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You’ve done it: after using a compact camera or smartphone for months or years, you’ve upgraded to your first DSLR. Congratulations! Before hitting the streets with your new investment, though, it’s worth spending a little time and effort to ensure you get the most out of it.
We’ve put together several of our best DSLR tips to get you started, from how to get better photos to keeping your expensive camera safe, backing up those precious travel memories, and more.
Let’s start by talking about equipment.
Swap the Strap
All DSLRs come with a strap, but it’s well worth changing it for a different one. It’s not really a matter of functionality (most basic straps work pretty similarly), but more an issue of security and blending in.
Think of it this way: would you travel with one of those expensive luggage sets with the brand logo plastered all over the bags? This is the same thing. Wearing the manufacturer’s name around your neck does little except show off that you’re carrying expensive electronics.
With all the other third-party options on the market, there’s no reason not to change it for something less flashy, more comfortable, and more practical. JJC makes good generic neoprene straps for most DLSR models, while PacSafe offers a slash-proof version designed to deter thieves.
If you’re after a more advanced option, BlackRapid’s cross-body Curve strap lets you carry your camera securely on your hip, and quickly lift it to eye level when taking a shot.
If you don’t like neck or shoulder straps and are happy to keep your camera in your hand instead, wrist straps are an inexpensive way of stopping your DSLR from hitting the ground when you inevitably drop it.
Get A Lens Filter
UV filters used to be invaluable for photographers, as they’d help reduce the glare and haze in your photos by limiting the amount of ultraviolet light entering the camera.
These days, digital DSLRs have their own inbuilt filters to block unwanted UV light, but there’s still a good reason to use an ultraviolet (or clear-glass) filter: protecting the lens.
Since they screw onto the front of your lens, filters like these protect the lens glass from dirt, sand, and dust. They also act as a fender if you accidentally bump or drop your lens, which is easy to do as you get used to a larger camera.
Lenses are often difficult or impossible to repair, meaning you’ll likely be up for a new one if you damage it. Much better to replace a cheap UV filter than a multi-thousand dollar lens, right?
Find Your Perfect Camera Bag
When you’re traveling or on the move a lot, the bag you use to carry your camera really matters. DSLRs are bulky and get heavy after a day of carrying them. Throw in extra lenses, batteries, cables, and other accessories, and you’ve got a lot of weight to carry around.
Protection is important, too. All of that fragile gear doesn’t enjoy being knocked, dropped, or covered in dust. A good camera bag protects whatever’s inside it from the elements (and clumsy owners), while still staying comfortable and easy to carry.
There are dozens of different options on the market, but in reality, the perfect camera bag is the one that best fits your travel style.
If you’re going full digital nomad and carrying your mobile office with you (e.g. laptop, camera, lenses, etc,) check out one of the Lowepro Fastpack models. These comfortable backpacks have good weather protection, with different zones that provide plenty of room for all your electronics. We did a real-world review of a couple of older Lowepro bags in the past, and came away impressed.
If you prefer an easy-access, sling-style bag and don’t need to carry as much stuff, Crumpler has a variety of attractive camera bags that fit the bill. When style is the most important factor (and you don’t mind dropping some cash), ONA’s vintage leather camera bags fit the bill nicely.
Back Up, Back Up, Back Up
We can’t say it loud enough: back up your photos! We’ve heard (and lived through) enough travel horror stories of corrupted memory cards and lost or stolen cameras to last a lifetime. Don’t become one of those stories.
If you’re traveling with a laptop, you can use any backup approach that works for you. Copying your files to an external drive is an easy option, whether you do it manually or use inbuilt software like Time Machine (Mac) or File History (Windows). If you’ll regularly have reliable Internet, a good cloud backup service keeps your photos safely out of reach of any travel disasters.
If you need to back up your camera photos without using a laptop, there are several ways to do that as well. Whatever approach you take, the key thing is to back up regularly (at least daily.) You want to get a second or third copy of your photos as soon as possible after taking them.
Make Yourself a Name Card
Ever thought of what would happen if you left your camera behind at a hostel, bus station, or airport security? It’s a disaster, but if you’re lucky, the camera will fall into the hands of a good samaritan who’d like to get it back to you.
Unlike phones, tablets, or laptops, however, there’s no simple online tracking device for cameras, at least for now. Instead, it’s time for a much more low-tech approach: making a name card.
Write your name and contact information (email and phone number) on a small piece of card. If you’ve already got a business card with that information, even better.
