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Backcountry Photography

Moving Up: Your First Digital SLR More, Please!

By Tamia Nelson

February 4, 2014

Many paddlers are perfectly happy to capture the highlights of their trips with a point‑and‑shoot camera or camera phone. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. But as a clever fellow once observed, civilization has its discontents, and after struggling with the limitations of a no‑frills camera, some of us eventually decide that we want more. And that usually means a digital single‑lens reflex, or DSLR.

This is a big step up for the novice photographer. Though DSLRs offer an even wider range of automated options than most point‑and‑shoot cameras, they also allow the user to take full control of focus and exposure. And it's not either–or. There are several way stations between the polar extremes, permitting the photographer to make some decisions, while leaving others to the camera. All in all, DSLRs offer a bewildering array of choices, and the novice can easily find himself (or herself) succumbing to a paralysis of indecision, a situation unpleasantly reminiscent of the plight of Buridan's ass.

Quite a few folks understandably take the easy way out, letting their new DSLR call the shots — all the shots, all the time. In other words, they use it in the same way they used their old point‑and‑shoot camera. But this is the worst‑of‑both‑worlds solution. They've sacrificed the light weight and easy portability of the point‑and‑shooter without gaining much (if anything) in the process. Happily, there's a better alternative. Just tackle DSLR photography the same way you learned to paddle:

One Stroke at a Time

Even if you now run Class IV–V drops with confidence, you likely started out on a lake or pond. I know I did. In fact, I spent many hours learning the rudiments of boat control on still water before I made my first downriver run. And I spent even more time standing on bridges — or squatting down in the middle of lightly traveled dirt roads after heavy rains — simply looking at moving water, studying the "fine structure" of eddies and drops. Only when I had a thorough intuitive understanding of what I later learned to call "fluvial processes" did I think I was ready to meet the challenge of moving water.

Ambitious photographers can adopt a similar approach. A trip to the local library should provide the necessary grounding in practical optics and photographic theory, coupled with a look at some of the masters' iconic works. It should, that is. But if your local library is now more like an Internet café than a reference center, a few sessions with the photo articles in Wikipedia can serve the same end. You can also make a start by reading my earlier photo columns for, a few of which are listed at the foot of this page.

Then, once you've acquired a working knowledge of the elements of composition and exposure, you're ready to start snapping in. This is the equivalent of those hours you spent working the gates on the lake, many years ago. Begin at the beginning, by …

Reading the F[abulously Entertain]ing Manual.  It's your guide to the bewildering array of buttons, icons, and dials that confront all new owners of DSLRs. Don't just skim through it. And don't limit yourself to the Quick‑Start summary. Go to school on the big book, instead. Read it from cover to cover, and do it with your camera at your elbow. Will you absorb everything it has to teach you on first reading? No. But you can always come back to it later. In the meantime, be an active reader. Compare the pictures in the manual to the camera in your hand. Press the buttons. Dial the dials. Page through the menus displayed on the camera's LED. Take your time. Explore the options. In short, …

Get a Grip.  Following the instruction in the manual, mount your lens, observing the Golden Rules — keep your fingers off the glass (and out of the camera body) and never force anything. If you can't make connections easily, or if the lens doesn't lock securely into place, you're doing something wrong. Now unmount the lens. Then repeat the process till it's second nature. (A caution is in order here: Be sure you save all your camera's original packaging and documentation. Most new cameras work flawlessly, but someday you may draw the short straw, and you'll find it a lot easier to return a defective lens or camera if you still have the box it came in and the papers that came with it.)

Next, with the lens in place, practice bringing the camera to your eye in both landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical) orientations. You'll soon learn that SLR photography is not an arm's‑length affair. A single‑lens reflex camera has an optical, through‑the‑lens viewfinder, and while some DSLRs also allow you to frame a shot and focus using the LED, most photographers prefer the direct eye‑to‑the‑viewfinder approach. Which means that you'll need to learn a new way of working if you've gotten into the habit of framing your shots in the LED display of a point‑and‑shooter. You'll also have to learn new ways of holding and steadying the bulkier, heavier DSLR, and you'll find several helpful articles on that very subject below.


