So you wanna be a DSLR Photographer?

DSLR Photography 101

One thing that struck me when I started out as a wannabe DSLR photographer, was just how tricky it was to find the right information on the basics. Sure, there are loads and loads of blogs out there, but I battled to find a simple 101 that clearly taught me everything from the science, to the gear, to the “how-to” – without being complicated, and it certainly din’t seem to exist on one website.

So I decided it was time to share some of my 101 knowledge that I’ve picked up over the years, with other people that are just starting out, or are keen to get into the game of DSLR Photography. If you were hoping this would be about iPhoneography, you’ve come to the wrong place.

This is for the rookie, the novice, the amateur, and the enthusiast. It’s about teaching you to understand the science behind photography, without getting you all confused by the big words.

This is Part 1 – I hope you find this useful!

Table of Contents:

  1. How A DSLR Works
  2. Capturing Light With Our Eyes
  3. Capturing Light Digitally
  4. ISO, White Balance, and Shutter Speed
  5. Camera Priority Modes
  6. Lenses
  7. Sensors

Photography Concepts

The beginning is a very good place to start, so let’s talk serious basics here – a quick guide to how a digital camera actually works.

HOW A DSLR WORKS

A DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) is a digital camera that uses a mechanical mirror system [at a 45 degree angle] and pentaprism, to direct light from the lens, to an optical viewfinder on the back of the camera.

Don’t let that freak you out – it simply means that light coming through a lens is reflected into a little viewfinder that you can look through. In order to capture an image on the sensor (or on the film negative as was the case before digital cameras came about), the mechanical mirror flips up, allowing the shutter (which sits in front of the sensor) to activate, exposing the sensor to the light. A pre-determined shutter speed (i.e. 1/2000th of a second) will decide how long the light gets to hit the sensor for – more on this later.

This video will help explain what I’m talking about:

So in a very brief and layman nutshull, that’s how a DSLR works to capture a photograph. Take a look at this video if you’re still confused:

At this point, you might be asking, “How come I’ve seen my friend take photos from his/her digital camera by looking at the LCD on the back, instead of looking  through the optical viewfinder?”

That’s a good question. As explained above, DSRLs have a mirror and a shutter that need to lift and open respectively to take a picture, while smaller point-n-shoot digital cameras – as well as camera phones like the iPhone – don’t have mirrors or shutters.

They simply use an electronic, or digital shutter to capture the image. Don’t get overwhelmed here – just understand that the sensor is able to capture the light without needing a physical shutter to open and close.

In the mainstream, most of the digital sensors out there are either CCD (charge-coupled device) or CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor). Again, it’s easy to get lost in translation – just understand that there are two kinds of mainstream sensors – and both have their pros and cons.

CCD’s are an older technology and use more energy, while CMOS sensors are newer (found in most of the digital cameras today), handle low-light better, and are more power efficient.

Understanding Photography

Now that you have a rough technical understanding of how a DSLR works, it’s time to get down to the actual principles behind photography.

CAPTURING LIGHT WITH OUR EYESA Little Biology Lesson

Light is electromagnetic radiation that is visible to the human eye, and is responsible for the sense of sight.

So basically, light from the sun that’s being reflected off everything around us, enters through our eyes where it’s then processed by our brains, and converted into the picture we see.

Sounds odd, but that’s how it works. But there’s more to it than meets the eye – yes that was a ridiculously cheesy pun. Moving on.

Our eyes are made up of a whole bunch of stuff that allows us to capture that light. Let’s just discuss five for now: Your Iris, LensPupil, Retina & Brain.

Iris & Pupil

Your Iristhe colour part of your eye – has the ability to increase or decrease the size of your Pupil – the black hole in the centre. So essentially it controls the amount of light that enters into your eye – a kind of gatekeeper if you like.

Now the reason we need to control the level of light entering the eye, is simply so we can adjust to different levels of brightness. If it was fixed, some scenes we see would be crazy bright, while others would be too dark.

Anatomy of the Eye

Directly behind your iris, sits your Lens, which exists to refract the light so that it is focussed onto your light-sensitive tissue, otherwise known as your Retina. By changing shape, your lens is also able to change the focal distance of the eye, so that it can focus on objects at various distances before sending that information to the retina.

