Finally Learning to Love my Manual DSLR- The Why and How

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My husband, ever the techno-lover, decided we NEEDED a fancy DSLR camera before the birth of our first son.  He researched and decided on the Nikon D80.  That was almost 4 years ago and I’ve only used the camera on Auto up until about 2 months ago.  I’m going to tell you WHY I decided to finally move that dial and HOW I started my journey into learning to be my own family photographer.  I’m not a professional but I have managed to get some great shots thanks to joining a photography forum called “Clickin’ Moms.”  More on that later.

The extent of my DSLR knowledge before commiting to learn how to shoot in manual was this: Auto+SB200 (bounce flash)= a decent photo that is focused and lit. I always used my bounce flash and always shot in Auto.  In fact, I always thought the photos I was taking of my sons were pretty awesome.  I’ll give you an example of what I thought was a pretty good photo.

8-105mm ISO 500 24mm f/16 1/200 -Auto

Above is a photo I took on Auto.  Now I look at it and see a lot of missed opportunities.  Mainly I see that I was shooting when the sun was high in the sky and the shadows on his face detract from the potential of green grass and a cute cloth diapered baby.  I should have found better lighting even if I was on Auto.  I also cropped it strangely at the top.  It should have been zoomed out a tad more.  Oh well.

December 18 2012

18-105mm ISO 1600 18 mm f/3.5 1/60

Around Christmas is when I first dipped my toes into the “manual” waters. I had been reading Baby Rabies and seeing how Jill was learning her camera. No offense Jill, but I was thinking “if she can learn to use her camera then so can I.” My mistake here was not understanding the basics. I just read a tutorial on how to get a similar shot and set my dials to what was listed. I had NO IDEA what I was doing. When I saw the words “f-stop” I couldn’t even locate where/what that was and I certainly didn’t know what that controlled. I got a cute picture that was super grainy. ISO was almost as high as it goes. This photo was taken in pitch black with only the light of the tree. A longer shutter speed might have given me more light and I should have shot this in RAW so maybe I could bring out more details in Lightroom (which I didn’t own at the time…)

January 6 2012

ISO 800 30 mm f/7.1 1/60 18-105mm

*kicks self* I see a wasted opportunity in this photo. The idea, the prop, the DIAPER is perfect but I used my camera on Auto and with my bounce flash. I’ve always been good at finding good photo ideas or locations, poses, etc. The photos themselves always seemed to dissapoint however.

January 2012

ISO 1000 18 mm f/3.5 1/30 18-105mm

This photo should be called “never use a slow shutter speed with anyone under the age of 100″ because as you can see, my son was moving his head left to right and the entire motion has been captured. A cool effect if you are trying to use it on purpose. This was taken in another one of my “I want to learn my camera” moments. My dear husband, who knows our DSLR *mostly* once again tried explaining the Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed. The room was dark and even at ISO 1000 and a slow shutter the lighting is just ick. I still don’t understand white balance but clearly this light is yellow. At least I tried, right? I had joined Clickin’ Moms by now after their awesome Black Friday Sale and had only just browsed the forums aimlessly.

March 2012

When I got real.  I moved out of Syracuse NY and was (and still am) living with my in-laws while we get a home in Florida.  I decided that since I had family and friends around I should take the best photos possible with my camera.  In manual.  I started reading tutorial after tutorial on Clickin’ Moms.  I switched to what they call a “prime” lens.  It seemed easier to learn when not using Zoom.  I wanted to master my 35mm lens.

ISO 400 25 mm f/10 1/80

This is one of my first shots where I have the vaguest understanding of what the hell those numbers mean. I was only adjusting ISO and Aperture. I didn’t even know where the shutter speed was at the time. I’m sharing this because I love it and because it is also an example of an image edited in Lightroom 3, a recent acquisition that I am now in love with.

35 mm ISO 800 f/2.0 1/80

Another photo I fall more and more in love with each time I see it. However, it isn’t that great. Zoom in and lose clarity. It is focused but not crisp. After reading a thread on Clickin’ Moms about why pictures aren’t clear I think this one needed a faster shutter speed. I’m still not an expert but that is my guess.

35 mm ISO 320 f/1.8 1/2000

I felt like I was finally understanding (a tiny bit) about utilizing natural light. I had seen a ton of amazing images taken in the evening with the golden sun on the treelines and I wanted to replicate. I packed the kids in the car and headed to a cool location I knew of. After fighting my kids to go “to the light” I gave up and followed them where they wanted to go. A million tears/screams/fits later and I got a few good photos including this one above. I learned that family/ children photographers must have the patience of a million saints. Amen.