Getting a Grip


OK. You've mounted your lens and learned to hold your camera. Now you'll want to …

Look at the Menu.  If you've studied the manual, you'll already have some idea what's on offer, but it's likely that you'll still be a bit overwhelmed by the camera's many menu‑driven functions. AE metering, aperture, color balance, color space, EV, histogram, ISO sensitivity, JPEG, noise reduction, RAW, white balance… Soon you'll be on speaking terms with all of these, but at first you won't go far wrong by leaving most of the camera's factory settings as they are, with only a few exceptions:

  • ISO Sensitivity.  The lower the number the better, unless you'll be shooting in low light.

  • JPEG Recorded Pixels.  Higher is better here. This determines the information content of each image. More pixels=more information=a better photo.

  • JPEG Quality.  Ditto. This determines how much each image is compressed to facilitate storage in the camera's memory. Since the compression algorithm is "lossy," you'll want to limit compression to a minimum. Memory is cheap. Opt for the highest quality (i.e., least compression).

And while we're talking image quality, there's a bit of photographic arcana that even new DSLR owners should come to grips with, and that's life in the …

RAW.  JPEG is a format developed and promoted by the Joint Photographic Experts Group back in the 1990s, and it's still the nearly universal medium of image exchange among casual (and many not‑so‑casual) photographers. It's also the lingua franca of the Web. But as I've already noted, it's a lossy format. In other words, what you get (the stored image) is not what you saw (your subject). And less is not more here. By contrast, RAW (or raw) images give you the naked truth, with no lossy compression and minimal algorithmic preprocessing. That being the case, why isn't RAW the standard exchange format? Because RAW images (1) are HUGE, and (2) require a fair amount of post‑processing to be seen at their best. I've also glossed over the fact that there is no single, universal RAW format. Each camera company has its own proprietary variant. Still, RAW is the professional's first choice for many applications, and if you're a "serious" photographer — this is probably a given if you're buying a DSLR — you'll want to explore its potential. Undecided? Then read what I had to say about RAW in an earlier column.

We're not done yet. There are more choices to be made, so let's move on to …

Getting Your Priorities Right Matters Modal.  Most DSLR owners start out by setting the mode selector (usually a small dial on the top of the camera) to Automatic and leaving it there. Since this setting is often highlighted in green, it's sometimes called the "green mode." By either name, it offers the novice photographer an easy option. When you shoot in Automatic mode, you're letting the camera call all the shots.

This is fine when you're just starting out. But it's not why you paid the extra cash for a DSLR, is it? So don't wait too long to take the reins. You'll have to know something about depth of field first, though, and you'll need to understand the interplay of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO in determining proper exposure. Your camera's manual may offer some guidance, and my own "Back to Basics: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and Depth of Field" should help, too.

Anyway, Av Mode is probably the best choice for your first way station on the journey from Automatic to Manual. Otherwise known as "Aperture Priority" mode, Av allows you to select the aperture, or ƒ‑number, leaving the choice of shutter speed up to the camera. Since aperture determines depth of field, Av Mode gives you a way to control which parts of your subject are in sharp focus. This is good if you're shooting scenics, close‑ups, or portraits, and that's a lot of the shots that we paddlers make.

But maybe you're into fast action. Or you might want to reduce the chaos of rushing water to a tranquil blur. If so, you'll opt for the second station stop on the Pro Line: Tv Mode, also known as Shutter Priority mode. Now you control shutter speed, while your camera does the rest.

Had enough of studio exercises? Tired of sitting at your desk deciphering instructions in the impossibly small print of most camera manuals? (A hint: Download the PDF from the maker's support site. It's both easier to read and easier to search.) Then it's time to take your new camera …

Out and About

You can't learn to paddle by reading a book, and you can't learn photography by reading, either. There's no substitute for hands‑on experience. Will you make mistakes on your first outings with your new DSLR? Of course you will. But each mistake will teach you something, and anyway, many flawed photos can be salvaged in the digital darkroom.

And now that the subject has come up, don't be shy about using software to improve your photos. Professional photographers have been manipulating images in their darkrooms since the days of Louis Daguerre. But today, thanks to the ubiquity of the personal computer and the plasticity of digital images, post‑processing has come out of the closet. The digital darkroom is open to everyman (and everywoman), and that's a good thing. In fact, if you're shooting RAW, you'll have no choice in the matter. Nobody serves up RAW images to the public. Post‑processing isn't an option with RAW. It's a necessity.

