DSLR & Mirrorless Jumpstart Guide

August 29, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

DSLR & Mirrorless Jumpstart Guide



While beginning your journey as a photographer, whether you’re doing it for fun or business, keep in mind that every good photographer was once a beginner just like you. I, for one, got my first DSLR camera before I knew a single thing besides which button “takes the picture”. All of my indoor pictures were blurry, my landscape pictures didn’t look right (or boring), and the pictures I took of people seemed one-dimensional (or out of focus). This guide will cover camera basics like how to use semi-manual settings like Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Auto ISO, and Manual. It will also explain why your pictures might be blurry, which lenses may be right for you, focusing modes, metering modes, and much more. This guide is packed with information, so you might have to re-read certain parts or skip around to different pieces of information as you need them. 



I think that exposure, in its simplest terms, is how bright or dark your image turns out. So, if your image is too bright, it is said to be “overexposed”. Conversely, if it is too dark, it is said to be underexposed. You can control your exposure by doing several things. If you’re in auto mode or one of the semi-auto modes like aperture priority, shutter priority, or auto ISO, then you’ll have to use exposure compensation to make your exposure brighter or darker. Check your manual to find out how to change your exposure compensation. Every camera is different, so I can’t list them all here. To change your exposure in manual mode, you have to change your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed manually...as you might imagine.

Under-Exposed Over-Exposed Properly-Exposed


Exposure Modes 

Manual (M): all exposure settings are manual with one exception: sometimes Auto ISO is turned on. If you want to have full control over your exposure, make sure Auto-ISO is off. 

Aperture Priority (A): You control the aperture; shutter speed is automatic 

Shutter Priority (S): You control the shutter speed; the aperture is automatic

Programmed Auto (P): You control ISO and various other settings (depending on the camera brand), but shutter speed and aperture are automatic



Many people call ISO “sensor sensitivity”. That’s not completely correct, but we’ll discuss that another time as I don’t want to overcomplicate things. What you need to know is that at lower ISOs, the exposure is darker and at higher ISOs, the image is brighter. The problem is that the higher your ISO, the more “noise” that you get. {picture of high ISO noise} Each camera is different and everyone seems to be okay with a different amount of noise, so get to know how “noisy” your camera is at high ISOs. My first camera was very noisy after ISO 800, so I tried to never go over that, but my current camera produces acceptable images at 6400, depending on what type of photography I’m doing. If I’m doing portraits, I want the cleanest image possible, so I’ll keep it under 1600. For landscapes, I try to keep it near 100, but for events, I’ve gone as high as 12,800 since the need to capture the moment outweighs the need for clean images. 

Noisy Image 1Image taken at high ISO Noisy Image 2Image taken at high ISO

Shutter Speed

All cameras have either an electronic shutter or a physical one. Either way, shutter speed can be defined as: the amount of time that the sensor is capturing light (or, in the case of a mechanical shutter: when the shutter is open). If your shutter speed is set to 1/500, the sensor is capturing light for one five-hundredth of a second. There are different applications for using shutter speed creatively. 

If you’ve seen a picture with blurred headlights at night, blurred clouds, or a silky-smooth waterfall, then you’ve seen the effects of slow shutter speed at work. Things like this start to blur when you approach shutter speeds of one second and get more pronounced the slower you make it. Just make sure you use a tripod for this kind of image.

Blurred car lights - long exposure
Most of the time, you don’t want to end up with blurry pictures, though, so you need to follow some rules of thumb. The first is called the “reciprocal rule”. Simply put, you want your shutter speed to be double that of your focal length, so if you’re using a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/100 or faster. For action (like sports), your shutter speed should be at 1/500 at the very minimum. I’ve had blurry images from 1/500, but I’ve also had sharp images at 1/500, too, but if you want the maximum number of “keepers”, you might want to increase it to 1/1000 or better. 



Inside your lens, there is an iris, much like the one that is in your eye, that opens to let in more light or closes to restrict the light. Immediately, you likely inferred why you would want your aperture to be as wide as possible: to let in the maximum amount of light possible. Aperture is notated with a lower-case “f” in front of it. We don’t have to talk about the mathematical equation associated with that, but what you need to know is that the lower the f-number, the wider the aperture is and the more light it lets in. So, conversely, the higher the f-number, the smaller the aperture and the less light it lets in. Another thing happens when you adjust your aperture. It changes the amount your image that is in focus. This is referred to as “depth of field”. If you have your 50mm lens on (again), and you open your aperture to 1.8 (very wide), and you take a picture of someone close by, you’ll notice that more of the background and foreground are out of focus than when it’s “stopped down” (reduced) to f4 or f8. Now you can understand why so many portraits have a blurred background: most likely because the photographer is using a wider aperture. A couple of other things can affect depth of field though: focal length and your distance from your subject. The closer you are to a subject, the thinner or shallower the depth of field will be. The farther you are from the subject, the deeper the depth of field (more will be in focus). As far as focal length goes, the “longer” the lens (greater number of mm), the less will be in focus. Again, conversely, the wider the lens, the more you’ll have in focus (deeper depth of field). So, in summary, three things affect your depth of field: aperture (f-number), distance, and focal length. You can apply this information in a number of ways. If you’re capturing a landscape, you want as much of the scene in focus as possible, so you might use a wide lens, a small aperture (high f-number like f8 or greater), and, if it’s something like a mountain, be a very long way from your subject. These three things combined, give you a very deep depth of field. 

