A Quick Guide to Understanding Your Canon Digital Rebel XTi

This is a very basic guide to digital SLR photography using the Canon Digital Rebel XTi. This guide is meant to start you out using your new XTi, and help you get the most out of owning an SLR by not keeping it in Auto mode all the time! :)

canon digital rebel xti top viewcanon digital rebel back view
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I would start out by using your camera in AV or TV mode.

1. AV Mode – Aperture Priority

Turn the dial on the top of your camera to AV. This means that you will be setting the Aperture, and then the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to make sure you have a correct exposure. That means the pictures is not too bright and not too dark. :) Look at the second picture.. Do you see where it says -2…-1…0…1…2 ? That’s your exposure. In AV mode, the little arrow is probably covering up the 0 which means you have a correct exposure. And in AV mode, it won’t change. It will always stay on the 0 unless you specifically tell it to move to a higher or lower number. In most cases, if the arrow is on a higher number, the picture will be over exposed (too bright) and if it is on a lower number it will be under exposed (too dark). So for right now, we’ll just let it stay on 0. :)

Let’s talk a little bit about Aperture. Look at the second picture. See where it says 5.6? That means the aperture is at 5.6 or f/5.6. The lower the aperture number, the wider your lens is open and the more light it lets in, meaning, the brighter the picture. This also means a shallower depth of field. You know, you’ve seen those pictures where one thing is in focus and everything around is has that nice blur? That’s a very shallow depth of field. That means the aperture was set very low, like maybe at f/2.8. When you see the pictures with a lot of people in them and a lot of stuff in the background, and everything is in focus, those pictures probably used a higher aperture, like f/11 or f/16 or even f/22. That also means that not as much light will be let into the lens, so you will have to have a lot of other light, like from a bright sun outside or a flash or something.

If you got the kit lens with the XTi, you got the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. (Note, if you haven’t already gotten your camera, don’t get this lens. Get the body only and get a different lens, keep reading for my suggestion). With the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, you won’t be able to set your aperture very low, which means this lens isn’t great for taking pictures inside unless you use a flash. When it says your lens is “f/3.5-5.6” that means the lowest you can set your aperture is at f/3.5, and only when your lens is set at 18mm (not zoomed in at all). If you’re zoomed in all the way (55mm) the lowest you can set your aperture is f/5.6. And if you’re zoomed in somewhere in between, then the lowest you can set your aperture will be somewhere in between 3.5 and 5.6.

Now, to change your aperture, you use the little black dial thing right below the shutter button in the first picture. See it? :) Turn it to the left for a lower aperture and a right for a higher one. Be sure to keep an eye on your shutter speed as you do this. See the number 1/125 in the second picture? That’s your shutter speed. As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to be holding the camera with your hand (not using a tripod) you don’t really want to have the second number of your shutter speed (in this case, 125) set lower than what mm you are zoomed to, going no lower than 50. Letting your shutter speed get lower than 1/50 will cause “camera shake” and your pictures to be blurry. If you get another lens with a longer zoom (like 85mm) then you will know not to set your shutter speed lower than 1/80. Get it? :)

With the kit lens, it might be difficult to get a high enough shutter speed to handhold when trying to take pictures inside, unless you have a LOT of light. Or you can try setting your ISO really high…

2. Let’s talk about ISO real quick

To change your ISO, press the ISO button. See it in the second picture on the right? The lower your ISO (100-200), the smaller amount of light your camera will use. So if it’s a real bright sunny day and you’re taking pictures outside, set your ISO to 100. The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will use. So if you want to take a picture inside without a flash, you can try setting your ISO higher to 800 or 1600 to see if you can get a high enough shutter speed to hand hold your camera. The catch with using a high ISO is that it makes your pictures pretty grainy, it shows up REALLY bad in reds and oranges, so I always try to use the lowest ISO possible.

3. TV Mode – Shutter Priority

Turn the dial on the top of your camera to TV. This means you will be controlling the shutter speed and the camera will automatically adjust the aperture to make sure you have a correct exposure. Shutter speed is how fast the camera records the picture. You’ve seen those pictures of cars at night where you can only see a red streak from the tail lights, right? That’s because the shutter speed was set very low to record for a long time and capture the car as it was driving out of the picture. And you’ve seen pictures of athletes that completely stop motion and show exactly what he was doing right at that millisecond? :) Those pictures use a high shutter speed.
To change your shutter speed, use the same dial you used to change your aperture. When set it TV mode, it will control your shutter speed. Turn it to the left for a lower shutter speed and the right for a higher one. I like to keep my shutter speed around 125 when taking portraits of something that’s going to be relatively still… A sleeping baby, kids that are old enough to sit still and smile for the camera, etc. If you have a lot of wiggling around, like babies or toddlers, you might want to go higher to around 200. If you want to capture action, like a kid running, riding a bike, paying a sport, etc, you probably want your shutter speed to be around 500 to 1000.