Your Brain then converts these light signals, turning them into pictures that we understand.

At this point I need to add three other things to the process of how our eyes capture light. Stay with me here!

Part of what makes up your retina, are Cones and Rods which are grouped as the photoreceptor cells. So let’s talk about the sensitivity of your eye for a moment.

Rods are extremely sensitive to light and can be triggered by a very small amount of light (i.e. at night) and they don’t see colour – which explains why colours fade at night.

Cones on the other hand require much higher levels of light in order to activate and are able to distinguish between the different wavelengths of light which is how we see colour.

Speaking of colour, our eyes are also responsible for maintaining our perception of the colours that we see. This is called Colour Balance. It’s what allows us to see a scene over and over again, without any changes to the colour of the objects in that scene.

And lastly, the rate at which we see movement. This is a tricky one, since it’s probably the only area where cameras differ slightly. Technically speaking, our vision is a continuous process – vaguely equated to a succession of pictures, similar to film. Where it differs from photography is that since we see as a continuous process, we don’t have a Shutter as we do in cameras – or if you want to think of it this way, we do have shutters in the way of eyelids, but we don’t really use them in the sense of photography.

So let’s move on to the digital world!

CAPTURING LIGHT DIGITALLYA Little Science Lesson

Our digital cameras work in pretty much the same manner, so this part should be fairly easy for you to understand.

Just like our eyes, in order to capture a photo, we need a Diaphragm (iris), Glass (lens), Aperture (pupil) and a Sensor (retina).

The diaphragm is simply a mechanical system that can open and close, to allow big or small amounts of light through the glass/lens – the amount of which is called the aperture.

Illustrating the difference between Apertures

Image Processor

In turn, the aperture controls the amount of light that falls onto the sensor, which is then processed by the camera “brain” – aptly named the image processor.

Obviously there are a few other things to add, that both our cameras and our eyes use to make up what we see, but I’m concerned that you might get lost if I start to throw too much your way. But let’s have at it nonetheless!

 

ISO, White Balance, and Shutter Speed are three other areas we need to understand.

ISO – Let’s unpack this little puppy. Just as we discussed the cones and rods in our photoreceptor cells, ISO is what helps to expose an image correctly. If the scene you’re looking at is extremely bright, then seeing with your rods wouldn’t be a very good idea – since your rods are designed to boost your eyes sensitivity so that you can see in dark areas.

In the same way, ISO numbers on a camera simply refer to specific levels of sensitivity that are applied to the image on capture. Entry-level DSLRs usually have an ISO rating from 100-6400, though as technology progresses, we get higher and higher sensitivities. So as you’ll no doubt have guessed – ISO 100 (a low sensitivity) is for really bright scenes.

ISO 6400 is generally for darkly lit scenes. Think of it like listening to the radio – you tune into a station and the volume is soft. There is a little static in the background, but you can’t really hear it, or the song very much. As you apply gain to the sound by turning the volume up, the song gets louder along with the static in the background.

In a very similar fashion, ISO serves to boost the volume of the picture, which is to say that it makes it brighter. Of course if you shoot in the middle of the day at ISO 6400, without making changes to the shutter speed or aperture, your image will be over-exposed and extremely noisy!

ISO Noise is like the static in the background of a radio station, and it is amplified the greater the ISO number. ISO 100 is mostly noise-free, while ISO 6400 is full of it. Some people like noise in a photograph, but most tend to dislike it – it’s up to you which you prefer.

Illustrating the difference between ISO Sensitivities

For further reading on ISO, check out this post on Cole’s Clasroom.

WHITE BALANCE is simply the assessment of the correct colour tone, in this case taken from what we know as white. If you look at a photograph with the incorrect white balance, you’ll see that the whites in the picture are either too yellow, or too blue. By correcting the white balance to what our eyes recognise as the colour white (i.e. without colour), everything else in the picture is then correctly coloured.

The specific value of this white colour is given a measurement by what we call Kelvin Colour Temperature. 5200 is usually a good white balance, but it varies according to what kind of lighting conditions you’re shooting in.

