The New System Camera Owner's Guide

Welcome to the big leagues.

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If you're a brand-new DSLR or mirrorless system camera owner, the first lesson you'll learn is just how much you have left to learn. It's sort of a cruel graduation present, but such is the raw potential of the system camera.

Maybe you nabbed a great camera on Black Friday, or maybe there's one waiting for you under the tree. Either way, if you're one of the thousands of people stepping up from the point-and-shoot ranks this year, let us be the first to welcome you to the system camera promised land.

To help you get started, we've collected nine great tips covering settings and techniques that are second nature to veterans, but potentially confusing to newcomers. None of these are difficult to get a handle on, and they're all great shortcuts to upping your photography game.

NOTE: This guide is intended for users who have never used a "serious" camera. More advanced users probably won't find much new here, but we'd appreciate your additional insights in the comments!

Depth of Field

Depth of Field
Portrait with a moderately narrow depth of field. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Chokity"]

Most system cameras come with APS-C–sized sensors or larger. We're not talking about megapixels here—we're referring to the image sensor's physical surface area. To put that in context, the average DSLR sensor is roughly 13 times larger than a 1/2.3" sensor, the kind most commonly used in cheap point-and-shoots. This has all sorts of qualitative implications on photographs, and one of the most important is called "depth of field."

Shallow depth of field is what gives photos the attractive, smoothly blurred backgrounds that help isolate your subjects. Depth of field is a function of three things: focal length, aperture, and sensor size. Many point-and-shoots offer manual control over the first two, but without a large sensor, images tend to come out flat.

Narrow depth of field isn't always appropriate (in some cases, like landscapes, you do want everything in focus), but learning to master both foregrounds and backgrounds is usually the first obsession of new system camera owners. In the end, a large portion of this exercise boils down to aperture control.

Manual Aperture Control

Aperture
Aperture range of a 50mm Minolta f/1.4 lens. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License]

"Manual Everything Control" is what we could've titled this section, because other than image quality, it's a lack of manual control that disqualifies most point-and-shoots for use by serious photographers. But aperture, you'll quickly find, is arguably the most important manual control. ISO sensitivity can generally be safely set to automatic (within a reasonable range), and as long as shutter speed doesn't drop below 1/60th or so, most shots will turn out blur-free.

Aperture, on the other hand, dictates depth of field, and therefore the overall look of your shots. Do you want to single out just one subject, or clearly portray an entire scene? Do you want the background to sparkle, or blur away? Do you need a lot of light, or a little?

We do the vast majority of our shooting in either Aperture Priority mode or Program Auto, and we recommend you do the same while you're learning the ropes.

READ: What is Aperture and How Do I Use It?

Working Without Flash

High ISO Photography
This shot was captured at ISO 1600. Not too noisy, huh? [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "HuttyMcphoo"] View Larger

Unless your new system camera is a Pentax Q, it almost certainly has a much bigger sensor than your old point-and-shoot. While that means all sorts of nice things for image quality, one of its biggest advantages will be increased light sensitivity. In fact, better high-ISO performance means that you'll be able to get away with not using flash at all for many shots.

We've already dedicated an entire article to better understanding ISO. If you want an in-depth understanding of how to best utilize the option, that's the ticket. But most users of current-generation system cameras will be happy with Auto Sensitivity and an upper limit of ISO 3200.

Eventually you'll learn about the benefits of external flash guns, diffusers, and bouncing light off different surfaces. But until then, don't be afraid to work exclusively with natural light. This will also help you learn to "see" the scene in a more sophisticated, qualitative way.

Lens Shopping

System cameras are universally considered more flexible than their compact counterparts, in large part due to their ability to swap lenses. Your new camera kit probably shipped with a versatile zoom lens of some kind—most likely an 18-55mm—and that glass will serve you well for a long time. Many users immediately get caught up in the affliction known as LBA (Lens-Buying Addiction).

Many new owners immediately get caught up in the affliction known as Lens-Buying Addiction. Don't make that mistake—at least not until you've first mastered the basics of composition and exposure.

Don't make that mistake—at least not until you've first mastered the basics of composition and exposure. First, get familiar with the lens you have. Learn the visual characteristics of shooting at different focal lengths, choose your focal length deliberately, then move yourself around to frame up.

Only think about buying another lens once you've run up against the limitations of your current kit. If you find that the 18-55mm lens isn't bright enough for indoor shooting, try a fast prime like a 50mm f/1.8. If the kit lens doesn't have enough reach to shoot your kid's soccer game, consider a telephoto zoom.

Canon EF Lens Lineup
Canon's lens lineup is perhaps the largest in the business. Here's a family snapshot, circa 2013. [Credit: Canon]

If know you need another lens in your arsenal, we have some great news: the choices the system camera market offers are near-limitless. Believe it or not, lenses are generally more valuable than as long-term investments than any camera body.

Think about it: Lenses don't become outdated unless camera manufacturers change their entire mount design, they usually work until you screw up and drop them on the pavement, and many even appreciate in value over time. Digital bodies, meanwhile, have a limited useful life and sensor technology develops at a surprisingly fast rate—even if your camera still works, you might want to upgrade anyway. So once you can take advantage of their capabilities, grab some high-quality glass—you'll probably own it for life.

