First things first, I am by NO MEANS a professional photographer... but I take a lot of pictures and I know just enough about DSLRs to be dangerous.
A lot of what you'll find below will be most useful for DSLR users, but even most point-and-shoot cameras have similar settings to higher end DSLRs these days.
1. TAKE IT OUT OF AUTO MODE
You know that little dial on the top of your camera? The one you always have set to "picture of a green camera" mode? You gotta give yourself a little more credit than that, and take your camera out of "stupid mode".
I musn't speak too soon... fact is, if you've stumbled across Bigfoot, and your camera is in your bag, don't worry about the setting... "stupid mode" click click click is the way to go. But for everything else, give "A" mode a shot.
"A" mode stands for "aperture priority", but don't even think about that yet, cuz it'll just frustrate you and you'll give up. Just know that the high-end look you're trying to accomplish (the photo with the face in focus and the background blurry) is accomplished with A-mode. Put your camera to "A", then twist your dial/wheel (or maybe push the left arrow button) until the number doesn't go any lower. Most cameras will end up at 3.5 (or f3.5), but the lower the better. Once that number is set, your camera will adjust everything else to take a "good" photo and you'll get the most "blur" you can.
(I tried to make this one very non-techy... please see number 5 for the geek stuff)
2. ONLY FLASH WHEN YOU HAVE TO
Nothing looks worse than an on-camera flash. Sure, in a dark room you have no choice, but your camera has many more options than just the flash to accommodate darkness.
I'm going to tuck this one inside this tip... also, don't use redeye reducer flash. Nobody likes to be flashed in the face once, let alone 3 or 4 times. Plus, they're not usually expecting it so you miss the moment completely when they've blinked or dropped the smile. There are sooo many free redeye tools that you can use after the photo has been taken (yes, prolly even on your camera).
3. LEARN TO WHITE BALANCE
White balance is telling your camera what white is in your current location... then all the other colors will fall into place. White outside looks VERY different than white inside. Even though the human eye is AMAZING at making the transition (so much so that we can't even tell), our cameras aren't that nice.
Your camera has an "auto white balance" mode. This is fine, but it's not always right (I know my Nikon isn't). It's better to pick the mode that fits your scenario. Use the one with the picture of the sun when you're on the beach. Use the one with the cloud when you're hiking in the woods or maybe inside near a window. Use the one with the light bulb when you're in the kitchen or when it's dark outside and you're taking pictures at a party. Use the one with the lightning bolt when you're using a flash.
Best of all... Use the "measure" white balance tool when you've got 10 seconds before taking a photo. Nikon users, select "measure" then take a picture of something white filling your frame with it (a piece of paper or a t-shirt or a wall)... that's it. Canon users, take the photo of the white thing first... then "measure" and navigate to that photo on your camera.
4. BUY A 50mm f1.8 LENS
So you bought your first DSLR and you're happy with it, but you're still not taking the portraits you "thought" you'd be taking with this new $700 camera. What you're dealing with is crappystocklensobia. Your camera came with a lens with the numbers 18 - ??? f3.5 on it right?
Your stock lens is your "work horse" lens. If you only get one lens and a body, you need a zoom lens... hence the 18 - 55 part (18mm is wide and 55mm is tight or close-up). BUT, it's the f3.5 part that's killing you. That part is (like I mentioned in #1) the aperture, and it's measured in f-stops (the "f" part). What the aperture does is change the DOF (depth of field), and that is the thing that makes your subject, in focus, and everything else, out of focus... what you want more of.
In order to get non-subject things MORE out of focus, or blurry, you need a new lens... specifically one with a low f-number. The reason my tip is "buy a 50mm f1.8" is because both Nikon and Canon sell theirs for less than $130. If you can afford the f1.4 or even f1.2, go for it, great lenses. But heads up, the 50mm is what's known as a "prime" lens... it doesn't zoom... at all... to get a tighter shot, you need to use your feet. Zoom lenses with low f-numbers are very expensive, and you should buy other accessories long before you spend your first $1400 on one lens.
5. GET COMFORTABLE WITH "M" MODE
Ahhh... the dreaded "M" mode. You prolly already guessed it... that's manual. Everything in your court and nothing left up to camera intelligence.
Don't worry... I got your back.
Here are the steps...
- Choose your ISO first: Look around. Are you outside? Then pick ISO 200. Are you in a well lit building, like a mall? Pick 400. Is it kinda dark, like your living room? Pick 800. Darker? Go higher. The ISO is the "sensitivity" of your sensor. The higher the number, the more sensitive. But beware, don't just set it high and leave it... the higher numbers also add a lot of grain.
- Choose your f-stop next: Are you taking a picture of a person? Lowest f-number you got (hopefully 1.8 with your new lens). Is it a group of people? Go a little higher, maybe 5. Are you shooting a landscape? Choose higher, maybe 11 or so. The f-number controls the aperture which is the "door" in the lens that allows light through or not. The lower the number the more "open" the door is (which is why it's great to shoot in low light with a low f-number)... the higher the number the less the door is open, only allowing a little light through (but causing everything to be in focus... no DOF... great for scenic nature photos).
- Choose your shutter speed last: This is the thing you need to adjust on the fly. For Nikons it's just a number (like 120). For Canons it's a fraction (like 1/120). Either way, it's a fraction of a second... 120 is one-hundred-twentieth of one second... higher is faster. How do you know what number to have it on? Great question. See that dotted line at the bottom of your viewfinder with the vertical line "0" in the middle. That's your light meter. That's how you know. You'll see a little mark moving around on that meter when you point your camera at something well lit, then point it to a shadow. Your goal is to point it at what you want to take a photo of, then roll the dial/wheel on your camera doing your best to try and get it to the zero in the middle. Then click. In general, the faster (higher) the better... but you can't go too high, cuz then you're not letting enough light in, and your picture will be too dark. And you can't go too low, cuz then you're shutter is open too long and your photo will be blurry from movement. Are you photographing busy babies or children? Try not to go below 120. Are you indoors and people are posing for you? Try not to go lower than 60. Are you on the beach shooting a volleyball game? Crank that mother, maybe 1000+. Once you've hit 40 or lower, it's time to put your camera on a tripod... you prolly can't hold the camera still enough to get the clarity you want.
Still need help? Post your scenario and I'll give you some settings to try.