My 2 top tips for learning digital SLR photography


“Would you take pictures for my workshop?”

I gulped hard. I had just landed a SLR digital camera after my point and shoot took a nosedive. I truly had no idea how to use it except for pushing the trigger and hearing a click.

But I figured, how hard could it be? I’ll leave it on automatic and fake it. Couldn’t be any worse than shooting with a point and shoot on auto, right? So I said yes.

Well, I got there and realized clicking in bright natural light vs. man made low light was an entirely different thing. And not for the better.

I started clicking alright. But started struggling. The photos were a blurry, yellow mess.

“My point and shoot did better than this!” I scoffed. And I was right.

At one point, I slumped against a wall and grumbled at my camera. “I don’t get you.Why can’t I get the shots I see in my head? Why are you giving me yellow? Why is everyone a blur when they move? WHY CAN’T YOU JUST WORK?!”

A workshop attendee overheard me, and offered to help.

I really tried to listen. But as soon as he started talking, my eyes glazed over. I didn’t know what a shutter or aperture was so I couldn’t possibly understand anything related to those terms. Everything I heard was over my head. I was more lost than when I started out.

But I refused to give up. So I struck him an offer.


“I promise to listen to every word you say, BUT I’d like to ask all the questions. And if you could answer just THAT question, I’ll ask you more so it makes sense. Can we try?”

So that’s what we did. I asked every question in my simpleton ABC way and got only the answers I needed. I jotted down notes, and shot on Manual for the rest of the weekend. And know what? THE PICTURES TURNED OUT.

But it didn’t end there. I still didn’t understand what was what so I knew I had to memorize a recipe of numbers that worked together.


So with camera and notes, I started challenging myself to themed assignments. One would consist of taking shots of country roads. One topic became fall. Yet another, snow. I took on assignments for my church. Then a tough one… dusk.  The junk campsite was one of my favs. No challenge was too big, I took it all on, and I clicked until I landed the shots I desired. Two of my current fav photo shoots are A Leisurely Walk through the hotspots of Franklin, Tennessee and my outdoor walk.

The more I worked that camera, the less I needed the notes. I was starting to get it. I was totally floored.

I have SO much yet to learn. But in a nutshell, my 2 top tips for learning digital SLR photography and shooting in manual are:

1. ASK someone patient all the questions yourself.

Offer to buy a friend the best dinner EVER. Or whatever. But trust me, when you ask the questions, it’s a better starting point. I can blah blah all day long about ISO but if you don’t even know what that is, you’re lost at my first sentence, right? Ask the questions. 

2. PRACTICE. Quantity first. Then comes quality.

Once a day, give yourself a small assignment. With notebook in hand, practice different settings and take note of what works. 

Once you get a good shot, challenge yourself and make your job harder. Try direct sunlight, diffused sunlight, shadow, a dark interior, dusk outside. Do it all. It’s only then that you’ll understand what settings work best where.

I realize this advice is super vague and for that, I apologize. So here are two recipes to start you off. They are purposely close to the same because I want YOU to figure out what works and what doesn’t all on your own.


ladder plant stand post


ISO 800




ISO 100



* if your pictures come out blurry, stabilize your camera on a tripod or crank the number higher ie: 60 *

Just know, ASK and PRACTICE are the two ingredients alone that taught me how to swing an SLR. Period.

By all means, take a course if you can’t find that someone to ask! But if you find yourself getting lost in the lingo, refer back to this post and try again.


Join us for a live Google Hangout for some quick tips on lenses, stability, lighting, and staging.

Tues, Feb 5th, 6PM Pacific, RSVP on Google Plus HERE.

You can also follow me at my:

Google Plus profile
Google Plus Funky Junk Interiors page

If you miss it live, it’ll be taped to YouTube after the fact.

You can catch other photography tips HERE.


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Categories: Photo Tips

19 thoughts on “My 2 top tips for learning digital SLR photography

  1. Ugg ok, you know where I am coming from… Why did I ever buy this camera? I should have just bought the point and shoot! I’m hoping to find a class to take that will teach me everything and I hope this ABC brain of mine can retain it all! Thanks for the encouragement!

    • You should get on the Lettered Cottage. Blog
      Layla’s husband, and Layla are great. He gives a course with his partner on the Internet that is easy peasy! Well not easy

  2. Wonderful post….nice and simple…which I need! My house varies between sun streaming in…which can be pretty…to dark interiors….not good! I’ve signed up for the Google photo class and am looking forward to hearing that! If I can understand it that is!

  3. I did the same thing-bought a nice camera and didn’t know how to use it! Finally, I went to an art shop, paid the young guy and said the exact same thing-‘let me ask the questions.” I really needed to start with the basics-he gave me a few tips to start with, told me to practice and it made a difference. I’ll check out your video when it’s posted.