There's one more good thing about the digital darkroom: Unless you're under the thumb of a photo editor who demands that you use Photoshop — and Photoshop's recent flight to the cloud is making even the pros rethink their options — you can set up on the cheap. Most DSLRs come with rudimentary post‑processing software right in the box, and when you're ready to step up, you can find more powerful tools online, many of them free, open‑source applications. Don't be discouraged by the supposed difficulty of image manipulation, either. Read "Adventures in the Digital Darkroom" to get some idea how easy it is to begin working darkroom magic in the digital age.

But that's enough about software. I began this section by urging you to take your camera outside and start shooting pictures, didn't I? And this really is the best way to get to know a new DSLR. That said, it pays to bear in mind that no digital device is indestructible, though this isn't a reason to keep your camera on the shelf. A few elementary precautions will help your DSLR cope with the rough and tumble of life in the field. First, …

Protect Your Camera's Eye.  Many pros — and more than a few well‑heeled amateurs — pooh‑pooh the value of a UV filter, arguing (correctly) that it degrades image quality. But those of us who have to count our change will probably regard the slight loss as a small price to pay. Good lenses aren't cheap, after all, and a single stumble can do hundreds of dollars of damage. Which is why every one of my lenses has either a clear glass or a UV filter mounted on it at all times.

Nor is a filter the only thing you'll want on your lenses. You'll also want a …

Lens Hood.  This provides additional protection from drips, slips, and gouges, while also blocking incident light that would otherwise cause flare. Best of all, lens hoods are inexpensive. One probably came with your new lens, but if it didn't, you can remedy the oversight at negligible cost.

Anything else worth mentioning? Yes, …

Just a Couple of Hoods

Stay Dry!  While some DSLRs are weather‑sealed, this isn't true of many lenses. But the rain it raineth every day — somewhere, at any rate. And when it isn't raining, it's probably snowing. A bombproof dry bag or dry box will keep the water at bay when you're dodging waves, but a bagged (or boxed) camera isn't the handiest thing in the world when that once‑in‑a‑lifetime photo opportunity presents itself. Perhaps you'll decide to get a truly waterproof point‑and‑shooter for on‑water use. That's a popular and effective way of addressing the problem. Once ashore, however, more modest protective measures are often adequate. These can be as simple as wearing a broad‑brimmed hat, toting an umbrella, or donning a poncho. And you'll find articles touching on each of these alternatives at the end of this column.

Filter and hood in place? Umbrella tucked away in your pack? Then you're ready to take your show on the trail. You'll be an old DSLR hand before you know it. And while photography is often thought of as a solitary pursuit, you'd be foolish to ignore the social aspects. You may have a photo club right in your town, or failing that, you can find plenty of photography forums online. The best of these are valuable resources, as well as vibrant international communities, bringing together people of very different backgrounds and widely divergent experiences, all united by a shared interest. As the owner of a Pentax DSLR, I've learned a lot from the collegial fellowship at the Pentax Forums. (You say you don't own a Pentax? The Camera Enthusiast, an allied site, is open to owners of all makes.)

Now, before you head out the door, new camera in hand, there's just time for me to offer …

A Parting Word

Photography is a serious business. At least it is when you take it seriously. But it's also fun. It's hard to hold back when you have a new camera. You'll find yourself taking pictures of everything that your eye happens to fall on, from your dinner to your dog. Back in the day, when film was sold in 36‑exposure rolls and every roll had to be processed by a commercial lab, this would have been a costly habit indeed. But the digital age has altered the economics of photography. Take as many shots as you want. I can't think of a better way to learn. Most of your pictures will probably fall short of your highest expectations, but that's OK. It's part of the learning process. Just be sure you review each shot carefully before deleting it. Or better yet, why not keep them all? Storage is getting cheaper with every passing day, and a few years down the line you may find yourself wishing you'd held on to all your early photos. I wish I had.

What is the secret to success for new owners of DSLRs? Simple: Shoot, review, sort, and store. Then repeat as often as possible. Come to think of it, that's the secret of successful photography with any camera.

Moving On

I bought my first digital SLR back in 2008, and though I'd owned a succession of film cameras for nearly 40 years, using them for everything from casual snaps to documentary field photography, it took me a while to come to grips with the digital age. But now I can't imagine going back. What about you? Are you chafing under the restrictions imposed by cell phone cameras and point‑and‑shooters? Then it's time you got your hands on a DSLR. Moving up has never been easier — or more enjoyable.


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