Mistakes of a first time DSLR buyer

CLUELESS RESEARCH

Like I said in my previous post, I did not have anyone to guide me. Not many people I personally know are serious photographers. Neither am I, but I guess that’s how it has crossed the line of hobby and turned into a passion for me. So I had to research everything on my own.

I just remember a friend of mine telling me that a telephoto zoom lens is good for getting a nice DOF while doing portraits with a good zoom capability. So when I budgeted for my purchase, I had planned for a camera plus the telephoto lens. Thus I ended up purchasing a Nikon D3300, the 18-55mm lens which came with the camera kit and a 55-200mm telephoto lens. As soon as my purchases arrived, I started experimenting with it.

Shooting landscapes with the 18-55 was a delight. Period.

The telephoto gave me the ability to zoom to far distances. I could zoom in and shoot candid portraits too. I got the bokeh which I was told about earlier. But then I felt, I have seen better.

To be honest, I could do this even on my old Nikon L120. It was capable of zooming to far distances, take candid portraits with a nice bokeh, and perform fairly in landscapes too. Apart from a deeper DOF, crisper images and the raw editing ability, I did not find a major change over happening from L120 to a D3300. But little did I realize that this is going to turn from bad to worse.

LOW LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

I was looking forward to do some low light photography. When I was purchasing my Nikon D3300, I thought “Gone are those days where I would stow away my camera in night and other low light situations” I was eagerly waiting for it to go dark the day I got my Nikon. When I went back home and tried out the camera, I felt a thousand needles crushing my heart all at once. I was not able to get good low light shots.

The first shot was just a colour of black. I thought I got a defective camera. I checked the settings, they read 1/200, f/4, and 200 which are shutter speed, aperture and ISO respectively and the exposure level was pointing to -2ev. I started mix-matching the three settings to get the exposure to a balanced zero. I had to change the settings to 1/10, f/4 and 800. I could see a picture but it was not good enough. It had shake, grains and everything else that made it look like it was shot by a 6 year old on a toy lomo camera. I tried to balance once again by decreasing the shutter speed and further more increasing the ISO. It was still not good enough. Then I reaslised that decreasing the f stops was increasing the exposure compensation, so I set the shutter speed to 1/100 and tried to reduce the f stops further but I could not go beyond f/4 on my 55-200mm lens.

I felt like a jack ass. I felt like all the things I knew about a DSLR image quality was all a illusion set around me. I felt as if I was being conspired. I felt like chucking the camera out of my bedroom window.

I calmed myself down and did more research.

UNDERSTANDING HOW A DSLR WORKS

I learnt a lot more at this point of time in my research. I also felt like crying as to why didn’t I know this earlier. But anyway, it’s all for some good.

Shutter speed and aperture are the major components of a camera. These two work hand in hand to enhance the exposure level of you image. How you strike a balance between the two while keeping the ISO to the minimum possible is the key to image quality. Having said that I also learnt that when you take a picture, work done in capturing a image is done 30% by the camera and 70% by the lens. Are you asking your self “how?” Just read on.

This part is important, because everything that you learn from here on depends on how well you get this concept right. Understanding DSLR operation is an integral part of learning photography.

The functioning of a DSLR can be broken down to 3 major components.

  • Aperture
  • Shutter
  • Digital film

There is also one other thing called ISO, but I will explain that to you a bit later because it’s just this nifty little thing which is supposed to come into picture only when you really need it. Just know for now that the lower you keep it, the better your image quality will be.

Basic structure of DSLR’s core functions

So you have the Digital film, in front of which you have the shutter, and in front of the shutter you have the aperture which resides in the lens tube. When you hold the camera up, you have the light passing through the aperture, but the shutter is blocking it at the moment from reaching the digital film. At this point you press the shutter button to take the picture. When this happens, the camera shutter opens up allowing light to pass through it for the time which you have set the shutter speed to be (just stay with me). This light falls on the digital film and burns the image on it.

1) APERTURE

Aperture is the window that allows the light to fall from the lens, to the camera shutter. It’s measured in f stops, as in f/4, f/1.4, f/1.8 etc. The aperture widens more at the lower stops(f/1.4 and 1.8) and allows the maximum amount of light to reach the shutter. Another function of the aperture is to set the focus in such a way that the background of the subject goes blur (called as bokeh), giving a more intense depth of field (DOF) experience and thus giving a professional look to your images.

Pay attention to the f number while buying a lens for your DSLR. The lower the f numbers the more light and bokeh that you will be able to get and more easier it will be when you try to do low light photography.

The only reason I can think of choosing higher f stops is when I want to keep the background and the subject in focus but this is next to impossible in low light situations.

2) SHUTTER

After the light passes though the aperture, it has to encounter the shutter. The shutter awaits your command to open and let the light in to fall on the digital film. That’s what you do when you click the shutter release button, give the command for it to open and close. The speed at which the shutter is opened and closed is measured in seconds, faster shutter speeds are measured in fraction of seconds.

For crisp hand-held, low-light shots use the lowest fraction of a second. The images you shoot at 1/1000th of a second are crisper, naturally sharper and thus even more clearer than the shots you take at 1/100th of a second. Though 1/100th of a second seems to be quick enough, it’s nothing compared to an incredible speed of 1/1000th of a second or even faster like 1/2000th or 1/4000th of a second.

The more light you have, the faster you will be able to set your shutter speed. In low light situations you might want to decrease the shutter speed. You will also have to go to speeds lower than 1/30th of a second but note that shaky images will be almost inevitable. However, this drawback can be compensated if you use a tripod and a remote. But using a tripod and a remote is kinda complacent and you might not be able to use it in all situations.

The best use of a tripod and a remote is when you do slow shutter speed photography is low light situations. Kinda like those night shots where you can see a light trail on the roads. You will be using shutter speed close to 30 seconds or even more. But more about that later. Not now.

Therefore, a shutter’s function can be even more precisely defined as the tool which slices the stream of light coming in through the aperture, thus regulating the intensity with which the light burns the digital film to produce the image.

3) DIGITAL FILM

So, when the stream of light passes through the aperture, the shutter slices this stream of light by opening and closing itself, and the sliced light falls on the digital film. When this happens the light starts burning the image on the film, thus producing the image that you see on the LCD screen at the back off the camera below the view finder (that’s the thingy that you use to look through a camera while shooting.)

WHAT IS ISO?

I have not discussed ISO so far because this is not exactly a part of DSLR’s core operation. It’s kind of an electronic correction that you force in low light situations.

Every camera has a light sensor. It senses the amount of light falling on it and is responsible for the “graph” part in “photography”. ISO is measured as 100, 200, 400, 800 and so on. Doubling at every level. In some cameras ISO also starts from 50.

The lower your ISO, the clear your image. I always try to shoot between ISO 100 to 400. When there is lesser light, I switch to 800. I would say bumping ISO till 800 is ok. More than that is bad. Why? Because the more the ISO, the more noise you see in your image. Because, like I said, it’s just electronic intrusion. You force the light sensor of your camera to read more light than it normally can.

You know how when it goes dark, your eyes adjust themselves gradually to see better? Basically the retina in you eye is the light sensor. When it goes dark, your retina further opens up to let in more light. But you will also notice that what you see is kinda grainy.

Cats retinas can expand to such an extent that it’s like they are naturally equipped with night vision goggles. 

This is how a DSLR works, in laymen terms. If you need a more detailed technical description of DSLR functionality then I would suggest you look up wikipedia.

WHY WAS THIS LEARNING NECESSARY

You see, unless a soldier is completely familiar with how his rifle works, he is probably gonna shoot himself in the eye or injure his own comrades. Thus, it’s very important to understand what it is that you are dealing with.

REALIZATION AND ACCEPTANCE

I had not acquired this knowledge when I first set out to buy the DSLR. Based on the reviews from other users on online stores, spending quite an arduous amount of time on dpreview.com and reviewing my financial strength, I bought the Nikon d3300, with a 18-55mm lens and also invested in a 55-200mm telephoto zoom lens. I though I was all set, but I did not know that this gear is next to useless when it comes to low light handheld portrait photography.

You might say “use the flash,” but that’s what I used to do with a pocket sized point and shoot digi-cams. I want my techniques to evolve with the investment I’ve made in my photography equipment. I wanted my low light shots to look natural. That’s when I researched further, learnt all those things that I have said above and came to this understanding.

  • A camera is just a tool to capture the images. The quality, sharpness, light, DOF is all done by the lens. When you are short or long sighted, what do you do? You buy specs or you get contact lenses. It’s the same with cameras. Not that my camera is bad, it’s just that DSLR’s are that much dependent on the lens performance.
  • The shutter speed and ISO sensitivity is already taken care of by your camera. This you can look up in the camera specs section before your purchase.
  • When buying lenses, look at the f numbers. The f stops. The lower the f number, the better. A 50mm lens with f/1.8 is way better than 55-200mm lens with f/4-5.6. Lower the f number, bigger the aperture, more the incoming light, faster you can set your shutter speed, lesser the camera shake and thus, better your image quality. Bonus feature of a lower f stop lens, is the phenomenal DOF effect which will give a professional touch to your camera.

Biggest learning was, that the function of the lens, it’s aperture size and the focal length is what plays a major role in determining the quality of the images that you take. This is what lets you go for shorter shutter speeds, lower ISO settings and get a deeper DOF effect. And so, I did feel a pinch on my wallet, but I did end up ordering a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8g prime lens. 50mm is the focal length and f/1.8 is the max aperture size.

HOPE YOU FOUND THIS INFO USEFUL

I know how stupid I felt over the mistakes I made. The 55-200mm and the 50mm prime both fall in the same price range. Since my focus was more on low light portraits, I was thinking that I would have bought the 50mm prime lens and bought the 55-200 mm telephoto a bit later. But I would like to believe what ever happens is for some good.

  • The 18-55 mm takes care of my wide angled land-scape photography needs
  • The 55-200 mm telephoto will come in handy with candids and probably, wild life photography, but I haven’t tried out this vertical of photography yet.
  • The 50mm prime will most probably be a multi purpose one. I am yet to try this out. But I am sure, I will not be disappointed.

Either way, if it’s the first time you are buying a DSLR, I would suggest you also invest in a prime lens so that you can actually notice the huge difference when you are migrating from digicam photography to DSLR photography.

This post is already getting too long. Stick around, I will soon post shots from my new lens and also probably write about how to make the most of your DSLR.

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