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DSLR For Beginners: What I Learned During My First Month With A Camera

by Matt McMonagle
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Me with my DSLR, Photo: Casey Cosley

As much preparation and study that I put in to the first two weeks of owning my camera, I learned all my biggest lessons and reached my most unsurmountable breakthroughs from just using the darn thing.

I had been telling myself that I wanted to get into photography for too long. I mean, I work at CreativeLive for goodness’ sake! I had a lot of hesitation around the financial commitment, the learning barrier, and I’m sure I had a good amount of fear that I’d fail at photography. It turns out that with a little bit of patience and a plan, figuring out photography is fun!

What finally drove me to take the dive into DSLR photography was when a friend of mine invited me to go to Peru. I decided that was my perfect opportunity to start taking photos. How could I go to an exciting distant land and not bring any recorded memories from it back with me? No way Jose. This opportunity for adventure was just the push I needed.

First step: find a camera that you like and buy it. I went to various big box electronics stores to put my hands on different cameras. I knew I wanted either Canon and Nikon, so I just put different versions in my hands and I decided that I liked the Canon interface better. The T1i was the cheapest Canon DSLR that I could find, and I happened to find one on craigslist with the kit lens and an extra battery.

I was ready to go. I had about 2 weeks to practice with the camera before embarking on my trip. Here’s what I learned.

Photography was harder than I thought

I didn’t understand composition, aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, white balance… the list goes on! All these concepts were foreign to me. However, being an audio engineer, I did have an innate grasp on ISO. It’s just like audio gain; gain makes your mic more sensitive to sound, and ISO makes your sensor more sensitive to light. Turn it up to 11! 

However, photography really wasn’t coming naturally to me. It wasn’t clicking how to make three seemingly simple settings work together to create a properly exposed image, and I was feeling defeated. So rather than continuing to teach myself, I turned to where I just happen to work – CreativeLive. With upcoming classes like John Greengo’s Photography Starter Kit for Beginners, I knew I could learn exactly what I needed.  I can’t recommend it highly enough to any budding photographers. It took the shock out of taking the plunge into DLSR Lake!


Wondering how to use that new beginner DSLR to take better photos? Through the whole month of January, CreativeLive is having Beginner Photography Month, a series of free classes designed to get you up and running with your camera! Sign up now for each class! 

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The Importance of Fundamentals

For two weeks, I practiced with depth of field and struggled with shutter speed. I took a lot of boring and blurry photos. I didn’t have a point of reference for how fast a shutter closed. It seems like 1/1000th of a second is really fast. And it also seems like 1/100th of a second is really fast. I mean, really, it seems like 1/15th of a second is really fast. I can’t do anything in 1/15th of a second!

blurry foot

Photo: Matt McMonagle

camping cheese

Photo: Matt McMonagle

How do you figure out how fast the shutter speed has to be to freeze action? I found a stellar breakdown that provided me nine points of reference for shutter speeds. After studying the breakdown, I decided that I would make sure my shutter speed was always above 1/125th of a second to get sharp images. It wasn’t science, but it was a starting place.

shutter speeds for sharpness

Photo: John Greengo


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Something else that was really important to my learning process was going through every menu and setting on my camera, trying to understand every function. The more I understand my tools, the more I can focus on the art or moment or adventure. Learning the fundamentals is so important because it lets you focus on your goal, rather than your tool. 

Mistakes happen 🙂 

It was time to embark on my journey. Peru, here I come! I was flying from San Francisco so I had a lot of time in the air and what better way to spend it than playing with my camera? The camera still felt so foreign in my hands. I was overwhelmed by the amount of things I didn’t know.

airplane wing

Photo: Matt McMonagle

So, I continued going through every setting. Trying to learn every button. I adjusted picture profiles. I adjusted white balance (which is something I still struggle with. Auto White Balance is good enough for me; I shoot RAW anyways.) I adjusted the diopter. Whoops. I shouldn’t have done that!

I’m actually not sure if I intentionally adjusted the dial that sets the viewfinder’s relative focus or if I nudged it at some point, but I am sure that I didn’t realize what I had done until I got back to the states and I realized why while I was shooting everything just seemed – a bit off. A bit soft. Or out of focus. I’m not really sure if I had the photographical dialect to explain what was going on. I figured I was probably just a really bad photographer. It turns out, I just needed more practice with my tool! Once I fixed my diopter blunder, photography got a lot more fun. Everything started to click. 

The easiest way to learn is to just shoot away!

Learning from the CreativeLive guide on how to become a photographer, I had my camera in my hands and held up to my face the entire trip. I didn’t go anywhere without it. I took a lot of bad photos, like, a lot. I also took a lot of photos that I’m proud of and so happy to have to remember the things I saw and people I met.

Who cares if everything is blurry, out of focus, too dark, too bright? That’s literally the worst-case outcome from pressing the shutter. I haven’t regretted a single picture I’ve taken.

Whether you’ve got a big vacation coming up that you want keepsakes from, your kids are going through their awkward phase and you want blackmail material, or you just need a new challenge and creative outlet, I can’t recommend DSLR photography highly enough. And if you’re nervous about the high learning curve, check out Khara’s Beginner Photographer’s Crash CourseHere are some photos that will help me remember my first ever photo adventure forever. Share a photo that reminds you of an adventure!

brother from another mother

Photo: Matt McMonagle

My Danish brother from another mother watching the rain roll in.

lime girl

Photo: Matt McMonagle

Dos limas, por favor! I sat at the Cusco city center the night before embarking on my trek, catching the bustle of the small city.

meditation mountain

Photo: Matt McMonagle

I finally reached the peak of Mt. Salkantay. I took this photo minutes before learning about and taking part in the rock stacking ritual.


Wondering how to use that new beginner DSLR to take better photos? Through the whole month of January, CreativeLive is having Beginner Photography Month, a series of free classes designed to get you up and running with your camera! Sign up now for each class! 

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Matt McMonagle

Matt McMonagle is an outdoor lifestyle photographer, a lover of living on the road and CreativeLive’s special snowflake.