DSLR Workshop Notes

Here are some notes and examples from our workshop.
You’ll find links to products we think you’ll benefit from. If you use these links it will help us keep the costs down.


Camera and flash settings

A or AV – aperture priority and f-stops

This is the most useful setting for quickly controlling the depth of field and the flash exposure (on a manual flash).
Small number like f2.8 = more light and smaller depth of field – good for isolating the subject.
Large number like f16 = less light and larger depth of field – good for getting more in focus or achieving adequate focus quickly.


Aperture also affects other things like lens performance. Generally, lenses perform better 1 or 2 stops in from wide open.
So a 2.8 lens will be sharper and have better resolution and colour at f5.6 or f8
Sharpness begins to fall off after f16 due to refraction.
General rule of thumb: keep around f5.6 to f8 for best performance.

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is used to control motion, and also ambient light when using a flash.
To avoid camera shake, the shutter speed should be at least equal to the lens focal length.
So a 50mm lens would need around 1/60th second and 300mm lens around 1/320th
Tripods can remove the need for fast shutter speeds but the subject needs to be still.
Flash is effectively a very fast shutter. A low-powered pop of flash can last as little as 1/10,000th of a second, so it can behave like the world’s fasted shutter!
Using flash to stop motion is only possible if the subject is predominantly exposed by the flash rather than the ambient light, so a small aperture (large number) that would result in a dark picture will be exposed mostly by the flash.
So get the flash close to the subject and use the shutter speed to let in only as much ambient light as you need to make the scene look natural and light the background.

Manual override

Manual is your friend! Manual is used to set all the parameters above and gain full control. It’s essential when messing about with old lenses.
If you have a flash attached, then set the camera to manual to achieve the look you want, leaving the flash to expose the foreground subject.
Your camera will have a maximum flash sync speed, meaning it either won’t go off faster than 1/180th (or similar) or if it does release the shutter, it won’t fire the flash.
Close down the aperture (bigger number) to get the shutter speed down below sync speed. If you are using triggers and you’ve set the shutter faster than the sync speed, then your camera may refuse to fire the flash. Check the shutter speed first, then the batteries!



Sunlight and cloud

Watch out for bright midday sun with deep contrast and harsh highlights
Try to get out in morning or evening, when the light is soft, warm and low.
Try a diffuser to soften light.
Cloud is the best diffuser.
Don’t be afraid to shoot into the light – it can be very pretty


Your flash has several auto settings, and usually TTL  will work just fine. TTL measures the light Through The Lens during the exposure and shuts down the flash accordingly. Old fashioned ‘Auto’ measures light bouncing back onto the flash and can be more accurate with shiny objects.
If you have time and the subject distance is constant, then manual is your friend again. A couple of test shots and you are away! no guessing; you tell the flash exactly how much light you want.
This means that cheap manual flashes from China can be every bit as good as high-end flashes from camera manufacturers. You may be able to save your money and buy cheap Yongnuo flashes and a trigger.


On-board flash

Remember it is very low powered flash so you may need higher ISO to give it a helping hand.
For a more flattering light, try bouncing it off a wall with a small mirror.


External flash

Much more powerful and able to see over big lens hoods, use a diffuser to soften the light or bounce it off the ceiling.
Remove the flash and use a cord or trigger to fire it from one side or behind the subject.
Simulate low sun by firing the flash from behind the subject (shooting into the light), hide the flash from the lens to avoid flare.
Use shutter speed to control ambient light.
Use aperture and flash power to control flash exposure, not shutter speed. ISO should remain as low as poss.
The bigger your diffuser in relation to the subject, the softer the light. So get your diffuser as close as possible to the subject.

