10 DSLR Photography Tips for Better Photos

DSLR Photography TipsDon’t get me wrong, I am definitely a fan of my Canon EOS Rebel T3i‘s auto capabilities, as they usually yield a well-exposed and clear shot. But there is so much more to a DSLR camera than full Auto mode and Scene modes (Portrait mode, Landscape mode, etc.), and to not utilize and take advantage of its amazing tools would be like shooting with a very expensive ‘point and shoot.’ When you learn to use these features you will notice that your shots get even better! If you are not yet ready to leap into full Manual mode but are in need of getting a bit more familiar and adventurous with your dslr, here is my list of 10 Tips for Better DSLR Photography (use your camera’s manual in conjunction with these tips, as camera brand mechanics vary):

1. Use your camera’s Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes (great stepping stones towards learning how to shoot in full Manual mode)
If Manual mode sounds daunting to you at this point, your camera can ease you in gently with Aperture Priority mode and Shutter Priority mode, also known as the semi-manual or semi-auto modes (Note: Some pros prefer to shoot mostly in Aperture Priority mode, while others prefer Manual mode). Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens when you are taking a picture, and determines the amount of light let into the camera. In Aperture Priority mode (often indicated by the symbol ‘A’ or ‘Av’ on your camera), you control the size of your aperture while the camera takes care of the shutter speed, yielding a well-exposed photo.

Shutter speed is the length of time that the shutter of your camera remains open when you are taking a picture, allowing light to hit your camera’s sensor (it’s also known as exposure time). In Shutter Priority mode (often indicated by the symbol ‘S’ or ‘Tv’ on your camera), you can manually control your shutter speed while your camera automatically takes care of the aperture size in an effort to give you a well-exposed photo.

What can you do with these modes?
Aperture Priority mode is a favorite of mine. I adore taking photographs where the subject or portion of the subject is clearly in focus while the background is dreamy and blurred. This is known as having a shallow DOF (depth of field). I achieve this look by setting my aperture to a large size (indicated by a lower f-number). Shallow DOF works well for portraits, food photography, and still life photos. If you set your aperture to a smaller size (indicated by a greater f- number) you can achieve what is known as deep DOF, where both the foreground and background are crisp, clear and in focus. You’ll want to use deep DOF for landscape shots.

Folks generally use Shutter Priority mode when they wish to capture movement in a particular way. They use a fast shutter speed to “freeze” a fast-moving object in time. A slower shutter speed would show the motion progression, yielding a blurred image of the subject.

2. Invest in a quality tripod.
I have noticed that I have a heightened ability to keep very still when shooting with slower shutter speeds:), but I do realize my limitations. That’s when it’s time for a trusty tripod. They are very handy for nighttime long exposures, photographing fireworks, and for special effects like this. I use my DSLR’s built-in timer in conjunction with the tripod (so I don’t shake the camera by pushing the button myself). Sometimes my remote shutter release cable does come in handy, for those photos I wish to capture in the moment.

3. Get to know your camera’s autofocus capabilities (AF mode).
When you look through your camera’s lens you will see an array of focus points. The center focus point (which is the most sensitive point) should be pointed straight at your subject. Push the shutter button halfway down to lock the focus, then recompose your shot if you want (because the subject does not have to be in the dead center of your composition), then shoot. If your subject is way off center, you’ll get a clearer shot if you select an off-center focus point that lines up with your subject. If using a wide aperture setting like f/2.8, do not use the lock focus/recompose method, as your subject may become blurred. Instead, choose a focus point closest to your subject to ensure clarity.

There are basically two AF modes — ‘One Shot’ and ‘Continuous.’ My Canon has One Shot mode and Al Servo mode (continuous), as well as Al Focus mode which is really like One Shot mode with an automatic sensor that allows it to go into Al Servo mode when it detects motion. Greek? Let me make it easy for you. When you are shooting a still subject use One Shot mode. If you have a moving subject that you wish to capture in focus, set your camera to its Continuous focus mode (which is Al Servo on my Canon), so that it continually focuses on your moving subject.

4. ISO rocks!
ISO Auto can work great, but having more control of these speed settings (100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600+) can help you achieve better exposure. I set my camera to a low ISO speed for bright light situations and a higher ISO speed for low-light situations. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive to light your camera becomes, and the faster the shutter speed will be. Here are some general rules to follow:

  • An ISO of 100 is perfect for very sunny environments.
  • ISO 200-400 works for overcast outdoor daylight, outdoor shade, or indoors where the scene is well-lit.
  • ISO 800 can sometimes be used in low light outdoors or indoors without a flash. Mind the shutter speed — if it gets too slow you can either increase ISO to make it faster, use a tripod to accommodate the slower shutter speed, or use flash.
  • Indoor and outdoor low-light situations without a flash often call for an ISO speed of 1600 or more. Beware though, as your photos can become grainy with a high ISO (I try not to go higher than ISO 400 for that reason). To avoid graininess in these low-light situations, set the ISO low and mount your DSLR on a tripod to get a clear shot. Or, you can always use a high ISO (to increase shutter speed enough for a handheld shot) and enjoy the creative grain! I like to convert low-light grainy photos to black and white in Photoshop and call it “film grain.”

