Why dSLR ? how to use it ?



Perhaps you’re not convinced that a dSLR is for you. Don’t feel guilty. Many serious shooters are in the same position. You’ve been getting good results with your non-dSLR camera and wonder if you’ll see any improvement with a single lens reflex camera. Perhaps the 28-200mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens on an SLR-like camera with electronic viewfinder has the range you need for 95 percent of your photographs. Why purchase a dSLR if you won’t need interchangeable lenses, or can’t afford them? The truth is that there is a lot more to a digital SLR than the Single Lens Reflex part of the equation. I’ll get into more detail in Chapter 2, but here’s a quick summary of the pros and cons of dSLRs, and why you might get much better results from a dSLR with 6 megapixels when compared with a non-dSLR model with the same nominal resolution. Note that the first bunch of the advantages I’m touting are only incidentally related to the fact that the camera is a single lens reflex.
Four dSLR Advantages Unrelated to Single-Lens Reflexiveness Some of the strengths that accrue to dSLRs have nothing to do with the fact that they are single lens reflex cameras.




■ Higher sensitivity and reduced noise.The images from most non-dSLRs begin to break down when sensitivity is increased to ISO 400 or more, primarily because of excessive noise. Few of these cameras have an ISO setting that’s usable. In contrast, many dSLRs generate relatively low noise at ISO 800, and produce acceptable images at ISO 1600, ISO 3200, and beyond. The improved quality offered by digital SLRs is due to the larger sensors available in these cameras. As vendors pack more and more pixels into the tiny CCD sensors found in non-SLR cameras, the pixels become smaller and more prone to noise. The larger pixels in the CMOS and CCD sensors of dSLRs have much less of a tendency to produce the random grain we see as noise, and are more sensitive, to boot, producing higher effective ISO speeds.



 ■ Control over depth-of-field. The larger sensors require lenses with longer focal lengths, so the dSLR use regains the control over depth-of-field that is such an important creative tool. Ignore those “35mm equivalent” specs you see posted for non-dSLR cameras. That “38mm” zoom setting on your point-and-shoot digital may provide the same field-of-view as the moderate wide angle you’ve used on your film SLR, but the depth-of-field is more akin to what is native to the 6mm actual focal length of that lens. You’d think the “380mm” setting would give you roughly the same narrow depth-of-field you’d expect from a 400mm lens on your film camera, but what you end up with is the same field of sharpness offered by a 60mm lens. Anyone who’s used a consumer digital camera knows that at non-macro shooting distances, virtually everything in the picture is sharp, at any zoom setting and at any f-stop. If you plan to use depth-of-field creatively, as in the photo shown in Figure 1.4, in which the background was thrown out of focus to emphasize the flower, you’ll need a dSLR with a larger sensor.


■ Digital SLRs work like a camera, not a VCR. I own a Nikon CoolPix 995, which was one of the best $1,000 digital cameras of its time, and still a champ among 3.3MP models for sharp images and macro performance. Still, this camera drove me nuts. Even after I’d owned it for a year I had to take along a cheat sheet that told me how to
10 MASTERING Digital SLR Photography
activate infrequently used features, such as manual focus. I used the 995 a lot, but I still had to refer to my crib notes to see which menu I needed to refer to to activate a particular feature, and then which buttons to press to make it work. It was a great camera, but it didn’t work like one. The same situation exists today with the vast majority of nondSLR cameras. I have the opportunity to test eight or ten point-and-shoot cameras in all price ranges each month, and virtually all of them operate more like VCRs rather than like cameras. When you zoom in and out, do you want to press a couple of buttons and wait while a teeny motor adjusts the lens elements for you, or would you rather twirl a zoom ring on the lens itself and be done with it? To switch to manual focus, wouldn’t you prefer to flip an AF/MF button and then twist the focus ring on the lens, instead of pressing a Menu key, finding the Focus setting, switching to Manual focus, and then pressing a pair of left-right cursor buttons? Photo enthusiasts won’t put up with that nonsense when they’re trying to take pictures. The dSLR I use has separate buttons for burst mode, ISO settings, white balance, EV adjustments, metering mode, and resolution. To adjust any of those, I hold down the appropriate button and thumb the command dial to choose the setting I want. Set the camera to shutter- or aperture-priority (with a dial, not a menu) and move the command dial to adjust the f-stop or shutter speed. In manual exposure mode, there are separate command dials for shutter speed and aperture. That might seem like a lot of buttons to master, but, trust me, you’ll learn to use them much more quickly than you’ll memorize the menu system of the typical point-and-shoot.



■ Faster operation. You’ll find that dSLRs work much faster than point-and-shoot digital cameras. One of the metrics used to measure point-and-shoot performance is “time to first shot.” That is, once you decide to take a picture and switch the camera on, how long must you wait until the camera is actually ready to shoot? Generally, you’ll have to wait 3 to 5 seconds or more; then wait another second while the camera autofocuses and calculates exposure after you’ve pressed the shutter release. Switch a dSLR on, and it’s ready to go. On more than one occasion I’ve spotted an unexpected opportunity, switched my digital SLR on as I brought the camera to my eye, and then took a picture, all within less than one second.






Five dSLR Downsides All is not perfect in digital SLR land. There are a few select things that are difficult to do with a dSLR, and some problems that only digital single lens reflex owners have to contend with. This section lists the leading cons.