Now, the key part. Keep the card in your camera bag or wallet, and get into the habit of taking a photo of it every time you swap or format memory cards. That way, when somebody finds your camera and wants to return it, they can flick through your photos (which they most certainly will do) and find a way to contact you.
It’s far from a flawless approach, but is better than not doing anything, and costs nothing except a few seconds of your time.
Learn How to Safely Switch Lenses
If you purchased multiple lenses, you need to learn how to smoothly and quickly swap them before trying to do it out in the world.
Switching lenses exposes the camera’s delicate sensor, which can be easily damaged by dust or sand. The faster and more efficiently you can switch your lenses, especially in windy conditions, the safer your camera will be.
Whenever you’re ready to switch, have your second lens handy and ready to go, preferably sitting on a clean, hard surface with the cap mostly unscrewed. Point the camera down and away from the wind, protecting it with your body or something else as much as possible.
Unmount the first lens from the body, placing it beside the one you’re about to use. Quickly remove the cap from the second lens, and screw it lightly to the first one. Immediately afterward, place the second lens on the camera body, and screw it tightly to ensure the sensor is fully protected.
Now you can take care of the final touches, like tightening the cap on the original lens, and switching the UV filter if necessary. Sound daunting? Get plenty of practice at home!
Learn the Basics
Even if your knowledge of photography only comes in the shape of Instagram filters right now, a little bit of photo theory will take you a long way with your DSLR. Start out with two basic concepts: focal length and depth of field.
Simply put, the focal length of a lens tells us both the field of view (how much of a scene is visible) and the magnification (how large an object appears to be).
Typically expressed in millimeters, a larger figure represents a higher magnification and narrower field of view. A person or object shot with a 14mm focal length will look farther away than when you’re shooting at 70mm, but you’ll get more of the scene in the photo.
This is useful to know when choosing which lenses to travel with. Lenses come in two basic varieties, those with a fixed focal length (also called prime lenses,) and those with a variable focal length. The larger the range, the more options you’ll have for shooting distant objects without having to get physically closer to them.
Depth of field refers to the focus of the picture, specifically how much of the image is in focus. Broadly speaking, if an image has a blurry background with a sharp object in the foreground (like a portrait photo), it has a shallow depth of field. If the entire image is in focus, the photo has a deep depth of field.
Wondering what all this is good for? Read on.
Get Out of Auto Mode
While you’re still getting to know your new DSLR, it’s fine to keep it set to “auto” mode. This will give you the best chance of getting usable shots, letting the camera automatically identify the conditions of the scene you’re trying to photograph, and how best to shoot it.
Once you get the hang of it, however, it’s time to slowly take a more active role. Using at least some manual settings gives you more control over the shot, letting you (for example) ensure a shallow depth of field for a nice blurry background, even when auto mode has other ideas.
So, how can you do this?
There are two basic technical elements in a camera: the aperture (which controls how much light hits the sensor), and the shutter speed (how quickly it snaps the image). You can control one or both in order to alter how the photo comes out.
The aperture directly affects the focus of the photo – that is to say, the depth of field we were talking about above. Without getting too technical, the aperture controls the hole through which light comes in. Everything else being equal, the bigger the hole, the more shallow the depth of field.
The shutter speed, on the other hand, controls how long the camera takes to snap the photo. The higher the speed, the faster the photo is taken, and the sharper the image will look. When objects in the shot are in motion, a faster shutter speed helps stop them looking blurry.
As a start, we’d recommend you try playing with the aperture first, and seeing how it affects the end result. The setting on your camera dial will likely be marked A or Av. The camera will take care of the other elements (mainly the shutter speed) in order to take the optimal photo — read here for a more in-depth account of how it works.
Above all, don’t be afraid to experiment!
Use the different settings to see how it affects the photo. Try the portrait mode for sharp close-ups of anything, from people to food. Switch off the automatic flash option, and play around with the aperture to allow different amounts of light in.
Prop your camera on a solid surface (or tripod if you’ve already invested in one) and try different shutter speed settings to see how movement can be represented in photos. Blur doesn’t have to be a bad thing — it can look great when taking photos of cars at night, for instance.
There’s no shame in taking hundreds of terrible photos while you’re learning. Your new camera can open up a wealth of possibilities in travel photography, and all it takes is a bit of experimentation. Have fun!
Images via nhhoffmann75 (feature photo), THaeuSalRang (black and white photo), Ben Gallagher (photographer on mountain top), Virginia State Parks (photographer in park), anoldent (photographer with tripod)