5 Ways to Up Your DSLR Photography Game

Many of my friends have purchased a DSLR camera, only to realize their photos look no better than their smartphone photos, so why carry around a bulky DSLR? Here’s my top 5 tips for new DSLR shooters.

iPhone Standard ImageDLSR Standard Image

Megan had no idea her morning coffee run would turn into a portrait session

1. Buy a f/1.8 50mm prime lens, right now. It will be the best $100 (Canon) to $200 (Nikon) you’ve ever spent on photography gear.

f1-8_50mm Prime Lens

Photo courtesy of Justus Blumer

I know, you have the 18-55mm (the “kit lens”) AND you bought the 75-350mm lens, so why would you want another lens that’s limited to only 50mm focal length? Because it’s the best bang for your buck to make that DSLR prove it’s worth over your iPhone. Your kit lens won’t do much better in low light than your smartphone, nor will it give you the much desired bokeh (BOH-kə), i.e. shallow depth of field – that selective focus look the pros use. The beauty of bokeh is finally yours! Bonus (sarcasm alert), with that prime lens (prime = fixed focal length, no zoom) on your camera, you can now scoff at the beginners with their kit lenses and start your journey into photography snobbery.

2. Turn your camera’s setting dial to Aperture Priority Mode (Av on Canons, A on Nikons) and set the aperture to f/1.8.

Aperture Priority Mode

This is the magic setting that will get you started with selective focus and shooting beautiful low light photos. It’s a good first step to learning the use the DSLR intentionally, instead of just as a bulky fully automatic camera that may as well be your iPhone. But it’s not the magic bullet setting to make every photo great, you must learn when it’s helpful and when it’s distracting. Step two into your photography snobbery journey is to scoff at beginners who use shallow depth of field too often.

3. Find good light. What is good light?

Lighting & Shading - Side PositionLighting & Shading - Side View

Lighting & Shading - Front PositionLighting & Shading - Front View

Giant windows = excellent light. Notice how the shadows on Megan become more dramatic as her angle to the window changes.

For flattering photographs of people good light is usually soft, or diffused light. It’s easy to find once you know what to look for. Shoot outside during morning or evening, never at high noon, and turn your subject so the sun is behind them, completely behind them, and boom! instant portrait lighting. If indoors during daylight hours, find a window without direct sunlight shining through, place your subject so the window is lighting them with a slight or dramatic angle to the window, and boom! instant portrait lighting again. If it’s night time, do not, I repeat, do not use your on-camera flash, instead shoot a bunch of photos at f/1.8 and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t for light sources, you’ll learn quickly.

4. Zoom with your feet.

Far Away PositionClose-up Position

Far Away ViewClose-up View

Zoom with your feet – Flinstone style.

With a prime lens on you’re forced to move towards or away from your subject, instead of zooming in and out. As a benefit you’ll learn what the 50mm focal length looks like, and what it’s strengths and weaknesses are before investing in other prime lenses. Before you bought a prime lens, you wouldn’t have realized different focal lengths have a look. They do. They tell very different stories of your subject’s relation to the surroundings.

5. Optional: Shoot in raw and edit your photos. #nofilter baby!

Raw DSLR ExampleEdited DSLR Example

Our lighting was fairly ideal, so the adjustments have limited effect on the image, but in more harsh outdoor lighting, these adjustments will make a big difference.

Let’s get this straight, editing your photos does not change the “real” photo (what is real anyway?), but instead interprets all those binary 1’s and 0’s of information to their fullest potential. By shooting in raw you’re allowing adjustments to be made later, incase your in-camera settings and lighting conditions are not optimal, which they usually aren’t. By playing around with the raw photo adjustment sliders (I use Adobe Lightroom), you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t for enhancing different photos. Generally, not always, I take these steps as needed to help reveal more of the photo and make it “pop” (pop is usually referring to adequate saturation and contrast):

  • Adjust highlights down and shadows up – so you can see into the dark and bright parts of the photo.
  • Adjust whites up and blacks down -to increase contrast.
  • Adjust color temperature so it’s not too warm (yellow) or cool (blue).
  • Saturation up, a tad up on clarity.

Now that you’re deep into your photography journey of snobbery, you can visit photography forums and comment sections and get into heated debates on shooting JPEG and “getting it right in camera” vs. shooting raw, congratulations.

To review, your camera is only as good as the lens on it, and the lens is only as good as the light coming through it. Find good light, use your new prime lens, and mystify your friends and family with stellar photos.

5 Ways to Up Your DSLR Photography Game was written by Lee Pfalmer, our full-time photographer and videographer at Foundry.   Lee provides great business photos and videos for our clients for their web projects, marketing materials, and online advertisements.  If you haven’t heard, we are giving away a business photo shoot with Lee that is valued at $1,200!