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  • Wendy De la Garza

DSLR how-to with kids

I’m a documenter. If I ask myself why I learned to photograph, I’d say it was to tell my story and my family’s story. It’s what I personally see. It’s what I feel. It’s what I want to memorize and remember. Even if I don’t change anything about the placement of items or people in my photographs, I still framed it through my viewfinder and decided what was important. I may have even cropped that photo, or enhanced the colors in it. I may have zoomed in on a face, blurred a background to hide something distracting, or decided to take interest in the predator instead of the prey.

I moved my own body to photograph that angle. This is a great lesson for children as well. Their perspective is important! What is their story? So here goes…

Here are my top lessons when I hand my “big camera” to my youngest. I almost always shoot with a prime 50 mm lens. I do this because it’s possible to both get a portrait and a large piece of background, and best represents what we see with our eyes. I shoot in manual mode “M”. This is a picture of the dial setting on my Nikon.


  1. Keep the strap around your neck so the camera doesn’t fall into the water, etc.

  2. Breathe. Decide what you want to focus on, then press the shutter button halfway—lightly— to lock in the focus. Then you can move your viewfinder a bit to frame your scene.

  3. Move your body around to find your shot, and take pictures from various angles. Let nature give you cues about what to focus on. Look up, down, over and around, like a squirrel would.

  4. Aperture: Do you want the background to be blurry? At an f-stop of 16, everything will be in focus. At an f-stop of 2.8, everything will be blurry except what you focus on. The aperture determines how much light comes into your lens. F 2.8 let’s in more light. Try out different apertures!

  5. ISO: How much light do we have? On a really sunny day, I will set the ISO to 200. As the light starts to fade, I’ll move it up to 400 and so on. I try and shoot for the lowest number possible. The more expensive your camera is, the higher you can go and still keep color saturation and sharpness. Inside, I may start with 400.

  6. Shutter Speed: How fast is the creature moving? A faster shutter speed will help you to freeze the action of a squirrel running. If you have moving subjects, this may be the best time to do some videography from your cell phone. You can follow the subject more easily and be able to make a connection later to what’s happening with the squirrel or whatever the moving subject is. (My cell phone camera is always easier to use. I love to use my cell phone camera. It’s instant gratification. But—kids love to be trusted and acknowledged with the real thing.) Keep in mind that you will need to still toggle the shutter speed to get balanced light exposure even with non moving subjects. This arrow points to the shutter speed and the scale on my camera.


You may decide to shoot only on “Auto“ mode. I have found that I can never develop a photo as I see it in real life when I shoot in “Auto.”


Aperature Priority “A” will let you to choose how blurry the background is and the camera decides the shutter speed. I’d choose this one over Auto.

I am not an expert, and the photography process takes time to learn. But I believe that once you realize your camera can print out a tangible piece of what you see and feel, it becomes an engaging way to learn about nature!


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