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Home » Photography Tips » Getting Started with your New DSLR (6 Essential Modes)

Getting Started with your New DSLR (6 Essential Modes)

Basic DSLR Settings Explained

Your new DSLR is a very powerful tool that is primed for greatness, that is if you know how to use it and maximize its true potential. Unfortunately, however, most amateur and newbie digital photographers never quite understand what their DSLRs can do.

This is the reason, even after spending quite a bit of money on their camera, they are unable to produce images which they feel they ought to. Often the decision to upgrade to a DSLR seems like a bad one.

New Camera - First Impressions by Nate Grigg
New Camera – First Impressions by Nate Grigg

The thing is they get intimidated by the overwhelming number of buttons and dials. That prevents them from getting out of their comfort zone and keep shooting as if they are using a Point & Shoot camera.

If you feel the same way, imagine what it’s like for a trainee airline pilot, the first time he sits in a simulator. All those buttons, dials and flashing panels is enough to make anyone freeze! At least you are not in a similar situation, and it’s certainly not rocket science either. If you are a newbie photographer, having recently purchased a DSLR, think of this.

The tips that I am going to share with you will make your transition from a Point & Shoot/smartphone shooter to a DSLR pro in no time. So, take a deep breath and come along.

Skip the unboxing and go straight to setting up your camera. The most important thing that you need to keep in mind when setting your camera up, is that you have a creative tool in your hands and it will work best when you push it. I always say this. Your DSLR is like a Ferrari, it loves to be revved and wants to be pushed. If you drive it like a commuter vehicle, to shuttle between home and office, you are better off buying a Honda Civic.

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Set the shooting mode

The first thing that you should do once you have attached the lens inserted the battery and memory card(s) is to switch on the camera and complete the initial setup. The very next step would be to take your camera out of the auto mode and set it on one of the manual modes.

  • If you have a Canon camera manual modes would be AV (Aperture Value), Tv (Time Value) and M (which is the full manual mode).
  • The corresponding options on a Nikon camera would be A, S, and M.

The Program mode or the P mode (you cannot set the aperture or shutter speed value, but everything else) is also a good mode, to begin with, but the problem is you don’t have nearly the same degree of control over the exposure as in the other three modes.

Aperture Priority Mode

flag-folding-ceremony by r. nial bradshaw
flag-folding-ceremony by r. nial bradshaw

The aperture (priority) mode will allow you complete control over the aperture value. Yow can freely select any aperture value you need, and the shutter speed will automatically be set by the camera. Aperture value is an important aspect that controls the depth of field of your images.

The depth of field is the extent of the image that is acceptably sharp. You will notice that landscape images have almost everything in sharp focus. This is an example of a big depth of field.

Correspondingly you may use a smaller f-number to ensure that only a small area of the image is in focus which will be the focus point. This is an example of

This is an example of shallow depth of field. Shallow depth of field is most suited to photograph portraits, flowers, for blurring the uninteresting background and generally when you want to isolate the subject from its immediate surroundings.

Remember: High f-number (e.g. F20) equals the big depth of field. Low f-number (e.g. F2.8) equals the shallow depth of field.

Shutter Priority Mode

Stillness | Slow Shutter | Masjid Jamek LRT Station by John Ragai
Stillness | Slow Shutter | Masjid Jamek LRT Station by John Ragai

The second of the manual modes, shutter priority mode allows you complete control over the shutter speed while the camera selects the corresponding aperture value automatically.

Shutter priority mode is popular with photographers who look for creative shooting options. Shutter speed can be used to either slow down an exposure to capture movement or to freeze moving subjects mid-way.

Let’s take an example. You are at the beach and the crashing surf is bouncing off the rocks making water drops flying in all directions. If you use a fast shutter speed like 1/1000 of a second you would be able to freeze those water drops moving in all directions creating in the process a really dynamic image.

Alternatively, you can also use a slower shutter speed, something like 1/10 of a second, allowing the lens to remain open for a longer time and ensuring that the movement of the water is captured. The result will be a misty smooth surface of water almost like fog.

Slow shutter speeds are routinely used for capturing long exposure images such as fireworks, light trails, light painting, star trails seascapes etc. Faster shutter speeds are used for capturing fast moving objects, water droplets, for shooting under very bright light and so on.

Remember: Fast shutter speed (e.g. 1/1000) freezes any movement. Whereas slow shutter speed (e.g. 1/10) will show the movement of your subject or background. If shooting in shutter priority mode the aperture value will automatically adjust to give the right exposure to your images.

Exposure Compensation

The exposure compensation is a clever feature built into all DSLR cameras and a great way to getting started with your new DSLR.

It allows you to slightly tweak the exposure value based on your preferences. You can use exposure compensation only n Av, Tv or P mode.

Let’s say you are in AV mode and the shutter speed, as recommended by the camera (for a specific aperture value) is 1/400 of a second. You feel that it would be better to slow down the shutter speed (allow more light in).

You can set your camera to Exposure Compensation mode and use the command dial to set a positive exposure compensation. You are basically creating an exposure bias.

Exposure compensation is almost like using your camera in manual mode but not actually getting into manual mode completely.

Manual Mode

The manual mode offers the ultimate in creative photography.

In the manual mode, you are free to choose the shutter speed and aperture combination (exposure value) as you feel like.

It basically means you retain the option in your hand to create images the way you feel like without having to listen to the camera. As a matter of fact, in the manual mode, the camera’s metering system is reduced to a simple guide telling you whether you are using the optimum exposure or you are way off. You are free to listen or not listen to it. Thus, to obtain exposure, you will have to adjust both the aperture and shutter speed manually.

When using exposure compensation you can override either the shutter speed or aperture but you are still building the shot based on what the camera thinks is the right exposure. In manual mode, you no longer need to use exposure compensation. Manual mode is the preferred mode pros because they are able to control each aspect of the image.

Let’s say you want a shallow depth of field and yet capture motion. This can only be done in manual mode. You will need to use a wide aperture, a slow shutter speed and then use a neutral density filter.

Programmed Auto mode

I kept the programmed auto mode for last because this is a mode that you should rarely use, even for shooting everyday photos. For 90% of the time, you should be in aperture or shutter speed priority mode and for the remaining 10% of the time set your camera on manual mode. That should cover every possible photography requirement you may have.

The programmed auto mode is only good when you are shooting in a hurry and don’t have the time to set exposure details. The only creative option is to use exposure compensation.

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