Small Aperture Large Aperture

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you want to take a portrait with a shallow depth of field to blur the background, you might use a wide aperture (a low f-number), a longer lens (greater number of mm), and get closer to your subject. You don’t need an expensive lens to do this, either. I’ve seen it done with a $250 zoom lens at its long end of 300mm and the “look” of the image was quite nice. 


Balancing Your Exposure

Let’s say you adjust and "dial in" your settings and you’re happy with your exposure, but, for some reason, you want to change some settings - for example, if you WANT motion blur, you might lower your shutter speed (increasing the exposure). You’ll either have to decrease your ISO or your aperture. You can practice this concept by pointing your camera at an evenly-lit scene while you are changing your settings. Once you get your exposure set where you want it, you can count “clicks” or third stops while you change one setting (like shutter speed), then adjust the next setting (like aperture) by the same number of clicks to compensate. Shown below is a useful tool to show beginners how ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, affect each other when one is changed.

Exposure Cheat Sheet



We’ll keep this section short. There’s a lot to say about composition, but as a beginner, the rule I used most (and still use, by default), is the rule of thirds. If you divide your frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically like in the picture [below?], you’ll be able to visualize how this works. If you’re taking a picture of a landscape, for example, you won’t want to put your horizon directly in the middle of your frame. You’ll want to at least start with it on the upper or lower third line. You can use this rule of thumb in portraits, too. Let’s say you’re taking a head-and-shoulders picture of a person. If you’re in landscape orientation, most of the time, you’ll want to position the person’s head around where the upper third line intersects with the vertical lines. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but this rule is a good place to start. 

Rule of Thirds Rule of Thirds

As with many things involving creativity, there is no right answer when discussing the rule of thirds and other rules and guidelines. In fact, sometimes rules are made to be broken, so I'd say, follow the rules at first, master them, then have fun breaking them. 

Position of the Sun & Time of Day

When shooting portraits, I personally avoid direct sunlight on the model/subject’s face and also avoid shooting when the sun is high in the sky as this will result in harsh shadows and “racoon eyes”. There are ways to get around this but that’s a subject for another guide. You soften the shadows, you can use a reflector, which can be an inexpensive item. Alternatively, look for shade and position your subject so that there are no spots of light on them and so that the background isn’t in the sun, either. Ideally, though, you should shoot when the sun is lower in the sky and shoot so that the sun is at a 45 degree angle to your lens and behind the subject. This is another rule of thumb that can be fairly flexible. Once again, using a reflector might be helpful to fill in the shadows on the subject’s face. The below image was taken with the sun behind the subject late in the day and a reflector was used. 

Backlit image

Focusing modes

On most cameras, there are three main focusing modes: Single, where the AF system focuses once and stays focused on that spot as long as your finger stays half-pressed on the shutter button; Continuous, where the AF is constantly tracking and refocusing on subjects; and a hybrid mode where the camera decides when it needs to use single or continuous modes - this may be called Auto or Hybrid Auto or something similar. 

This is fairly simple: Use the “single” AF mode for non-moving subjects like landscapes and portraits (unless the subject is moving around - like kids), and use continuous when your subject is moving, like kids, sports, wildlife, and some events (think: wedding party walking up or down the aisle). 

I’ll leave using the hybrid or other modes up to you. I don’t use them as I switch between “single” and continuous modes instead of letting the camera choose. 


Metering Modes

If you shoot in manual, you won’t have to worry about this setting, but if you are using an automatic or semi-automatic mode, then this can be crucial. Most of the time, you can depend on the default mode sometimes referred to as “matrix” or “evaluative” metering. It evaluates the whole scene and chooses what it things is appropriate. 

