Beginner DSLR questions answered
You've got your new DSLR out of the box. You've charged the battery. You've looked at the manual in despair. What next? Don't be embarrassed that you don't even know how to switch your camera on. Here are the answers to the most basic of all DSLR questions I've ever been asked.
It won't switch on
Is the battery charged? Have you put the battery in the right way? Are you somewhere very, very cold?
What do all the buttons do? How do I switch on and take a photo?
To take your first photo, you just need to find the on/off button, and the shutter button. You might want to make sure the function dial is switched to 'P' (program) or 'Auto' so the camera does all the work for you.
To learn how to go off auto, and what all the other buttons do, you'll need to read your manual.
Or you can try my free online course, A Year With My Camera, and work through everything one step at a time:
What's the memory card and what do I do with it?
Your manual will tell you which kind of memory card you need. Avoid touching the metal strips, and use the manual to find out which slot to put your card in. Lost your manual? Download it here.
What does DSLR mean? What's the difference between mirrorless and DSLR?
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex.
A short history lesson: the SLR part was the revolutionary technological advance back in the 1860s which allowed photographers to look through the viewfinder and see exactly what would be printed on the final photograph. Before SLR technology, you either saw your image upside down on the back of the camera, or looked through a viewfinder that gave you a slightly offset version of your final image. In the 1860s, some cumbersome early SLRs were produced, with a tiny periscope inside the camera so the photographer could get a true live-view. By the the 1930s the 35mm SLR cameras that we would recognise today were developed, with an eye-level instead of waist-level viewfinder.
The trouble with having a periscope inside the camera is that the light can't reach the film (or the sensor). So one of the mirrors is hinged, and will flip up when you press the shutter button to take a photo, and then drop back down again afterwards. That's the kerchunk you hear. And why the viewfinder goes black when you take the photo.
In the last 3 or 4 years technology has advanced again, to the point where we can do away with the periscope altogether (this is where the term 'mirrorless' comes from - it's just a camera with no internal mirrors). Processing power is now fast enough that electronic viewfinders can keep up with your changing viewpoint with no lag, and are good enough to replace the analogue periscope arrangement completely. So if you have a mirrorless camera, you have the same quality and functionality of a DSLR, just in a smaller package.
So in terms of the manual controls available, there's no difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera. They are effectively the same, but mirrorless cameras are smaller because they have no mirrors. They have historically been inferior to DSLRs due to the time-lag with the LCD electronic viewfinder, and have had slower autofocus, but since around 2015 these issues have all but disappeared with most mirrorless cameras. You might hear people talk about ILCs - interchangeable lens cameras. This term embraces both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. The real benefit of both systems is the ability to change the lenses, and this is what differentiates them from bridge cameras and compact cameras.
Which button do I press to take a photo?
Grip the camera in your right hand (sorry left-handers - cameras are all designed for right handed people). Your first finger should fall naturally onto a button. This is the shutter button, and when the camera is switched on, you press it to take a photo. Can't find the button? Have a quick look in your manual.
Bonus tip - if you move the camera while you're taking a photo, chances are the photo will be a bit blurred. So don't jab at the shutter button. Aim for a smooth, gentle press.
How do I focus?
Check your lens is on autofocus, not manual focus (there will be an AF/MF button), and then point the camera at what you want to take a picture of. Half press the shutter button whilst looking through the viewfinder. You should see a display that includes small circles or squares spread out through the display. As you half press the shutter button, one or more of these points will light up or go green, and you'll hear a beep. This means that the camera has focused on whatever is at the place under the green point. It is usually the closest or biggest thing in the image, or if your camera has face recognition, the nearest person.
If you don't want to focus on whatever it is that the camera has chosen you have 3 choices.
1. Switch to manual focus (MF on the lens), and then twist the front of the lens until you are focused where you want to be. Don't forget to switch back to AF when you're finished.
2. Use the focus-recompose technique. Point your camera so that whatever you want to focus on is in the middle of the viewfinder. Hopefully the camera will focus on it when you half-press the shutter button. Now, keeping the shutter button half pressed, move the camera to the frame you want. The camera will keep the focus on your original subject and you can press the shutter button all the way to take the photograph.
3. Change the focus points. Dig out our manual and find out how to change the focus point that the camera uses to prioritise where it will focus. My camera won't focus You're almost certainly too close. Cameras can't focus if you are very close to your subject. Move back a bit and try again, or look on the front of your lens for the closest focussing distance. For a 50mm lens it's probably around 45cm.
How do I attach the strap? Do I need a case?
I can't help you with the strap. You'll need to read the manual. Personally, I don't think you need a case. They just get in the way when you want to take photos. If you can keep your camera out of the rain and the dust, you'll probably be OK without.
What lens have I got?