  4. My biggest problem: the indoors yellowish cast photos (yuck)! Your photos, whether inside or out, are always perfection. I will check out the upcoming event.. I need a refresher course! I also just purchased a new (non-DSLR) camera so that will confuse me .. I am certain! But I will follow your advice. Thanks for this post 🙂 -Tammy

  5. Such simple advice, and so important. I think all of us can remember those two big tips! 🙂 And I love the idea of asking if you can ask questions. We all tend to process stuff in our own way, so being able to ask the questions is immensely helpful!

  6. OK, first question; What is an SLR Camera?
    Second question; Why do I need one?

    It sounds exciting and I’m always open to change! I love your posts or blogs what do you call this? Anyway, thank you for opening up a whole new world of technology for me! Cheers, Linda

    • Hey Linda!

      A DSLR camera (SLR for short) is one of those cameras with all those technical settings and lens choices. It’s the opposite to a point and shoot. It’s made to cater to the settings you desire to use, making it a better choice for tricky lighting situations.

      But point and shoots are vastly improving. Most that move to an SLR do so because they aren’t getting what they need out of a point and shoot any longer. But if you still are, you don’t have a need to move up.

  7. Okay, I’m absolutely going to that Google Hangout. I got my SLR camera in August and took a one-day boot camp class. But I still need more help. For example, I’m confused about the shutter speed in your formula. If we’re holding the camera in our hand, shouldn’t we shoot for 60-100? And if longer, then put it on a tripod?

    I still have so much to learn!!!

    🙂 Linda

  8. Thank you so much for this! I really want to start blogging, but I know my skills with a camera of any quality are pretty low! And a point and shoot just doesn’t stand up to the quality I want 🙂 Thanks for making me feel more confident in learning and ASKING the questions! What a great piece of advice – so simple, but it means a lot 🙂

  9. I am so-o-o excited about the course…just last night my husband and I were attempting to translate the manual instructions to use my new camera out of it’s auto mode! Auto takes beautiful photos but, for shots in front of our window similar to yours, in your ladder shot, I need to adjust the lighting.
    I pinned and tweeted this post for others to learn your great tips…I’m going to try playing with your indoor/outdoor settings, today!

  10. Thank you!!! I received a dslr for Christmas and was struggling. I finally figured out not to use the auto mode because my pics were blurry and yellow as well! I still have a lot to learn and your post helps a lot! Thanks for sharing your insight! Have a blessed week!

  11. Hey Tammy! I find point and shoots work better on auto than SLRs do because they’re built to do so. SLRs for me perform better off Auto. You just need to bite the bullet, flick the switch to M, throw in those settings I gave you and start snapping and playing until something works.

  12. My husband JUST gave me my dream camera for my birthday, the Nikon D3200 with all the bells and whistles, lenses and extras…I love it and am practicing like a woman possessed. It’s easy to become frustrated and overwhelmed and ignore all the cool things your camera can do. By learning you can create masterpieces. Thanks for sharing Donna.

  13. Hello Donna, Greetings from Ontario! Thanks for post! I’m looking forward to your upcoming photography tips! The end of April, I’m heading to Alabama to take a “food photography” course! I have plenty of homework and reading to do beforehand. You truly are an inspiration to me!! I am very nervous about this course but keep reminding myself about your photoshot involving your church congregation!!

  14. Thank you so much for putting it on youtube – I have my husband $900 camera and I shoot 50 cent pictures! Although, I must say – they are way better than they were a year ago!I will look for the post on YouTube!

  15. I just attended a wonderful one-day class on photography basics that opened my eyes to a whole new world on ‘M’ versus ‘A’ lol.

    To start with, she had us set our ISO at 100 (her recommendation as the standard, unless photographing difficult movement without specialty lenses), set the focus spot to one (not multiples), and metering to evaluative/matrix.

    Then she had two basic steps: (1) choose an aperture (f-stop) based on if the object is moving/stationary, and how much of the background you want visible (depth of field), (2) select the shutter speed that balances the light meter. I immediately started taking pictures with much better exposures and truer color.

    Her rule of thumb for when a tripod is needed: if the shutter speed exceeds the lens length, then you need a tripod.

    I spent all day Sunday taking pictures inside my house, outside in the shade, in the sun, and sunset – they were almost all perfectly exposed (composition is another story, lol). Prior to this 6 hour class, I had zero experience with the manual settings, and only barely knew how to spell f-stop, lol. I don’t mean to sound ‘know it all’, cuz I’m just a newbie at photography – I’m just throwing this out there as food for thought if it makes sense to anyone else.

    Now I need to learn that staging/composition thing 😉


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