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Monday, January 10, 2011

The First 15 Things You Need to Do with a New DSLR

After years with your trusty point-and-shoot camera, you've decided to move on. And good thing, too — there's really no better time to jump into DSLR photography. Cameras are the cheapest they've ever been, and have numerous functions and modes with first-time users in mind.

However, we're here to help you move past that. We're going to show you how to get the most out of your new DSLR this holiday season, and teach you to shoot better, shoot smarter, and shoot like a pro. Let's take a look.

1. Get the Right Type of Memory-- It Matters

Be it Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD), you probably have an old flash memory card from your previous camera. However, there's no guarantee that it's well suited for your new DSLR. Class ratings are especially important here, as they determine how fast data can be written to the card. Lower class numbers — 2 or 4 — might not be fast enough to handle high-definition video or burst-shooting modes, which require quick, continuous access. Instead, stick with a newer class 6 model where possible — or at the very least, test your current card to see how it performs before doing any serious shoots.

Try and keep the capacity of your card in mind too. DSLRs tend to produce images with much larger file-sizes than your typical point-and-shot — especially when shooting RAW. Things can get even worse when shooting HD-quality video, so go big, or have a secondary card ready just in case.

2. Keep Your Camera Safe
Once the new-gadget-glow has worn off, take a few pictures of your name, phone number and address. Or even better, store some of that information in a file on the card. In the event your DSLR ever does go missing, the finder might be nice enough to return it. Or, you might never see it again. Either way, remember to repeat the process if you happen to erase or format your card.

3. Get A Grip
DSLRs aren't particularly power-hungry devices, but there are a few things to keep in mind where batteries are concerned. Most models tend to use proprietary, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are expensive to replace. That's not usually a problem, but if you think you'll be doing some serious, extended shooting, take a look at battery grips available for your model. Not only can you use AA batteries in place of the traditional power pack, but the grip's size gives you the flexibility to shoot comfortably in both horizontal and vertical positions — something many professionals swear by.

4. Know Your Viewfinder Tricks
Not all of us are blessed with perfect vision, so most manufactures are kind enough to compensate. Your DSLR likely has a small dial that controls the viewfinder's focusing distance, or dioptric measurement. Those of you with glasses or imperfect vision might find it useful to adjust this knob until the focus points within the viewfinder appear sharp. It's better to do this now than later, and you can just claim all those old, blurry photos were simply for artistic effect.

5. RAW vs JPEG: Smackdown

Compared to your average point-and-shoot, DSLRs have on additional shooting mode — RAW. This isn't actually an image file, but an uncompressed container for raw sensor data that can be edited and processed later on. The advantage of shooting in RAW is that post-production edits aren't damaging to the final image, but instead stored in a separate file. This comes at a cost, however — RAW files are quite big, and a 12MP camera will produce a 12 MB RAW file.

Traditional JPEG images, meanwhile, are much smaller — around 5 or 6 MB on average — and suitable for most situations that don't require serious editing. Of course, you can always shoot in both formats simultaneously, but make sure you have the space to do it.

6. Practice Manual Settings
You bought a DSLR to shoot better photos, so it's time you turn off the automatic modes and get your hands dirty. Shooting with aperture priority, shutter priority or full manual modes is a great way to learn the finer points of photography, and over time, will make you a better shooter as well. We've even written some great articles on the subject this past year, which you should most definitely read right now.

7. Know Your Histogram
If you want to know what makes a good photo, turn on your histogram. This is a small graph visible when reviewing your photos, and indicates where the brightest and darkest points of your image are distributed via peaks and valleys. The leftmost side of the graph indicates very dark areas, while the right side handles the brightest spots. There are is even an RGB histogram mode, which display the distribution of red, blue and green colors throughout an image.

Of course, there's no such thing as a "right" histogram — sometimes, you might want a picture to be underexposed or over saturated on purpose — but learning to check the readout after each shot is a great way to help you shoot smarter, more balanced pictures, at least where lighting and color are concerned.