Sometimes we choose not to correctly colour balance our shots – this often happens when we photograph sunsets. We recognise the yellow tint that comes from “golden hour” at sunset and sunrise, and often prefer the warm look it gives. Thus we increase out Kelvin temperature to say 6000, where things tend to take on more of a yellow tone.

This picture is a rough idea of what’s happening as you manually increase the colour temperature.

Illustrating the differences in Colour Temperature

SHUTTER SPEED, as discussed a little earlier on, is essentially the gatekeeper that determines the amount of time that light is able to fall onto the sensor.

Now this has a two-fold effect on your image.

1. The first, is motion blur.

You see, when you open your shutter for a fair amount of time – say 15 seconds – the image sensor is constantly capturing information, that is to say that if there is movement in the scene, the sensor captures whatever is moving at different points in time.

Okay okay, don’t stress here – We’re not going back to the future or about to unpack Einstein’s theory of relativity. Just understand that the longer the shutter is open, the more blur you’ll have in your image. In other words, a slow shutter = more chance of motion blur – both from you (the photographer’s movement) and your subject’s movement. You solve your movement by putting your camera on a tripod.

On the flip-side, a fast shutter speed will “freeze” your subject in time. For example, a car driving past at 100kph would look like a blur to us, but at a really fast shutter speed, we’d be able to capture an image that made it look as though the car was dead still. This is used plenty in sports photography.

Here the bikes are “frozen” by a fast shutter

And then there’s also one more technique that’s rather cool, and that’s to pan the camera at a medium shutter speed while tracking your subject. What does that do? Well it gives you a background that looks full of motion blur, with a subject that’s perfectly frozen. Very cool.

By panning with the bike, the photographer manages to give a motion blur to the background while keeping his subject in focus

You can also create “star stripes” or flowing water by leaving your shutter open (long-exposure) for a very long time as seen below:

Keeping the shutter open (long exposure) can create awesome artistic effects

2. Now the second effect that shutter speed has on you image, as opposed to how much blur or freeze you get, is exposure.

Since the shutter speed determines the amount of time light is allowed to hit the sensor, it ultimately determines the level of exposure in your image.

Let’s say for example you want to capture a dude on a motocross bike ramping over a dirt mound and you’d like to freeze the action. You’ll need a fairly fast shutter for that – let’s say 1/4000th of a second – which isn’t exactly a lot of time for light to hit your sensor.

If you’re a bright spark, you’ll have begun to see a little conundrum about to occur here. And that’s the relationship that Shutter Speed, ISO and Aperture have with one another.

Depending on what you want to achieve, you’ll have to control each of them to suit the most important mode. In this case, shutter speed is our priority, since we want to freeze the bike by using a really fast shutter speed. But in order to get a correctly exposed picture, you’ll need to think about the aperture and ISO… Let’s see why.

If I’m shooting at 1/4000th of a second, and it’s an overcast day, the image will most likely be underexposed if my ISO is set to 100 and my aperture is at something like f/16.

You with me? Stay with me.

I now have a choice to make – If I want the aperture to stay at f/16 (thereby keeping everything in focus), I need to ramp up the ISO (gain) to brighten the picture and compensate for the faster shutter speed.

But if don’t want a noisy image, then I need to think about setting my aperture to something like f/4, which will brighten the image too, but this time will make it harder for me (or in this case the camera if it’s in autofocus mode) to focus.

Luckily, our cameras are rather smart. They let you choose your priority by selecting either a shutter or aperture priority, a manual mode (which allows you full control over all the variables) or a completely automatic priority, which allows the camera to decide what’s best.

Camera Priority Modes

Rightyho. Let’s talk about the little nobbys on the camera. We’ve had a look at ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture, and White Balance, so now we need to figure out what’s what when it comes to the priority of each…

While cameras do have slightly different symbols on their mode dials (pictured left), they generally all do the same thing. Nikon has the PASM dial while Canon has the nonsensical  PTvAvM. They do the same thing – Canon just decided to call Shutter Priority Tv which stands for “Time Value” as in the amount of time that the shutter stays open. Makes sense when you explain it, but a simple S for Shutter would have been simpler!

