If I were going to be in a story book, I'd get all dressed up too
House beautiful

How I learned how to shoot pretty pictures, part 2

I've entered this post into Julia's Hooked on Fridays party. When you're done here, feel free to saunter over and see what everyone else is hooked on this week!


While writing this, I'm mainly thinking of people who have a dSLR but haven't gotten away from using it in Auto mode. If you're more advanced, well, you probably don't need me!

Ok, here's the breakdown.

1. Get a dSLR. I like Nikon. Plenty of people like Canon. And there are other good brands too. I say get the best you can afford. But then I'm camera crazy and my head is already buzzing with the idea of upgrading (shhhh...don't tell my husband). My personal opinion is to wait until a new model comes out of the camera you want, then buy the old model. Like when I bought my camera? The body only was almost $1k. I have the Nikon D80. Now that they've brought out the D90 ($1179 on Amazon today), you can get the D80 for $649 on Amazon. Makes sense to me; wish I'd thought of it before.

It also makes sense to buy the body only (if the camera comes for sale that way - some are only sold as part of a kit: body + one lens). Why pay extra for a cheap kit lens? My opinion, of course.

2. Get a 50mm, f/1.8 lens. The absolute most bang for your buck - $134 on Amazon and worth so much more. You might be able to shop around and get it for less. I think I paid $109 when I got mine (which I've since sold in favor of the f/1.4).

This is a prime lens - it doesn't zoom. You move your body forward or back to frame your shot. Takes a bit to get used to if you're used to zooming, but it's widely considered the best lens to learn photography with. It's light, fast, gives great bokeh. (Bokeh is the pretty, blurry stuff in the background.)

dolly 1

3. Shoot in auto until you get sick of knowing your camera can take so much better pictures.

Then ...

4. Switch to aperture priority. In A-priority (A on your Nikon, Av on your Canon), you set the aperture and the camera does everything else (except the ISO - you are in control of that as well, see #5). Set the aperture as low as it will go. If you have more than one lens, check them all and pick the one that goes the lowest, put it on your camera and then set it as low as it will go.

The next time you take pictures - does the shutter sound fast? You're in good shape. If the shutter sounds slow and the photos are blurry, you need to find more light. You can do that by going somewhere with more light, turning on more lights, and/or raising your ISO (see #5). If you've only ever used Auto and this is your first foray into A-priority, try taking some photos, upload them to your computer, and ask me if you have any questions. Then just keep practicing. It feels weird at first, but it gets better quickly.

5. Set your ISO:
    100-200: Outside with lots of light
    400: Outside in the shade
    400: Inside with lots of light
    800: Inside with low light
    1600+: Inside with very little light

The idea is not to have to use your flash. You need the camera to be able to catch enough light to have a fast enough shutter speed so that your photos aren't blurry. That's the goal (though sometimes blurry photos are good, but that's a different post). The very first thing I do when I turn on my camera is check my ISO. Get into that habit. Otherwise, you'll take a ton of pictures and they'll all be white - or black - and you'll know you forgot to set your ISO. And then you'll be bummed because there's no way your kid will be that cute again for at least another 20 minutes.

6. Set your aperture as low as it will go. I know that sounds like a repeat, but what I really mean to say was that if you have a lens with the lowest aperture at 3.5, then set it there. But if you have a lens that goes way down to 1.8, then you might try setting it at 2 or 2.5 or 2.8. You'll still get great depth of focus, but the lens will be just a bit faster/sharper than if you set it all the way down to 1.8. When I set mine all the way down to 1.4, it's either because I need to catch more light or because I just want to see what it looks like. I could set it there more often if I used a tripod, but my tripod stinks so I hardly ever use it.

The higher your aperture, the less light the camera can grab. The lower the aperture, the more light gets into the camera.

7. Learn how to change the focal point in your camera. Ok Amy, this is how I compose my shots - with the focal points in mind. I have 11. I love them all. I wish I had more. I really think I need more. My absolute dream camera has 51!!!! Excuse me while I go daydream for a bit ...


I almost never put my main subject in the middle. Hardly ever. I tend to favor the bottom left or the top right.

Bottom left:

knitting project three 015

If I'm taking a picture of a person, I always try to focus on the eyes. Clear, sharp eyes are where it's at!

v violet and rocks and dish 005

You can see this one larger here - I'm focusing on her left eye and you can make me out holding the camera in it. Pretty sharp! Woot!

So when I'm composing a photo, I think about what is the most interesting aspect of the whole object - that's where I want my focal point. Then I think about what's the most interesting part of the rest of the photo - I want that part to fill the rest of the frame. I might try a few different shots, focusing on different areas. Or I might not be sure at all. In that case, I try to back up so that I can make my decision by cropping the photo later. A lot of what people have told me are my best shots have been cropped - from your average photo down to what's actually interesting.

And when I'm driving around taking photos of houses, I just shoot, shoot, shoot and work out the details later.

