Read the Manual
Make sure that you have read the manual and noted the important points. Flagging these important pages helps in referring them at a later stage. I suggest, keep the camera with you as you go through the manula so that you understand where is what. A lot of pages you may need to refer to again as you practically use your camera in the field.
Attach the lens
unlike compact cameras, DSLR cameras have separate camera bodies and lenses which can be attached together to actually create the camera that works. Those who are graduating from compact to the DSLR category may not actually know this and get confused. so yes, it may sound obvious but you need to attach the lens to the camera. Refer to your manual to understand how.
Set the AF/M switch.
This is the switch that controls if the lens will be controlled and focused automatically by the camera or if you will be manually rotating the dial on the lens to focus. There is no real advantage of focusing manually unless there is a specific reason for doing so. I very strongly recommend setting the focus on AUTO. Dont forget to set the switch on the lens as well on AF otherwise the camera wont be able to focus on its own an Autofocus mode.
Insert the Memory card
Just as Film, you need to insert a memory card in its slot in the camera. Cameras do not come with inbuilt memory like mobile phones. Make sure that you are inserting these correct way in. Unless you have set the camera on a particular setting, you may end up shooting without recording and storing them on any media.
To focus, lightly press the shutter release button.
It needs a little practice to press it halfway and not all the way down. Once the focus is achieved you may hear a beep sound unless you have kept it off through the camera menu. Learn to focus at the most important area of the subject generally the eyes and then without lifting the finger from the shutter release button recompose the shot the way you want it to be. The camera will not change the focus until you lift the finger. As long as the subject remains at the same distance, it will be in focus.
You cant focus within the minimum focus distance of the lens.
Remember, every lens has a specific minimum focus distance less then which it cannot focus so do not move too close to the subject where it is not possible for your lens to focus. Minimum focusing distance is more in Longer lenses as compared to shorter lenses which can focus at relatively much nearer distances. But don't make the mistake of going in too close while using a wide angle lens as this will cause distortion in the subject. Step back and zoom in towards a longer focal length for a more pleasing perspective especially when shooting Portraits.
Minimum focusing distance on a lens is mentioned both in meters and feet on all lenses
Hold the camera steady.
Hold and rest the camera lens on the palm of your left hand while holding the grip of the camera with your right hand. Always keep the strap around the neck as this keeps both your hands free if you need to make any changes in the setup.
keep the camera high enough not to touch the belt buckle
Set the camera on aperture priority.
Called Av on canon and A on Nikon. Do not confuse the A with the Auto mode. Depending upon the kind of depth of field you are planning for your photograph select the aperture accordingly. Open up for less DOF and close down for more DOF. (Towards the smaller number is open and towards a larger number is closed.
Don't let the Shutter speed drop down
However, keep an eye on the shutter speed as you change the aperture and it should not fall under 1/60th of a sec. In case it so happens, move the aperture in a manner so that you get a higher shutter speed. Allowing more light to enter via the aperture will allow you to let the exposure be for a lesser duration and hence a higher shutter speed.
If you are unable to manage a safe shutter speed by adjusting Aperture and shutter speed,, change the ISO to a higher number but doing so leads to quality loss. If you are shooting a still life, a tripod may be used. The tripod and image stabilising system is for camera shake and not for the subject movement. These assure that there is no camera shake but do not influence or counter the subject movement. The moving subject will be frozen with the use a higher shutter speed relative to the speed of the subject's movement. Faster the subject, faster should be the shutter speed.
Don't force your way to Manual Mode
Most of the times, having Depth of field of your choice is the priority. Choose the Aperture accordingly and let the corresponding shutter speed be set by the camera as per the metering mode. If the shutter speed is too low for a hand held shot, adjust the exposure by opening up further. This will change the shutter speed to the higher side. You may try to change the ISO towards the higher side if you are already on an opened aperture and the shutter speed is still low. By moving to manual mode and manually keeping the desirable Aperture and Shutter speed is not the solution. This will lead to underexposure.
Make use of the Zoom
Focal length dial on the Zoom lens lets you change the framing of the subject. Moving towards the lower number lets you see a wider angle of view whereas moving towards a higher number lets you see narrow and further away view. Also changes the perspective and depth of field.
