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Please get that DSLR out of the closet!

“Whosoever possesses a camera should never know boredom.” ― Wayne Gerard Trotman

A lot of us have a digital SLR camera somewhere in a closet in our home. And a lot of us think "I should get that camera out and try taking pics with it". Well, I'm going to encourage you to do just that! This time of year is AWESOME for taking pictures. The weather is starting to get more comfortable. There are still pretty flowers and the trees are still covered in leaves. Bees are out, but fly a little slower. Butterflies are still flitting about. And we'll soon see the beautiful colors of fall. There are after-school and sport activities to photograph. The opportunities are endless.

But that camera can be daunting with all its settings. There are a lot of resources to help you once you get started (I'll give you a link to some of my favorites in a bit). But my purpose in this post is to give you enough info to get started when the camera intimidates you a little, or more than a little. Get started, get intrigued and then start learning even more. And if you have a child who might be interested in photography using your old camera, this is a good starting point. (I think looking at the camera screen is GREAT screen time!). This is the same info I give my friends.

Here's what you will need to get started - camera, batteries, charger, memory card/stick. Optionally, you will need a computer with card reader (or add on card reader if your computer doesn't have one). Another option is an editing program like Adobe Photoshop Elements (but you can do a decent job with the programs on your computer already if you don't want to buy something else yet). There is currently a free trial for Photoshop Elements if you are interested.

I will make the assumption here that you've not changed a bunch of the settings deep in the camera menu. You're shooting in jpeg. You're not using a camera with WiFi capability (that will make everything easier later - but the instructions are very camera specific). And I'll give general instructions, in layperson terms. If you're struggling with changing a specific setting on your camera, I would suggest looking it up. But this post will give you the language and words to make your search easy and effective. If you have a guide for your camera, get it out or access it online. That's one product manual that I find very useful.

Get the camera out and charge the batteries. Make sure you have a memory card with space. Your camera probably came with a kit lens - use that. There's a reason camera manufacturers include that - t's a good general lens and will give you lots of options for starting out. You likely won't be taking super closeup pictures, or zooming in on a hawk flying in the distance. But you can get gorgeous garden and flower shots, pretty landscapes and really nice pics of your family.

Put everything together (battery in, memory card in, lens on) and let's work on some settings. You can absolutely use the automatic or program modes on your camera and you will take fine pictures. But I'm going to recommend that you step outside that ease. I find that taking a little control makes photography a lot more fun - and very different from using a cell phone.

First, set your camera to Aperture mode (A on Nikon, Av on Canon). In my opinion, aperture is simultaneously one of the simplest and most complicated concepts in photography. If I were designing an entry level camera, I'd shake up the labeling and make it much simpler. But I'll try to explain how it works in everyday terms.

Aperture is the size of the opening of the lens when you shoot. Imagine focusing on a subject in the center of your viewfinder or screen, perhaps a person standing with trees about 20 feet behind them. A small opening means that the person will be in great focus and the trees will be pretty good - you'll still be able to make out the leaves. A large opening means that anything not the same distance away from the camera as your subject will have some level of blur. The person will be in focus and the trees will just be a pretty blur. So far, so good - that's the simple part of the concept. Here's where it gets complicated. Aperture terms seem BACKWARDS to non-photographers. You have probably seen references to f-stop - f/4.5, f/18, etc. That's the aperture value. And in camera-speak, a small value is a large aperture (i.e. f/1.8 = "wide open") and a large value is a small aperture (f/18 = "stepped down"). Insert face palm emoji here! I know the technical reason this is done, but I also know it's confusing to the beginner. It sure was confusing to me when I started out. But it's become natural over the years. A good place to start with most lenses is on f/8 or f/11. Get comfortable with the camera and take some pics you love (get hooked!) before you start playing outside that zone.

When you're in Aperture mode on your camera, there are a few other settings you can control that are not available on a lot of the automatic settings. Here's what I recommend as a starting point...

White Balance: Set it to automatic. The camera does a pretty darn good job of calibrating. (Honestly, I almost always shoot on this mode. Shhhh - don't tell anyone.)

ISO: This is the camera's sensitivity to light, If you want, set to automatic. But I play with this one. Here are my getting started guidelines.

