digital single lens reflex camera

Photography Super Newb Primer

So I recently upgraded from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR camera and because I was a super beginner I took two photography classes at the local photographer-nerd camera store. It was very informative, I’ve practiced a lot, and I’m confident that I have a decent grasp of the basics now. So because I totally have a thing for sharing interesting and/or useful knowledge, I am going to share this knowledge. So if you’ve ever been confuzzled by those photography buzzwords (I know I was), here you go.

First things first.

1. What’s a DSLR?

A DSLR is a digital single-lens reflex camera. There are lots of kinds of cameras but the two that 99% of non-professional photographers use are point-and-shoot (PNS) cameras and DSLRs. PNS cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, use electronics to view the subject before taking a photo, and everything is pre-programmed. Due to the advent and pretty darn good picture taking capabilities of cellphones, a lot of PNS cameras are now coming out with some level of manual control (I had one before I got my DSLR and it was pretty great).

A DSLR has interchangeable lenses for more control of the imaging. A mirror system lets you directly view the thing you’re shooting through the viewfinder, and there’s no shutter lag like there is with a point-and-shoot. Plus the ability to adjust aperture (more on that later) lets you control depth of field, and being able to shoot with shallow depth of field is like the number one thing that makes a photograph look like a more professional photo versus a casual snapshot.


(borrowed the image from

The ability to isolate the subject from the background and get that cool blurred-out background is a function of aperture, and that’s something a point-and-shoot can’t do. Basically you have a shit-ton more control, much higher image quality and flexibility with a DSLR. But it takes some practice to learn to use it, although almost all DSLR cameras have an automatic mode that’ll do just fine for most situations.

DSLRs are a lot bigger and bulkier. You can’t put it in your pocket. And they’ll run you probably at least $700-900 bucks for a body, and then you need a lens for it (although many camera bodies are sold with what’s called a kit lens, i.e. a starter lens to get you going).

Size comparison (and that DSLR has a pretty small lens on it, mine is about twice that long):

There are many brands of point-and-shoots, but in the DSLR world, like 95% of photographers shoot either a Canon or a Nikon. And you kind of have to pick one and stick with it, because the lenses are not interchangeable. You have to buy Canon lenses for a Canon, etc. There are other less common brands but if you shoot a Nikon or a Canon you will be able to find equipment (lenses, batteries, etc) in any camera store.

Moving on.

There are two basic things you gotta worry about when you’re taking a picture: light and motion. Mostly light. Like, 90% light and 10% motion. And only motion if the thing you’re photographing is, you know, moving.

Taking a picture is recording the light that’s bouncing off the thing you’re photographing. So photography is really about light.

There are three major variables that you can control to affect the lighting of your shot.

1. ISO

People talk about this one first usually, because it’s the one that doesn’t actually affect how much light hits your sensor. ISO is a measure of your camera’s sensitivity to light. The lowest ISO setting (on mine it’s 100) is the “native” ISO. That’s the baseline light sensitivity. When you increase it, you’re turning up the volume on the sensor. You’re not getting any more light to the sensor, you’re just making the sensor more responsive to the light that hits it. The downside is that you are also turning up the noise. A high-ISO shot will have more noise. I would use my lowest ISO setting on a bright, sunny day. If I were shooting outdoors on my highest ISO setting (which is 1600, although more modern cameras have ISOs that go much higher) the image would be totally blown out and white. Most people adjust the ISO first according to the environment (sunny, cloudy, indoors but well-lit, dark, etc).

2. Aperture

You’ve probably heard on TV or somewhere some photographer drop jargon about “f-stops,” right? They’re talking about the aperture. This is how much the aperture will close down when you take a shot. A low f-stop means a very open aperture (counterintuitive, yes) and a high f-stop means a very narrow aperture. Illustration below of the size of the aperture at the moment you take the photo:

The size of the aperture is one of the two things that control how much light enters the camera (the other is shutter speed, more on that in a sec). A higher aperture value is a smaller opening, meaning less light will enter.

The other thing this affects is your depth of field. This is a big thing. Your camera will focus on the thing you’re pointing it at, right? You can imagine that distance, from the lens to the subject, as a slice of space where the camera can focus. Depth of field is just what it says…how thick is that slice of space where the camera can focus. 

(image from

A shallow depth of field means your focus will only be good for a narrow slice behind and in front of your focal point. Everything else will be blurred out. If you stop down a lot (narrow the aperture), your depth of field increases until at the top of your range, you’ll be able to get clear focus on just about everything you see. So you’d use a shallow depth of field for a close-up portrait shot, and a deep field for a landscape shot.

(image from

3. Shutter Speed

This one’s easy to understand. Shutter speed is how fast the shutter opens and closes. This is a factor if you’re shooting something moving fast, like a sporting event or fireworks or something. Not so much if you’re shooting a mountain. But the thing to remember is that the longer the shutter is open, the more light hits the sensor. Too fast a shutter speed for conditions could give you a dark image, especially if you are using a narrow aperture. Motion blur usually starts becoming an issue at 1/200s.

