Shoot Photos Like a Pro(ish) for Free

How to Use a DSLR (for free)

A few weeks ago we did a post about finding deals online, specifically explaining how we got a screamin’ deal on our first DSLR camera. DSLRs seem to be all the rage these days, no longer just a gadget for professional photographers (or those claiming to be). Take a photo with a plain ol’ digital camera and one with a DSLR and then compare the results. It’ll be easy to see why even your grandmother just jumped on the DSLR bandwagon.

Is It Worth It?

But they’re also a huge purchase. Even with finding an incredible deal on my Canon Rebel, Johnny and I still paid $350! But if I’m being for reals — which I am because it’s Monday and that’s how I roll on Mondays — it’s been worth every last penny. See, we (well, me, and then eventually Johnny) really wanted good photo documentation of our children. Ask 10 people the classic “Your house is on fire and you can only grab three things” hypothetical, and they’ll all use one of their precious choices for “our family’s photo albums.” So using that scenario, good photos are at the top of our “splurge-worthy” list. Thus, a DSLR.

Getting Started

In case you’re wondering, here’s what I started with:

Why? Well, Canon and Nikon are both equally great in my opinion, but I just happened to go the Canon route. I got a Rebel because it met all my needs. Unless you’re looking to become a professional photographer, it’ll do the job for the average Jo (my name, shortified) and then some. While the 18–55mm kit lens takes fine photos, it doesn’t have a low f/stop (the ability to create nice bokeh, aka that blurry, low-depth-of-field background). And almost all lenses with a low f/stop are very pricey, like as-much-as-the-camera-itself-or-more pricey — except the 50mm. For the quality of pictures the 50mm takes, you can’t beat the $110 price tag.


But here’s the thing: you get this shiny new DSLR, and it’s like, “Yikes! What to do??” It’s a wild, ferocious beast that you’re supposed to somehow tame and force to take pretty photos. There are suddenly a billion different buttons, an instruction manual that’s 100’s of pages long, and confusing terms like ISO, aperture, metering, and f/stop dancing around in your head. It’s enough to make you want to huddle in a corner and just pet the little monster while cooing, “Pretty camera.”

So I’ve totally been there, hence the detailed description of that hypothetical breakdown. I was kind of afraid of our camera when we first got it. Of course, there’s always the option of shooting in Auto, but I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty and learn the science behind my new toy. But how? There are plenty of pricey photography courses out there, online and otherwise. But since I was planning on using our camera for purely recreational reasons (aka, not as a professional photographer), I really didn’t want to spend more money on classes.

Learning To Use It (For Free)

First, I talked to a friend with a DSLR, and she helped me with the basics. I also read most of the instruction manual. And most importantly, I forced myself to shoot in Manual only. I mean, we went on vacation when we first got the DSLR, so all those photos were in Auto, but aside from big events, I used Manual. And I took pictures every. single. day.

BUT, my biggest help of all? My big secret to learning to use our DSLR? I watched YouTube videos! Hours of them. I couldn’t get enough. It was the same as a photography class, except I didn’t have to pay a cent. My friend recommended Fro Knows Photo (aka Jared Polin), and his videos were awesome in teaching what was most important. In fact, I became obsessed with this guy’s videos. Johnny can attest to this. I would constantly be spouting, “Fro Know this.” “Fro Know that.” (I liked to call him Fro Know instead of his actual name.) Jared Polin’s a bit of a crazy (hairy) beast himself, so he’s the perfect mentor. And I’ve included the videos, in appropriate order, that helped get me started:



And I’m not affiliated with Fro Know at all. He’s sort of a weird dude, so I don’t know if I’d want to be affiliated with him. But I just really like him. His YouTube page has lots of other great videos, too.

So that’s my limited knowledge on getting started with learning how to use a DSLR camera. If this topic doesn’t interest you in the least, thanks for letting me spill my guts about my favorite hobby. And if it does interest you, I hope what I had to say helps you figure out the wide world of taking pictures with a DSLR!

Do you have a DSLR? If so, have you learned to tame the beast and shoot in Manual? If not, would a DSLR be a splurge-worthy purchase to you?

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  • Reply eemusings April 22, 2013 at 7:41 am

    OK, this guy Fro looks seriously awesome! Will have to check him out. I signed up to Digital Photography School newsletters but honestly, I never read them.

    I took photography in high school and uni, right on the tail end of the film movement (they all changed to digital shortly after I left and closed up the darkrooms). I’m not super confident in manual, but I know the basics, though I’m slow. It’s so true, everyone and their dog has a DSLR now, or one of those micro 4/3 cameras.

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 7:48 am

      I really like his stuff! I think it’s awesome when professionals offer their expertise for free to the general public.

