DIY DSLR Photography: Part I

Craig Wood

January 2009

With our nation’s economy in a slump, companies across the United States have begun trimming the financial fat to stay afloat. Contractors who at one time hired professional photographers to document their jobs no longer have the $5,000 in their budget needed to accommodate this "expendable” service.

Thanks to modern technology, any consumer can purchase a high quality digital camera and achieve results similar (if not better than) the pros. Like any tool, however, it’s important to know which one to buy and perhaps more importantly, how to use it properly.

DSLR … Huh?
Nowadays, there are two types of cameras available for consumer purchase. There are the typical point-and-shoot cameras that, as their clever moniker indicates, serve to point and shoot at images on the fly. The biggest problem with point-and-shoot cameras is that they do most of the "thinking” for the user in terms of determining how the image will be processed once you snap your shot. In other words, taking a shot indoors of some decorative drywall will be processed to the best of the camera’s ability—often leading to a distorted image with little or no detail.

In bright outdoor conditions, point-and-shoot cameras can take decent pictures. However, taking shots under difficult light conditions or inside of buildings absent of a heavy natural light source produce harsh grains and noise that result in a very poor looking picture. Materials such as steel and metal often cause unwanted results with simple point-and-shoot cameras.

The other type of camera (and what we’ll discuss within this article) is what’s known as a Digital Single Lens Reflex, or DSLR. DSLR cameras are more expensive (starting retail: $350) and tend to have a slightly larger learning curve. However, the advanced user settings/options, ability to swap lenses, and technologically advanced image sensor mean that your pictures will come out how you want them, with a very professionally polished appearance.

Real World Application
For those unfamiliar with DSLR cameras, pay attention next time you’re watching any investigative documentary on television. You’ll notice that at least one investigator on the scene is in possession of a DSLR camera to document evidence because of its ability to capture the accurate details needed to build their case and help them document evidence.

Check out the sidelines at your next sporting event: every photographer on the sideline is using a DSLR camera to capture those must have action shots. They need the ability to take pictures fast and sometimes multiple pictures per second—these are actions only DSLR cameras are capable of; a puny point-and-shoot camera will not suffice.

Contractor World Application
As designer for this magazine over the past 4 years, believe me when I say that I’ve seen my fair share of images—interior, exterior, finished, unfinished. You name it, and I’ve seen it—probably twice! Within seconds of viewing an image I can tell the type of camera that was used based on the quality of the image.

The hardest part is when I receive pictures that are of a job that can only be described as breathtaking, yet the poor camera choice caused the picture to be affected to the point where it was making the job look unprofessional.

Contractors, a DSLR is essential. When you want pictures of the highest caliber whether it be for a Web site, portfolio, catalog or personal documentation, a DSLR will deliver the dynamic visual results you’re looking for. A DSLR camera will capture the finest details of your finishes and textures, accurately reproduce your colors, and most of all, present a professional appearance of your work—they way it’s meant to be captured for a potential client.

DSLR Buyer’s Guide
When shopping around, keep in mind that you’re looking for a great entry-level DSLR camera. Don’t let the "entry-level” title fool you: These cameras pack a serious punch. There are certain guidelines and tips to keep in mind while shopping around.

Purchase from a reputable store. Rather than spending your time (and money) at a typical consumer electronic store such as Circuit City or Best Buy, purchase your camera from a camera-only retailer such as Ritz Camera or Penn Camera. Retailers that specialize in only DSLR cameras will provide the accurate answers to the questions you have. Furthermore, their knowledge far surpasses that of the part-time employed teenager working at your neighborhood Best Buy. Retailers such as Ritz Camera will offer better warranty coverage and provide you with many extra bonuses with your purchase such as free photography classes, free peripherals (such as printers) and free picture developing.

Purchase in person. Since this camera will be an investment, you must approach it as such. Chances are you wouldn’t buy a new set of golf clubs online without feeling them out first. Cameras are no different. Be sure to spend some time holding the camera and snapping a couple shots to determine if you’re comfortable with the weight, aesthetics, etc.

