How to set up your dSLR for beginners

Just got your hands on your first digital SLR? Here are some tips to help set up your camera for beginner photographers.

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Rather than snapping photos with your SLR right out of the box, you may want to consider customising some settings to your liking. This will save you time down the track and help you get to know your way around the camera.

Strap your camera properly

It sounds boring, but attaching your camera strap properly is one of those simple things that can make a big difference in the long run.

Make sure the strap is fully flat before you start, like in the video above. Find the camera loop on the body and thread one end of the strap through from underneath. Make sure the small plastic rectangular sleeve is between the end of the strap and the larger buckle.

Give yourself some leverage by pulling through a decent amount of strap, then fold it back onto itself and thread it through the sleeve. Loosen the strap around the buckle by pulling it out slightly, then thread the end of the strap behind the existing loop in the same configuration. Finally, pull everything taut to correctly attach the strap. Repeat the process on the other side.

Set your time and date

Once your battery is fully charged and you turn the SLR on for the first time, it will prompt you to enter the time and date. While some people skip this step altogether, it's important to set the time and date accurately, as this information is embedded in the EXIF data of each photo you take.

Entering the correct time and date will make it easier to sort and catalog images later on, especially once you import them to your PC or upload them to an online photo-storage site.

Format your memory card in-camera

It's a good idea to format your memory card in-camera as a force of habit, rather than formatting on your computer. This will help the camera set up the proper directory structure for storing photos and videos.

Make sure to use the fastest memory card you can afford for the best results, particularly if you are thinking of working with Raw images, burst modes or full HD video recording.

Turn on the optional extras

If your lens has built-in image stabilisation (Nikon calls this vibration reduction or VR) you will most likely want to turn this feature on. There will be a switch on the lens to turn it on and off.

The AF and VR switches on a Nikon lens. Nikon

Some brands, such as Sony and Pentax, generally have image stabilisation built in to the camera body itself, so all lenses will be automatically stabilised. Check that the setting is activated by default in your camera menus.

Change the defaults

Many SLRs will ship with default settings that aren't ideal for most photographers. One such setting is image quality.

Depending on your preference, you may want to shoot in JPEG, Raw or both at the same time. For those who want to shoot JPEG, dive into the menu settings to find the image quality option and move it from the default -- which is usually a normal quality setting -- and make sure it's set to fine or highest quality.

For the most flexibility, consider shooting in Raw. These files give you the image direct from the camera's sensor, without the compression and processing of a JPEG file.

Dave Cheng/CNET

Another default that you may want to change is the AF (autofocus) setting. Often, your camera will ship with the AF set for a single option only. This is fine for portraits or still subjects, but not so great for action photography or fast-moving subjects. Nikon calls this particular focus mode AF-S, while Canon calls it One Shot AF.

For moving subjects, you can change the focus mode to a continuous option. This means that as long as you keep a half-press on your shutter button, the camera will continue to focus on the moving subject in the frame. On Nikon, this is AF-C and on Canon it is called AI Servo AF.

Set up your screen

The LCD screen on your digital SLR is a wonderful tool, so it's worth customising it to your needs. If it has an auto brightness option, consider turning this on so it can automatically adjust brightness to the ambient lighting situation. Otherwise, you can set the brightness level manually to review images more comfortably.

Depending on your dSLR, in playback mode, pressing the up arrow on the directional pad will open up a range of display modes. The info, "i" or disp button can also be used to bring up this information, so check your manual for specifics on your particular camera. You can check the histogram, look at the exposure values or metering modes at the touch of a button.

Also, get into the habit of using the magnifying glass icon on the back of the camera to zoom in to the image in order to check focus and detail for important shots.

Move out of automatic mode

For beginners, it's fine to leave the SLR on automatic or scene modes. For the most flexibility, think about changing your exposure mode to one of the semi-automatic or fully manual modes.

To learn about each of these modes, check back soon for a full guide on exposure.