Whether you've been wanting to get into photography for a long time or you've just invested in your first DSLR, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. And while there are extensive blogs and expert articles written on the subject, here are a few essential basics that can help get you started...
1. HOLD YOUR CAMERA CORRECTLY
One of my (secret) pet peeves is seeing people holding their big, beautiful (and expensive) DSLRs incorrectly. If you're going to invest that kind of money into your camera, you should at least know how to hold and care for it properly.
Why is this important? The answer is two-fold: 1.) because holding your camera properly will steady the frame, therefore making sure you pictures is as crisp, clear and focused as possible. 2.) if you are holding it correctly you are less likely to accidentally drop it while shooting. You may feel like you have a good grasp on it but you never know when another tourist may bump into your back while you're looking up to shoot the Eiffel Tower.
So what is the correct way to hold your camera??
If you're shooting in landscape orientation, your right hand should be on the camera grip with your pointer finger on the trigger button (this should feel pretty intuitive). Then place your left hand palm up under the lens and base of the camera body. Your thumb should be on the left side of the lens and your other four fingers of the right. In this position your elbow should tuck comfortably against your body, which gives you more stability and steadies the camera. This is where most people go wrong; the most common mistake people make is placing the palm of their left hand around the lens, with their fingers wrapped around the top of the lens and their thumb on the bottom. This provides no support to the camera base and leaves your elbow sticking out - which means people are more likely to knock into you and ruin your shot!
If you're shooting in portrait orientation, the same principles apply. Your right hand should again take its rightful place on the camera grip with your pointer finger on the trigger. The only difference here is that your right hand will be position above the camera body and rest against your forehead when you look through the viewfinder. This may feel awkward at first but when you place your left hand at its correct position, palm up underneath the lens and base of the camera, your left elbow will again rest against your body and provide the needed support to steady both you and the camera.
In addition to providing support to the camera, this position makes it easier for your left hand to zoom and focus because your fingers are perfectly placed around the lens.
BAM - now you (at the very minimum) look like a pro ;)
2. SHOOT IN RAW
There are two types of picture files that most DSLR cameras can generate: JPEG (.jpg or .jpeg) and RAW (.CR2). Without getting too technical.. here is why you should be shooting in RAW if you want to get the best out of your pictures:
If you've just taken your camera out of the box and played around with it, it's likely that you've been shooting in JPEG. JPEG is a type of picture file and is usually the default file setting for most cameras. When you tell your camera to shoot in JPEG, the camera processes in file and auto-controls variables such as contract, brightness and sharpness based on your camera settings and model. This means that if you are shooting in "Auto" mode and in JPEG, the camera has full control over what your picture will look like. In most cases, you may be fine with this. But the problem comes when you want to edit the picture further - say, for example, you want to make it brighter or increase the saturation (to bring out the colors more).
This is where shooting in RAW comes in. RAW files are unprocessed pictures that store all the details from your camera sensor (the thing that turns light into a digital description, and ultimately the picture). This means that unlike with JPEG, the camera does not process a RAW file. Nor does it auto-control or edit any of the editable variables like brightness, contrast or sharpness. Now when you transfer your RAW files from your SD or CF card onto your computer, you can use an editing software to complete transform your pictures to you exact liking.
You can see in the pictures below that shooting in RAW allowed the photographer to correct for color, sharpness and brightness; which he could not do in the JPEG file.
Now, there are some cases where you may prefer JPEG over RAW -- for example, when you don't have the time (or energy) to edit your photos. If that's the case, most cameras let you shoot in a combo setting, JPEG+RAW, which provides you both file types. This way you have both options (but be warned, this takes up more memory on your card and space on your hard drive). For a full rundown on JPEG vs. RAW, check out this great resource (RAW vs. JPEG - the ultimate viral guide) from SRL Lounge.
3. USE EDITING SOFTWARE
If and when you do switch to shooting in RAW, you will need an editing software to edit your photos and ultimately export them into the final, viewable JPEG format. The most popular and widely used softwares include Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom (my personal favorite), and Aperture.
If you find the idea of having to edit your photos a bit overwhelming, don't worry! It's no different than what you do to your Instagram photos every day. Just slightly more technical. And the technical stuff can be mastered in time and without any formal training... which leads us to our next point...
4. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE RESOURCES TO LEARN
There is no better time to teach yourself how to do anything, including everything from the basics of photography to how to edit your photos using Photoshop, thanks to the power of the Internet. I mean, hey, you're reading this post because you want to learn something, right? The World Wide Web is filled with information and knowledge that others have freely shared for you!
Major photography sites, like the SRL Lounge, offer tons of free tutorials. Plus, if you're looking for something specific, a quick Google or YouTube search will never let you down. If you want information specific to your camera, the major manufacturers like Canon and Nikon also have their own hubs of tutorials and forums with curated and user-generated content.
5. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
This may seem like an obvious one but, really, the best thing you can do to improve your skills is to use them. Once you understand the basics (which you've learned from hours of free YouTube tutorials), you'll learn so much more from trial and error.
Start by taking your camera everywhere you go. You'll start to notice things, like the best natural lighting, the best setting for shooting moving subjects, and the easiest way to scroll through the dozens of photos you've just taken. The most important first step is just becoming comfortable enough with your camera that you don't have to think about every step in the shooting process. Once you've gotten there, you'll be able to dedicate your full faculties to the more technical aspects of things -- like adjusting aperture, ISO, and using depth of field to create the perfect portrait.