June 11

Photography for Beginners – Understanding Your First DSLR

When you get your first DSLR camera it looks like a very complex piece of kit. You may have taken it out of the box and be completely confused by all the buttons and dials. You may also wonder which bit does what (and how). I always prefer to start with the complete camera basics. After all, a mathematician learns the basics of adding and subtracting before going anywhere near chaos theory.

In this first part of our tutorials, we are going to start with discussing the basics of your camera. If you do not have a DSLR then don’t worry. Our list of camera types will let you know the differences between your camera and a DSLR and a lot of the rest of our training will cover photography tips that can be applied to nearly every camera.

Digital SLRs have completely changed photography over the past 15 years or so. They have opened the doors for everyone to be able to pick up a camera and take some great shots. If you have ever tried film photography you would have seen the large difference in expense. Whilst digital cameras are a large upfront expense, you no longer have to buy film or pay for processing that film. It was easy to spoil a film by having incorrect exposure or blurry photographs. But you didn’t know this was the case until the photos came back from being processed and then you would feel disappointment. With DSLRs, you can see the photo as you take it.

With DSLRs, you can see the photo as you take it. Therefore, a DSLR is a great learning tool as you can learn as you go along. If the photo looks dark then you can adjust the exposure – more about that later though. In the meantime, we are going to look at the basic setup of your camera.

DSLR Camera Basics

Your camera will consist of two main parts – the body and the lens. As well as this you will have some other parts that fit into the body such as a rechargeable battery and a flash card. Now usually kits can come with a small flash card, but you will probably need a larger capacity one at some stage. Or even two or more flash cards.

Your flash card could be an SD card or even a Compact Flash card. These also come in different storage sizes which means that the larger cards can store more photos before you need to swap the card out. Check your manual for which card your camera needs.

The Basic DSLR Camera Body

Nikon D800 Camera BodyNikon D800 Camera BodyNikon D800 Camera Bodyphotography basics - camera basics on the camera bodyphotography basics - camera basics on the camera bodyThis part of your DSLR always looks the most complex. After all, this is where the majority of buttons and dials are housed as well as handgrips. When buying a new DSLR body, though, try it out first. Make sure it feels comfortable in your hands and that the grip is the right size for your hand. Also, try out the positions of the buttons and dials. Can you reach them easily with your fingers? Does it feel easy to move a dial or click a button without resorting to extreme hand acrobatics?

Remember you will probably have this DSLR body for a few years so you need to find one that is right for you. For example, my main camera is a Nikon D800. I find this camera really comfortable in my hand. I can reach the shutter and other dials easily as well as holding it one handed without the grip slipping. A fellow photographer uses a Canon 5D Mark III which I find too bulky in my hand but he finds it perfect. On the other hand, he finds my Nikon D800 to be too small for his hands.

Choosing the body unless you have a specific requirement in mind (eg pro photographers for sports or studio work will require different cameras) is very subjective. This is why I always advise to try them out first.

Apart from the dials and buttons on a camera body, the other two main parts are the sensor and shutter.

The Camera Sensor

The camera sensor is housed inside the body of the camera and is an extremely complex and technical item. To be honest I could write pages of information about how a sensor works but the science and workings do not really need to be that complex for you to understand what a sensor does and how it is important for your photography.

Put simply the sensor is a solid state device which contains millions of light-sensitive receptors. These receptors, or pixels, capture the photons of light. Think about the sensor as being like the film in previous SLRs. However, unlike film, you do not need any processing in a darkroom. So the sensor does both the job of capturing the light and processing the light into a picture.

How it does this is not really needed to be known here. But you do need to think about how many pixels are in the sensor and the size of the sensor.

More Megapixels Or Not?

So if a pixel captures the light then surely the more pixels you have then the higher the resolution and details in the image. Now you might think that this leads to a higher quality of image, but this is not always the case. You also have to bear in mind the size of the sensor. If you cram masses of pixels onto a small sensor then this leads to greater noise in the photographs and therefore a lower quality image at low light.

I have heard people get very excited at the thought of more and more megapixels in their sensor as they think that is going to give them this better quality. But as you see from the above this is most definitely not the case. So when looking at the number of megapixels in a camera also think about the size of the sensor.

