Your First New SLR Camera…Now What?

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Old from NewD-SLR’s have been affordable for a few years now, but the prices keep plummeting. And now that the price gap between a good point-and-shoot and an entry level SLR is quite narrow, more people are taking the leap into the world of SLRs. Unfortunately, some of those people – some of the gift recipients – are a little uncomfortable with the SLR. They can look intimidating. So here’s a simple guide to help you get started with working with your first SLR.

Don’t Turn Back…

I know it might be scary, but I would like to encourage you to continue using an SLR. I’ll admit that I have an ulterior motive: I would love for more people to get into this great hobby of ours. But I’m going to focus on the simple facts that really affect you. I don’t want you to give up on the SLR just yet, and so I hope that you’ll consider these thoughts before returning that precious piece of equipment:

  • Shutter lag is no more – What you have there is an SLR camera with a REAL shutter. You don’t have to wait for the camera to power up its sensor to take the picture, and you certainly won’t need to learn it’s timing in different lighting situations (…if I press the button when he hits the ramp, he’ll be in the air when the picture is taken). A real shutter affords you fast response. It clicks when you click. That means fewer missed opportunities, fewer distorted faces and more moments remembered.
  • An upgrade is a new lens – The camera body will be with you for many years. They are far more durable then their point-and-shoot brethren, and much easier to service as well. A local camera shop can clean them, and you can upgrade your camera by getting a new lens or new accessories and so on. Lenses aren’t cheap, but they hold their value. Not that you’ll be selling your lenses any time soon, they’ll last far longer than the camera (my favorite lens was manufactured before I was born). Oh, and did I mention that you can rent lenses for those special occasions?
  • Depth of Field – Those of you who are beginners may not really appreciate this yet, but you will be able to create shots with a shallow depth of field far easier than you can with a point and shoot. You’ve seen these shots: They’re the ones where the subject is in perfect clarity while the background is all blurry and mystical? It’s really a subject for another day, but if you want to start playing with it now, most entry-level SLR bodies have an automatic portrait mode that essentially creates that look for you. It’s a great look, and you’ll love it.
  • It can be a hobby – My motive is showing. Chances are you, got the camera because you have a newborn on the way or your child is getting into sports, or you simply got tired of waiting for that awful shutter lag. But you have the camera now, so why not experiment with creating some more artistic photographs. Shoot for art instead of just for memories.

Let It Be Your Friend…

It may look intimidating with all those buttons and knobs, but that camera really wants to be your friend. Your camera may be capable of a great many things: A skilled photographer can bend it’s will (and a few rules) to create just about any work of art. Don’t believe what the marketing departments want you to believe; you camera is capable of recreating the best images ever created in history. But you don’t have to worry about all that yet. Just like a treadmill has many speeds, some of which you may never use, your camera also has many stages on its mode dial. Let’s start with that big green mode that is probably, and appropriately, named “Auto”.

Auto is pretty much what you would expect: Automatic. In Auto, you can point that camera at whatever you want, press the button and the camera does the rest. All you need to be conscious of is where you’re pointing and when you click the shutter. If you have a zoom lens, you’ll want to zoom in or out occasionally as well. Bu it’s really not any more complicated than a point-and-shoot in this mode. It’s a mode designed for beginners. It’s designed to make the art easy and attainable to a much wider audience. Gone are the days where you need to carry around a light meter. Gone are the days where you have to do calculations on the fly (and in your head). That green mode makes things much easier. So start there, and get comfortable.

There are a number of educators that will try to stray you from using that green Auto mode. If I were at the front of a classroom and you were my class pupil, I might agree. But out here in the self-taught world of photography, you can take your time. So don’t worry about those articles encouraging you to use Aperture Priority or Full Manual. At least not yet. Down the line, I would also be encouraging you as well. But those articles will be around when you need them. For now, we just want you to get comfortable.

But what about all those other buttons on the camera? Well, some are for navigation as you browse your photos and you’ll want to learn about those. There’s one that will help you select focusing points and another that will allow you to switch between single and continuous shooting; you’ll want to learn about those as well. But many of the other buttons won’t really affect you directly until you get into one of the Priority or Manual modes. So ignore them for now. You’ll get to them later (or maybe you won’t, but no matter). The camera can probably do far more than you need it to do at this time. As you grow with your camera, you can always look those features up to appease your curiosity.

But Don’t Take Your Camera For Granted…

You may coast along in the world of Auto for a long while. You may linger there for several years. And that’s fine. But I don’t want you to believe that the technology packed into your camera is everything you will ever need if you decide to wander down the more artistic side of the road. If you really want to squeeze the potential out of every photograph and you want to learn how to bend the rules to your artistic will, you will need to select a different mode. I won’t scare you with such details just now. But do realize that the time will come when you’ll ask yourself if you can completely blow out the ugly background with light so that only the primary subject is discernible (or something equally as challenging and specific). The answer is that you can do that. But you can’t do that in Auto. The rules of Auto are strict, and one day you’ll want to get beyond those rules. And when that time comes, you’ll want to come back here or buy a book or reference any other resource to learn about the Brothers Priority (as I call them) or Manual Mode or Lighting and so on. And I’m not just talking from an artistic perspective either…the portraits of your children and family will greatly improve if you learn just a little bit more beyond Auto. But that is of course a discussion for another day.

Final Thoughts…

Photography is like any other hobby: It is what you make of it and it is what you put into it. But there’s no pressure to go any further than you want. Part of me (most of me) would love it if you went all out and got really into the art of the medium. But I’m more than happy to see that you have a new SLR. The memories that you will have of your family will be worth the price of the camera alone. It was a great investment. So if you’re happy with Auto mode, don’t feel you need to go any further. But if you want to learn more…well…you know where to find us.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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