5. The Metering Modes
Your camera has a built-in feature that automatically controls exposure, but sometimes there are situations where you need more control over the exposure — for instance, if you are shooting in the bright light of day and your camera automatically darkens the overall photo, leaving your subject matter underexposed. In situations like these it is time to visit your camera’s Metering modes and select one to help you control exposure (and I’d like to add that this is way easier than you may think). My Canon has Evaluative Metering mode (called Evaluative/Matrix Metering on some cameras), Partial Metering mode, Spot Metering mode, and Center-Weighted Average Metering mode. DSLRs are set to Evaluative Metering mode by default, which does a fine job most of the time. What to do when it doesn’t? Here is a little scenario to help me explain… it’s evening — rich, golden light — the perfect backdrop for a portrait session with my daughter. In Evaluative Metering mode, the camera evaluates the overall exposure of the photo, taking into account the backlight. If I use this mode, my daughter will come out too dark. To ensure correct exposure of my subject, I simply choose the Partial Metering mode or Spot Metering mode — these modes will brighten the subject despite the backlight (Spot Metering mode gives a bit more control than Partial Metering mode). Center-Weighted Average Metering mode is a combination of Evaluative and Partial/Spot Metering modes and is probably least used out of all the modes. It evaluates the entire scene, but gives priority to the center portion of the frame (so your subject always has to be in the center of the frame when using this mode).

6. Exposure Compensation
Think of your camera as a robot. It gets the job done with artificial intelligence, yielding successful and pleasing results most of the time. But, there are times when you, the human being photographer, will need to override the machine to achieve the perfect exposure for your photograph, especially in instances where there are either mostly white tones in your scene, or mostly black tones. For example, snowscapes are naturally bright to the naked eye, especially in full sun. If left up to the camera alone, the machine will automatically darken the scene because it is programmed to average the tones out to 18% gray whenever it takes a photo. You can easily correct this kind of improper exposure by going to the “+/- sliding scale” feature (found on most digital cameras) and manually increasing or decreasing exposure accordingly (in this case of the snowscape scene, you will increase it). For scenes with black tones, the camera will average them out to 18% gray as well, so decrease exposure compensation to achieve true black tones. Whether you’re increasing or decreasing exposure, moving one to two full stops is recommended. Exposure compensation is a lot of fun to experiment with. I especially love to play with it during late day/early evening photoshoots that have rich, golden backlighting — I increase it to brighten subject faces (an alternative to using the Spot Metering mode mentioned in #5).

7. Use White Balance settings to achieve more natural-looking photos.
Different light sources create a variety of color casts in our photos, not all of which look very natural. DSLR cameras have white balance settings to choose from to help counteract these problems. Some of the most common white balance settings are Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent and Flash. Try experimenting with these settings, at all different times of day, in different situations. You might even discover some interesting effects.

8. Use photo-editing programs like Photoshop to get the most from your photos and add special effects.
I like to ‘shoot from the gut,’ intuitively snapping away, not always giving careful thought to camera settings, although I am forcing myself to shoot in either Aperture Priority mode or full Manual these days. My photos are the better for it, because I have so much more control. I do use Photoshop for making corrections and tweaks in the post-processing stage, as well as for adding special effects (Adobe offers free 30-day trials of their programs). I enjoy teaching others Photoshop skills through my VisualPoetry online workshop series.

9. Fill up the memory card.
This tip goes hand in hand with my ‘shoot from the gut’ mentality. Take lots and lots of pictures, and you will be sure to capture something very special and unique. If you only decide to keep a handful of the photos on your card, then you have been successful!

10. Change up the perspective of your shots.
Think about depth and spatial relationships between objects in your photos. Get down on the ground, at eye level, shoot from above, look up, see what’s behind you, move in close. Some of the most interesting shots can come from veering away from your normal photography habits.

Thank you for stopping by! If you want to discover more about altering photos with Photoshop, be sure to check out my latest book, Photo Craft: Creative Mixed Media and Digital Approaches to Transforming Your Photographs, co-authored with Christy Hydeck. I also teach online Photoshop workshops!
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