 ■ Lack of superwide lenses. Unless you own a full-frame dSLR, your digital’s focal length multiplication factor must be figured in to calculate the true coverage of the lens. It’s nice to have a 200mm lens magically transformed into a 300mm telephoto, but it’s not so great when you discover that your 20mm wide angle is now an ordinary 30mm lens that barely qualifies for the wide-angle designation. To get true wide-angle coverage, you’ll need a prime (non-zoom) or zoom lens that starts at 17–18mm. Superwide lenses are more expensive and harder to find. When I added a digital camera body to my film camera kit, my widest existing compatible lens was a favored 16mm semi-fish-eye lens that was the equivalent of a 24mm optic on my new digital SLR. Many digital camera owners have success using similar fish-eye lenses, and then “defishing” the finished pictures to correct for the distortion and produce a conventional wide-angle view. I ended up going a different route and buying a 12mm–24mm zoom (for $1,000—about the same as my dSLR body) to get an 18mm to 36mm (equivalent) viewpoint. If you do like fish-eye views, you can also purchase prime lenses in the 10mm range, but they are even more expensive. Anyone who likes the wideangle viewpoint can expect to buy extra lenses. Of course, few non-dSLRs, other than one new model from Nikon with a 24–85mm zoom, have zooms that go wider than 28mm, either.
Chapter 1


 ■ Digital SLR Photography Now and in the Future 13
Figure 1.5 How would you prefer to compose your photos? On a tiny LCD (upper left), with a grainy electronic viewfinder (upper right), or a big, bright, SLR viewfinder (bottom)?



■ No LCD preview or composing. The LCD on a dSLR can be used only for reviewing photos or working with menus. Not a problem with through-the-lens viewing, you think? Try taking a few pictures using an infra-red filter that blocks visible light. Your SLR view is totally black, yet some non-dSLR camera’s LCDs show a dim, serviceable image under such conditions. Moreover, some point-and-shoots have swiveling LCDs or swiveling bodies, so you can hold the camera over your head or down below your waist and still view the image. Want to take a self-portrait? Some non-dSLRs with swiveling lenses automatically invert the image on the LCD so you can point the camera at yourself and still preview the image you’re about to take. 



■ Dirt and dust. Make no mistake, if you change lenses at all your digital SLR will eventually accumulate dust specks on the sensor that you’ll have to remove. I had my dSLR all of two weeks and had changed the lenses maybe four times when I noticed a recurring speck on all my photos. This dust is generally not difficult to remove and may not even show up except in photos taken with a small f-stop, but the mere threat is enough to drive you crazy. I find myself cleaning the sensor every time I go out for an important shoot, fearful of coming home with 500 photos all marred by a dust speck. Oddly, this drawback of the digital SLR is rarely discussed by vendors, yet it’s the most common problem a dSLR owner is likely to encounter. Look for more vendors to include widgets like Olympus’s Supersonic Wave Filter to shake the dust off before it causes a problem. 


■ Size, weight, and general clunkiness. Your dSLR is going to be much larger and weigh more than whatever point-and-shoot digital camera you may be used to. If you’re switching over from a film SLR, you may not notice the difference. Still, a dSLR will generally be clunkier and noisier than a point-and-shoot digital, even with the fake noise turned off.



 ■ You can’t shoot movies with a dSLR.I actually took some nice sound movies of my son’s acting debut in West Side Storyusing a 5MP point-and-shoot digital that could make 640 × 480 videos at 30 frames per second. Because of the way dSLRs operate, movies are beyond their capabilities.
Using What You Already Know Because most digital SLR photographers were already seasoned veterans before they began using a dSLR, they already have a considerable advantage over neophyte photographers who must master digital technology at the same time they are learning photographic basics. For example, you already know not to shoot into the sun unless you want to produce a silhouette, and wouldn’t think of using your camera’s built-in flash from the last row in the balcony to capture a photo of Bono pacing the stage at a U2 concert. You know to hold the camera steady in dim light and how to make a background less prominent by throwing it out of focus. You understand terms like lens flare,motion blur, and grain, and may have more than an inkling about things like solarization, halftones, mezzotints, or unsharp masking. There are other photographic concepts that you already understand that you can put to use with your digital SLR. In my companion book, Mastering Digital Photography, you’ll find a detailed discussion of these in the “Transferring Skills” section in Chapter 1, but here’s a quick summary:



 ■ Basic composition. Seasoned photographers know how to line up shots to produce a pleasing composition. You’ll find this skill valuable with dSLRs, because their WYSIWYG viewpoint makes composition more precise.
14 MASTERING Digital SLR Photography




■ Choosing lenses. Beginners don’t choose lenses or zoom settings. They just zoom in or out to make the image appear to be the size they want. Photographers understand that lens choice is an important part of the creative process to, say, compress the apparent distance between objects, emphasize the foreground, or produce pleasing portraits. 


■ Using selective focus. Point-and-shoot cameras generally don’t offer much flexibility in applying depth-of-field. Your understanding of selective focus will let you place the emphasis in your pictures exactly where you want it. 


■ Choosing a film “look.” If you’re a veteran film photographer, you’re used to choosing one film because it provides vivid, saturated colors even on overcast days, or another film because it has accurate flesh tones for portraits, or a third because it has extra contrast that makes product shots look their best. You can apply this knowledge to your digital camera to select saturation, contrast, and exposure settings that suit the exact look you want. 



■ Knowledge of what you can do in the film and digital darkroom. Experienced photographers know how and when to take advantage of image-editing techniques, such as retouching, compositing, color correction, and special effects. These can be used to fix problem images, or make a good image a great one.

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