Continuous lights (light bulbs)

Continuous lights are low powered, so use a tripod. Experiment with white balance (starting with tungsten or fluorescent) to remove colour casts.
Use aperture, or shutter speed to control exposure. ISO should be low as possible, but noise is preferable to camera shake, so a high ISO may be desirable.
Use cool, fluorescent bulbs for macro to avoid wilting/killing your subject.
Daylight temperature bulbs can be bought at craft shops, for artists to paint under.
While you’re there, buy some white foam board to make diffusers and reflectors and little studio floors for small subjects.

Tents and diffusers

The cheapest light tent is a white, pop-up linen basket. Tents create a small studio for your subject and wrap the light around it.
The cheapest and easiest flash diffuser is a sheet of printing paper taped to the flash – point the flash up and let the white paper send light forward.

Contre-jour lighting – shooting into the light.

Snow drops – contre jour. Lit using a flash behind a tree

Always look to see if there’s an opportunity to get the light behind the subject, this is counter-intuitive and against the rules! yay!
It nearly always results in images with pop! and something a little different.
Unless you want a bit of creative lens flare in your image, you should position the camera in a shadow,
or, if using flash, position the flash out of the camera’s line of sight, behind a tree but still able to light the subject from behind.
To avoid a full silhouette, you can either use another (low-power) flash from the front, or hold a reflector in front to bounce the light back.
Exposure should be controlled on the flash or using the aperture.
Balance ambient light using the shutter speed. If you are close to the subject you can use a low shutter speed like 1/20th if necessary.
This will let more ambient light into the scene and the flash will ’stop’ the movement for you.


Pop-up portrait reflectors are inexpensive ways to add light to your scene or diffuse bright sunlight.
The black side can remove light from one side of your subject, for more modelling.
You can also sit on them!
The simplest reflector is a sheet of paper or a white shirt!





Stong diagonals and a very low angle like the spider's prey, all add to the drama
Stong diagonals and a very low angle like the spider’s prey, all add to the drama

Get down low, fill your image with the vibrant colour of a flower, anything to increase the drama over just standing there bolt-upright pointing your camera at the top of a child’s head or the back of a spider.

Look for complementary or jarring colours. Yellow dandelions or cellandine in a field of bluebells – focus on the yellow and let the blue/purple drop out of focus and frame your subject

We like patterns. We like repeating patterns like sand ripples on a beach, or the lines of a blue park bench filling the frame in front of a field of yellow.

Texture can be a background for something without texture. Soft water on a jagged rock, tree bark dropping out of focus. Watch out that it isn’t distracting or confusing

Depth of field
This is both a pain and a blessing. Macro subjects often drop out of focus too quickly, but this can be a boon for isolating an eye in a furry face, or a flower in a sea of grass.


Diagonals, lines, texture & colour.

Leading lines, diagonal lines intersecting lines. Look for ways to add them to your composition, or prevent them from distracting from the focal point.

Remember that foreground bokeh (out of focus area) can be a beautiful addition to your composition. Try shooting through grass etc to frame your subject.

Your position
If you just stand there with straight legs and snap away, you are unlikely to have captured the best angle.
Are you really uncomfortable? do your knees burn? are you all wet? Excellent! you probably got a great shot that nobody else will ever see, let alone shoot!
However, get as comfortable as possible whilst going for that dramatic, never-before-seen angle. Try to relax and hold the camera steady.

Compositional ‘rules’ and tricks

Rule of thirds – position your subject one third in from the edges and preferably one third in two directions. It really works and is the simplest route to a pleasing composition.
Leading lines – Try to find things that lead your eye onto the subject
S-shapes – We love curves and S-shapes like a meandering river leading to a sunset, are pleasing to the eye.
Diagonals – Add drama to your image by finding diagonals. If they also lead to your subject then even better.

Now take all those rules and try the opposite!

Shoot a milky, fog-laden image, with no strong lines or colour. Try the subject bang in the middle of a square frame, allow your image to be broken up by horizontal lines. We are so accustomed to compositional rules, we see all the time on the TV and magazines, that thinking out of the box can create a refreshing image. But you have to know the rules to break them successfully.