    You can also use Aperture Priority mode to control how much of the scene you’re photographing in focus by choosing an aperture between the largest and smallest. The depth of field gets a little bit larger as you select a smaller aperture (larger f/stop number).

  • Shutter Priority mode: When you take pictures in Shutter Priority mode, you choose the shutter speed and the camera supplies the f/stop needed to yield a properly exposed image. You use Shutter Priority mode when you’re shooting subjects in motion. Use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion; use a slow shutter speed to render an object in motion with an artistic blur. The shutter speed needed to freeze action depends on how fast the subject is traveling and how far you are from the subject. For example, to freeze the motion of a racecar traveling over 100 mph, you’d need a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second or faster. To freeze the motion of a marathon runner, you’d use a shutter speed of about 1/125 of a second.

    These settings are a guideline. The litmus test is whether you freeze the motion of the subject. Always review the image on your LCD monitor and use the camera controls to zoom in on the image. Examine the edges of the subject to make sure they are not blurred. If they are blurred, use the next fastest shutter speed.

  • B mode: Set your camera to B (Bulb) mode when you want to capture pictures of night scenes, fireworks, and any other scene that requires a lot of light to properly exposure the image. When you shoot in this mode, the shutter stays open as long as you have the shutter button pressed. This is a time exposure. When you shoot a time exposure, place the camera on a tripod to ensure a blur-free shot. You’ll also need a cable release or a remote trigger, which lets you open the shutter without pressing the shutter button.

Focal Lengths and Your Digital SLR Camera

The focal length of the lens you use determines how the camera records the scene. A short focal length includes a wide view of the scene, which is why a lens with a short focal length is a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle lenses cover focal lengths from 12mm (very wide field of view) to 35mm. A long focal length magnifies the scene, essentially capturing a small part of the scene (or the field of view) and magnifying it to fill the frame. Lenses with long focal lengths are telephoto lenses. Telephoto lenses begin with a focal length of 80mm and exceed 500mm. A lens with a focal length that is 50mm encompasses the same field of view as the human eye. A lens that encompasses a range of focal lengths is a zoom lens. You can zoom in on your subject to focus on a small area, or zoom out for the big picture. You may see zoom lenses referred to as wide-angle to telephoto zoom, or normal to telephoto zoom.

One very important thing to remember: digital focal lengths don’t act the way they do on 35mm film cameras if you have a sensor that is smaller than a 35mm frame of film. If you do have a camera with a smaller sensor, your camera doesn’t capture as much of the scene in front of you as a 35mm film camera. In essence, the focal length crops to a smaller area of the scene, which is the same as zooming in. This is great when you’re a wildlife photographer. You can get closer to your subject without having to purchase an expensive telephoto lens with a long focal length. However, when you shoot landscapes, you’re at a disadvantage if you own a camera with a sensor that is smaller than a frame of 35mm film. A full-frame sensor has dimensions of 36mm x 24mm. If your sensor is smaller than that, you need to calculate your focal length multiplier and apply it to the focal length of the lens you’re using to get the 35mm-equivalent focal length. The focal length multiplier is also referred to as the crop factor.

The following figure shows two images of the same scene taken with two cameras. The image on the left was taken with a camera that has a full-frame sensor. The image on the right was taken with the same focal length on a camera with a sensor that is smaller than a 35mm frame of film. Notice that you see more of the scene with the picture taken by the camera with the full-frame sensor.

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Figuring out your focal length multiplier

If you own a camera with a sensor smaller than a frame of 35mm film (36 x 24 millimeters), the sensor records only part of what the lens captures. The net result is that the lens acts the way a longer focal length would on a full-frame sensor. The focal length multiplier depends on the size of your camera’s sensor in relation to a full-frame sensor. Generally, the focal length multiplier falls in a range from 1.3 to 2.0. If you place a lens with a 50mm focal length on a camera with a focal length multiplier of 1.6, the resulting 35mm equivalent is 80mm (50 x 1.6). If you put the same lens on a camera with a focal length multiplier of 1.5, you end up with a 35mm equivalent of 75mm (50 x 1.5).

Know your camera’s focal length multiplier when choosing accessory lenses for your camera. Most Canon cameras that don’t have full-frame sensors have a focal length multiplier of 1.6, with the exception of the Canon EOS 1D MK IV, which has a focal length multiplier of 1.3. Nikon cameras without full-frame sensors have a focal length multiplier of 1.5.

If you can’t find the focal length multiplier for your camera, you can easily calculate it. For example, the sensor on a Canon EOS 7D is 22.3mm x 14.9mm. To find the focal length multiplier for the camera, divide the width or height of a 35mm frame of film by the width or height of your camera sensor. In the case of the EOS 7D, 36 divided by 22.3 is 1.614, which rounded off is 1.6. Therefore, the focal length multiplier for that camera is 1.6.

The right focal length for the right photo

The following table shows several common focal lengths and the types of photographs you would use them for.

Focal Length Type of photography Comments
24-35mm (wide angle) Landscape photography, large buildings, a large group of people Use this focal length with a small aperture (large f/stop number for a large depth of field.
50mm Buildings, people Use with a medium aperture (f/7.1 to f/11) for a sharp image
85-100mm (medium telephoto) Portrait photography Use with a large aperture (small f/stop number) for a shallow depth of field
150mm plus (long telephoto) Wildlife photography, photographing details of objects Use with a large aperture (small f/stop number) for a shallow depth of field
Macro (focal length varies) Close-up photography Mount your camera on a tripod to ensure a blur free image

A Post-Shoot Ritual for the Digital SLR Photographer

Photography is art, not rocket science. However, you do work with a digital SLR camera and change settings when taking photographs under certain conditions. If you don’t change the settings to their default values after a photo shoot, you may end up with undesirable results. It’s helpful to go through this list after every photo shoot and prepare your camera for your next photo outing:

  1. Download images to your computer.

    After the download, rename the images and apply keywords; doing so makes locating the images later much easier.

  2. Back up image files.

    An external hard drive is an excellent place to back up your images. External hard drives provide an inexpensive way to safeguard your precious image files if you have a problem with your computer hard drive.

  3. Reformat the memory card.

    Always reformat the memory card in your camera. Don’t format the cards using your computer. Your camera has the correct algorithm to format your cards properly.

  4. Set the ISO to its lowest setting.

  5. Set White Balance to Auto.

  6. Set Exposure Compensation to 0.

  7. Set the on-camera flash to OFF.

  8. Recharge your camera battery and spare battery if necessary.

  9. Set the camera metering to Evaluative.

  10. Disable auto-exposure bracketing.

  11. Clean your camera body.

    Always use a soft cloth to remove any accumulated grime. If necessary, dampen the cloth and then wring it almost dry. Wiping the camera body with an almost dry cloth is highly recommended if you’ve been taking photographs at the beach and there is a lot of salt spray in the air.

  12. Clean your camera lenses.

    Purchase a lens cleaning kit at your favorite camera retailer and use it after every shoot. You’ll get better pictures with a clean lens.

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