Do-it-yourself DSLR: Take your organization’s visual destiny into your own hands

Ty Pierce, Ohio History Connection, USA


The modern DSLR camera is an incredible communication tool that combines exceptional image quality and affordability into an unparalleled opportunity. Amateurs and professionals alike are taking advantage of this new visual frontier to create amazing works that promote, inspire, and educate, but many museums are still starved for the visuals they need to connect with audiences. This paper accompanies a hands-on workshop that teaches the skills necessary to capture moments and tell stories that matter to your institution. It consists of three parts—Knowing Your Camera, Digital Photography, and DSLR Filmmaking—designed to give attendees a firm technical foundation in using their camera, and will builds on that foundation with workflows and best practices that cover preparation, production and post, storytelling, and equipment. Highlights include: becoming a visual communicator for your organization; photo versus video?; shoot once, use many; thoughtful composition; make aperture work for you; camera RAW saved my life; know thy camera, know thyself; shot happens; post-production ASAP; enabling your organization’s “visual evangelists”; the most important piece of video equipment (is not a camera); and getting off the script. The workshop includes a photo walk during the session to capture images at the venue, and instruction on post-production workflows for photography and video production using Adobe’s Creative Suite. Though it is not required to participate, attendees are encouraged to bring their own cameras and laptops to put these lessons into practice as part of the workshop experience.

Keywords: DSLR, Camera, Photography, Videography, Filmmaking, Marketing

1. Introduction

The modern digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is an incredible communication tool. The combination of exceptional image quality, control, and affordability is unparalleled, and the ability to shoot high-resolution photos and high-definition video has fostered a convergence of disciplines between the photographer and video/filmmaker crowds.

Amateurs and professionals alike are taking advantage of this new visual frontier to create amazing works that promote, inspire, and educate. Promotional photos, social media fodder, exhibit video, commercial production—all can be created by a single device. The barrier to entry has never been lower, and for relatively little cost museums can buy a camera kit that puts the power to create impactful visuals into their own hands and pay dividends for years to come.

So why aren’t they?

While DSLR technology has improved and the convergence of photo and video into a single device has changed the industry, as always it’s the skill of the person behind the camera that makes for successful visuals. For many institutions, having a dedicated videographer on staff is not a financial reality, and if the internal creation of photo and video assets is an organizational priority on any level, it is often delegated to someone who has little production experience or training. This article seeks to start bridging that knowledge gap and empower museum professionals to get a running start with DSLRs.

2. Know your camera

In the interest of time, I’ll skip all the esoteric metaphors about painters and brushes, carpenters and hammers, etc. The bottom line is that you need to know your camera in order to be an effective visual communicator. Although a DSLR gives you unprecedented control over your image, the responsibility is on your shoulders to ensure that all variables are combining to form the best image you can get out of the situation.

Disclaimer: I should mention that this is written with the goal of shooting “full manual,” without using any of the camera’s automatic functions. You may choose to delegate some control of your image back to your camera’s processor, but I want to enable you to make that a creative choice and not a crutch.

For our purposes, there are three mechanical functions of your camera that contribute to a properly exposed image: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. In addition to controlling how much light hits the sensor, these also affect the look of your image in different ways.


Simply stated, this is the diameter of the lens opening and is represented by an f-stop number (f/2.8, f/5, etc.). Aperture controls depth of field, which is the range of distance that will be seen in focus. Manipulating this is how you get images with beautifully blurred backgrounds (also known as “bokeh”). The lower the f-stop, the blurrier the background and the shallower the depth of field.

Shutter speed

This is how long the shutter is held open and is typically shown in fractions of a second. Shutter speed is how you capture movement. If a subject is moving quickly, you need a faster shutter speed to avoid motion blur in the image. Contrarily, you can shoot with lower shutter speeds to blur movement for effect (i.e., light trails on a nighttime street, dreamlike blurs in moving water).


By increasing ISO, you increase the sensitivity of the image sensor, thereby requiring less light to maintain proper exposure. The tradeoff is that higher ISO ratings introduce digital noise into the image. Some cameras handle this better than others, so experiment with yours to determine the highest ISO rating you’re comfortable using.