Purchase last year’s model. This is one of the most overlooked secrets of camera buying. Like any consumer product, last year’s model is always cheaper than the new version—even though they contain the same key features. Retailers like Ritz Camera keep the previous models stocked and will be happy to offer them to you if you ask. In fact, one of my associates took me up on this advice and managed to purchase last year’s model for about half the price of the new model, with very little difference between the two models.

Don’t buy used. DSLR cameras are very reliable, but also very easy to covet any problems that may exist internally. Purchasing a used camera is a risk that is simply not worth taking; no one wants to be stuck with a $500 paperweight.

Do the research. Purchasing a DSLR is similar to buying a car—they all serve the same purpose but are equipped with slightly different features that the buyer may or may not like. Pentax cameras, for example, are heavily favored by photographers because of their large array of available lenses. Furthermore, Pentax cameras can work with other brands of camera lenses—a feature highly praised within the DSLR community.
Using Your DSLR
Although every DSLR camera is different, they share many similar features and button/dial layout specs. You’ll notice the presence of a rotating dial with symbols and letters on your camera. Known as the mode dial, rotating it will change the active shooting mode of your camera, which is necessary depending on the situation (see table 1).

If you’ve ever used a point-and-shoot camera, then you are probably familiar with the icons on the dial. What you may not be familiar with are what those letters mean.

P-Program Mode. Selecting "P” on the dial means that your camera will select the best aperture (how wide or narrow the lens will open to allow in light) and shutter speed (how fast or slow the lens will open) for the lighting conditions present. This is a great mode to use for those who wish to start shooting pictures right away. Basically, the camera does all the work.

Tv-Shutter Priority. In this mode, the camera will choose the best aperture setting, and the user sets the desired shutter speed.

Av-Aperture Priority. This mode allows the user to select the aperture value and the camera decides the shutter speed.

M-Manual. Both aperture value and shutter speed are selected by the user. Consider this the "advanced shooting” mode because shooting option is left solely to the user. You do it all, the camera does nothing.

B-Tungsten. This mode is typically for indoor lighting conditions. Personally, I never use this function as I find the Program Mode "P” to be just as effective.

Aside from the Mode Dial, your DSLR is equipped with a Shake Reduction function that is often a switch on the body of the camera. If you’re shooting without the aid of a tripod and have "shaky hands,” than you’ll want to turn on the shake reduction to prevent any unwanted blur from occurring within your image.

Accessories and Tips for Beginners
Now that you’re equipped with a camera, spend a little extra for some must-have accessories that will aid you in getting the most out of your purchase.

Microfiber cloths. This is perhaps the most important accessory for your DSLR camera as it allows the user to clean their lens without causing scratches. Never use a shirt or any other type of material besides microfiber to clean the lens. Doing so will result in a scratched lens rendering it virtually useless.

Tripod. Since not all of us amateur photographers are equipped with steady hands, you can buy an inexpensive tripod from an office supply store for less than $25. Tripods will ensure your pictures come out crisp—just make sure to turn off your shake reduction function so you can make the most of your tripod and get the most of the pictures you take using it.

Camera bag. Protect your investment by purchasing a camera bag. Small bags are inexpensive (typically under $20) and are heavily padded to prevent any damage that may occur from accidents and weather.

Camera strap. Every DSLR camera comes equipped with a locking safety strap to attach to the camera body. Once properly attached, always wear the strap when the camera is in use. There is nothing worse than seeing what happens when a photographer neglects to where the strap and watches his investment shatter into hundreds of pieces on impact.
Now What?
Now that you have your camera, the best thing to do is to take it for a test run. Begin experimenting with the different settings and investigating the different options presented to you within the camera’s interface.

As previously mentioned, mastering DSLR photography is slightly more difficult than a typical point-and-shoot camera. But if you want professional results, then it’s necessary to learn how to use a professional camera.

In the next installment of this article will dive deeper into the effects different shooting modes have on images, and how to achieve great detail when taking pictures indoors and outdoors. In the meantime, buy yourself a cheap tripod and start shooting anything and everything around you multiple times with different settings. Remember: The camera is only as effective as the person behind the lens.

Craig Wood is this magazine’s designer, graphics and art.