Photography 101 For New DSLR Owners

As a new DSLR owner, congratulations are in order! Photography 101 for new DSLR owners will be a multi-part primer series for anyone wanting to better understand their cameras and gear before going too much further with their photography hobby.Photography 101 for new DSLR owners, by Maine wedding photographers, Russell Caron Wedding Photography

In this, our first post in photography 101 for new DSLR owners, we’ll talk about DSLR cameras, full and cropped frame bodies, and what it all means. What lies ahead is all in your control, where you take this is all up to you. You think (or know!) that you’re going to want to learn a little more about photography, experiment with lighting, the controls on your camera, and someday (soon, even?) maybe you’ll purchase some additional lenses for your new camera, but wow, where to start with all this? There are many options, of course, but we’ve put these posts together for you with the hopes of helping steer you in the right direction. Let’s chat first about a few basics. Since we want this article to be friendly to beginners and new-comers, we want to touch on a couple of things without trying to take the place of actual photographic instruction.

A DSLR is a digital single-lens-reflex camera. Typical models that this article is intended to address are consumer models that come from Canon, and Nikon. Canon models owned by readers of this post will likely include the Canon Rebel series, the 70D or perhaps 7D. (I wish I could point out the logic of what Canon’s numbering scheme is, but, well, I’m not sure even Canon can do that.) Nikon models people often start out with typically would begin with D and then have some 4-digit number after. The concept of a single lens reflex camera is that the same lens that is going to be used to make the image is what you’ll be seeing the image through in your viewfinder or on the screen on the back of your camera, i.e., what you see is pretty much exactly what your camera’s sensor will see when you press the shutter and take the photograph.

Because our next installment is going to delve into the wide and wonderful world of lenses, there is an important technical topic we need to go over in photography 101 for new DSLR owners, and that is “what type is the sensor inside of your DSLR body…i.e., is it ‘full frame’ or is it ‘cropped’?”

SENSOR SIZE: This is technical sounding, but it’s important. If you already know about how sensor size affects the image, please skip this section. If not, please stay. In later articles we will speak about lenses in terms of focal length, as measured in millimeters (mm) and how that lens “acts differently” based on which of two popular sensor sizes in cameras you have: (a) “APS-C” (aka “cropped”) sensors are found in most consumer and mid-level DSLRs and (b) full-frame sensors as found in camera manufacturer’s higher and top end as well as professional camera bodies. Why this matters is that the amount each sensor “sees” from the same lens is different.

Let’s start by talking about the sensor: it’s the part inside your camera that “sees” and makes the digital file from the image your camera and lens project onto it. It does what film used to do. A “full-frame” sensor is called that because it is fully the same size as is a frame of 35mm film: 24mm x 36mm.  An “APS-C” sensor is smaller, as shown in the diagram that follows. To make matters just a tad more confusing than they may already have been, Nikon and Canon each have a different (albeit very similar) size definition for their APS-C sensors. There’s a third sensor size becoming very popular, the “micro 4/3rds” sensor found in many of today’s “mirrorless” cameras.  For simplicity, however, this article isn’t going to specifically address the micro 4/3rds cameras, but the principles in this series are largely going to be the same.

lens basics by maine wedding photographersWhy do I need to know this? As you grow in photography a real fundamental is to be well-versed in lens focal length. The same exact lens set the same way on a cropped sensor camera and on a full-frame camera are going to necessarily produce two very different looks.

We’ll figure out which sensor you have in a minute (there’s a condensed list at the end), but in the meantime, let’s get our heads around the following thinking:

  1. Lenses attached to cameras with a full-frame sensor “act” (see) exactly as they would have on a 35mm film camera; i.e. a 50mm lens “behaves” exactly like a 50mm lens is expected. On a full frame camera a  24mm lens = 24mm; a 200mm lens=200mm, etc; i.e. there is NO “lens conversion factor” as there is going to be when the camera body has a smaller sensor (see #2).
  2. Lenses attached to a camera body with a smaller/cropped sensor, like the APS-C sensor that is in the vast majority of entry and mid-level (and a few high-level) camera bodies, seem somewhat “stronger” in effective “power”…by a (lens conversion) factor of 1.6x (Canon) and 1.5x (Nikon).  In a nutshell, it is because the sensor is “seeing” only the central portion of what the lens sees.  The result is perhaps fortuitous to those who frequently shoot at longer focal lengths, as a 200mm telephoto lens “becomes”, in effect, a 320mm lens (Canon) or 300mm lens (Nikon).  It’s important to note that of course the actual resolving power or quality of the lens hasn’t changed but the effect is there. Everything that goes up must come down, which is to say when there is an up-side, there must also necessarily be a down-side, right? And that down-side is that this “magnification” also occurs at the wide end of the spectrum…so that really wide 24mm lens on a camera body with a cropped sensor is going to “act” like a no-so-wide ~36mm or 38mm lens….
  3. Now you’re asking yourself, which sensor type do I have? In general, if you have a full-frame sensor, you know you do. That same generalization says that if you’re not sure what sensor your camera has, you likely have a cropped sensor. The bottom line is to look it up by model number on line and look for the specifications there. See the list we’ve given you as a start, below.

    Picture this: Envision a projector set up in a living room, projecting a sharp clear image onto a 6’x9′ screen at the other side of the room. The picture being projected fits precisely on the 6’x9′ screen. OK, now without moving the projector or its settings, you slide out the 6’x9′ screen and you slide in its place at the same exact distance to the projector a smaller 3’x5′ screen. The center part of the projected image is now clearly visible on the smaller 3’x5′ screen, but the rest of the picture has “spilled off” and isn’t seen on the smaller screen, right? The rest of the image is now unusable as it’s not falling onto the screen. This is precisely what happens when a camera with a cropped sensor is sent an image from the lens. The bottom line is that what is seen by the screen in this example and by the (cropped) sensor in our cameras, is the central portion only of the image, thus it appears “zoomed in”.

It’s acknowledged that camera manufacturers, Nikon and Canon specifically, have addressed this to some extent, making specific lenses for the cropped sensor cameras that don’t “waste” the projection of the outer edges that the sensor doesn’t see. Canon owners will want to note that “EF-S” lenses only will work on Canon cameras that have a cropped sensor while “EF” lenses work on both types of camera sensor size bodies (with the aforementioned crop factor, of course). Nikon differentiates their lenses with “DX” series lenses for their cropped sensor cameras and “FX” series for full-frame cameras. Oh, if only the first DSLR cameras just stuck with a sensor that matched 35mm size (i.e. ‘full-frame’) all of this technical confusion wouldn’t have ever occurred.

So, you are saying, “I will just stick with the lens type that matches my camera”. Well, that will be fine, maybe for good, but maybe not. First, it is still important to understand why your friend with a 24mm lens on their full frame camera gets such a breathtakingly wide angle of view but when you set to what would seem to be the same 24mm setting on your cropped frame sensor camera you have a much less dramatic view. But here’s the kicker: the lens series made for the cropped camera bodies are generally not going to satisfy your desire for lenses that are the “fastest” (with wide apertures for use in very low light), the sharpest, or built to “professional grade”.

If you plan to grow with your photography, it’s recommended you avoid buying the lenses that only work with cropped sensor cameras because (a) you likely will want to someday upgrade to a full-frame sensor camera and you don’t want to have to re-purchase a new collection of lenses to do so and (b) you are going to want lenses those lenses (that are fast, rugged, and the sharpest) eventually anyhow.

Our next installment in the photography 101 for new DSLR owners, we’ll talk about all the lens choices you have!

Canon Models with Cropped Sensor (not a complete list)
Rebel (all)
7D mkII

Canon Models with Full-frame Sensor (not a complete list)
5D Mk II

Nikon Models with Cropped Sensor (DX) (not a complete list)

Nikon Models with Cropped Sensor (FX) (not a complete list)

Look for our next post in the photography 101 for new DSLR owners series about lenses, coming soon!
If you enjoyed this post on photography 101 for new DSLR owners, please share! And thank you!
This Technical Tuesdays post, photography 101 for new DSLR owners, will be a multi-part primer series for anyone wanting to better understand their cameras and gear before going too much further with their photography hobby. Do you have questions, or recommendations for the Technical Tuesday series? Let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to share this post with your friends. Russell Caron is available for workshops, group instruction, or one-on-one mentoring. Call Russ at (207)233-4050, or email him at


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