      I love that everyone has a DSLR — beautiful pictures for the masses! But I do get bothered at all the self-proclaimed professional photographers out there now. The fact that you’ve taken a few photography classes makes you more qualified than most “professionals” out there!

  • Reply Brian April 22, 2013 at 8:58 am

    I love my DSLR. I went the Nikon route, but that is because I had used old school Nikons (and a Leica too!) befor that. I love my DSLR. I use it is manual sometimes, but sometimes I just have to volume shoot on the sport mode and pick the good pictures.

    If you think the camera is expensive, just wait until you want a new lense… those usually cost waaay more than the camera, I should know, I have 3 different ones and use them all (and I have my eye on a 4th)!

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 7:54 am

      I can’t believe how expensive lenses are! But I guess even if you upgrade to a better body, you never have to upgrade lenses, so it’s a one-time expense. If you have the 24-70mm or 70-200mm, I’ve got a serious case of lens-envy!

      • Reply Brian April 23, 2013 at 8:01 am

        I have a 55-300 that gets more use than I thought it would! The only lense that I currently am lusting over is a wide angle fish-eye style one. I just think they are neat, but I don’t really see myself using it enough to justify the cost :\

        • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 8:20 am

          That’s how I feel about the wide-angle lens that one of my friends has. I’d love it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to justify it!

  • Reply My Financial Independence Journey April 22, 2013 at 10:54 am

    I love my DSLR. If you really want to learn how to use it, get the manual, go on youtube, and then go take lots of pictures. Take pictures of the same thing at the same time of day with every different aperture setting, shutter speed, etc and see how that affects the photo. Wash, rinse, repeat with close ups, portraits, flowers, landscapes, action shots, color, black and white.

    Also, go read about the basic rules of composition.

    If you take any descent photography course, that’s exactly what they’ll have you do.

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 7:56 am

      Yup, you just gotta get down-n-dirty. I also like what Jared Polin says about learning — basically, that you never stop. There are always more ways to get better!

  • Reply Michelle April 22, 2013 at 11:27 am

    I don’t have a DSLR, but I do want one! I just need to go out and buy one NOW.

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 7:56 am

      No, Michelle! No impulse buys on this blog!! 😉

  • Reply Rob April 22, 2013 at 11:45 am

    “…really wanted good photo documentation of our children”

    Well guys I’m not into photography but, just to add other thoughts to this conversation, I’m of the opinion that life is to be enjoyed with money budgeted for entertainment and discretionary spending, assuming of course that other important needs in life are also being met. So here I would say is a case where “wants” trump “needs”.

    Enjoy yourself – say “cheeeese” !!! 🙂

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 7:59 am

      Thanks, Rob! If I’d known what an expensive hobby I was getting myself into, I don’t know if I’d still have wanted to get started. But here I am, and I’ve always got my eye on another product to add to our camera bag! But moderation in everything, right?

  • Reply Rachel April 22, 2013 at 11:45 am

    I saved up for my first DSLR a few months ago and it was SO worth it! It’s a great investment, so I figured it was worth the price (about $600 for a Canon Rebel T3i). I sort of just taught myself and read the guidebook, but I should check out these Youtube videos, too!

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 8:04 am

      Agreed, Rachel! It’s pricey, but once you’ve got it, you don’t have to buy a new one for several years. And the quality pictures/videos you take during that time make it totally worth it!

      I like the Fro Knows videos because they’re really instructive but not as yawn-inducing as others!

  • Reply Jake Erickson April 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    This is awesome, the Fro guy sure does seem interesting. I bought a semi-DSLR camera last fall, so I’m still learning how to use it. Luckily it’s much easier to just pick up and shoot than a regular DSLR camera (or so I’ve heard), but it gives me the high megapixels and zoom that I wanted. I love doing outdoor photography and I’m looking forward to putting the camera to good use this spring/summer.

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 8:10 am

      Spring and summer are always when I take the most pictures, too! After several months of hibernation, it’s nice to get out and start documenting life again. And, let’s be honest, spring and summer is when our life gets interesting enough to actually be worth documenting! 🙂

  • Reply Pretired Nick April 22, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Right now I think it’s relatively easy to get a good used DSLR. And the quality for the past several years has been plenty good enough to get away with not buying the latest and greatest. Good opportunity for some savings!

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 8:11 am

      You’re right, Nick! Buying a model that’s a few years old saves hundreds, but the quality of your pictures remains fairly unchanged. It’s a win-win.

