Revised 2018.02.22


Smartphones with a built-in camera are portable, compact, and can reach in tight places. Their defining benefits are convenience and cost-effectiveness. You can take decent pictures with a smartphone under normal conditions for scene and lighting.

DSLR cameras use a much larger light sensor and offer you a far greater range of control over key settings such as aperture size, shutter speed, and light sensitivity (ISO). This allows you to take excellent pictures with varying depths of focus, of fast-moving objects, and in bright or dark conditions.

When you buy a DSLR camera you will need to choose a sensor size, usually termed between full-frame (24mm x 36mm) and crop-frame (smaller). A smaller sensor is lighter, lower cost, and doesn't sacrifice much. Most people should just start with a solid crop-frame camera unless they absolutely need the improved low-light performance, shallower depth-of-field potential, and larger field-of-view, such as with professional landscape photography.

As a general principle, try to avoid spending money prematurely on equipment that is too bulky, heavy, fragile, specialized, or inconvenient to use. Doing so is a common mistake for enthusiast photographers and professionals alike.


First and foremost, you need to hold and store the camera properly. People have broken their new cameras on their first day. For safety, handle your camera in the middle of a large table, equip the neck strap, and always hold it with both hands when you use it. For momentary storage, don't let the camera dangle close to a table edge or sit exposed bare on the floor. For normal storage, put the camera in a padded container. For extended storage, also put it in a box.

Second, prepare the camera by inserting a memory card and charging the battery. When the camera is ready, one of the fundamental skills you'll need to learn is doing the whole basic workflow.

Basic Photography Workflow

Figure 1: Basic Photography Workflow

Light Sensor Basics

You need to understand the mechanics of light as it reflects on the scene, travels to the lens, refracts through the lens, then reaches the sensor. When you take a picture, the sensor is not like a canvas that you paint on. It's more like an area containing millions of light buckets placed side-by-side. Light can fill the sensor to varying degrees based on how long the sensor is exposed to the scene and the intensity of the light that streams in. This is why you can control the brightness of the picture by adjusting the shutter speed.

Light Exposure Triangle

The quality of the picture is controlled by 3 fundamental camera settings:

ISO: Light sensitivity of the camera sensor. Higher ISO produces a brighter and grainier picture. Lower ISO produces a darker and tighter picture.

Aperture: Opening size of the camera lens. Larger aperture produces a brighter and shallower depth-of-field picture. Smaller aperture produces a darker and deeper depth-of-field picture. Very small apertures produce distortions.

Shutter Speed: Duration of time that the sensor is exposed to the scene. Faster shutter speed produces a sharper and darker picture. Slower shutter speed produces a brighter and blurrier picture.

Exposure Triangle

Figure 2: Exposure Triangle Chart by Daniel Peters


Optical zoom involves adjusting the flow of light within the camera. Only the light from the zoomed part of the scene gets to the sensor within the camera. In theory, optical zoom maintains full image quality under a perfect light and perfect lens.

Digital zoom involves cutting a picture of the whole scene. The light from the entire scene gets to the sensor, then the full quality picture is digitally cropped to the zoomed area. Image quality is absolutely reduced to a level as if the picture was taken with a smaller light sensor.

The quality of a zoomed picture depends on the light that reaches the camera and the imperfections in the lens. When you zoom the camera, you focus the view on a smaller part of the scene, significantly reducing the amount of useful light received and causing a darker, grainier image. To get more useful light, you must brighten the scene and/or decrease the shutter speed.


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