Spot metering should only be used when you are ready to try something new or if the default mode isn’t working for you. When using this mode, the camera will correctly expose the spot that your focus point is currently on, so if, for example, your focus point is on a person whose back is to the sun (and their face is dark), it will brighten the exposure until they are correctly exposed, but in the process, everything else could be overexposed. This mode can be useful, but only when used intentionally and with practice. There are other modes like the “center-weighted” mode that I sometimes used on my Canon, but these are the main two you should be aware of. 


Lenses: Primes Vs Zooms

Most people use zoom lenses, especially when they get their first camera kit. They are inexpensive (in the grand scheme of things) and versatile in that they allow you to change your focal length at will. However, as you gain experience in shooting in different environments, you will discover that inexpensive zoom lenses are not very good in low light. This is because they don’t have a very wide aperture, so they don’t let in as much light. Wider aperture zooms can be expensive, though. That’s where prime lenses come into play. Prime lenses (or sometimes just called “primes”) are simply lenses that don’t zoom; lenses that have a “fixed” focal length. The more important thing to note is that many, but not all, primes have a wider aperture than zooms. This makes them ideal for shooting in darker conditions like indoors or late evening outdoors. Primes are also favored by astrophotographers: photographers that capture photos of the night’s sky. Personally, I use zooms at events when the light is good, then switch to primes when the light becomes less favorable. Primes are also usually small and light and are often, but not always, sharper than zooms.


Do I Need to Buy Lens Filters?

Lens filters are special glass elements surrounded by a metal ring that screw into the front of your lens, and modify the light in one way or another. There are many filters available for purchase, but do you need them at this point? Most of the time, if you have to ask this question about any accessory, it might be worth waiting so you save yourself some money and confusion. As you master your camera, you can add more tools to your kit, one at a time. For now, though, we’ll talk about some of the filters you can buy and what they’re used for. 


UV Filters

UV filters are filters that reduce the amount of ultraviolet (UV) light entering your lens. This used to be important to have when everyone was using film because certain types of film were sensitive to UV light. Also called “Haze” filters, they improved image quality. Nowadays, we don't necessarily need UV filters anymore, but people continue to use them to protect the front element of their lenses. Is this necessary? This can be a controversial topic because low quality UV filters can potentially reduce your image quality. I, personally, don’t use them. I used them on my first two cameras, but after figuring out that it caused more flare than usual and that it caused my camera some focusing difficulty, I removed the filter. I have never scratched any of my lenses, but just in case, I now use my lens hoods most of the time. They are the hard plastic type, so they do a pretty good job. If you’re a beginner, then it might be worth getting. Most of us don't have the money to replace our lenses if they get scratched, so better safe than sorry, right? 



CPL filters are also called “Circular Polarizer” filters. They cut down on something called polarized light that I can’t really explain. I can, however, tell you how they can be very useful. Let’s say you’re taking a picture of a landscape and the sky is really bright and not the dark blue that you were hoping for. If you attach a CPL and rotate it a bit, you’ll find that the sky darkens and becomes a beautiful deep blue. This can be especially handy as it gives you more dynamic range to work with. 

Another way you can use CPLs is when you are taking pictures with reflections. If you want the reflections, then you don’t need to use the CPL, necessarily. You can reduce reflections on water, windows, and light reflecting off of other objects, such as leaves or pavement. You just have to rotate the filter until the reflection is reduced or eliminated.  


ND Filters

ND Filters, otherwise known as Neutral Density filters are what are often described as “sunglasses for your lens”. They cut down on the amount of light that gets through your lens and to the sensor. If you are shooting during the day and find that you are unable to reduce your shutter speed enough to get the effect that you’re looking for, then an ND filter may be for you. By darkening your exposure, it allows you to use lower shutter speeds than you wouldn't be able to, normally. A good example of when you would need this is when you’re taking pictures of waterfalls, running water, car lights, and moving clouds. If you want to blur them, then you’ll often (but not always) need an ND filter. 

A long exposure @ 30 seconds


Colored Filters

Back in the “film days”, colored filters could be quite helpful. Certain filters could be used to counteract certain artificial light sources such as fluorescent or tungsten lights. When shooting on black and white film, you could use different colors to increase contrast, darken the sky, and other effects. Nowadays, it’s advisable to apply those effects after the fact, when you process your photos on your computer. 


Formatting Memory Cards

There are two main ways that you can format a memory card: in-camera and in your computer. Camera manufacturers and memory card manufacturers alike recommend formatting your memory cards in-camera. Refer to your manual to find out how to do this. 