Let’s take a situation I find myself in frequently—shooting indoors in a museum setting with only natural light with a Canon 60D. For still photography, I don’t like taking the Canon over 1250 ISO because the digital noise becomes too objectionable, so I usually park it at an ISO rating of 640. I won’t let my shutter speed go below 1/60 of a second because the image can start blurring from the movement of your hands during the shot. The image will still be dark, which means that I often shoot with my lens “wide open” at an f/2 or f/2.8 aperture. While this produces a nice blurred background, it also creates a very thin depth of field, making it tough to keep things in razor-sharp focus. If I’m trying to take a shot of a group of children playing, I’ll need to use a faster shutter speed to avoid their arms and legs being blurred in the photo. If I do that, though, I’m lowering the overall exposure of my image, which means I have to gain it back somewhere else. This three-way balancing act can be tricky and requires practice to find out what compromises you can make and still get the image you want.

Look at the settings dial on your camera. Between the extremes of M (full manual) and the green square (full auto), the spectrum is likely filled in with additional settings like Tv, Av, icons of a jumping stick person with what may be a tennis racket, and more. These settings focus the camera’s effort on specific functions of image making and are worth exploring. For instance, Av usually stands for “aperture priority”; you tell the camera what aperture you want to shoot at, and it adjusts the other parameters automatically to create a properly exposed image. Tv is shutter priority, which can be helpful when shooting fast-moving subjects like children in a play area. Spend a little time with your camera’s manual and think through scenarios that might warrant using these partially automatic settings.

In addition to the “Big 3,” there are other camera functions to consider as you start creating shots.

Focus: One of the most critical aspects of image making, as it’s one thing that can’t be “fixed in post.” Exposure, color saturation, and white balance can all be adjusted after the fact, but if an image is out of focus, you’re stuck. Focus is the first function I recommend “taking back” from the camera for exactly this reason, and also because it forces you to think critically about your aperture settings. Also, I find that focusing manually creates a physical interaction between you and the image that helps lock in mental focus to the moment at hand.

White balance: Light has a color. It has a lot of colors, actually, depending on where it’s coming from. Daylight is one color, incandescent bulbs give off another, and fluorescents are somewhere in between (the CLF bulb display at a big-box home improvement store is a great place to see this). What this means is that your camera has to be told what “white” is; otherwise everything will look unnaturally blue, or yellow, or some other weird hue. Never set your camera on fully auto for white balance; in a mixed light environment, you might have a different color cast for every single image, which is an enormous pain to fix. It’s better to set the camera to one specific setting that’s closest to the shooting environment and tweak afterward.

Camera RAW: This is an uncompressed file format that allows unprecedented control in altering your images in post. If your camera doesn’t shoot some type of RAW format, I highly recommend you get one that does.

Ultimately, the only way to understand these functions and how they affect your image is to get out there and shoot. To that end, here are some simple tips to improve your understanding of your camera and start developing your eye.

Get critical – Start collecting photos you like, following other organizations with great visual brands, and finding individual photographers whose work connects with you. Take notes on what you like about these images, and start thinking through what the photographer must have done to capture them.

Fill the frame – A good photo is like a good story: nothing is extraneous. A common mistake when starting out is to have too much dead space in the frame. Use the zoom on your lens or your feet to get closer and put your audience in the moment with you.

Take it everywhere – You never know when you’ll have a few minutes of free time. If you have your camera with you, rather than checking in on Facebook or firing up Pandora, you can spend a few minutes trying to find great shots in everyday scenarios.

Go on walkabout – Once a week, pack your lunch in your camera pack and get out of the office. Go to a park or to another museum, or just walk down the street and see what kind of shots you can capture. Spend half the time shooting, then review your shots while eating lunch. Take a critical look at what works, what doesn’t, and what you can improve.

Join a photo walk – Going on an organized photo walk, whether it’s an InstaMeet or a group of 35-millimeter film photographers, will help open your eye to new ways of shooting and connect you with people who can provide guidance, expertise, and a good bit of fun.

The art of wrong – This is a much less cliche way of saying, “Rules are meant to be broken.” As you work to become proficient in photography, you may find that a lot of your shots feel the same. Part of becoming a visual communicator is experimentation, so shake things up whenever you can. Try crazy angles, play with the placement of background elements, and push the boundaries of what you think you should do.