Be sure to keep an eye on your aperture as your change your shutter speed. If your aperture number starts flashing, that means that the shutter speed you selected is too high to correctly expose the picture. That means your aperture can’t be set any lower to allow in more light and your image will be too dark. You need to lower your shutter speed until the aperture number stops flashing. This means the picture will be correctly exposed. Again, with the kit lens, this may be hard to accomplish inside and still have a high enough shutter speed to hand hold the camera. Try taking some test pictures near a big window on a sunny day or just go outside. :)

4. Focusing

Okay, look at the first picture. See that thing that looks like a plus sign made out of small boxes contained within a box? :) The button right below that is the AF Point Selection button and it controls your automatic focus (AF) point selection. Turn your camera on and press that button. See if it’s set to “automatic selection”. This means your camera will “guess” what you’re trying to focus on, and automatically choose what it thinks you want to focus on. I get a lot of out of focus shots by leaving it on “automatic selection”, therefore, I like to change mine to “Manual AF Point Selection”. To change it on your camera, first make sure the AF Point Selection screen is open by pressing the AF point selection button, then press the “SET” button (located under the ISO button and above the WB button in the second picture, see it?). This brings up a diamond shaped grid of focus points. One of them should be highlighted. That means it’s always going to focus right there. I keep mine set right in the middle, but you can change it to any point, whichever one you feel most comfortable with. To change it, use the 4 buttons located to the north, south, east and west of the SET button. When you get it to the desired point, just press the AF point selection button again.

Now, as I said earlier, when set to Manual AF Point Selection, your camera will always focus in that one spot. When you look through the view finder, you should see the same AF point selection grid. If you press the shutter button halfway down, the AF point you selected will highlight and you will probably hear your lens focusing. This means your lens is focused on that one spot. Now sometimes, just because it’s focused in that one spot, doesn’t mean the picture is framed exactly how you want it. Just keep the shutter button pressed halfway down and move your camera until the picture is framed the way you want it. Then press the shutter the rest of the way to take the pic. With practice you will be able to do this very quickly.

5. M Mode – Manual!

Practice A LOT using AV Mode and TV Mode. Some people will say that AV mode is better than TV mode and you should never use TV mode. I disagree- they are both there for a reason and can be very useful in their own ways in different situations. Practice A LOT and learn what situations call for what shooting modes. Is a nice background blur more important? Use AV. Is capturing speed most important? Use TV.

After mastering AV mode and TV mode, it’s not that much of a leap to go to fully Manual Mode. To shoot in Manual mode, turn the dial on the top of your camera to M. The black dial right below the shutter button now controls your shutter speed. To change the aperture you will use this same dial while holding down the AV button (see it in the second picture? It’s just to the right of the screen, the one at the very top).

After lots of practice in AV mode and TV mode, you will be familiar with what shutter speeds and apertures you prefer. Now you can put them together! When changing the shutter speed and aperture, be sure to keep an eye on your exposure. Remember, that’s the thing on the screen in the second picture that says -2…-1…0…1…2. You want to keep your exposure around 0. I keep mine between 0 and 1 because I like brighter pictures.

Now, any number of shutter speeds and apertures will get you a “correct” exposure of 0. Which one should you use? The book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson is a great resource. After you’ve mastered AV and TV modes, get this book and read it cover to cover. It gave me a deeper understanding of my camera and SLR photography, and explained everything in layman’s terms that I could understand. It also gives real life analogies that just made things I had previously heard, but hadn’t really grasped, *click*. I noticed an overall improvement in my photography from day one.

6. The Nifty 50 – Lens Recommendation

If you don’t already have a lens for your XTi and even if you do, I would highly recommend the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. This is a great lens for beginners and professionals alike. And the best part is, it’s *VERY* inexpensive!! :) This is a Prime Lens, which means it does not zoom in and out at all. This was hard for me to understand until I got my first prime lens. :) But it doesn’t move at all! :) If you want to zoom in and out you have to do so with your feet. :) 50mm means that’s how much it zooms in to and it doesn’t zoom in any closer or out any further than that. It just stays right there at 50 mm. 50mm is comparable to the kit lens when it is zoomed out all the way. 50mm is a great length for taking pictures indoors. The lens is also great for indoors because it has a low aperture f/1.8!!! :) The only word of caution about setting your aperture too low is that, like we discussed earlier, your depth of field will also be very small. So it can be difficult to get more than one person in focus with a low aperture. Also if you’re very close to your subject, it can even be difficult to get both *eyes* in focus. :)

7. What’s in my camera bag? This is the equipment I use and highly recommend! :)

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