Furthermore, you might not require an excessive number of megapixels. If you are taking photographs that need to be printed to very large sizes (poster size and upwards) then the extra pixels are useful. Therefore, high megapixel cameras are very useful for studio work where you will not need to manage low light situations. They are in this case very useful for commercial photography and fashion/beauty photography where you need a high resolution and a lot of detail in the photograph.

These high megapixel cameras have very large file sizes and need a lot of computer processing power when editing the photos. Now if you are using a camera for online photos or smaller printing sizes then you do not need the higher resolution. Also if you are using a camera in lower light, for example, sports, concerts etc, then you will require lower noise levels in low light.

Sensor Size – APS-C

APS-C was an old film format which was invented in the 1990s by Kodak. The film negative in this case is only approximately 58% of the size of 35mm film. Therefore, as the camera has a smaller sensor, the camera itself can be smaller, lighter and less expensive to make. Thus APS-C sensors are found in many consumer level cameras.

The actual size of this sensor does differ between camera manufacturers. Nikon, Pentax and Sony cameras have a slightly larger sensor size than a Canon. However, this size difference is less than 2mm.

If you place a full frame lens on a APS-C sensor camera then the image area is much bigger than is required to fill the smaller sensor. Therefore, the image will resemble a cropped version of one that would be captured with a full frame camera. This has led to these sensors being refered to as crop sensors.

Cropping also results in focal length magnification. Due to the differences in size of the sensor between Canon cameras and Nikon cameras this gives a magnification of 1.6x focal length for Canon cameras and about 1.5x focal length on Nikon and Sony.

So, think about it this way = a 100mm lens on a crop sensor camera will resemble the photo taken with a 150mm lens taken on a full frame camera. (A Canon full frame would be 160mm). This has enormous benefits for shooting wildlife photography or even shooting sports. In these cases, you would want a long telephoto lens. But if you shoot with a crop sensor camera you can use a 200mm lens and get the same image as a 300mm full frame camera. As longer lenses are much more expensive and heavier you can buy a cheaper, lighter lens for the same effect.

Full Frame Sensor

Full frame sensor cameras are the closest thing to 35mm film cameras. Therefore this is a larger sensor than the APS-C camera. Now if you remember about higher megapixel counts earlier in the article you can see that if you pack 50 megapixels onto this size sensor then they are going to be more spaced out than on an APS-C sensor. This in turn, leads to a better quality image at higher resolutions.

Because of the larger sensor also these cameras will often be heavier and larger in order to house the larger sensor. This is turn leads to a higher cost. So usually these cameras are the upper range of the DSLR market and are used by professionals and very serious hobbyists.

With these full frame cameras, you also have no crop factor for focal length. What you see through your viewfinder is the actual photo that you get. And a 150mm lens will remain a 150mm lens. Therefore if you are using these cameras for wildlife and sports you will require longer lenses than those used in crop cameras.

Full frame sensor cameras though are very good for studio work where you can also get a high megapixel count.

The Camera Shutter

Basically, the shutter acts as a curtain between the lens and the sensor. Before you take the photograph this curtain is completely closed so that no light gets onto the sensor.

How it works is this. When you look through the viewfinder of your camera you are looking through a series of mirrors. Each of these bounces light from the front of the lens. Now when the shutter button is clicked these mirrors flip upward to allow the light to hit the sensor. Once these mirrors flip then the shutter door moves from top to bottom exposing the sensor to the light. Then another curtain will drop down stopping any more light from hitting the sensor.

Once this second curtain has dropped down then the mirrors will reset to their original positions and then the curtains will also reset to their start positions.

Now, this movement of the shutter curtains can be just a fraction of a second depending on how long the shutter speed is set for on your camera. This entire cycle is referred to as an actuation. Most DSLRs will list how many actuations on average their shutter will last for. This value though is in the tens of thousands and in top end cameras will be usually over 100,000 actuations. If you are buying a second-hand camera then it is useful to find out how many shutter actuations have been used as this then will let you know how much life is left in the shutter before it needs replacing.

