How to get the most from your digital camera and kit lens as a novice

This guide has been developed based on the features of most Canon DSLR APSC cameras fitted with the 18-55mm kit lens but the concepts explained apply to other cameras that may use slightly different naming conventions or offer different focal lengths.

Creating the best files (images)

DSLRs offer jpeg files (.jpg) and raw files (.cr2 or .cr3) directly from the camera. These can be captured at the same time, with each shot captured creating 2 files.

Shooting in .jpg

Jpeg files have image processing done in camera. They will have more contrast and saturation by default but offer less flexibility in editing. They are easy to work with and do not require any special software to be viewed, edited or shared.

Shooting in raw

Raw files have no image processing applied in camera and capture a larger amount of colour detail than jpeg files. They are the standard for professional photography that will be edited in applications such as Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop. They will look faded and low contrast by default.

Set your camera to capture ‘Raw + L’ to capture both, allowing quick use and further editing if required.

Creating the best files (video)

The automatic settings on your camera will produce usable footage, but with some manual adjustment you can produce a much better result.

Frame rate: 25fps

Shutter Speed: 50

Adjust aperture: (f-stop number) to desired exposure (image brightness)

ISO: as low as possible

  • Connect an external microphone to the microphone input and set the audio levels to automatic to capture higher quality audio
  • A 25fps frame rate gives a more cinematic feel to  a video
  • Higher frame rates can make motion in your video look overly sharp and unnatural
  • The shutter speed should be twice the frame rate to create pleasing motion blur in your footage
  • Capture and playback a test shot to check your audio levels.
  • If the sound in your video is distorted you will need to lower the microphone level in the camera settings

Understanding the focal lengths of an 18-55mm kit lens

The 18-55mm lens covers a wide angle focal length to a slightly telephoto (zoomed in) focal length.

In photography focal length is measured in mm. A lower focal length indicates a wider field of view, and a higher focal length value indicates a narrower field of view and a more telephoto result. Zoom lenses such as the 18-55mm lens can be adjusted to different focal lengths within their range. Some lenses are prime lenses with a set focal length that do not zoom.

Wide angle (18mm)

This focal length creates images with a wide field of view but makes objects appear farther from the camera. It also distorts objects which are close to the camera. This focal length is good for:

  • Buildings
  • Room shots
  • Close ups of objects that need background context
  • Group shots where space between the photographer and the group is limited

This focal length should not normally be used for portraits if it is possible to use a tighter focal length from farther away.

Short telephoto (55mm)

This focal length crops in tighter to a subject and magnifies them slightly beyond what the human eye sees. It has less distortion than a wide angle focal length. This focal length is good for:

  • Portraits
  • Group shots where you can step back far enough to get the whole group in the shot
  • Images where the subject is a person
  • Images where the subject is father from the camera

This focal length can crop too tightly for subjects which are close to the camera and lessens the sense of distance between foreground and background.

Settings on the lens

IS switch: if your Canon lens has an IS switch it has image stabilisation, enable it for sharper handheld images. This setting reduces camera shake from hand held photography.

AF/MF switch: This switch sets the lens to either automatically focus on the subject or allow the photographer to manually focus. For general use this should be set to AF.

Choosing the optimal camera mode for still photographs

Shooting with minimal control of camera settings

The fully automatic modes let the camera adjust settings based on what it’s software considers to be the best exposure.

  • Fully automatic with flash: use this mode in very dark scenarios as the small flashes on DSLR cameras produce very unflattering light
  • Fully automatic (no flash): this mode is the most all-purpose setting for a modern DSLR camera. The camera will adjust exposure settings to produce an image similar in brightness to what the photographer can see

Creating images with background blur

AV mode allows the user to control the aperture of the camera while the camera controls other settings to give a correct exposure.  A lower f-number will increase the blur between foreground and background. To make this effect more dramatic the photographer should get the subject as close to the camera and as far from the background as possible. The 18-55mm kit lens does not produce a significant amount of background blur.

Reducing motion blur or camera shake

TV mode lets the user control the shutter speed of the camera and adjusts the other exposure settings automatically.If your images show unwanted motion blur or are blurred from camera shake then the shutter speed is too low,. A higher shutter speed (above 80 for a focal length of 55mm on a camera like the 800D) will mean less blur in the image.

Shooting with complete control of camera settings

Some camera users prefer to completely control the exposure created by the camera using the manual mode. This requires a more complete understanding of how shutter speed, aperture and ISO work together to create an image. Shooting in manual mode is not covered by this guide.

Composition for talking head interviews

The rule of thirds grid is an easy way of structuring images and videos to create pleasing compositions.

  • Placing the subject near or on one of these third points will help create a balanced frame
  • In a formal interview setup the interviewee should look towards the far side of the composition at an interviewer and not directly to the camera 
  • For vlog style videos or where the subject is particularly comfortable talking to the camera directly a head on, centred composition can work

Using natural light

Create separation between subject and background for both photography and videography by having more light on the subject than on the background.

Place the subject near to the last window before a corner in a room to make use of natural window lighting.

To create greater contrast turn off all overhead room lighting and use only the natural light of the window.

Using a lapel/lavaliere microphone

A lapel microphone attaches directly to the subject of an interview and can be connected to the camera by either direct cable or radio transmission.

Place lapel microphones near the mouth of the subject but not in a position that will have hair or clothing brush against the microphone. Ask subjects with long hair to tie it back or brush it behind their shoulders.

Conceal microphones in layers of clothing if there will be no contact between the microphone and the fabric which is hiding it from view.

attach radio transmitters to the belt line or placed in the back pocket of a standing subject. For seated subjects they can rest out of shot.