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DSLR, new parents, learning curve

by twofatfeet / May 6, 2010 6:27 AM PDT

My wife and I are expecting a baby in August, and my parents have offered to buy us a new camera as a gift. I currently have a Canon P&S digital, but it's getting old and we're ready for a jump into higher-quality photos.

My question is about the learning curve DSLRs. How steep is it for someone who has never used SLR cameras before? I'm certainly willing to learn, but I don't want to get in over my head.

Sorry if this is a dumb question. Thanks!

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It's not rocket science

but it's not something you'll grasp completely without with a lot of practice and learning the concepts. It's also a very expensive hobby. Let's say you want to take photos of your baby without the flash. Well, after studying photography you realize that you need a large aperture lens(probably a zoom because most people don't like a lens that doesn't zoom in and out) and you then realize that the cheapest option, with image stabilization, is over $600 and the very good lens for this runs almost $1000. You'll realize very quick that the kit lens is good for scenes with good lighting but indoor shots, without the point and shoot type of harsh flash, struggle quite a bit.

If you're unsure, then go to the library or buy the book "Understanding Exposure in the digital age" by Bryan Peterson. That book will give you a solid footing to start practicing and understand the concepts that you can practice on and make purchasing decisions with.

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Learning to use a D-SLR
by hjfok / May 6, 2010 9:09 AM PDT

Congratulation! It takes time to learn how to manually adjust the D-SLR to optimize your photo, but it is really not difficult to use at all.

For a beginner, you should buy an entry level D-SLR. What kind of zoom lens you want is up to your budget. The kit lens is cheap but you will need to use flash indoor. A fast zoom lens will easily double the price of owning a D-SLR. My camera body is less than 1/3 the cost of my D-SLR system.

For a minimum beginner setup, you should have:
An entry level D-SLR with kit lens 18-55mm IS/VR
A telephoto lens 55-200mm or 70-200/300mm IS/VR will be a nice addition
An external flash that can tilt and swivel for bounce flash
A flash diffuser (Gary Fong Lightsphere is very good, but at least get a Sto-fen)
A tripod
A camera bag
Lens cleaning kit
Memory card and extra battery are useful
If you have extra money left, a 50mm f/1.4 lens is quite good for baby photos, and allow you to take indoor photos without flash.

In the beginning, you will be mostly using Auto or preprogrammed scene modes (like how you use a PS camera). But for indoor photos, use the external flash with a diffuser, and you will see a significant improvement over the PS photos just by doing this. Learn how to bounce your flash to get the optimal result (and minimize unwanted shadows).

When you get enough cute pictures with the Auto modes, you can start using the Program mode with flash, then try the semi-Auto modes (aperture priority is mainly what you will use for baby and family portraits). The Program mode mainly let you adjust the ISO to expose the indoor or low light background, so that you can get a properly exposed subject and background. The semi-Auto modes lets you adjust aperture (aperture priority) or shutter speed (shutter priority) in addition to the ISO. Learn the aperture priority mode first, this helps you to learn how to adjust the depth of field and learn how to do selective focus.

If you have purchased a fast lens with a large aperture (eg. 50mm f/1.4 or 17-55mm f/2.8), then take off the external flash, and start experimenting how to take photos with a large aperture using ambient light without a flash.

Photography can be expensive, but you don't need to spend a lot of money to enjoy it or get great photos. You do need a lot of time to fine tune your knowledge and skill, but you dont' need to learn everything before your baby is born. As you learn more, you will start using more and more manual functions. It takes a lifetime to learn all the photographic tricks. I'm learning every time I use my camera, mostly from mistakes I made. The beauty of D-SLR is that you can review the photos right away and correct the mistake on the spot, so that you won't miss the photo you want to take. So don't worry about making mistakes, I have made pretty much every photographic mistake in the book. But the more mistakes you make, the more you learn and the better you get. However, you do need to learn how to correct the mistakes so that you won't keep making them in the future.

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been trying to find a good analogy for this
by kalel33-20416052469708587370302374692233 / May 6, 2010 11:11 AM PDT

I want people to understand in an easier way, and the only thing I can think of is that it's like golf. If you only play sporadically and never work on your game, it won't matter what equipment you use because your performance will be poor/mediocre, but most people are happy with that and that's completely fine. If you want to get results then you have to learn how to do different shots for different environments, practice, and learn to use your equipment to the fullest.

You can have the best driver, irons, and putter, but they won't make you a great golfer. A $2000 set of clubs will almost always give better performance than a $100 set, even for a scratch golfer, but a great golfer is great no matter the equipment and can make the great equipment shine.