 

PROGRAM MODE (P):

This is essentially “Auto” mode – the only difference is that it gives you a little more control than “full auto” like being able to control Flash, ISO and White Balance settings. I don’t use this mode really.

APERTURE MODE (A or Av):

As you guessed, this mode or priority, allows you to control the Aperture as you want it, while the camera works hard in the background to ensure that it correctly handles the Shutter Speed, ISO, etc, such that you get a correctly exposed image. This is a really useful mode and one that I personally shoot with most of the time because I love having a shallow depth of field most of the time (i.e. f/2.8 and below), so I let the camera figure the rest out!

SHUTTER MODE (S or Tv):

Yip, this mode gives you control over your shutter speed while the camera handles the rest to make sure you get a good exposure. You’d use this mode when taking the picture of the bike we were talking about above – you could set the shutter to 1/4000th of a second and the camera would make sure to give you a decent exposure. Rather magical.

MANUAL MODE (M):

This is a tricky one. Use with caution. Full Manual means the camera doesn’t do a lot to help you out… You have to set the ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture completely on your own, which, let me tell you, is difficult – especially if you don’t have a lot of time to take the shot. I use manual mode mostly when I have the time and a tri-pod, predominantly for long-exposure shots.

The camera does give you an indication of how well exposed the shot will be by showing you whether you’re to the left or right of a perfect exposure in the heads up display that you can see when you look through the viewfinder.

When you’re doing a long exposure shot (say round 20 seconds), you’ll obviously need a tripod to make sure the shot doesn’t end up with any camera shake. But even pushing the shutter release button can cause camera shake, so when you’re doing this, either get a cable shutter release, or set the camera to only take a photo after 2 seconds. So in other words, you push the shutter release button and the camera takes 2 seconds before it lifts the mirror and opens the shutter, minimising the shake.

You can go one step further however (if you camera supports it) and enable mirror lock-up, which means the mirror flips up and waits for the shutter to open, minimising any kind of movement even further.

BULB (B):

Most cameras also have a BULB mode, which lets you hold the camera shutter open for longer than 30 seconds. This is also tricky… You can’t do this without a shutter release cable – no matter how steady you think you are, if you’re touching the camera for more than 30 seconds, your movement – however small – will reflect in the photo.

So get yourself a shutter release cable. Some are as simple as a button that you push to start and stop the shot, while others are fancy and let you program a fixed time in (say 4 minutes) and it automatically stops after that time. You can also use the fancier ones to let you take time-lapse shots.

Time-lapse photography can be very tricky and is beyond the scope of this post since it enters into the realm of video since once you string all your shots together you get a succession of photos that essentially become a video. There’s a blog pot on the 101 of DSLR Filmmaking coming shortly, so look out for that if you want to find out more…

THE OTHER MODES:

All DSLR’s have other modes which are little images of flowers (macro for blur), a dude running (fast shutter), a person’s head (portrait), a mountain (landscape by giving you a deep depth of field), a moon (raised ISO and longer shutter for night time), and of course “AUTO”. Be warned that while these modes can be useful, they won’t give you as good a shot as you could get if you have a good understanding of photography and are willing to use the PASM modes. But hey, they’re fine if you’re a beginner and are scared to play with the PASM modes, but just remember, the only way to learn is to make mistakes, so I’d suggest you get used to those PASM modes!

LET’S TALK LENSES

By now you should have a rough understanding of how your DSLR works – but don’t worry if you’re still not sure on a few things – it takes time and practice before you’ll get comfortable with the basic operations of your DSLR. For now though, it’s a good idea to start talking about the most important asset when we talk about DSLR photography: Lenses, or as is referred to by the snobs: Glass.

This is a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one. In short, the camera body and the lens have to both be present to be able to take a decent photo. And as you’ll come to learn, a good lens is what determines a good photo, whereas a good camera body does not mean you’ll take a good photo.

Of course I’m not saying that all you have to do in order to take an amazing photo is slap on a really expensive, high-quality lens, but it does help!

