3 things you must know about using your DSLR camera

Nikon D800Rafi Letzter/Tech InsiderA Nikon D800 with a 50 mm prime lens.

Despite their cost and complexity, DSLR cameras — along with their upstart mirrorless cousins — are everywhere.

Walk down the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, through any major intersection in Manhattan, or past a million other tourist hotspots and you’ll probably see dozens of DSLR photographers snapping away.

It’s easy to understand why people buy DSLRs. Pros use them. They’re bigger and more expensive than point-and-shoots. So they must be better, right?

The real answer is that it depends.

The point of a good DSLR is to give you control over your image. Quality is a factor, but if it were the only factor you’d see your wedding shooter wielding an iPhone.

Here are the three main ways to unlock the power of your DSLR. If you’re not at least dabbling with them, you might as well put your camera on eBay.

The first thing you should do is build up a collection of lenses you love.

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One huge mistake people making when buying interchangeable-lens cameras is dumping all their budgets on the camera itself and skimping on the glass. Many people never move past their 'kit lens' -- the junky plastic things DSLR makers often bundle with their starter and intermediate cameras.

Let's say you have $1,000 to spend on a new camera. Only about half of that should go toward its body. The rest should go to one or two great lenses. Here's why:

Look at this image of Tech Insider video intern Zach Wasser.

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Now, look at this one.

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Maybe you can tell which one was shot on my $200 Moto G3 cell phone and which one was shot on a $2,000 Nikon D800 with a kit-quality lens. Maybe you can't. But it's hard to say there's an $1,800 difference between them.

The first image, shot on the G3, is a bit too warm. But that's an easy enough fix in any editing app. Both pictures, shot on automatic modes, have focus issues.

The D800 does have slightly more depth-of-field even with the kit lens -- that's the effect that makes objects in the foreground and background look slightly out of focus. But I don't think that adds all that much to this frame.

Kit lenses are a bit like those pens that promise to write in five different colours -- they promise a lot to first-time buyers, but they don't do any one thing well.

Look at what happens when I switch to a high-quality lens.

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Without moving my feet or switching off automatic mode, I took the kit lens off my camera and replaced it with a nice single-purpose lens.

The image quality is much better here. None of that jump came from the D800; a $400 DSLR could have captured this frame just as nicely.

I chose a long lens, 85 mm, so the frame is now much tighter. But I could have gone with a wide lens, or even hooked up a macro lens for detail shots of his irises and we would have seen just as much improvement.

Single-purpose lenses that don't zoom in and out tend to be much cheaper than zoom lenses of similar quality. This one cost me $200 -- not all that much more than some kit lenses. But look how sharp it is. The detail, contrast and depth of field are all major improvements over the kit lens.

Outdoors, the lens difference is even clearer. Here's the kind of picture you might take on a DSLR with a kit lens.

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See how messy the background is? Basic lenses sacrifice depth of field capabilities in order to zoom in and out and keep costs and weight down. The image comes out blurry and plain, and could just have easily have come from a DSLR or a cell phone.

But with a $100 prime lens in my pocket I can get this shot.

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The image improves drastically. My angle for this photo is just as boring as in the last one. But suddenly it produces a fairly nice picture of this man I met on a park bench. That's because a 50 mm lens with even a moderate depth-of-field -- the sort even the cheapest prime lenses can accomplish -- has blurred out the background so he pops. A range of even two or three great lenses will improve your photography far more than any extra-pricey body.

I usually work with a wide-angle lens and a mid-range. Both prime. Total cost is under $450 after some careful eBay-ing.

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The wide-angle is great for shooting big scenes with lots of context.

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While the mid-range lets me shoot close-ups with plenty of depth.

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Hopefully you're convinced to skip the priciest camera in favour of some nice glass. But if you do all that and keep shooting in 'Automatic' mode, you still might as well be shooting with your smartphone camera.

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That's why the second thing you should do is learn to use your DSLR's 'Manual' mode. Here's how that cheap Moto G3 shot a marker in a dark room.

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Now look what my DSLR coughed up on 'Automatic' mode.

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The image is brighter, sure. But to compensate for the low light the camera held its shutter open for a few seconds. You can see the motion blur from my wobbly hands. That's because your DSLR is much dumber than your cell phone.

The same issue comes up when a bright light shines into the DSLR on 'Automatic' mode.

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Again, the cell phone actually does a better job in this situation.

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That is why you shoot in 'Manual' mode. Here's a picture I took a few years ago of a play in a very dark room. With only a soft red glow to light the scene, a cell phone wouldn't have seen anything in the murk. But through carefully balancing the three 'Manual' mode settings of the camera I got a workable picture.

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Those three settings are 'aperture', 'shutter speed', and 'ISO'. I'll go into more detail on how they work and how you can use them in a later post, but here's the short version:

'Aperture' is how wide your lens door opens to take a picture. The wider it opens, the more light comes in and the more intense the depth-of-field effect.

'Shutter speed' is how long your lens door stays open. Leave it open longer and you risk getting motion blur smeared across your image. But speed it up and you get less light.

'ISO' is the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light. Higher-ISO pictures are brighter and grainier. Lower-ISO pictures are darker but higher-quality.

Some cheap DSLR makers make these settings difficult or impossible to access. These cameras are the closest any major technology comes to an outright scam. Never buy a DSLR that won't let you adjust all three settings easily on the body itself.

Master the manual controls of your camera and you can make great pictures in any situation. In this example, the shot came out with lights shining right into the camera.

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In this one, a combination of a flash and long shutter opening produced a trippy effect.

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OK. You've got some nice glass and you're ready to shoot in manual mode. The third and final key to stepping up your DSLR game is not shooting JPEGS. Here's why:

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For this picture I deliberately under-exposed a shot of fellow Tech Insider Tech Intern Danielle Muoio. The camera looked at the light that came in, made its best guess about how the picture should look, and produced this image.

Luckily, I also had the camera save the RAW light file. A RAW file is the digital equivalent of a film negative. It records the light that entered the camera without processing it into a usable picture. With a few tweaks to the RAW file, I was able to return light to the scene.

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RAW files come with a couple of hitches though. The only really good processor out there is Adobe Photoshop, which can get expensive. Also, because they don't throw out any information they are much bigger than JPEGs.

But still, the difference between shooting in RAW and shooting in JPEG is the difference between developing your own negatives in a darkroom and taking them to CVS.

You don't have to do all three things on this list to make a DSLR worth owning, but even fiddling with one or two should drastically improve your photography. If it all sounds like too much trouble, you're probably better off with your cell phone.

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