I also like the golf analogy because, just like in photography, a person will spend their whole life working on their golf game and never reach perfection. Golfers are always learning new techniques and experimenting new ways to play, and I find the exact same thing with photography. I'll get some great shots with my camera, I improve as time goes on, and I'm always learning new things.

You can learn enough about photography to get what you need, that may take you a couple of months or a couple of years to get good at it. It varies with each person. There are probably three areas that take considerable effort/learning to do much better than average, they are exposure, photo rendering, and lighting. I've probably spent equal time in learning each and I'm not anywhere near "pro" level, but I have some wonderful shots that I've put on the wall.

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A suggestion to handle BOTH issues. . .
by calaverasdogs / May 7, 2010 10:29 AM PDT

1) your learning curve
2) recommendations re: equipment & gear

First, check out . .You will find forums PLUS the smartest guys in the world just drooling to help you and answer your questions re: EVERY aspect of your "task". . .I've been shooting an SLR for over 40 yrs and I can always learn something new from someone on the site. . .And, I have ALWAYS been treated with respect and "gentleness". . .

My recommendation is to get a Nikon or Canon DSLR because 1) lenses can be used on an "old" camera or a "new" camera thanks to the intelligence of both companies (I have lenses I bought in 1968 for my 35mm Nikon that I can still use on my 2009 Model Nikon DSLR). . .And, my 2009 Nikon DSLR has virtually the same "feel" and "button location" as that "old" 35mm, too. . .Which made the transition to digital relatively easy.

Here's another tip: Contact Nikon's tech dept (on the telephone) and talk with the guys who REPAIR the cameras. Ask them "Which camera do YOU have?" They are generally more than happy to chat with you for as long as you want (I've chatted with guys on questions for over an hour. . .And, after 40 yrs, I'm pretty savvy. . .But, can ALWAYS use help)

I'll be happy to help you with more specifics if you like should you contact me "off forum". . .My e-mail is: [Don't laugh . . .I was an "expert" in court for over 20 yrs and used my cameras to prepare exhibits for court]

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DSLR Learning Curves
by tramky / May 7, 2010 1:52 PM PDT

Just a few observations.

First of all, even if you don't know much at all about all the controls & features of a DSLR, virtually all of them have an 'Auto' mode, which makes them much like a point-&-shoot except for zoom control with a zoom lens. The point is that you can use the camera out of the box before hitting the learning curve.

Then the fun begins. Read thru the operation guide that comes with the camera (assuming you are buying a new one).

Go through the camera's menus, getting at least a little familiar with the options & features. Keep in mind that, when you start manipulating controls while learning your way, there is likely a menu option that lets you reset the primary controls to the manufacturer's default settings.

One control that is interesting to learn about is 'white balance'--this can make a huge difference in the color tones of your images. Find a nice outdoor scene, for example, and take the same shot of that scene, changing the white balance setting with each shot. You may be amazed how different the photos will look. Often the distinctiion is described as 'warm' or 'cool'. White balance also makes a HUGE difference when shooting with artificial lighting. Be aware of the type of lights when shooting inside--incandescent vs fluorescent is a common distinction.

There is, of course much more to learn.

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DSLR - Getting Started
by Squerryes / May 7, 2010 6:04 PM PDT

I suggest you go along to your local camera store, choose a day/time when it's not busy, and make friends with the owner. Seek his/her advice and ask to try out a range of DSLR. Some cameras just "feel right" - difficult to explain but I find the Nikon range seem to fit my hands while Canon cameras don't. Contact your local Camera Club - you will find the Members more than happy to welcome you and provide hands on advice.

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Welcome to the World of REAL Photography!
by Flatworm / May 7, 2010 11:05 PM PDT

Understand that a DSLR can be used just like a point-and-shoot. Just leave it set on automatic and it'll outperform any camera you've ever had in terms of the quality of your snapshots simply because the lens will certainly be far superior (and in most cases the pickup is physically larger, allowing smoother pictures in low light). Furthermore, it is MUCH easier to zoom the lens that comes with most DSLR kits than it is to fiddle with the little buttons atop smaller cameras. You just twist it.

Also, the warm-up time and shutter lag on DSLRs is virtually nil, like a film camera's.

In most cases, however, you give up the capability to shoot video. This drawback is fading away, as newer DSLRs increasingly include that feature.

One of the chief drawbacks is the size and weight of the cameras, which don't let you even THINK of putting them in a pocket even if you're dressed like Harpo Marx. If you spend a day walking around Disney World you will wish you had a little Canon PowerShot instead of your spiffy new Nikon D90.