LENS = ASSET, CAMERA BODY = EXPENSE

If you happen to be an accountant, you’ll understand the heading above. Since DSLR camera bodies are constantly changing, becoming outdated extremely quickly, they lose value extremely quickly too. On the other hand, lenses (and especially the old non-fancy prime lenses – we’ll discuss prime lenses shortly) are extremely good at holding their value – and indeed will outlast your camera body 9 times out of 10.

Now you don’t really need to know how the lens works in order to effectively use it and take great photos, so I don’t think there’s any point in confusing you at this stage. Just understand that when you put a whole bunch of high-quality spherical glass elements in a row, they bend and refract the light that enters such that it is focussed onto the sensor.

If you then move the lens elements closer or further away from one another, you are able focus and zoom. The more expensive the lens, generally the better the quality (but that’s not always true as you’ll come to learn in a minute).

PRIME LENSES

Ah yes, good old primes. You’ll come to love these lenses – trust me.

A prime lens is a lens that has a fixed focal length. In other words, you cannot simply twist a ring and “zoom” into your subject matter. You have to zoom with your feet in a manner of speaking! In other words, if you want to get closer to your subject, you have to walk closer to it.

Now you might be thinking that’s not very cool, but actually it is. Now pay attention here:

All lenses suffer from a certain amount of issues. Depending on the quality of the glass, things like distortion in the form of chromatic aberration or purple fringing always occur. The goal of any lens manufacturer is to create a lens with the least amount of this.

When a manufacturer creates a prime lens they’re able to test the lens at a fixed focal point, which means they can get it pretty much free from defects without too much trouble.

That’s why a prime lens will always give you a far sharper, better quality image than a zoom lens. They call these lenses “tack sharp”.

The nifty fifty

And prime lenses are also capable of giving you the best aperture around. A prime example of this (see what I did there??) would be the nifty fifty – a 50mm lens with an aperture of f/1.4.

This lens is an absolute win for the amateur or the professional – it’s sharp, has a useful focal length for portrait photography, has an amazing f/1.4 aperture, and is only about $300-350.

In fact there’s an even cheaper Canon prime that’s 50mm, but carries a slightly reduce f/1.8 aperture that’s only about $100. And while the build quality isn’t the same as the f/1.4, you can still get some pretty decent shots with it!

You can take this prime lens and make anything look good with it. The background blur or bokeh – as is affectionately called – is beautiful, and it allows your subject matter in focus,  to really stand out.

The Canon f/1.4 is the first lens I recommend to any beginner. Simply because it gives them so much inspiration when they see that they’ve actually managed to take a decent picture first time round.

So many photographers have buyers remorse when the take a kit lens like the 18-55mm which has a shitty f/3.5 – f/5.6 aperture which gives their photos zero life!

The worst thing you can do is buy a kit lens – you know where they bundle the body with a lens that costs them very little to make.

Don’t fall into that trap. Get a nifty fifty.

Of course it does depend on what photogrpahy you’re wanting to do – in which case a nifty fifty isn’t always the answer, but we’ll come to that in a mo…

ZOOM LENSES

The opposite of primes, zoom lenses allow us to get closer to our subject without walking closer. Think CIA, KGB, the stalker next door.

The first zoom was patented in about 1902, but it wasn’t until about 20 or so years ago that they started to become quite fancy.

Now if you know anything about zooms, you’ll know that they’re a lot harder to produce than prime lenses because they have way more moving parts. Not only do manufacturers have to produce a lens that can zoom in and out without any hiccups, but they also have to produce a lens that’s free from as much distortion and purple fringing as possible, throughout the zoom range, while still maintaining as much sharpness as possible. It’s a tough feat, and that’s why zoom lenses are generally way more expensive than primes.

The other thing that’s tough to do when creating a zoom lens, is to keep a fixed aperture. Most lenses tend to vary aperture as they zoom in and out due to the nature of the elements being closer or further away from one another, but some expensive lenses like the Nikon 70-200mm  pictured above have a nice fixed f/2.8 aperture. But you pay for it.

All in all, while zoom lenses most certainly have their place for certain styles of photography – like sports or nature – you just can’t beat a prime lens for sharpness and quality.

