DSLR Cheatsheet for Beginners

By on Dec 1, 2016 in How To
DSLR Cheatsheet for Beginners

No matter what people say about how great the cameras are getting on our phones, the fact remains that today the most flexible device you can use to capture images and video is a DSLR camera. Yes, mirrorless cameras are out there and can be pretty fantastic, but the traditional way to go, and the one that currently has the most available accessories and options is the DSLR (and its non-digital partner, the film SLR) camera. Just holding one in your hands can seem intimidating, and using one without setting it to Automatic appears to be impossible. Who would dare use one on Manual mode?

If this describes you, then we've got your back. This here is the ultimate guide for all the stuff you need to know about your DSLR camera, listed conveniently by header and organized by importance. I'll break down everything you want to discover about your camera, and how you can best use it to take the best shots and videos of your life. Don't believe me? Fine, don't read it. But trust me, you're missing out.

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As you become more and more familiar with these definitions, we've created a small cheat card to carry around with you, as well as a printable version of the cheatsheet. Both downloads are available for free right here:

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A Quick Background

I fell into writing quite literally. Back in 1999, I had a custom car that was shot for a magazine, and through a series of weird circumstances, I wrote my own feature. Soon I was freelancing for that magazine, and then another, and the next thing I knew I was writing for 11 books.

But I soon learned that I was at the mercy of my editors. They had to send me the stories to write. But if I was a photographer, I could send them the work, and potentially make more money. Since my dad had an old film Nikon that I could work with, I did, and I got a little bit of work out of it. I bought a DSLR once they became affordable, and I've been working with a camera ever since.

However, there is a caveat: I work with cars and trucks, and my camera is almost always mounted on a tripod. I rarely do headshots or any work with external lighting, as I prefer natural light and long-exposure images. That's why whenever I'm in a position where I can hire a photographer to shoot something for me I do, because they're the talented ones. I'm just a monkey with a Canon.

DSLR or dSLR

Digital Standard Lens Reflex, which refers to the mirror that's placed between the image sensor and the lens. When you look through the viewfinder on your DSLR, you're not actually looking straight through the lens. There is a mirror at the end of the viewfinder that then reflects the image off another mirror so that you can look through the lens itself. That second mirror pivots, so whenever you click the shutter the sound you're hearing isn't just the lens, it's the mirror lifting up to allow the image sensor to receive the image (if it were an SLR camera, then instead of an image sensor, it would be film). Some DSLR cameras have Live View features that allow you to use the larger screen on the back of the camera to see shots as you compose them, and you can also use an HDMI or mini/micro-HDMI cable to connect them to a laptop for the same purposes. But ultimately, the reason a camera is called a DSLR is that pivoting mirror in the middle.

Image Sensor

With that out of the way, let's talk about the thing that's recording your image, the image sensor. There are a ton of different varieties out there depending on the make and model of camera, but they all replace the film in the photography process. It's that image sensor that records your image for you.

There are a few different types of sensors, but you'll primarily find Micro 4/3, APS-C, and Full Frame sensors in your DSLR, with the Micro 4/3 being the smallest, and Full Frame being the largest. There's a ton to unpack here, from dynamic range to bokeh and everything else, but one of the primary things to deal with is the cropping that occurs.

Before you put the camera to your eye to take your first shot, you've already chosen a lens to put onto your camera that works for the type of image you want to take. For example, you would use a wide-angle lens to shoot a landscape, or a telephoto lens for wildlife photography. If you're shooting with a camera that has a full frame sensor, everything is 1:1. Meaning, if you're shooting with an 18mm prime lens, then your focal length is 18mm (more on that later). But if you're using an APS-C or Micro 4/3 sensor-equipped camera, then you're cutting out the middle of that image and you won't get the full picture. It's essentially a narrower view.

Now this gets complicated, especially since it changes from manufacturer to manufacturer. But with APS-C sensors (the one you'll find commonly today), the crop factor is 1.6X on a Canon Eos DSLR, and 1.5X for Nikon, Pentax, and Sony. Long story short, if you wanted to shoot a wide-angle image with a Full Frame sensor camera, you could use a 28mm lens. If you wanted the same shot but had an APS-C sensor camera, 18mm (or thereabouts) would give you the equivalent.