There’s other stuff like lens compression (which is something that happens when you zoom in and change your distance to the subject) and white balance, but this is the super newb edition.

4. The Settings

How much you can control these things depends on the capabilities of both your camera body and your lens. My camera body has ISO from 100-1600. My lens is a 17-85mm f/4-5.6 lens. The 17-85mm refers to the zoom capability - it can zoom out to 17mm (that’s a measure of the width of the field of vision - for reference, your eyes have about a 50mm field of vision, so at 50mm your view through the viewfinder will look about the same as what you see with your eyes) and zoom in to 85 mm. That’s a bit better than a standard kit lens. The f/4-5.6 means that my lowest possible aperture is f/4.0 at 17mm and f/5.6 at 85mm. That’s…okay. To get a wider aperture I’d need a different lens. And lenses that go down to very wide apertures, like f/1.5, are very expensive. I have great results with the lens I have. I took the picture below at f/5.6 (I was zoomed in, so that’s as wide an aperture as I had available).

Most DSLRs have three settings that are super useful - fully manual (meaning you must set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed), aperture priority (meaning you pick the aperture and the camera chooses the appropriate shutter speed) and time priority (vice versa - you pick the shutter speed and the camera chooses the appropriate aperture). You’d already have set the ISO value based on the light conditions. I like shooting in aperture priority a lot.

When you want to FANCY THINGS, that’s when it gets fun. For example. Consider this waterfall:

This was shot on f/9 and 1/640s. You can see there’s a tiny bit of blurring of the water. If I’d gone faster to freeze the water, it would be pretty dim.

But actually, I don’t want to freeze the water. I WANT it to blur. I love taking those cool waterfall photos where the water is all soft-looking. LIKE SO.

You can see that the lighting is roughly the same - the top one’s a little brighter, but not much, but in the second one, the water is blurred. So how did I do that?

To get this effect, you have to use a slow shutter speed, so that the waterfall’s motion blurs (you usually also have to use a tripod or other stabilizer - I used a handy post to brace my hand). But a slow shutter speed on a sunny day would let WAY too much light into the photo. It’s hard to take photos like this in brightly lit conditions, because any shutter speed slow enough to blur the water lets in way too much light, even at a tight aperture. I got away with this because the sun was setting and it wasn’t blasting directly on the waterfall.

So the first thing I did was decrease the ISO to 100, as far down as it goes. I wanted the sensor at its absolute minimum light sensitivity. Then I stopped down to f/22, a very small aperture. That will let much less light through than f/9. And I switched to total manual control, and I shot a series of photos, decreasing the shutter speed each time. This one is my favorite, this was at 1/4s shutter speed. Faster speeds didn’t get enough blur, slower ones were too light.

Okay! I hope this is helpful! I am learning more about taking photos all the time. Since I like to hike and travel, I decided it was a skill that would be worth pursuing.

I need some help with something.

I don’t know what to do and it’s really tearing me apart. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but I’m not sure what’s the right decision at this point, so that’s why I’m asking people for advice. I have been thinking about selling my DSLR camera so that I could purchase a newer and better camera. I’m so torn right now. This camera has been with me for 3 years and it’s the first electronic thing I’ve owned that has not broken. But there are little things here and there that I would need to fix it. The inner lens is all dirty and I don’t have the money to get it fixed up. Which is partially why I’m thinking of selling it to someone who wants a DSLR and can afford to have those things fixed. My family keeps insisting that I not sell it, but with how the lens is, I can’t stand the quality. I need some serious decision making help right about now. HELP ME PLEASE.

The day I accidentally became a professional photographer.

I am not, by any definition or stretch, a qualified photographer.

I am an enthusiastic amateur. I’ve always taken decent photos, I have a pretty good eye for angles and all that shit. And I like to travel, so I end up with lots of opportunities to take them.

I recently upgraded to a DSLR (that’s a digital single-lens reflex camera, i.e. a Real Grown-Up Camera - this is the kind real photographers use) and signed up for a couple of classes to learn how to use it best (it has a great automated mode, but I like to learn things).  I’d just like to be more proficient at taking the photos I would take anyway. I have no aspirations to BE an even semi-professional photographer.

So I’m active on Yelp, and I’m friends with our local community manager, who is super awesome. He posted on FB that he was in dire straits and very quickly needed someone to take photos at an event he was hosting at a local salsa and hot sauce company. He just wanted someone with a good camera who could point it at stuff. I was like…I can do that. And I might get some free hot sauce. So I said I’d come over.

So I did. I was kinda nervous. The lighting was tricky (indoor fluorescents, yay) but I think I did an okay job. Then he was like…oh, you know you get paid, right? A hundred bucks! 

Wow. I thought I’d just be doing him a favor.

And that’s how I accidentally became a professional photographer for one night.

Here are a few of the shots I liked best.

There was a hot-sauce tasting contest. These are the weapons.