10 Lessons from a Beginner’s DSLR Course

In June 2019, I attended a DSLR boot camp presented by Tom Dunn, a commercial and art photographer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He presented this workshop through Film North, a film arts organization also based in the Twin Cities.

This course is my seventh through this group. While I have taken digital still photographs for many years, I relied on my feet for the framing and the camera for the mechanics. My hope for this session was to learn more about the mechanics of the camera. I was not disappointed.

The following post brings together 10 takeaways from that workshop.

1. The basics > the technology

The technology can be a $400 camera body with a $100 lens or a $6,500 camera body with a $16,000 lens. Neither matters if you don’t understand the basics.

2. The Exposure Triangle

is the golden key, the golden ticket, the golden egg, the gold coins in the jackpot at the end of the rainbow.

The exposure triangle is the key to learning about the manual settings on the camera. The three sides include

  • Aperture: The hole that lets light into the camera. Think of this as the pupil of the eye and how it behaves depending on light levels.
  • Shutter speed: How long the shutter remains open when taking the image. This of this as how the camera blinks.
  • ISO: How sensitive the camera sensor is to light

Shutter speed and aperture work in tandem. If you adjust one, then you might want to adjust the other, depending your shooting mode. Many cameras have shutter priority and aperture priority. When shooting in aperture priority, for example, you set the aperture but the camera adjusts the shutter priority. Manual mode lets you adjust both.

3. Painting and photography learn from each other.

All arts are interrelated and borrow (steal?) from each other. Photographers learned about lighting from painters, while painters learned about motion from photographers.

4. Understand your “why.”

Taking a photo in many ways has become a habit thanks to social networking sites. Share the perfect coffee foam on Instagram or add that filter to your snap and post it on Snapchat.

But the question is: Why?

What is your why? Basically, why are you taking this shot? The answer might be more macro such as working on photography skills or learning to appreciate the world more. The answer also might be more micro in wanting to capture the subject, composition, lighting, or something else.

Either way, understanding your “why” can help with developing your skills.

5. Go low on the ISO.

In other words, shoot on the lowest ISO possible. That way, the photos will turn out better quality with the least amount of noise.

6. Get a tripod.

Outside shutter ranges of 1/60 to 1/1000, a tripod will prevent camera shake and blurriness. A tripod is also a must for the long exposures of whorled stars and red ribbons of tail lights.

If those long exposures are your jam, make sure to get a shutter release. It will save your fingers and your camera’s buttons.

7. A light meter might be cool, too.

A light meter measures the light and suggests shutter speeds and apertures to create a good shot in that light.

8. Develop an organization system.

Leaving photos on the memory card until the memory card is full is not an organization system. Instead, choose to download the photos to a computer or tablet through a card reader, USB cable, or wifi. Then decide how to describe and date the photos.

9. Follow the rule of thirds.

Think of the rule of thirds as adding a tic-tac-toe board over your possible shot, with the lines dividing it into nine quadrants and four intersection points. Instead of placing the object of interest right at the center of the frame, consider placing it at one of these intersection points.

Please note that the rule of thirds is but one of many composition techniques.

10. PLAY.

Seriously, play with the settings and see what each one does. Try combinations of settings to discover for yourself what kinds of shots and effects they create. Play with each setting level, with each spot on the shutter speeds and each spot on the aperture options. See what setting ISO 3200 on a bright, sunny day creates. See how zooming in or out affects the aperture.

For the class, we tried two experiments. One included photographing a person while changing the aperature setting between each shot. This series of photos quickly showed how depth of field changed from f/22 to f/3.5, which is the highest my lens would allow.

The other experiment involved photographing cars as they drove by the building while changing the shutter speeds. The idea was to see how motion became frozen or blurred depending on the speed. Many of my shots from this experiment turned out terrible, with the one above perhaps the least terrible of the lot.

Either way, the biggest lesson here is this:

Just. Play.

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