DIFFERENT LENSES FOR DIFFERENT STYLES

So let’s say you’re asking the question, “which lens do I need for what kind of photography?” – I’d say that’s a mighty good question.

So let’s unpack that.

The Landscape Photographer:

If you fall into this group, you’ll want to get a lens the widest possible lens, without becoming distorted like a fish-eye lens (unless that’s what you’re into, in which case buy that fish-eye). Anything less than 30mm is a good option in this case, but something around the 10-15mm range is better.

The Canon 16-35mm L II lens is pretty awesome, but it also comes with a hefty price tag. If you own a non full-frame camera (I’ll explain full-frame shortly), like the 600D, 60D, or 7D, then you could get the Canon 11-22mm lens which is a solid option for APS-C sized sensors (don’t stress, I’m coming to this in a mo).

The Portrait Photographer:

If you think of yourself as someone who might like to take pictures of other people (in a non dodgy way of course), then you’re a portrait photographer.  The 50mm or the 85mm prime lenses are great options for portrait photographer, and all round general photography for that matter too. You could even use the 70-200mm zoom lenses for this kind of stuff too.

The Sports Photographer:

If you love your sports, you might have to cough up now – getting a fast (good aperture) lens that zooms to a decent level doesn’t come cheap. But that’s what you need to get if you want to take decent sport pics. The 70-200mm L f/4 or f/2.8 lenses are a great option, but can be a little short in this regard. You might have to think about getting something that puts you into the 300mm and beyond category. Which brings me to the next point.

The Nature/Wildlife Photographer:

This is likely the most expensive of all the photography groups. You need well zoomed, high-quality, fast glass to take decent wildlife shots. In this case, the 100-400 isn’t a bad option, but you can buy better – at a hefty price of course.

Sensors

At this point you might have heard about the fact that not all lenses a manufacturer produces can be used on all camera bodies. If you haven’t heard of that, well, then you’re in the right place!

In general, the bigger the digital sensor, the better the quality of the image. We usually achieve a greater depth of field, better colour reproduction, increased dynamic range (coming to this one later) and sharpness.

You don’t really need to know why that is, but in short, there’s simply a bigger surface area for the light to fall on and you end up with better pictures.

FULL FRAME SENSORS

Most of the top-end DSLR’s have Full-Frame Sensors. The cost more to produce and offer a better quality image at the end of the day, so they throw them into their higher end models like the 5D mk 3 from Canon or the D800 from Nikon.

These sensors are pretty awesome, and given their larger surface area, produce less noise thereby possessing great ISO levels all the way up to a crazy ISO 102,400. Bear in mind that amateur photographers are usually pushing boundaries with their entry level DSLRs at ISO 6400.

Pixel Density Ratio

Here’s some technical jargon.

As we’ve learned, digital sensors convert an optical image into an electronic signal, and they have pixels all over the sensor to grab image data as it comes in. When we talk about the number of megapixels a DSLR has, we’re talking about these little dudes packed onto the sensor (in millions!). The more megapixels you have, the more information you can capture.

An 18mp DSLR will store much more information than a 5mp DSLR, and you’ll see this if you try to zoom in digitally to two identical pictures. The one with 18mp will be much clearer.

Of course you can’t just put as many pixels as you want onto a sensor – and while you can make the pixel size smaller, that’s not ideal either, as it affects image noise and dynamic range.

Dynamic Range

We have to discuss this before continuing!

Dynamic range describes the range of tones which a sensor can capture below when a pixel becomes completely white, but yet above when texture is indiscernible from background noise (near black).

Sounds confusing right? Well I suppose the way it’s explained above is. Just understand that dynamic range refers to a range of dark and light that the camera can capture clearly. DSLRs with poor dynamic range often end up with “clipped” white areas in the sky, where no information can be retrieved after you’ve taken the shot.

DSLRs with a large dynamic range are much better at handling shots where the difference in dark and bright areas are vast. So basically you want a camera that has a decent dynamic range – this could be something in the regeion of about 14 “stops” or more. Stops simply refer to each increment of brightness change, also referred to as exposure values or EV).

Anyway, don’t worry too much about this for the time being.