This discussion can be controversial, but let me give you a short answer: if you’re a beginner, just shoot jpg until you get more into post-processing. Here’s the long answer: RAW files contain all of the info captured by your sensor without any color, contrast, or sharpening effects applied. This can be important when you want full control of your images. RAW files will also have more dynamic range, so you’ll be able to pull more detail out of your seemingly “blown” highlights and dark shadows. It also will allow you more control of the color balance. Another thing to consider is that RAW files are much bigger, so if you don’t have a lot of hard drive space, you might want to start with jpg files. Another thing to keep in mind when your hard drive space is limited is culling. Culling is the process of selecting your best images and deleting the unneeded excess. This can be difficult for some people (like me!), but it is a valuable way to save space. 


Do I need a Flash?

I honestly don’t think that most people need a flash. When I use a flash, it’s off of the camera, usually, and triggered by a transmitter that mounts where the flash normally would: in the hot shoe. This is called OCF or “off camera flash”. That’s a subject for another time, though. The other way I use my flash is as you’d expect: ON the camera. I rarely ever do this, but when I do, it’s usually in a very dark environment and I have no other option. When I have my flash in the hot shoe mount, I almost never have it pointed forward - I try to bounce the light off of walls and ceilings as much as possible to avoid the “deer in the headlights” look and to make the photo look as natural as possible. So do you need a flash? I would say that if you take pictures indoors a lot in somewhat dark rooms, it could be quite helpful, or even necessary in some situations. 

bare flash in the face Bounced Flash

Most lower-end and mid-level cameras have a pop-up flash that only points forward. Personally, I would only ever use this as a last resort as it will cause the same problem as previously mentioned. There are gadgets that you can buy that will enable you to bounce your pop-up flash on the ceiling so that you'll have more even light.


Why Are My Images Blurry?

The below sections have some information that is similar to the Shutter Speed, ISO, and Aperture sections, but are separate for the purpose of troubleshooting.


Slow shutter speed/camera shake


When your shutter speed is low, you’ll notice that your pictures are far more likely to be blurry. This will also happen if you move the camera too much when taking a picture. These two things go hand in hand. If your technique is good and you can hold the camera very steady while taking a picture, you can get away with a lower shutter speed if your subject(s) aren't moving too much, but as a rule of thumb, I recommend following the “reciprocal rule”, at the very least. This means that you take your focal length (x) and set your shutter speed at the reciprocal number (1/x). For example, if your focal length is 50mm, then the reciprocal is 1/50, so set your shutter speed at 1/50 or higher. I personally recommend that you double that number, so the recommendation of 1/50 would be 1/100. 


High ISO


Every camera is different, but at some point, as you increase your ISO, you’ll start to see some grain and/or “noise”. Along with noise and grain, you will also lose sharpness.

To compare, you might take one picture with your camera at ISO 100 and another at ISO 6400 (or higher), if it can go that high. You should see some degradation of the image at this point whether it manifests as grain or “color noise” (the tiny, unsightly spots of random color that can start appearing) or subtle or significant loss of sharpness.  


Missed Focus 


Missing focus can sometimes be the fault of the camera, especially in low light, but if the depth of field is shallow, such as when you are using a lens with a wide aperture, then it’s easy for you or your subject to cause a slightly out-of-focus image. This can be solved in a number of ways. 


1 - use continuous focus

I don’t usually recommend this, but it may improve the number of shots that are in focus even if you’re both slightly moving, but do some tests before employing this solution to make sure your camera does a good job in continuous focus mode. 

2 - use a tripod or monopod

This is not a very convenient solution but can be helpful if you find that your movement is the culprit. 

3 - take more shots

In this age of digital photography, there are no disadvantages to taking more pictures other than using more storage, but you only need to keep the best ones, anyway. 

4 - breathe like a sniper

If shooting with a shallow depth of field is the issue, then try this. Marksmen often employ breathing techniques to stay steady. The simplest method I’ve heard of is this: While holding your camera in a stable position, take a breath and slowly exhale while taking your shot or shots. This should make you more steady. This technique could also be used when you’re using a low shutter speed. 

5 - Increase your depth of field by increasing your aperture (f-number). If you're at 1.4, increase it to 2, etc. and see if you get more 'keepers' 


Your Lens Needs to be Calibrated


To test to see if your focus is off, I recommend purchasing a calibration chart or tool. One of the less expensive options is the Focus Pyramid. After testing, if you find that the lens needs calibration, check your manual to see if your camera is capable of adjusting focus in-camera. If it is, then you can adjust it accordingly. If it isn’t, then you’ll have to send the camera and lens to the manufacturer for adjustment.


Image Stabilization is On While Using a Tripod


I’ve heard from multiple sources that if you use image stabilization while you have your camera mounted to a tripod, that some of your images may come out blurry. I believe that this is caused by the lens attempting to correct for movement that isn’t occurring, and therefore causing motion blur instead of fixing it. 



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