The DSLR Camera Lens

If you buy a kit camera then usually this will come with a lens in the box. This lens can be known by a number of names by photographers

Lens == Optics == Glass

So if someone says to you that you need good glass, they mean that you need a good lens. The lens itself captures the light through a series of different optical elements and this light finally ends at the sensor. DSLRs use separate interchangeable lenses but care must be taken when buying a lens as the mount onto the camera is different for different manufacturers. Therefore a Canon lens will not fit onto a Nikon camera due to the mount. You can get an adapter BUT this results in a very large degradation of photo quality.

Some manufacturers such as Tamron and Sigma make lenses for many different manufacturer cameras. Therefore when purchasing one of these make sure you get the correct mount fitting.

A Quick Lens Overview

Put simply, when you look through your viewfinder then you are looking at your subject through the lens via a series of mirrors. You then focus on the subject by either using your camera’s autofocus or manually focussing. Some lenses have a switch on the body to change from autofocus to manual. If focussing manually you can then turn a ring on the lens body to bring your subject into sharp focus.

Mostly though you will rely on your camera’s autofocus system. But switching to manual is useful if

  1. your camera cannot find the focal point (often because there is no differentiation between parts of the subject)
  2. you want to do some fine adjusting of focus – usually useful in macro photography.

Focal Length Explained

Lenses are manufactured in different focal lengths which is measured in millimetres. This is the distance from the sensor to the optical centre of the lens when it is focussed at infinity. It is difficult to tell where the actual optical centre of the lens will be as a lens is made up of multiple elements which are arranged in groups.

A standard lens is 50mm and when you look through the viewfinder of this lens on a full frame camera this replicates your standard field of view of your eye. Also referred to as the angle of view.

Lenses that are longer than 50mm are referred to as telephoto as they will have a field of view smaller than your eye. When you use these lenses they magnify the image and bring it closer to you in the viewfinder. Therefore you can make very distant objects much bigger. Think of this enlargement like looking through a set of binoculors or a telescope.

At the opposite end of the spectrum will be wide angle lenses that have a field of view much greater than your eye. These will have a focal length of less than 50mm and are called wide-angle lenses. The subject here can seem further away than your eyes will be telling you. However, you will be able to photograph a much wider panorama.

This can be seen in wide angle lenses used for landscape photography. These may be ultra wide angle lenses of maybe 10-16mm in focal length. But when you look through these an entire vista is wide open before you.

Types of Lenses

Lenses can be categorised in two distinct types.

  • Prime Lenses – these have a fixed focal length so always see the subject at a fixed distance. However, these prime lenses come in a wide variety of focal lengths. Anything from a wide angle lens of say 10mm through to large 1000mm lenses. The standard view lens of 50mm is an example of a prime lens.


  • Zoom lenses – these lenses have a variable focal range. Now this range can vary from just a few focal lengths such as a 10-20mm zoom through to a very wide range (150-500mm for example). Some of the most popular zoom lens ranges are the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm. Zoom lenses allow you to zoom in on a subject without having to move towards the subject.

Lens Aperture

Apart from the type of lens and its focal length the third important value to know for a lens is its aperture. This is the opening of the lens diaphragm through which the light will pass and it is measured as f-stops. When you buy a new lens then usually the widest aperture of the lens will be listed in its description. For example, a 70-200mm f2.8 lens means that this is a zoom lens with a focal length of between 70mm and 200mm and it has its widest aperture as f 2.8.

Whilst the lens above has its widest f-stop of f2.8 it will also be capable of being set at many other f-stops. However the important value is the lowest number which is why that is used for the lens description. The lower the number then the wider the aperture is open.

Aperture numbers can range from any of the following: f1.2, f1.4, f2, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22.

Photography Basics - camera basics on aperture

So a wide aperture will result in a greater exposure as it lets more light through. Think about the pupil of your eye and how it dilates when in darker conditions to allow you to see better. Then in bright conditions, your pupil will be very small to not allow so much light through to your retina. Lens aperture works the same way.

Therefore getting the correct amount of light onto the sensor is a balancing act between shutter speed and aperture (and also ISO) but we will get into that in a later tutorial. For now, just think about the aperture being like your eye pupil.

I hope that you have enjoyed this overview. If you have then please share and comment.



beginners guide, DSLR camera, photography, photography for beginners

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