Back To Pixel Density Ratio

So as you’re starting to see, there’s a trade-off happening here. If you fill your sensor up with loads of small pixels, then you’re overcrowding the bus, so to speak. You lose dynamic range and start having major issues with ISO noise the higher you push the ISO.

The ratio thus refers to the number of pixels against the size of the sensor.

Think of it like this: If you have a big dinner plate and a side plate, but you have to put the same number of grapes onto both plates, the density of the side plate will be much greater.

So full-frame sensors, generally have a lower pixel density ratio than APS-C sized sensors which are made for cameras like the 600D, 60D, and 7D.

In short, a full-frame sensor rocks.

The Megapixel Myth

This really grates my carrot. Marketing departments all around the world have jumped onto megapixels as if they were the holy grail, making it seem like the more megapixels the camera has, the better the camera. That’s utter bullocks.

As we’ve already seen, squeezing too many megapixels onto a small sensor means noisy, low dynamic range images. If you take a look at Apple’s iPhone 4 (which has a 5mp sensor) – it seriously whips so many other mobile phones that boast more than 5mp sensors. Why? Because a good photo comes from way more than just megapixels. One of the greatest things about the iPhone 4 was it’s brilliant low-light capability, and clarity of images, stemming from a great back-illuminated sensor and decent lens group.

So no, more megapixels does not equal better photos.

APS-C SIZED SENSORS

As you can see in the image to the left, 35mm (full-frame) sensors are quite a bit bigger than APS-C sized sensors. Most DSLRs have APS-C sized sensors. Nikon’s APS-C is ever so slightly bigger than Canon’s APS-C sensors, and if you look at the text written next to the red and blue lines, you’ll notice “1.5x” and “1.6x” crop factors.

We’ll discuss this in a minute, but for now, just get a sense of the difference between the various sensor sizes and understand that the smaller the sensor, the harder it is to get decent pictures out of them.

Crop Factor

What on earth does a crop factor mean? Well since camera film was originally 35mm in size, all lenses were designed with this size in mind. Then when digital cameras came about and we produced smaller sensors, any lens that was originally designed for a 35mm sensor ended up feeling slightly zoomed in when compared to the same shots on a full-frame camera. This is what we call a crop factor.

If you shoot with an APS-C sized sensor on a 600D say, you will be 1.6 times more zoomed in than if you shot with a full-frame sensor like the 5D. So what does that mean? Well, it means that it’s bad for landscape photographers who want as wide an angle as they can get, but really great for wildlife photographers because they get 1.6 times closer to their wildlife.

Lenses For APS-C vs Full Frame

So what if you want to put a full-frame lens (i.e. one that was designed for a 35mm DSLR) onto an APS-C sized DSLR? No problem – you simply multiply the mm’s by 1.6. For example, a 16-35mm lens would be the equivalent of a 25.6-56mm lens on an APS-C DSLR.

Now what if you wanted to shoot with a lens that was specifically designed for APS-C sized sensors (Canon 10-22mm), on a full-frame DSLR? Nope, it ain’t a good idea. Since the APS-C lenses (also known as EF-S in the Canon world) are designed for the smaller sensors and actually protrude into the camera body to be closer to the sensor, the mirror will make contact with your lens and that is NOT a good idea.

So my advice is to buy normal EF lenses designed for full-frame sensors and deal with the crop factor if you have an APS-C sized DSLR – one day when you grow up and buy a full-frame body, all your lenses will work! If you buy EF-S lenses, you’ll have to get rid of them when you acquire your new full-frame camera.

End of Part 1

As I bring Part 1 of this DSLR Photography 101 series to a close, I hope that you have been able to grasp some of the technical jargon that fills the world of DSLRs.

For first-timers, it can be a really daunting overload of information – I know I struggled the first time I picked up a camera. But understand that the more you practice and play with your camera, the better you’ll come to understand it.

It also doesn’t matter what camera you have – the best camera is the one you have access to – so don’t save up for that “fancy new camera with all the bells and whistles” that hasn’t been launched yet. Instead, just make it your mission to get out there and take photos!