If you don't want to deal with any of this math (and who does, really), consider a full frame camera when you make your purchase. They're more expensive, but it can make purchasing lenses easier.

Lenses

The DSLR camera is nothing without a lens, and many photographers make the argument that the camera body is nothing; all the good stuff is in the glass. Lenses aren't cheap. Well, you can get decent cheap lenses, but they're usually not too flexible.

A Prime lens is one that only has one focal length. I shoot with a 40mm prime lens on my camera, and I love it because it has a shallow depth of field (f/1.8 if I remember correctly), and it's short and squat, meaning I can use it anywhere without the lens protruding too far. Telephoto lenses are longer (sometimes quite long) and give you a big focal length with a narrow field of view. These are great for wildlife photography, or when you're far away from your subject, like if you're at a baseball game in the cheap seats, for example. Wide Angle lenses have a 35mm focal length and wider, to get a wide and big scene. Ultra-wide are 24mm and wider, and fisheye lenses are like what you used to see on skateboarding videos in the early '00s where the sides are cropped off and it looks like you're taking a shot through a fishbowl with heavy distortion around the edges. Macro lenses are designed for super-tiny subjects where you want to pull in tight. And those are just some of the basics.

There's a lot of variation to lenses, obviously, and a good photographer knows that it's a good idea to have a good variety in their arsenal. Since I do mostly outdoor photography, most of my lenses are under 75mm, and I rarely use them at that focal length. In fact, my camera uses an APS-C sensor, so my 18-55 is ideal for shooting vehicle interiors, while my 24-80 is great for exterior shots.

What you want to look for in a good lens is a few different things, and that depends on the manufacturer of both the lens and the camera you're using. Either way, you need to start with the type of mount that your DSLR camera has, which it will tell you in the manual. Then you need to know that all of your lenses will have this type of mount — meaning, if you switch from a Nikon to a Sony, you won't be able to use the same lenses without an adapter of some kind. Lenses with wider apertures typically sell for more than the smaller ones. For example an f/1.8 lens can be relatively affordable, while an f/1.2 lens is substantially more. If you want flexibility, go with a zoom lens, which will list the focal ranges in a XX-XX format, like my 18-55 lens. Image Stabilization is also offered in higher-end lenses, and that helps with both video and photos, although you'll probably want to turn it off for long exposure shots. And, of course, there are manual and automatic focus lenses, which will either adjust your focus based on where you determine it should be by lightly depressing the shutter, and manuals, which you have to adjust via the lens itself.

If your head is spinning at this point, just go to a camera shop with your new DSLR and talk to a sales rep about the kind of photos you want to capture. They can point you in the right direction.

Aperture

At the end of the day, any camera is just a light box. There's a sensor that records the light that comes in (whether it's on digital or film) and turns it into an image. On a DSLR, the light comes through your lens, and the amount of light that gets in is determined by the aperture. The aperture of your lens is measured in f-stops, such as f/2, f/11, etc. The lower the f-stop number, the more light that is able to come in through the lens and vice versa. So at f/1.2, you're getting a ton of light coming into your camera. At f/22, it's a fraction of the f/1.2's capabilities. Here's the confusing part, though: when talking about aperture, you often talk about having it wide open, but that's actually a smaller number. Lots of light = small f-stop; small light = large f-stop.

Now there's another aspect here that you should know as well. With each f-stop you move, you either double or halve the amount of light coming in. So if you go from f/11 to f/13, you've just decreased the amount of light coming into the camera by roughly half.

Oh, and one more thing: the aperture you set will change your depth of field, sometimes dramatically. But that deserves its own topic so ...

Depth of Field

Ever seen an image where the subject is in crisp focus and the background is all blurry? To take that shot, you needed a lens with a low aperture to create a shallow depth of field. Put simply, depth of field refers to how much of your image will be in focus. When I'm shooting a truck, I typically set the aperture at f/13 or f/15, because trucks can be long and I want the entire thing to be in focus. But if I want to get just the headlight in the shot and blur the rest of the truck (and background), I'll dump it down to f/2.8 or smaller.