35mm ISO 500 f/1.8 1/160

Husband: “Are you using the light meter in the viewfinder?” Me: “What light meter?” Yeah… this was my first “properly” exposed photo ever taken according the the light meter I didn’t know existed up until this moment. Even after reading every page of Ken Rockwell’s guide to my Nikon D80. I must have dozed off… Good news is that I was no longer guessing numbers, snapping a photo, seeing result, adjusting settings, snapping again…. with a light meter I could get an idea of what settings would work for the lighting I was in and then adjust to my taste. This was a lightbulb moment and a blonde moment all in one.

35mm ISO 1600 f/10 1/4000

Gathering inspiration from Pinterest has been fun now that I know a little more about my camera. I saw an image of two children being splashed with water and thought how fun that would be. I knew my shutter speed would need to be very high. When sprinkler day arrive I had my camera ready to capture the very first moment my son hit the water. Seeing the unedited, “straight out of the camera” shot will give you an idea of how much cropping and some post processing in a software like Lightroom or Photoshop can improve/change an image.

35mm ISO 400 f2.2 1/1600

This image represents some of the biggest lessons I have learned so far. Dark eyes are apparently really hard to photograph. In person my son has amazing eyes but photos never do them justice. Using a trick I read on Clickin’ Moms to “find the light” by turning your hand, balled in a fist while making the pose of a curling a muscle” and searching under your nails until the shadows are gone, and the other trick of having dark eyed children look up to catch the light, resulted in a photo that lets you actually see his eye color. Best photo ever, technically speaking? Doubt it. But as a mom I am THRILLED I have this photo and didn’t have to pay a photographer to get it.

When I look back at the time I’ve been studying my camera and practicing DAILY I can see a huge improvement from March 3 to now (April 12 2012).  In less than 2 months I have learned how ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed work together and can adjust accordingly.  I can figure out , to some extent, what situations call for what setting changes.  I’ve also learned more about post processing in Lightroom as a way to improve my images.  What I know wouldn’t fill a thimble compared to what there is to know.  I am still clueless on reading my histogram, setting custom White Balance, using different lenses, how to use flash properly in manual, etc….   Almost all of this is thanks to joining Clickin’ Moms.  I joined thanks to a sale offered on Black Friday and at the nudging of Jill from Baby Rabies, who deals this site like crack (in a good way).  It wasn’t until recently that I actually began reading and now I am hooked.  I don’t post often but I search the forums for hours when the kids are in bed.  The only reason I feel I finally got how ISO/Aperture/Shutter Speed work is after reading a thread where the mama said it in the way that clicked in my mind.

I’ve always felt it is important to have a photographer in the family.  I thought that was going to be my husband but he rarely pulls the camera out so I stepped up.  I still love my iPhone but I bring my D80 almost everywhere now to capture all of life’s moments with the kids.  The bubble blowing, train track rolling, bunny petting, hand holding, and the boo boo faces.  Even if I never get better than THIS I am pretty excited about what I’m doing and what I’ve already done.  I’m even more excited to start FRAMING these photos for the new house, whenever that comes to fruition.

To any moms interested in joining there is a coupon code FRIEND for 10% off the standard subscription.  If you DO sign up I have an affiliate link: Clickin’ Moms
www.ClickinMoms.com

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Kim Rosas began Dirty Diaper Laundry in 2009 out of a desire to help more parents understand modern cloth diapers. She lives in Florida with her husband of 5 years and her two boys. Even though none of her boys wear diapers anymore she is still just as committed to promoting them. In her spare time Kim enjoys video editing, photography, and coffee.
  • http://twitter.com/chgdiapers Maria

    I looked when you mentioned it before, but I couldn’t figure out what to sign up for.  My DH is a great photographer…took classes in college & is naturally talented BUT he is not great at people photography.  Flowers, mountains, bridges, the grand canyon etc…amazing.  Indoors, not so much.  Kids?  Yeah, not so much.

    A nice camera, backdrop & lights has helped me a lot but DH says blah blah blah about the manual settings & pooh poohs me when I say I have no clue what I’m doing.  I need to learn!!

  • Riyer84

    Great photos! Your children are so sweet :) Fletcher is so handsome!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kathleen-Veronica-Yeh/755658974 Kathleen Veronica Yeh

    I’ve been wanting to join CM  for a while….so I just did! Thank you and…You’re welcome ;) I clicked and joined through your affiliate link!

    • Anonymous

      Gracias :)

      Please excuse typos and brevity. Sent from my iPhone

  • Janice

    I’ve had my Nikon D3000 for almost 3 years, and have taken some ok photos for the kid’s albums, but most of them seem accidental. Two months ago I got a 35mm prime lens and LOVE it! My 3mo is going to have so many better photos than the older two did in her album. I stand with my back to a bright window with the kids facing it for the best lighting. I mostly have the camera in A, and move the focus points around.


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