Coming Up

In Part 2, we’re gonna talk a little more about camera operation – things like exposure compensation, bracketing, and metering. We’ll also look at camera accessories that make your life easier or help you get better shots, as well as scary things like firmware updates and a few other tips and tricks like HDR photography.

In Part 3, we’ll start to unpack the editing process, looking at what kind of software you might need to start editing those photos you’re taking and how to make ’em stand out from the crowd. We’ll also talk a little about printing and community sites where you can start to share your photos with the world.

Is there a Part 4? Yes indeed. What does Part 4 tackle? You’ll have to wait and see!

 

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  • Calvin

    Not sure if this is the right place on your site to post questions, but something I was thinking about is that it would be really great if you could connect a SLR camera to your iPad so that you had the bigger screen to review pics / have as a display when taking longer exposure shots on a tripod.

    Is it possible to link say a Canon SLR to an iPad via USB cable / other means like this?

    Cheers,
    c

    • Andy

      Hey pal. That’s a great question to ask.

      In short, there are a couple ways you can do this. The first is to shoot with an Eye-Fi SD card that is essentially a Wi-Fi emmiter – you then download that app (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/eye-fi/id306011124?mt=8) and as you take your pictures, they fly across the air into your iPad. Very cool.

      But that limits you somewhat, since it’s more a backup than a real-time controller.

      Recently, some brianiacs have developed a wireless app for the iPad that allows you to see exactly what the camera is seeing and also allows you to change the focus and aperture. This is more for filming…

      But in short, what we really need is Wi-Fi built into the DSLRs themselves, and Apps from the DSLR manufacturers that allow a complete replication of the software running on the camera, enabling you to use your iPhone or iPad to shoot and store images. Unfortunately, most camera manufacturers are far too “old-school” to understand this.

      To solve this issue, the best thing would be for someone to make a universal control app that uses a Wi-Fi device that attaches to the DSLR’s USB port thereby allowing control. To my knowledge, nothing like this exists…

      • so when are you inventing it and patenting it and selling it? i will be your first very happy client ; )

        • Andy

          Working on it! ;)

      • Calvin

        Thanks for the feedback bud. Perhaps a good app for someone to develop and put in the iTunes store? Not sure what the uptake for the effort would be..

  • tim

    Awesome article. There is an answer for calvin. Its called the eye fi card. I have a canon 1d mk4. I shoot raw to a cf card and small jpg to the sd wifi card. It streams to my android tablet or phone or laptop. There is an iphone app also. My clients get almost instant feedback as i shoot

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  • Thank you! Thank you! This is awesome.

    • Andy

      You’re welcome :) Thanks for such an nice comment :)

  • Best information on this subject I’ve come across.
    So many photographers don’t seem to know a lot about cameras. Well, many of those I’ve met anyway.
    Good of you to put this out there.
    I had no clue of the real difference between EF-S and EF lenses.
    Thank you.

    • Andy

      You’re super welcome! Glad it helped :)

  • JussyD

    Where and when can we read part 2???

    Part 1 was really great. thank you so much.

    • Andy

      Hi, thanks glad you liked it. Have been away and quite ill – hence the reason you haven’t seen section 2.

      However, I’m also involved with a startup http://www.grablunchbox.com – we’re launching soon an it’s filled with courses on photography. Check it out!

  • Nicole

    Hey Andy! I just wanted to say this was seriously the BEST basic and easy to understand, yet so in depth and specific post I’ve ever found. It filled in so many gaps that I had, & clarified some misconceptions. I found especially helpful the white balance and ISO explanations. I read this post before a shoot I went on this afternoon and there is already a noticeable difference with my newfound knowledge. {; Thanks for putting this out there!

    • Andy

      Hi Nicole. Wow, what a rad message to come home to! :) Thanks!

      Glad some of my knowledge is useful to others. The more we share, the more we grow :) Have fun and shout if you have any questions in the future!

      Andy

  • CiaoKellin

    Wow. What Nicole said. Thank you so much for writing this. Seriously. The most clear, digestible and non pretentious photography writing I have found. Bless you.

    P.s. – I know how long this post must have taken but if Part II were to come out in the not so distant future I, for one, would be so appreciative!

  • sufran chaus

    which dslr camera is best for beginners?