  • Outside on a bright sunny day - 100-200

  • In the shade - 400-800

  • Inside - 1200+ (depending on your camera)

Focus: Definitely go with autofocus. I like using the point autofocus vs a range. Range is easier, but sometimes the camera will pick something to focus on other than what you want. If you're not sure how to do this, google "setting a focus point on my ..." and insert your camera name.

Flash or no-flash: I don't use flash that often. The exceptions are when it's really dark (gee, that's brilliant, huh?) or when I'm photographing people outdoors, especially in the middle of the day, and it's bright out. Now, that seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? But flash in that case acts as a fill light and can minimize the shadows that occur from the sun shining down on your subject. Otherwise, you're likely to see shadows under their nose and eyes - and that's flattering on no one! I do stay away from the auto-flash setting. Attempting to take a pic and having to wait for the flash to pop-up means that you are likely to miss shots.

Choose whether you want to use the camera view-finder (assuming your camera has one) or the live view screen. Personally, I usually use the view finder. But if you are more comfortable with the screen, go with that. It's definitely more similar to the experience you have on your phone. Check your camera guide for how to turn it on. Just a heads up though - it will use more battery power and you'll have to charge frequently.

There are about a billion other settings on your camera (slight exaggeration), but these will get you started having fun. You can always explore later.

I'd recommend starting with some outdoor shots that don't really matter. Don't pick your kid's first time as starting pitcher to start shooting with your DSLR! Get some practice in first. Go out to your backyard or to a park. Find a subject (or drag a cooperative family member along), aim, press your shutter button halfway down to focus. All good? Press that button the rest of the way down. Take a look at your screen to see what you captured. The beauty of the digital cameras is that we simply delete what we don't like - no film wasted, no developing expense.

Check the pic on your screen. Is it too bright? Lower your ISO setting or raise your aperture number (a higher number is a smaller opening, and less light getting in). I wouldn't go beyond about f/18 though. Is it too dark? Raise your ISO (but don't go too high - you will lose picture quality) or lower your aperture number. Try again.

Want to blur out the background behind your subject? Drop the Aperture number to f/4.0 or f4.5 (or however low your camera goes). You should be fine leaving your other settings alone. But you may try adjusting your ISO downwards to get an even better quality picture.

I will give one heads up... watch your shutter speed. You'll see that on at least one of the screens. In this pic it's the 100. That means the shutter will be open for one one hundredth of a second. That sounds really fast, but in camera terms it's not. the longer your shutter is open, the more likely you are to have camera shake affect your picture, resulting in a blur. The generally accepted ratio is that you want your shutter speed to match your lens focal length - or be faster. What does that mean? Let's assume you have an 18-135mm lens. If you are zoomed in, you want your shutter speed to be at least 135. You won't find this on the camera, so aim for at least 150. Again, play with your aperture to get there. Important note - if you see the quote marks next to the number, lower your aperture number or raise your ISO. Those quotes mean seconds. so if you see 5", that means you're leaving your shutter open for 5 seconds. 0"5 means it's open for half a second. And all that means you'd better be shooting something motionless and using a tripod. You can always expand to that type of photography in the future, assuming it interests you.

Now you have a few pics taken. So many of us leave them on the camera cards and never export them. I used to be guilty of that - and it's such a shame. Get them on your computer and get the ones you like printed! If you feel like doing a little editing, use a card slot or card reader to import them to your computer. On a mac or PC, use the included photos program and choose import. I'm not going to give detailed instructions here since that's definitely not my area of expertise. Follow the on-screen guides or look it up. And if you choose something like Photoshop Elements, it will walk you through the process. The upside of this is that the pics are then ready to share on social media.

You can even take your memory card to a photo printer (Walgreens, Costco, Target, Procam, etc) and print the ones you like right from the card. That's easy-peasy, no add on software or hardware required.

If you find yourself enjoying photography, there are so many free resources available to help you improve your skills. They range from being useful to beginners, on up. I've put together a list of my absolute favorite sites for you to download. I still use all of these to continue to hone my own skills. They'll help you get more comfortable adjusting even more settings and taking different styles of pictures.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask them here or on my Facebook page And if you do get shots you love, please share them there. I'd love to see them!

Have a wonderful day and take pictures!!!


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