Stop Using Your DSLR Wrong

You’re using it all wrong!

So you’ve decided to invest in a DSLR and you were wowed by the first picture you took of your kids with that beautifully blurred background and sharply focused subject.  Your snapping soccer games, birthday parties, that family outing at the park.  You’re thinking to yourself, “I should give Time magazine a call, I’m really good.” Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re NOT. Your expensive camera is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but you as the photographer are doing it all wrong. Let’s face it you’re basically driving a Ferrari like it’s a Toyota Corolla.  I’m going to give you some basic guidelines, take some of the mystery away from photography, and give you some basic tips to improve your photos.


Composition is a good place to start and will apply to any photo that you take.  Composition is basically how you set up your photo.  Keeping in mind these basic rules while setting up your shot will help you start to see more interesting pictures.

The Rule of Thirds

Nine Box GridThe rule of thirds is the compositional technique that states that the subject of the photo should be placed along the lines or one of the intersections of a nine box grid.



Ninve Box Grid






Leading Lines

image006This is a compositional technique with the intent to guide the viewer’s eye through the image.  More typically used in landscape photography, there are some beautiful examples of leading lines that can be composed with portrait shots






RepetitionThe use of repetition in a composition serves to enforce the strength of an image

By just thinking about your shot before pressing the shutter button and employing some basic compositional techniques, you will start seeing better quality pictures without


The Light and Exposure Triangle

And here is where things start to get tricky.  But stay with me, your future photos will thank you.

Your camera has a seemingly endless number of buttons and knobs.  Don’t let that intimidate you.  Photography comes down to only three settings:  Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO.  And knowing these settings and their effect on available light and unique impact to photos are crucial.


Aperture is how open or closed the lens is and controls the depth of field in photos. The typical aperture range is between F1.8 and F16.

  • Small aperture allows more light to enter the lens and provides a sharp focus on one subject while blurring objects at other distances. Small aperture should be used when you want the viewer to focus on an individual subject
  • Large aperture signifies a much smaller opening in the lens allowing less light to enter and provides sharp focus for all objects in the shot. Large aperture should be used for landscapes or when you are trying to capture all the details in a shot

Shutter Speed

  • Shutter speed is how fast the shutter closes to capture the picture. A faster shutter speed, denoted in fractions of a section, will capture motion while a slower speed will provide that blur of motion popular in night views of cities, the softening of a waterfall, or to evoke the sensation of speed in moving subjects.  A faster shutter speed lets in less light.


  • ISO basically signifies the sensitivity of the light sensor to the light that is available. Increasing the number on ISO will allow the sensor to be more sensitive to light, therefore able to better capture low-light shots, but will begin to introduce digital noise as the number increases.

Why Not Auto Mode?

So, why is this all important?  In auto mode, it isn’t.  Auto will choose the best of the three settings based upon available light.  It becomes important when your daughter is running down to score the winning soccer goal and the pictures you are taking in auto mode keep coming out blurry.  Or when you want that blurred background with that picture of your son to set him apart in the picture but auto keeps everything in focus.

It is called the exposure triangle because all three components have an impact on the overall look of your picture.  Put very simply, a “good” exposure requires a certain amount of light to enter the lens.  Auto mode typically chooses the three components on the triangle for you to make that exposure. But as discussed above, if you want to be more specific or creative, you will have to consider all three components to get that perfect shot.

image010Back to all of those buttons and knobs.  Now, ignore all of them except Auto, A (Av on Canon), S (Tv on Canon), and P.

So when should you use which mode?

Auto Mode

Any self-respecting amateur photographer will make fun of you for using auto mode. However,  I do feel there are two situations where it Auto Mode is warranted.

  • When you are struggling to find the correct balance of the exposure triangle, I will sometimes use auto to see what the camera recommends
  • When you hand your camera to someone else to take a group picture that you are a part of

Besides these two instances, Auto Mode should never be used.  : )

Aperture Priority Mode

A (Av on Canon):  Aperture Priority Mode – This mode should be used when you are trying to manage your depth of field.  I am most frequently in this mode.  You will want to dial the aperture down, say below F4 if you are looking to separate your subject from the background.  One example would be a picture I took of a heartfelt moment between my son and my dad in a toy aisle at a store.  The smaller aperture allowed the blurring of the toys in the background while retaining a sharp focus on my son and dad sharing a special moment with a selected toy.

Alternatively, at a recent open house for my daughter, I chose a higher aperture to keep all of her classmates around her in sharp focus so that all of her friends would be clear in the shot.  A good practice for this mode is to place items of various distances from you on a table.  Take the shot at both low and high modes to see the outcomes.  While in aperture priority mode, the camera will automatically set the shutter speed and ISO to compensate for the aperture setting for best exposure.

Shutter Priority Mode

image012S (Tv on Canon):  Shutter Priority Mode – This mode should be used when you are looking to freeze or blur the action in a shot by increasing or decreasing shutter speed respectively.

A long shutter speed allows the action to move in the picture while the shutter is being pressed.  This gives the illusion of movement as the object moves through the composition.  It is also what makes the water in waterfalls have that almost satin texture.  The only thing to consider with a long shutter speed is that the picture will be extremely sensitive to camera shake.  Make sure your camera is on a tripod when using a long shutter speed.

More useful for day to day photography is a fast shutter speed.  I switch to shutter priority mode when I am filming my kids playing or am trying to capture any moving object.  Do you know that person that leaves their camera in auto mode and always seems to have blurry pictures?  This is most likely because their camera has chosen a shutter speed that is slower than either the action or handshake of the camera and could be resolved by setting a slightly faster shutter speed in shutter priority mode. While in shutter priority mode, the camera will automatically set the aperture and ISO to compensate for the aperture setting for best exposure.  For both slow and fast shutter speed, a good practice is using water dripping slowly out of a kitchen sink.

Program Mode

P (Program) mode – This mode is for those slightly more advanced and it is one that I rarely use.  As you get better at recognizing light conditions and which exposure triangle settings work for you, you might find that the camera selected options in the above modes are not giving you the exposure you desire.  The P mode is one step under the full manual mode and will allow you to individually set shutter and aperture while the camera takes care of the ISO.

The one thing I did not touch much upon with all of these modes is the very real instance that setting your aperture or shutter speed to your desired level will result in an exposure either too light or too dark.  Or possibly the settings will be correct, but the camera has chosen an ISO with too much noise to compensate.  Some fixes for this is to use what is called exposure compensation, often show as a + and -.  Other times you, as a photographer, will have to decide what is most important to you in the shot.

I hope some of the things I discussed here will help you on your way to becoming a better photographer.  From a personal standpoint, I noticed a lot more compliments on my family photos once I started experimenting with the fewer auto modes.  My wife even made a comment at one point that we would not need to schedule a photographer for our Christmas photos this year as I had one or two that she felt were worthy of such a distinction.

I found the following book by Henry Carroll to be very helpful as I have learned more and more about photography. If you want to learn more, I suggest checking it out. Or if you have any questions, please leave a comment below and happy shooting!

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Last updated on December 22, 2020 9:09 pm
Nelson Santiago
I’m a professional developer by day, working with everything from C# to Java. Primarily I do C# work, but in my free time I like dabbling in Python and Bash scripting. I also love tech gadgets, photography, and gaming. I enjoy writing about my latest toy and sharing my findings.
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