Continuous Burst

Burst Mode
8 sequential shots captured using burst mode. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Papa November"]

While your point-and-shoot may have been equipped with a continuous shooting mode, chances are it was slow and useless. System cameras are fast, and some of them are really fast. In fact, even mid-range cameras are starting to achieve full-resolution burst speeds that—as little as five years ago—were only attainable by spending thousands on a pro model.

You can mitigate the risk of missing a crucial moment by shooting pets, kids, and action with continuous mode turned on. This feature is even useful for more static subjects like portraits, when you want to capture the exact perfect moment of a smile. A little further down the road, when you really know what you're doing, you can look into focus- or release-priority to maximize the potential of your action shots.

READ: What is Shutter Speed and How Do I Use It?

Auto-bracketing

By and large, point-and-shoot cameras don't offer the kind of advanced bracket functionality that even entry-level system cameras do. When bracketing is turned on, your camera will shoot a short burst of three shots (or five, or seven, or even nine), each with slightly different settings than the last. This can really take some of the stress out of tricky shots.

Autobracketing
Four shots, bracketed at -4, -2, +2, and +4 from left to right. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Kevin McCoy"]

If, for example, you're unsure of the perfect exposure, then exposure bracketing will shoot one frame at what the meter determines to be perfect exposure, one slightly dimmer, and one slightly brighter. Then you can simply pick the one you like afterwards. Alternatively, you can use Photoshop to combine all three for a shot that's accurately exposed throughout, even if the lighting is unbalanced (this is commonly referred to as HDR, or high-dynamic range, shooting).

Multi-exposure Composite
After a bracketed series has been shot, it's possible to combine those photos into one perfectly exposed scene. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons "Darxus"]

Many system cameras will allow you to bracket not only exposure, but flash, ISO sensitivity, white balance, or focus (which, if you're feeling really fancy, can be useful for "focus stacking"). Some Micro Four Thirds cameras even let you bracket art filters!

RAW Shooting

If you're the type of person who likes to post-process photos on a computer, you'll quickly come to appreciate the merits of RAW shooting.

RAW Demonstration
Flickr user "jannefoo" demonstrates a RAW photo's potential for the recovery of blown out highlights, using a program called RawTherapee. [Credit: Flickr user "jannefoo"] View Larger

Almost all modern cameras, including point-and-shoots, record photos to memory in JPEG format. It's a ubiquitous encoding method—indeed, most of the pictures you see across the web are JPEGs. JPEGs can be very detailed, but they're also very "compressed." This means the extra data has been clipped off in order to save room on your memory card.

That extra clipped data can be very helpful if you want to make serious edits to your shots after the fact. RAW photos are the digital equivalent of film negatives; they contain all the data recorded by the image sensor, even information a JPEG compressor would've considered extraneous. The files are much larger, but for good reason.

Say one of your favorite shots is way too dim—so dim that you can barely make out your girlfriend's face. Too bad, you'll have to delete it, right? Not if you shot RAW. Instead, you can take that sloppy shot into Photoshop or Lightroom and brighten up the dark areas. If a photo is too bright, there's a lesser but still significant chance you'll be able to "rescue" details from the highlights.

Look for a setting in your camera's menu called something like "Highlight / Shadow Warning" to see—right there in playback mode—exactly how much detail can be rescued. RAW is awesome.

Filters

Very few compact cameras have lenses with filter rings, which means you can't use physical filters without some serious DIY ingenuity. In most cases that's not a problem–digital photography has made color and effect filters all but redundant. But there are still two filters we can't live without: a neutral density filter and a polarizer.

Polarizing Filter
Split shot without (left) and with (right) a polarizer, note the superior color balance and sky contrast. [Credit: Flickr user "spencerthomas"]

Neutral density filters solve the problem of overabundance of light. Say you want to create a long-exposure shot of a waterfall, but it's just too bright out. Even at ISO 100, you'd overexpose the shot. An ND filter acts like sunglasses for your lens, blocking bright light when there's just too much.

Meanwhile, an entire article could be written about polarizing filters, but suffice it to say they manage unwanted reflections, and let you do cool stuff like see through atmospheric haze and the surface of water on bright days.

Filters like these are relatively cheap, and as with all things photographic, the best way to learn is to just jump right in and start experimenting. Pick up these two filters before your next outing, but make sure you buy the right size for your lens!

Video

Video is bound to be the unsung hero of your brand new system camera. While your old point-and-shoot could probably handle some rudimentary video, we're guessing it came out choppy and amateurish. Well... we bet you never thought your new photography purchase—or gift—was also all you need to start a videography career.

There was a time we thought camcorders might take over the still camera market, but the industry has definitely moved in the opposite direction.

There was a time we thought camcorders might take over the still camera market, but the industry has definitely moved in the opposite direction. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are now prized as video tools for the same reasons they're such excellent photography devices: compact dimensions, excellent image quality, great versatility, and shallow depth of field capability.

Indeed, Reviewed.com's very own video team shoots almost exclusively with system cameras. This year's Holiday Gift Guide, for instance, was shot entirely on mirrorless stills cameras:


If you're anything like us, ultimately nothing beats the satisfaction of finally shooting with a proper system camera, so we consider that the unofficial tenth feature in this list. If you're still looking for a system camera to call your own—one with just the right price, form factor, interface, performance, and lens selection—head back to Reviewed.com Cameras for detailed analysis of all the latest and greatest options.

[Hero Image Credit: Flickr user "analuiza_olive"]

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