8. Take a bunch of pictures and call me in the morning. But seriously, if this has helped you at all, please let me know - and send me links to your photos! If you think a friend might be able to use this info, email it to her or mention it on your blog. It's hard to write about photography; I hope I've been clear. If you have any questions at all, leave me a comment or send me an email (springtreeroad [at] yahoo [dot] com). I'm always happy to help. Sometime soon I'll tell you how I learned to use my camera in manual mode almost all the time.

Bonus tip: If you're really interested in learning more and don't have the time, money, energy, or inclination to actually take a class, you might try what I do. I get three books. An easy book, a hard book, and a fun book. Then I read all three, rotating among them. When I get as much information as my brain can hold from the hard book, I switch to the easy or fun book for a few days. Then I go back to the hard book. It seems to reinforce my learning, give me time to digest the more difficult things, and keep me motivated to get through all three books.


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What an awesome post! I have to go read part 1 now. :) You did such a nice job of putting it all together. I didn't know you shot Nikon. :)


I am *just* getting used to my new Nikon. I have bookmarked this to refer to so I can start taking decent photos out of auto mode. I bought The Dummies book for my camera and am slowly making my way through it.


Great post! I have a Nikon d80 and I love my 50 mm prime lens. It is my favorite right now. I have just stared to get used to aperture priority mode and it makes all the difference. I agree with everything you say here!!


thanks for this post maya! i have been feeling guilty about how i always use my camera on it's auto settings - this is just the catalyst i need to switch over to manual!

Shealynn Benner

Dude! Manual mode! Me, all the way. LOL. I went from Auto to Manual almost right away. But, Great post!!!! Lots of great info for thy beginner. ;)


Great post! That's more than enough to get the beginner into shotting partially in a manual mode. Good stuff!! :)

I'll repost this as soon as I can as I know a million of people who would benefit.

And really, if anyone doubted your credentials? They just have to see your pics. Love that one with the christmas lights. Mmmm, bokeh


Great, very informative post! I'm reading Understanding Exposure right now. I borrowed it from the library, but I think I need to ask for it for my birthday this month. There's so much information in it!


Thanks, Maya! I think you might have finally given me the courage to go manual!

Recent blog post: Tyler Florence's Black Bean Soup

Recent blog post: Tyler Florence's Black Bean Soup

Recent blog post: Tyler Florence's Black Bean Soup

Diana J

the focal point thing is something I know nothing about. will check that out now. good post!


Thanks so much! I was wondering why you suggested a fixed lens...actually I'm still not sure why you'd want a fixed lens over one that doesn't zoom. A while back I figured out how to change the focal points (I have a Canon) but I've forgotten. Guess I'd better get out the manual.

maya | springtree road

Hi Astrid,

Because to get the same quality lens, you have to spend so much more money on a zoom. You can still get decent pictures with an inexpensive zoom, but not the really good, striking ones.

As real photographers say, it's all about the glass. And good glass takes a lot of money.


This is such great advice. I have the 50mm 1.8 and I bought it rather than getting a kit lens. I want to buy another lens soon. Can I just admit that the past few weeks I have been shooting on auto though? Oh, the shame, lol.

Kim @ Forever Wherever

Love the eyes! Great photos!


lovers of blue, unite!

I love this post. I just started a photo class so I can learn to use my D40. I am borrowing a 50mm 1.8 lens and LOVE it! (except the manual focus part - but I'm getting used to that).

I bookmarked this as a cheat sheet! Thanks!


Great post! I bookmarked it, so when I finally get a D-SLR, I can come back!

Linda @ Lime in the Coconut

great post...like the scribbled one even more though! I need a new lens, and was thinking of a macro. Maybe I just need to keep it simple stupid.(me stupid...not you stupid)


Great post!! I am keeping this post link so that I can refer back to it!! Great shots as well!! Thanks for sharing!
~angela @ peonypatch


you must have reading my post yesterday. just what i need. i will be linking this for everyone's benefit.


Wow, these are wonderful pictures and great advice! I'll have to leave your page up on the computer so my husband might take the hint and buy me a new camera!!

Julia @ Hooked on Houses

I just bought my Canon and still haven't quite figured out how to use it. This post is helpful for me. Thanks, Maya!


Thanks for all these tips. I just purchased a Pentax SLR off of QVC because it was such a good deal and on easy pay at the time. I had my eye on a Nikon or Cannon, but I went ahead with what was affordable at the time. I am just learning how to use it and for the moment I am stuck on just shooting in auto, but after this post I am going to bump it up a bit. Thanks for the encouragement.

Monkey's Momma

Ok, I have to admit, this is the very first time that I have taken notes while reading a blog post!

Very great tips, Maya, keep 'em coming. Your style of writing makes it easy to understand.


thank you, thank you, thank you, Maya! I love how you spelled all this out in such an easy way - it makes me feel like I could actually do it! Now if that darn income tax check would just get here already... :)

P.S. Your new header is adorable!

Taya @ Delightful

Thanks so much for the tips! Now I just need to convince my husband we need a dSLR. As always, your photos are beautiful!


Oh Maya..this is a great help. I've been pressing here and there and just taking photos without reading anything..let's just say I find reading manuals and instructions too 'dry', I'm too lazy and seriously I have very little time! I love it when I have to read in in your blog..you take very good pics and I just have to know how you did it!

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