3. DSLR filmmaking

As you start building a firm technical foundation with your camera-shooting stills, at some point you’ll want to put it to the test and start shooting video. Maybe. It’s always worth asking the question, “Why video?” Our organization typically gets much more bang for the buck out of photos than videos. That said, nothing tells a story like video, so choose wisely what stories warrant the increased resources that producing video requires.

To start us off, what are the two most important pieces of video equipment?

Answer? A tripod and a microphone.

Camera support is one of the first things you should consider when gearing up for DSLR. We’ll not even begin to discuss what fluid-head tripod makes for the smoothest camera movement. The main function of a tripod is to get the camera out of your hands and onto something stable. Shooting handheld is an art that takes years of continual practice to pull off, and depending on the tone and style of a video even the best handheld shooting can look wonky. As someone just starting out with DSLR video, even a cheap tripod with gravel for bearings will create stable shots to start building your stories with.

Poor sound is the number-one killer of video, and to be frank, DSLRs are terrible for recording sound. They don’t have XLR inputs for “real” microphones, there are no visual meters to tell you how loud things are, there is no easy way to adjust the incoming signal even if you could monitor it, and the internal preamps add gobs of noise. To really use a DSLR for professional-quality video, you need to invest in an outboard audio adapter. We use a JuicedLink Riggy Assist that, despite the odd name, does a decent job of solving these issues in some way for under $400. That said, it does add a significant layer of complexity to your productions and requires that you embrace the compromise in order to create better videos.

One of the biggest pitfalls of firing up a DSLR for video is using the on-camera microphone (actually, that goes for almost any video camera). If your audience can’t hear what’s going on, you’ve lost them. If you’re serious about producing video, you need to get the mic off the camera and as close to your subject as possible. For general b-roll shots, even a hot shoe-mounted microphone like a Rode will improve your sound dramatically. For interviews, an off-camera boom mic or a lavalier work best, which is where the JuicedLink becomes such a critical piece of kit.

Technological disclaimers aside, I’d like to share some tips on putting your DSLR to work as a video camera.

Go off the script – Avoid trying to script pieces out in advance. For many types of video—especially videos used for Web promotion—a loose outline works just as well and can save an enormous amount of time. The people in your institution are extremely knowledgable and passionate about their areas of expertise; take advantage of that by structuring a series of questions that lets them fill in the details, then cut interviews together as the bedrock of your piece.

Shoot once, use many – Always think about other ways to maximize your time on set. While you’re interviewing a curator about a particular piece, also include several lighthearted questions to use as short “staff spotlight” clips on social media. Keep an eye out for b-roll shots that might work for another project, or flip from video to photo mode, grab a few still shots for your marketing department to use, and then switch back to video.

The ten-second rule – Every b-roll shot you take should be at least ten seconds long. In my experience, anything less than ten seconds and you run the risk of shorting yourself in the editing phase. On the flip side, when editing, never keep a single shot onscreen for longer than ten seconds. Obviously there are many exceptions to this (PBS documentaries, anyone?), but adhering to this rule for shorter pieces will help maintain a modicum of visual momentum in your videos.

The one-person band – Many of the video opportunities in your organization can be produced by one person working solo. I’m not going to say it’s always easy, but much of what your organization needs doesn’t require a crew of six people to pull off.

Light it up – Lights are an undeniable benefit to your videos. Even a single light for interviews can help you avoid ugly compromises with exposure and image quality. One guerrilla filmmaking trick is to combine a halogen shop light from your local hardware store with a $20 pack of diffusion gels from a photo/video supplier, and you’ll have enough light to do a two-person interview in convincing style.

4. Conclusion

Despite the potential pitfalls of a DSLR for video work, I love using them and have used them almost exclusively for our organization’s video productions. After I spent years of developing all sorts of tricks to make traditional video cameras look more film-like, a $1,000 DSLR gave me the image control and sophistication I couldn’t eke out of cameras costing ten times as much. With dedication and creativity, a DSLR camera will serve your institution well and repay itself time and again as it helps you capture impactful visuals and share engaging stories.

Cite as:
. "Do-it-yourself DSLR: Take your organization’s visual destiny into your own hands." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published February 1, 2015. Consulted .