Learn to Stop Taking Photos in Automatic Mode - Tips for DSLR Photography

Updated: October 24, 2012

Corbett Barr

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You might think that your cell phone or point-and-shoot camera is pretty handy, but if you’ve never gotten your hands on a DSLR camera, you don’t know what you’re missing out on.

If you’ve ever looked at amazing macro or action stock images and wondered how the photographer did that, you’ll find your answer by trying out a DSLR.

Digital Single-Lens Reflex cameras can be intimidating if you don’t know what you’re looking at; aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance… what can they all possibly contribute to a simple photo? The answer, as you’ll see, is quite a lot.

All of the elements work together to get the best exposure and clarity, and when you learn to use these manual controls, you’ll be amazed by their power.

Goodbye Automatic Mode

Put your camera in Manual mode and play around with these settings.
  • Aperture – the width of the opening in the lens. A bigger opening allows in more light, and should be used in darker settings. Aperture is also used to get less or more depth of field. A shallow depth of field, where background objects are blurry, is achieved by lower aperture numbers (1.4, 1.8, 2.0, etc.). Great depth of field, where background objects appear just as sharply as the foreground, can be found by using high aperture numbers (f22).
  • Shutter speed – the speed at which the camera closes. A slower shutter speed can be used in combination with a wider aperture to get better pictures in dark settings.
  • ISO – the camera’s sensitivity to light. Another important function for when you’re shooting in the dark, a high ISO setting can make a big difference. Just make sure not to go too high; you’ll notice that your photos become grainy if the setting is off.
  • White Balance – correction of the camera’s perception of colors. Your camera lens picks up on the “color temperature” of any light source and reflects that on your subject. White balance detects the deviation of this color and sets it back to normal. This function is important when you’re shooting in unnatural lighting, like in a fluorescent-lit room.
Now that you know about all these elements, play around with them! Use them in different combinations while taking the same photo. That way you’ll really begin to understand how each setting affects the others.

Then start looking into the other elements of DSLR photography that will really take you to the next level:

  • A tripod – Look for a small, flexible one with a ball head; if yours is too large and clunky you’ll be tempted to leave it behind. But a good tripod is an essential component of many types of photography.
  • Different lenses – If you stick with the lens that came with your camera, you’ll miss out on a whole world of possibility. Canon L Series lenses are a great place to start; even if you have to rent them, you should check out the amazing effects you can get from macro, wide angle, and zoom telephoto lenses.
  • Photo Editing – If you don’t want to spring for a full version of Adobe Photoshop, consider getting Photoshop Elements or Lightroom, which are much cheaper. Or you can try out a free alternative, like GIMP or Krita. Whichever you choose, it’s important to learn at least the basics of photo editing. Changing tone, contrast, saturation, sharpness, and a host of other variables can make a good photo stunning.

Beginner Photographer Mistakes

Technical errors are by far the most prevalent type of slip-up for any new photographer. You’ll constantly get stuck in the wrong gear, and find yourself taking shaky, overexposed, or blue-tinted photos. But once you’ve made it past these mechanical pitfalls, you still might find yourself struggling to get interesting, attractive, and consistent images. Read on to find out why, and how you can break away from the worst bad habits of beginner photographers.

Damaging the Quality of Your Images

There are a lot of ways to make this mistake, but the most common are:
  • Using a lower resolution when you shoot: This may reduce memory size, but it really isn’t worth it unless you’re shooting a few drafts to play around with your composition. Always shoot your photos in RAW and reduce the size later, during the editing stage.
  • Using your camera’s JPG compression option: Same issue, different method; if you absolutely must compress your images, at least choose a manual option that is less of a compromise of quality.
  • Using your camera’s digital zoom: Not only does this feature make it more difficult to get a good focus and exposure, it also produces lower-quality photos. Contrary to what it might seem, zooming does not capture more detail; it just adds filler pixels.

Forgetting to Eliminate Distractions

Take a look at the famous photo that captured the aftermath of the Kent State massacre. Obviously, the pole in the background of the shot is very distracting; it just happens to be positioned in such a way that it looks like it’s rising from the subject’s head. In many reproductions of this photo, the pole has been edited out, and for good reason.

If you’re not pressed for time, take a minute to consider the entire scene. Make sure that extraneous objects, bizarre poses, stray bits of hair, and other distractions are fixed before you shoot.

Cropping Too Tightly

The importance of white space is counterintuitive for a lot of beginners. But cropping in too close around you subject makes a photo look cramped. If you give yourself plenty of space in the margins, you’ll be able to play with the size and shape that works best during the editing process. Always leave plenty of room around your subject, then crop later.

Disregarding the Composition

Most beginner photographers think that they’re capturing an image of a subject, and leave it at that. But a photographer should always strike a balance between their subject and their composition. This adds the kind of depth and dynamism that makes people really appreciate a photo, and call it art.

To get a handle on this, look at a famous photographic image, such as The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. Instead of thinking about the subject matter or the people in the scene, focus on the lines and shapes they create. You’ll see that the arrangement of forms has a uniformity that is punctuated by irregularities. A good photograph, like any kind of art, should have a mix of both order and chaos.

There are a lot of other hazards for the inexperienced photographer; bad use of contrast or depth of field, getting too carried away with photographic trends, or using the wrong focal length lens are just a few. But if you learn to avoid these main issues, you’ll have a very solid start on tackling the rest, and advancing from a beginner to an expert.

Getting into DSLR photography is an investment, but if you want to take your interest to the next level, the rewards are incredibly satisfying. You’ll learn how to capture and manipulate images in ways that you might not have thought were possible. Your dedication will pay off a hundredfold when you amaze people with your wall-worthy images.

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