Shoot vertically as well
Hold the camera vertically as well wherever required. People tend to forget this and continue to shoot horizontally only. However, if you start shooting your videos vertically or horizontally, stick to that format all through out and do not switch the formats in between. We look at photographs individually but we watch videos in one go and sticking to one format works better here.
Do use the other hand as well for support while shooting vertically or horizontally unlike as in the photograph
Do not switch off the camera while the card is being written to / light is on
Make sure that you are inserting the CF/ SD card the right way in.
Do not manually rotate the lens when set on Auto focusing.
Explore natural light first
To begin with venture out shooting in good natural light instead of shooting indoors and in low light. This will boost your confidence and help you understand lighting and camera functions better. All cameras perform better in good natural light and allow you to understand and get a hang of all the controls and functions.
Do check out the Depth of field preview button in good natural light for a better understanding. As you close down the aperture, the view gets darker but clearer. It actually shows you the view through the set closed aperture through your viewfinder. Important to know that the Aperture that you set is physically set only when the shutter is released. During the blackout when you cant see through the viewfinder. Depth of field preview button allows you to physically close to the chosen aperture and let you see through it from the viewfinder. Today, with digital photography, this feature has less significance as one can easily click a picture and evaluate the depth of field in the camera screen.
Once you get a little comfortable with your camera, also explore various metering modes and exposure compensation features on your camera. If you find metering too technical and would like to understand more about metering at a slow pace, keep the metering on your camera at Multi pattern of centre weighted metering and NOT at spot metering. Spot metering is for a more specific purpose and without proper understanding may do more harm than good to the exposure.
Make the best of Accessories.
Do use a UV filter and appropriate lens hood. UV filter was originally meant to block the UV light from entering the lens. UV light would put a cast and negatively influence the colours on the film. Today, as we shoot digitally it does not really matter much and UV light is taken care of. However, you may still use it to protect the front element of the lens from dust and scratches. But use only a very good quality filter as the quality of lens is of no use if the light passes through the inferior glass to begin with.
Lens Hoods block the unnecessary light entering the lens. These light rays are not the ones which form the actual image but are stray light rays which are just able to enter the lens and cause a flair. Lens hood blocks these. Always use the compatible lens hood other wise it can cause vignetting on the corners or be not effective enough to block the stray light.
Flairs can be intentionally added in the photograph for creative reasons but you should not end up having them in all your shots accidentally.
Content is the King, Do not ignore this aspect
As you learn the technical features of the camera, do not ignore the other side. Aesthetics are also very important and continue to learn and develop your eye for better content, lighting, composition and all the factors which help in the making of a photograph.
Explained once again .......
Shoot at Aperture priority
while choosing the aperture keep in mind two things
1. Depth of field. choose an opened aperture (f2.8) for shallow depth of field and move towards f 22 for more depth of field.
2. If the shutter speed drops less than 1/60th sec, open up aperture or increase the ISO. If you open up, you tend to get shallow depth of field and if you increase the ISO, you get noise. Increase the ISO only to the extend that lets you shoot hand held at 1/60th sec ( 1/200th if on a focal length of 200mm)
REMEMBER to bring the ISO to the lowest number when a higher ISO is not required
Also REMEMBER that you are not just shooting at a closed down aperture even when you do not need more depth of field.
Its better to have noise /grain due to high ISO as this can be corrected/removed later on but having a blur due to slower shutter speed cant be corrected at all. People in general do not even notice higher noise but no body would accept a blurred image which will be rejected upfront.
FOCUS- make sure that you have focused the subject well. the focusing point must overlap the subject preferably the subject's eyes. It should not be on the background. Also make sure that you release/squeeze the shutter release button very gently. In certain situations dont shoot so fast so as not give the camera a chance to focus.
If you have a f2.8 lens- this does not mean that you always have to shoot at f 2.8 The idea of this lens in low light is also to help the camera focus faster in low light as the camera focuses with the fully open aperture and this makes focusing faster.
REMEMBER- with f2.8 with a very shallow depth of field your chances of error with exact focus are also higher compared to f5.6 /f 8 etc. As the error of focusing at a closed aperture may be taken care by the depth of field. This is especially important when the subject is moving around.
REMEMBER to step back and shoot at a higher focal length than to start shooting from wherever you are with a wider focal length. for example if you have a 24-70mm lens, shoot as much as possible closer to 70 than towards 24 in case of portraits.