But the rewards are spectacular. After you start becoming less of a novice you find that you can control your photographs to a wonderful degree. You can get lenses that let you do things that those little pocket cameras can't even dream of doing. Some lenses turn it into a telescope, some into a microscope, some take closeups that let you see the individual elements in an insect's eye, and some let you shoot wide-angle vistas of breathtaking scope and beauty.

The thing about a DSLR is that YOU get to choose how much expertise to put into your pictures. You can just point and shoot if you wish, or you can control aperture, exposure time, white balance, and whatever all else at your whim.

I won't delve into Canon v. Nikon (there are others, but why?), although people with Nikons don't suffer as much from buyer's remorse.

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I have to disagree flatworm

I've seen dozens of threads on dpreview that are very angry about their compact camera outperforming their DSLR that they spent so much money on. Most of the time it was lack of understanding with DOF and not understanding how the focusing system works, because there are a lot of people out there that think that it should work better, out of the box in auto, than any point and shoot they've owned. Some people had other problems which RTFM would resolve.

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DSLR learning curve
by gibou / May 7, 2010 11:13 PM PDT

Go to a "real" camera store and start asking questions and acquire a feel for what's out there. A / B testing is the best way to reach a decision on a final buy. Whatever you do, I consider it paramount to not delay the purchase. It's better to get some practice before the big event. Otherwise, and while you will be trying to figure out how things work, you will only stand the chance of missing out on once in a lifetime events and will be left with regrets and disappointments (and the not so relevant pictures of others). The quality of your images will only improve with time and practice.

Photography is a lifetime experience with a matching learning curve.

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by twofatfeet / May 7, 2010 11:26 PM PDT
In reply to: DSLR learning curve

These are great posts. Thanks, everyone.

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One more tip
by hjfok / May 8, 2010 6:45 PM PDT

Other than getting your camera and learning how to use it, you can also easily enhance the quality of your photo by choosing a good background.

A simple solid color background can be very effective. Here is my son's 6 day old photo, using a black cloth that I bought from a local linen store as a background (I didn't use the professional background on him in case he soiled and ruined it).

Sometimes a more fancy background can be very fun. This one I use a green background (as a green screen), and use photoshop technique to exchange the green background to a digital background. This is actually quite easy to learn, you can google "chroma key" and watch a youtube video to learn how to do it.
You don't really have to buy digital background for interesting background. You can use an old photo as the digital background. This is my older son's Halloween costume photo. His portrait was done with a green background and the digital background is from an old photo taken in Disneyland.

Obviously most of the time you won't be using an artificial background. But paying attention to your background can enhance your photo easily. Here is a quick snapshot of my son on the bed, just took a second to organize his toys and pillow before taking the shot.
By the way, this is taken with the 50mm f/1.4 lens. No flash is used.

Using a shallow depth of field (large aperture, small f number) is an effective way to isolate your subject from the background, and make an effective portrait.

Good luck!

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Don't throw away the point and shoot
by Razzl / May 9, 2010 10:56 PM PDT

Things will get easier if you sort out your priorities: as a new parent you're not likely to master proper use of the best features of a DSLR in time to take great baby shots, so keep a good point-and-shoot on hand for the baby shots. (It's true that the automated shooting programs of a DSLR can let you capture good images just like a compact, but all photographers inevitably find out that a compact camera conveniently at hand is what enables you to capture the fleeting moments).

If you want to get serious about your photography, don't tie it to the idea of baby pictures. Read at least one good book on digital photography, leaf through some of the art photography books at the local bookstore for inspiration, study the camera reviews on web pages (particularly CNET!), and don't be afraid to jump in and buy a first camera. You really can't go wrong with even the most basic Canon or Nikon DSLR; the other brands can be a little iffier on account of the subject of accompanying editing software and proprietary raw image files. You'll know you're serious about photography when the Department of Homeland Security is trying to arrest you for taking pictures of bridges and landscapes with a tripod...

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thanks again!
by twofatfeet / May 10, 2010 6:40 AM PDT

So, my parents got us the Canon Digital Rebel XSi. I'm sure I'll be back with more questions later, and the tips to contact tech-help departments and camera clubs ? great ideas.

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by smithphoto1 / May 11, 2010 1:06 AM PDT

Get one. Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and others all have excellent 1st timer DSLRs out. What you don't know about photography you can learn as your child gets older.
As a dad and a high school photography teacher the biggest benefit to getting a new camera is that you will be more likely to get it out and take photos of your new little one.
The first 6 months are kinda boring anyway. Use that time and learn your camera for those 1st steps.

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