When I was first learning photography, my mentor taught me that one rule of thumb he used was to use the number of the aperture value — the "11" in f/11, for example — as the amount of feet in which the subject will be in focus, on either end of the focusing point. For example, if I placed the focus on the center of the driver's door of a truck shot from a 3/4 angle, then set the aperture at f/11, 5.5 feet forward of that point and 5.5 feet back from that point would be in focus. This is not a completely accurate rule, but it's an easy way to think about things when you're out in the field, and that's helped me a bunch.

For you, know a few things. First, you'll want a large depth of field if you're shooting a landscape shot, so f/16 and up will most likely be your friend. However, if you're doing portraits or other close-up images, f/4 might be just fine. If you want to blur out the background heavily, then maybe f/1.8 works best. This all comes back to the cost of the lens and quality of the equipment.

ISO

Back when we all used film cameras, you have to buy film that was set at certain speeds, determined by their ISO. Basically, the lower the ISO number — 100, 200, 400, etc. — the clearer and sharper the image would be. If you went with a higher number — 1200, 3200, etc, — the image would be much more grainy. Today, all that still applies, but it's all about the sensitivity of the image sensor.

So how do you know when and where to use what? You use lower numbers in situations where you have a well-lit subject in a bright area, and a higher ISO in darker situations with lower light. There are lots of exceptions to this obviously, and ISO plays a big role in the Exposure Triangle. But most of the time just remember that the lower the ISO, the less grain will be in the image and vice versa.

Shutter Speed

When you click the button on the camera, it makes two distinct clicking sounds: the first when the shutter opens, the second when it shuts. The length of time between the two is known as your shutter speed. It's measured in seconds (or fractions of), and is sometimes represented in fractions, with the higher denominator indicating faster speeds.

Shutter speed, like the aperture, has speeds that roughly double with each step. For example, there's 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, etc. If you want to shoot a picture with the camera in your hand, you'll want a shutter speed at 1/60 or faster. Anything slower and you'll want a tripod and probably a remote shutter release. If you hold that shutter open for full seconds at a time, then you're dealing with long exposure stuff, like what I do with cars and trucks.

The big thing about shutter speed to think about is how you want to capture your image. With me and trucks, I can lay that shutter open as long as I want, because everything is still. But if I were at a Red Sox game, I'd want a faster shutter speed because I would want to freeze the ball and bat in the air, instead of showing a blur. The faster the shutter speed, the quicker the image is captured, and vice versa.

Now there are times when you want to capture motion in different ways. For example, if you wanted to get moving street lights on cars like you'd see in Tron, then you'd need a slower shutter speed. And those waterfall shots where the water looks like cotton candy? Those are slower shutter speeds, too. It's all down to personal preference.

The Exposure Triangle

Pulling everything we've learned so far together, let's talk about the Exposure Triangle. There are three components: ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. When all three of these parts are setup perfectly, you get a fantastic image. When one is off, the rest can fall like a deck of cards.

Let me borrow a metaphor here. Imagine the Exposure Triangle like a garden hose. The speed (or pressure) in which the water flows is the ISO. The shutter speed is the length of the hose, and the diameter of the hose is the aperture. Make sense?

Here's a personal example. I was shooting this black '67 Chevrolet Blazer out in the desert using my Canon 40D a few years back. I always shoot at ISO 100 because it's what the magazines require for covers, and I always aim for that just in case. My aperture is set in this case at f/11 to get the entire truck in focus, so my shutter speed becomes the big variable. As the sun dips and we get into the evening, my shutter speed goes from 1/30 to 3 seconds, then 5, then 10, then 15, then 30 and finally Bulb, which is when I hold the shutter open for minutes at a time (it's almost black outside at this point) until I get the right exposure.

Now there are lots of ways to figure out what you want your settings to be, and most of it comes with experience. Down the line you'll be shooting everything in Manual mode (more on that in a second), but for now, you could use Auto mode or move into Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority. In the latter two, you establish the Aperture or Shutter settings yourself, and the camera figures out the rest. You can set your ISO to auto too, and that lets the camera do a ton of math for you.

Fortunately with a DSLR camera it doesn't cost you anything to take more pictures, so experiment and see what you get. You might find a style that suits you.

Flash

Most DSLR cameras have a flash attached to the top of the body, which pops up either automatically or with a button. They're used to add extra light to a scene when necessary, but most professionals don't use them. The resulting light is often harsh and too focused to be usable.