8. Get a Functional Flash
Unfortunately, the flash that comes built-in to your new DSLR isn't all that great. But that doesn't mean it's entirely useless. There will be situations when you have no choice but to use your internal flash, and there are right ways to do it. For example, white cardboard can be used to bounce a flash off the ceiling, instead of off the subject's face, or a small tupperware container placed in front can be used as a diffuser. But if you really have some money to burn, grab yourself an external flash; you'll be glad you did.

9. Manage Autofocus Points

Shooting manual is one way to produce some great photos, but automatic modes can be useful for one situation in particular -- focusing. On most modern DSLRs, there are 9 or more autofocus points arranged in your viewfinder; some cameras, like the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV support as many as 45 autofocus points. Each point allows you to select exactly what part of your image upon which you'd like to focus — all on the fly. For capturing moving, or off-center subjects, this can prove particularly invaluable, and should be one of the earliest skills you learn as a new DSLR user.

10. Try Burst Shooting
One of the hardest aspects of photography is timing. It's all too easy to shoot too soon, or too late, completely missing the intended moment in the process. However, you can mitigate problems like these by activating your camera's burst shooting mode. Pressing the shutter button will take not just one image, but as many as five or six per second, almost guaranteeing you'll get a piece of the action. Just remember, you'll want to set your shutterspeed as high as lighting conditions allow. If you shoot too slow, your image may still come out blurry, or you could miss the moment all together.

11. Pick the Right First Lens

The kit lens that comes with your DSLR performs well under most basic shooting conditions, but it's definitely not the greatest. Luckily, we've compiled some excellent tips on choosing a lens for your first DSLR — and you'll sure be glad you did. Alternate lenses come in all shapes and sizes, and can produce some unique visual effects that a kit lens simply can't.

12. Know Your Video Modes

These days, most DSLRs come with HD video recording capabilities, and chances are yours is one of them. Knowing your modes, however, is the key to making your videos look their best. 24 FPS — or cinema mode, as some cameras call it — captures videos at the same speed as theatrical films. 60FPS, meanwhile, records at almost twice the average frame rate, which allows for smoother movement, and the ability to create impressive slow-motion segments in post production.

Meanwhile, it's also important to take note of your camera's quality settings. Most cameras are capable of 720P video capture, but newer models can shoot in 1080P as well. The higher the resolution, the more free space your card will require however, so choose your shooting modes accordingly.

13. Consider a Tripod
Shooting freehand is great, but there are times when your steady hand just won't cut it. Group shots, landscape photography and long exposures especially are all situations when a steady mount might come in handy — and you don't have to pay much either. We even reviewed the tiny, heavy-duty Joby Gorillapod, which is great for the occasional shooter.

14. Go Wireless
Wireless memory cards are nothing new, but they're especially handy when used with a DSLR. Models like the Eye-Fi can transfer photos automatically to your Mac or PC — sometimes as soon as they're taken — and keep your card from filling up prematurely. Some cameras, like the Nikon D3100, even have Eye-Fi support built into the firmware, for on-screen integration and control.

It's not a necessity by any means, but if you feel like dropping a bit of money, you can't go wrong with much else.

15. Experiment with Third-Party Firmware
Your DSLR can do lots of neat things, but what if we told you it could do even more? Users of point-and-shoot Canon cameras should know all about CHDK, a community-developed firmware that adds all sorts of features to your standard, bland firmware. Canon DSLR users, meanwhile, have Magic Lantern. With support for the 5D, T2i and 60D, Magic Lantern adds all sorts of handy functions, including zebra stripes for filmmakers, and on-screen audio meters too. The best part is that the firmware is non-destructive — it runs alongside the stock firmware, and rebooting your camera puts things aback to normal. Sadly, you Nikon, Sony and Pentax users are out of luck.

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