So you got a DSLR for Christmas? What now?

Ah, so you got a shiny new digital SLR for Christmas did you? An upgrade from a compact, first SLR maybe? I’m betting as much as you like it it’s also confusing the life out of you and frustrating you at the same time isn’t it?

Consider this 12 month plan to help you unravel the secrets of your DSLR and get the most out of it. This won’t tell you how to USE your camera but it’ll tell you what to concentrate on while you get to grips with it and what you’ll need.

Month 1

So, how best to get the most out of your new acquisition? The good news for you is that you don’t need any more equipment at this point, no more expense! All you need is your camera with its kit lens and off you go. Don’t even think about new lenses and any fancy accessories just yet, spend the first while with your camera getting to know it. It’ll have a load of modes and features which no doubt you’ve played with but have no idea what they do.

Rule 1, and try to keep with this one as much as you can. Forget AUTO mode exists. Don’t touch it. There can be no excuse for using AUTO on your SLR. If you want to use AUTO, go back to a compact.

Rule 2, forget all those pre-programmed modes, the only thing to concern yourself with now is the Aperture Priority mode which may be A or Ax on your camera. Stick to this mode as it’s all you’ll need for now, eventually you can progress to using Manual but Aperture Priority will serve you well for now and it’s going to keep things simple.

Spend the next month playing with the camera in this mode. Learn what the aperture is, there’s a million tutorials on this out there, you don’t need one from me but trust me, learn to use your camera in A mode, learn the difference between taking pics at f3.5 and f22, and learn to use the ISO on your camera. Try to keep it as low as possible but don’t go over 800 if you can, learn to adjust this and the aperture so you can shoot handheld in the light available. You WILL get the feel for it a lot quicker than you think.

Months 2 – 4

OK, so you’ve recognised AUTO mode as evil and you now understand what aperture and ISO are. These are building blocks for you to move on now. By this time you’ll also know what your SLR is going to be for you. Are you just using it for family snaps? Or are you actually taking pictures with it, are you seeing scenes and trying to capture what you see? Do you find you want to take the camera wherever you go? If you are, then let’s go shopping.

If you want to progress you will need a few additional items of equipment.

1. A tripod. Now, don’t skimp here. You can get tripods from a tenner upwards but its false economy. Tripods take a fair hammering and I went through a load of cheap ones until I finally saw the light and invested £120 in a decent one which has outlasted all the other cheap ones put together and it’s still going strong. Final decision is yours but I would consider spending that wee bit more here.

2. Remote Control. To go with your tripod you need a remote. You could use the self timer on the camera but that’s not perfect, a half decent remote will serve you well. Try and avoid these tiny IR remotes that use the camera’s built in IR, these are typically useless. Get onto eBay and find yourself a programmable remote that connects to your camera with a cable, these are a LOT better and you’ll get a lot of use from it. Around £20 should be all you need to spend. If you want to go a bit further look at something like the Hahnel Giga T, which has a receiver unit that sits in the hot shoe and connects with as short cable to the camera. It’s triggered by a powerful programmable IR remote, a highly recommended investment (around £60).

3. Some decent processing software such as Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Ok so that’s it. Put the wallet away. You need nothing else. Now though, you can take pics in lower light, even dark as you have the tripod for stability and the remote to trigger the camera without touching it. You can now also progress to longer exposures, your aperture mode will allow you go up to 30s but if you flick to manual and select the shutter speed of BULB then you can go as long as you want. EXPERIMENT! It’s the best way to learn. Over this time you’ll see a difference in your pictures.

Months 5-8

So how’s it going? Still enjoying your camera? You are? Excellent, time to go shopping again.

What we want now is a simple set of filters. Keep it cheap to start with. Get onto eBay and get yourself the following.

1. P series filter holder
2. P series adapter ring to fit the screw size of your lens
3. A set of 3 85mm (P series) soft graduated filters, 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9
4. Slot in 85mm circular polariser

This shouldn’t cost you any more than £60 or so and it will transform your images. Remove your lens hood and screw in the adapter ring, fit the holder to it and you’re ready to go. The graduated filters will allow you to control the difference between the light sky and dark land; the polariser will make white clouds white and fluffy while giving you a richer blue sky. They also reduce reflections in water and glass.

Now you need to get out and learn to use these filters. Expect disasters to start with but if you’ve been learning aperture, manual mode, using your tripod and remote then all this will be 2nd nature by now so you can concentrate on learning how to use the filters.

At this point too, if you’re still taking pics as jpg’s on your camera, learn about the RAW format, it’s time you processed your own images and not letting the camera make a best guess and what you want.

Months 9 – 12

And here we are 9 to 12 months after getting your SLR and your still out taking pictures? The bug is biting it seems. Now it’s time to go lens shopping. Your kit lens has served you well but nows the time to consider some of the following.

1. Replacement for the kit lens. These are typically low quality medium range zoom lenses, 18-55mm or so. It’s a good focal range but there are a lot better versions on the market, get a good one and it’ll last you forever.

2. A super wide lens. Your kit lens is fine but sometimes you just can’t get enough in the scene, so you need a super wide, something like the Sigma 10-20mm is a perfect choice.

3. A decent zoom lens. Now, here you have a choice. If you want to replace your kit lens and get a zoom consider a super zoom. These will typically allow you to go from 18-200mm in one lens. There are some great examples out there and they won’t disappoint. It’ll likely be pricey, around £600 but remember, it’ll do the job of 2 lenses for you.

4. A longer length zoom. It’s handy to have a good longer length zoom lens, 70-300mm is a popular range and there are some cheap examples about but if you can afford it, get a 70-200mm f2.8, the Sigma version is around £700-800 and Nikon and Canon’s versions are in excess of £1500 but what a lens, I’ve had my Sigma version for over 10 years and just could not bear to be without it. Very versatile and image quality is amazing.

5. 50mm f1.8 prime lens. One of the cheapest lenses you’ll ever buy, around £100 new but superb image quality and so versatile with that wide f1.8 aperture. You’ll have a lot of fun with one of these learning about depth of field. A must have for every photographer.

You might also want to consider a decent bag to carry all this kit around it. It needs protected, you’ve spent a lot of money on it so don’t skimp on the bag. Get a decent brand like Loewpro and it should last you for years and keep your kit in good order.

And that’s it. You’re more than capable of making your own way now, by easing yourself in through the year you’ve avoided giving yourself information overload, you’ve learned the basics and you’ve got the building blocks to move on to bigger and better things without having more debt than Greece on your Jessops card. Enjoy your new hobby for years to come!

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