Lenses are measured in 'focal lengths'. The focal length of your wide angle lens, or the wide angle end of your zoom lens, will be something like 35mm. The focal length of the other end of your zoom (the 'telephoto' end) might be 135mm or 200mm. The lens which gives the closest approximation to a human eye is around 50mm.
If you bought a camera kit, a zoom lens was probably included. If you twist the lens you will see the field of view change from a wide angle (eg 35mm, where you can fit lots of the view in) to a zoomed-in close up (eg 200mm). The alternative to a zoom lens is a prime lens. Prime lenses are fixed focal lengths - eg. 50mm or 100mm.
What lenses do I need?
If you have the time to learn how to use it properly, you're better off buying a more expensive lens that has a wider maximum aperture than a super zoom with smaller maximum apertures. Once you've learnt how to use apertures creatively (join my free workshop to find out how - click the red box the end of this post), you'll find the lack of range on the cheaper lenses very frustrating. Don't forget second hand lenses - you can get great deals on used kit.
There's no one-advice-fits all when it comes to lenses. What you need depends on what you take photos of, how much kit you're prepared to carry, your budget, and whether you will use the aperture range to it's fullest or just stick your camera on auto.
These were my first lenses, in order of purchase:
How do I change my lens?
There will be a button where your lens meets your camera body. Push that to release the lens, and twist to take it off. Have your next lens ready - just reverse the action to put your new lens on.
Don't get dust on your sensor while you are changing lenses. A dusty sensor will show up as spots on your images. Every time you take a lens off the camera you let dust in.
Minimise dust while changing lenses by:
- not changing lenses in dusty environments
- switching the camera off first (the static charge attracts dust)
- holding the camera upside down while you work
- having everything ready to go before you start
What's the memory card and what do I do with it?
Your manual will tell you which kind of memory card you need. Avoid touching the metal strips, and use the manual to find out which slot to put your card in.
Memory card best practice:
1. Format your memory card before you use it. (Look in the manual to find out how to format.) Make sure there is nothing already on the card that you need to download first. You are formatting your card so that it is optimised for use with your camera.
2. Format your memory card after each download. Once you have downloaded and backed up your files (see below) you should format your memory card again. Don't just use the 'delete' function on your camera or on your computer. If you 'delete' the files, the card just overwrites new data on top of old. If you actually format the card it is wiped clean and you will have less chance of corrupt files.
3. Don't switch memory cards between different cameras. Actually, you can switch cards, but make sure you download and backup all your files first, and then format the card so it is ready to use with the new camera.
4. Don't get 128GB memory cards It can be tempting to get huge memory cards so you can fit 100s of photos on one card. But memory cards aren't infallible, and you risk losing more images in one go if you rely on one enormous card. Professional photographers prefer to use multiple smaller cards to minimise this risk. (This doesn't apply if you shoot lots of video - you'll need the bigger cards for the huge file sizes.)
5. Don't get cheap memory cards These are your precious memories you're risking. Cheap cards are more likely to fail. They also have much, much slower download times, so they will take forever to download to your computer.
How do I transfer the images to my computer?
You will want to download your images from your camera to share them, and to back them up. You'll also want to keep your memory cards empty ready for the next time you go out with your camera.
There are 3 ways to transfer your images: wifi, cable and direct.
1. Wifi: if your camera has wifi (check the manual), you can set up wireless transfer. It will only be as quick as your wifi connection.
2. Cable: your camera will have come with a cable for USB transfer. Plug one end into the camera (check the manual), and the USB into your computer.
3. Direct: if your computer has a memory card slot, you can take the memory card out of your camera and plug it direct into your computer.
Where should I save my images?
Once you are ready to transfer your images, you'll need to decide where to save them. You probably don't want to keep saving all your images to your computer, because it will fill up the computer's memory quickly. You'll run out of space, and your computer will slow right down. Most photographers buy an external hard drive to plug into their computer, and use that to save all their images on. Once you've set the hard drive up it will show up as a place to download your images to when you plug your camera in. Set up some kind of logical folder system and you're all set. I use a simple yearly folder hierarchy: 2016 as my top folder, and then each month underneath.
What about backing up?
You do not want to have just one copy of your digital image files. Hard drives will fail, it's just a question of when. You should have at least 2 copies of your files, one offsite. Backing up your images always makes people worried because it's such a daunting job. Read this post - How to backup your photos without crying.
What are aperture, shutter speed and ISO?
This is a great question, and you undoubtedly need the answer if you're going to use your camera to its fullest.
The answer takes a lot longer than a paragraph in a blog post though. I do have a free DSLR workshop called A Year With My Camera where I take you through, step by step, everything you need to know. Sign up here and you can catch up on all the previous lessons straight away, and then join in starting on Thursday: