When (to learn more about) dSLR (photography) [The entry kit dSLR Part 7]

(Article continued from part 6)

Recall the story of the enthusiast and the entry-level dSLR photographers trading cameras. While I admonished against the danger of buying too much of a dSLR, I glossed the obvious problem: the entry-level photographers had a problem shooting the professional dSLR. How do you get there from here?

The answer is simple: learning.

Inside every dSLR is a complex computer and that computer makes decisions for you. This is true in both the entry and pro dSLRs: the difference is the entry-level cameras are configured to make more decisions for you. The trick is to realize that the entry-level cameras give you access to the pro-level settings, but you have to be willing to leave the safety of automation in guides, scenes, and McDonald’s-style graphical menus.

I’m not a snob. There is nothing wrong with those features and the computer makes some pretty smart decisions. It’s just unless you are bumping your head against the decisions it makes, you’re limiting yourself in the sort of photography you can do.

Marie at The Corner

Marie at The Corner
The Corner, Mission, San Francisco, California

Nikon D3, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, SB-800
1/20sec @ f/3.5 iso3200, 50mm

This series had an inside joke. While it is a discussion of dSLR cameras, every photo was supposed to be taken with a non dSLR camera. Unfortunately, this photo is simply too difficult to be taken by anything other than a SLR.

In this case, you can’t take this photo with the scene modes in your dSLR. Yes, the “night portrait” mode might get you close, but you’d need to pump the ISO even further, drag the shutter even more, change the white balance to incandescent, and set the flash curtain to front.

If you mouseover the image, you’ll see the original. My camera broke and decided to only record in TIFF that day, so I couldn’t have even depended on the RAW mode safety net for dynamic range and white balance recovery.

Even if we restrict ourselves to discussion of the same composition in the same camera, we are still left with setting shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These three have a complementary relationship and are associated with different tradeoffs. Scene modes in your camera make the decision for you, but unless you know what that decision is and when it is wrong, you can’t really grow as a photographer.


A plethora of learning materials exist out there. Here are a few of the ones I’ll be mentioning in this article.

Books: Replacing the manual

“You can’t get there from here.”

Buried inside your camera is a professional camera: nearly every control is accessible through the menus, nearly everything that can be set is settable. Not only that, but often how you can set the setting is also settable!

That’s the problem with computers: they require you read the user manual, and user manuals are unreadable.

That’s not a fault exclusive to camera manufacturers—I don’t curl up in bed with my car manual either. Manuals by manufacturers focused on listing the features with a CYA mentality, but they’re not designed to teach you anything; they’re not designed to solve any problems but manufacturer defects; they’re designed to warn you that if you’re in the Antarctic, your camera battery might not work as advertised.

But you can’t get there from here if you don’t know what the controls of your camera and associated menus do.

So, unless you like curling up in bed with a good read of your car manual, you’ll actually want a user manual—that’s a user manual, not a manufacturer manual. There are many of these on the market. So which one do we read?

10 thoughts on “When (to learn more about) dSLR (photography) [The entry kit dSLR Part 7]

  1. Great article, Terry. I've been looking for a way to learn more about photography for a while now… I'll have to pick up some of the books you suggested.

  2. What an incredible article, Terry. I just started using the Nikon D200 last night though I wasn't ready to bring it out to Herbst Theater for The Magnetic Fields. I do need to purchase a Nikonian Mastering-type book for it so I can get the most out of the camera. I can already tell the difference between it and the D70.

    We should all do a tour of San Francisco's "secret stairwells" too! I'll find out where those are.
    My recent post Birthday TrEATs

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