  • Reply Liz @ The Lambent Life April 22, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! I bought a SLT shortly before my second daughter was born in 2011 and naively thought I’d be able to pick it up and shoot like a pro. After all, I did take a photography class in college. In 2003. When most people were still using film. Anyway, I haven’t had a lot of time to learn how to properly use the camera so this helps immensely. Thank you!

    • Reply Joanna April 23, 2013 at 8:16 am

      Glad to help, Liz! It’s so much harder to find time for hobbies with kids! We only have one, and I already feel like my hands are tied. Luckily, once you do have time, you have two perfect subjects to practice on! 🙂

  • Reply Chaney April 22, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Ditto to all the other comments! I love, love, love my DSLR. I took photography in high school with a film camera, but had to brush up on my skills when I got my DSLR about 5 years ago. It’s worth learning the ins and outs of your camera, and there are some great blog posts on the basics too. We must be on the same wavelength here, because I just wrote up a post on 9 outdoor photography tips last week (here’s the post). Now that spring has sprung, it’s time to get out there and play with your camera! 🙂

    • Reply Johnny April 23, 2013 at 8:20 am

      Sounds like you had a cooler HS than me. I would have loved to take a photography class in HS. After two years in Ceramics, I might have spun one or two dumb little bowls worth keeping. And then breaking before I could even get it home.

      Awesome post! Those tips will be a good refresher now that our bodies are getting reacquainted to the giant bright ball in the sky.

  • Reply Ms. D April 22, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks for the info! Fro dude seems awesome. Definitely showing this to Mr. D — he loves our dslr. Lenses are too damn expensive though! It’s a good thing Mr. D’s uncle is a big photography buff and he offers his lens whenever we travel.

    • Reply Johnny April 23, 2013 at 8:07 am

      Don’t get me started on lenses… If it weren’t for that “cheap” (still $100!) 50mm one we bought, Joanna would still be shooting with the kit lens. The one bright side is that once you get one, it doesn’t depreciate all that quickly.

      We got to find us a Mr. D’s uncle. 🙂

  • Reply Elvin @ Journey To Millions April 22, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    I really wanted to buy our own DSLR for the same reason that you have, to document our lives especially when the baby comes. We want to document everything. However, in our budget, gadgets like these are on our bottom list since it’s not our passion.

    Anyway, enjoy shooting and learning! 🙂

    • Reply Johnny April 23, 2013 at 8:02 am

      Yep, it’s definitely not everyone’s passion. And at the end of the day, the best camera is the one you have on you. In other words, so long you have any camera with you to capture moments, you’re good.

  • Reply Emily @ evolvingPF April 22, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Thanks for these tips! I use my point-and-shoot all the time and desperately want a DSLR, but I also don’t want to buy one until I know I’m going to put the time into learning how to use it! Plus, it’s a LOT of money. Our friend outgrew her starter DSLR about a year ago and offered to sell it to us at a discount, but we didn’t have the scratch to take her up on it at the time.

    • Reply Johnny April 23, 2013 at 7:59 am

      When I bought it for Joanna’s bday/anniversary/every holiday for the year, my biggest concern was that she’d be overwhelmed and not use it. But thanks to that Fro dude and some friends, Joanna is totally obsessed and it’s ended up being one of our best investments yet. Definitely try the used market. Within a few years of buying entry-level options, a lot of people look to upgrade. Or they’ve given up learning how to use all those buttons. 🙂

      • Reply Zoua April 25, 2013 at 2:06 pm

        My husband bought me the Canon Rebel T3i for Christmas a few years ago.. and disappointed to say that I haven’t taken too many pictures on it. It really is overwhelming! I will have to take a look at Fro’s videos! Thanks.

  • Reply Blair@LifeDollarsandSense April 22, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    I am glad to know that I am not the only one who gets overwhelmed by the options and buttons! I would love to get a DSLR (esp. the new small rebel version that came out) but I get overwhelmed looking at them in the store. Thanks for the tips!

    • Reply Johnny April 23, 2013 at 7:54 am

      Joanna still has to hold my hand when she hands it over to let me shoot. But after using it enough times (taking baby bump photos) there are two or three things to remember and that’s that.

      Keep your eye open on Craigslist or ask friends that might be upgrading for a cheaper way to get one. Camera technology doesn’t deteriorate nearly as fast as computers or other tech things, so a 5-year-old model will still do an awesome job.

  • Reply Catherine April 23, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    I don’t have one but I reallly want one. I have a hybrid right now. It’s point and shoot but has a semi manual mode which is nice. It takes really nice pictures so I’m happy for now.

    • Reply Johnny April 29, 2013 at 1:49 am

      We have some friends and family that have those and they are awesome. Seems like an awesome option. And if/when the time comes to get a full DSLR, you’ll be far better prepared than we were when we first got ours.

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