However, you can also get on- and off-body flashes. My Canon has a flash that I'll shoot remotely to add some filler light where necessary, and that works great. And if you want to go big time, you'll look into lights and stands, but for now, keep it simple with on-body flashes.

Remotes

If you're shooting long exposure, you'll need a remote. This is the same thing as the shutter button on the top of your camera, but it has a longer cord so you can either be in the picture, or away from the camera itself. I use one all the time for night shoots, but I know pros that use them in the studio whenever they're working on a tripod. Sometimes just the act of clicking the shutter can cause enough vibration to shake the camera and pop the image out of focus, and a remote solves that problem.

Camera Modes

Every DSLR I've ever worked with have modes that you can work with, and they all do different things. Here's a rundown of the basics:

Manual

In this mode, you set everything; the shutter speed, aperture, ISO are all under your control, and the camera doesn't do any guesswork for you. The best it will do is show you where the settings you pick fall on its internal meter, but otherwise the ball's in your court.

Aperture Priority

Here you set the f-stop and the camera does the shutter speed. If your ISO is set to Auto, then it sets that as well.

Shutter Priority

This is the same as Aperture Priority, except with the shutter. Makes sense, right?

Automatic

This turns your DSLR into a point and shoot from the aperture and shutter speed perspective. Just aim, push the shutter button down halfway to set focus, and click to shoot.

Program

In this scenario, the camera picks the aperture and shutter speed for you based on the amount of light entering the camera. So what's the difference between this and Automatic? You can adjust the program line up or down to your own specifications, and the camera adjusts accordingly. So if you move it up, the aperture may drop and the shutter speed moves up, or whatever.

Video

This is for shooting videos, naturally. You can adjust the aperture and ISO to your tastes.

Filters

If you want to change the color or type of light that comes into your lens, you can use a filter. I use a circular polarizer when I'm shooting cars during the day because it can reduce the glare off of chrome and painted surfaces. UV/Haze filters are on all of my lenses because they provide at least some protection from a rock or dropping. Then there are colored lenses for different creative effects. You have lots of choices in filters, so feel free to play around.

Meters

Your DSLR has a meter built in, and visually it's the stepped bar that looks like a ruler that's on the bottom of your viewfinder or on your display. There's a mark that moves on the meter depending on the reflected light in the shot, but generally when the mark is centered on the meter's bars, the shot is exposed correctly.

There's a lot to get into with metering, but most of the time you can use the default settings to get the shot you need.

Bokeh

Ever seen a picture with a perfectly in-focus subject with the background blurred out? That's Bokeh, and it's specifically the parts where things are blurred out. It's such a cool look that Apple made a software version of it using Portrait Mode on the iPhone 7 Plus running iOS 10.1. You'll need a lens with a shallow depth of field to make it work, but the results can be quite stunning.

Tripods

Tripods are three-legged mounts that hold your camera steady. You can also get into Monopods, and there are some tripods that look like monopods but have three little legs at the bottom.

Rule of Thirds

This one is all about composition, and you may have heard of it before. Break the image you're composing into 9 separate squares, or draw two lines vertically and two lines horizontally. Where those vertical and horizontal lines intersect are considered to be more desirable areas to place your subject. It gives the image a different feeling than if it was dead center.

HDMI

You probably know HDMI as that cable that you use to get the signal from your cable box to your television, but it's also used on many DSLR cameras. Why? It can be used to send a live feed to your computer, for live capture both for photos and video. Some newer DSLRs use smaller versions of the plug, such as mini-HDMI (which is also known as HDMI Type C), and micro-HDMI (HDMI Type D).

That's it!

I know there's a lot to soak in there, but we wanted this to be pretty comprehensive. Did we miss anything? Let us know!


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Learn DSLR basics and improve your photos.

We get it. Sometimes technical terms can make DSLR cameras seem too complicated. Download this cheatsheet and card to start your journey to better photos.

5 Comments

  1. Excellent article. I'm a beginner photographer and experienced videographer, trying to make the switch over to DSLR. Right now I have a Canon T-5 (beginner cam I know). I would like a suggestion for a good wide angle lens and a good lens for plenty of bokeh when shooting video. And maybe another article on shooting video with DSLR and lens choices. Thank you.

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