So you finally put away your point-and-shoot and got yourself a gen-u-ine DSLR. Good for you! But, Buck Private, if you’ve still got it set on the “green zone” — the fully automatic mode — you’re shootin’ like a civilian. Sure, the pictures you take with your new camera are better than any you’ve gotten before, but it’s time to take charge and learn what great photos you can get when you’re the one in control. Do these five drills to get started, and don’t worry, we’ll go easy on ya.

Get with the program

Switch to program mode, your semiautomatic weapon for exercising a bit more control.

Drill 1

Go Darker or Lighter With Exposure Compensation. Dial your camera to P for program mode, then find the +/- button or symbol. On most cameras, you can just hold it down and move the command dial to nudge the exposure up or down from the medium tone that the built-in lightmeter dictates. In other words, if you’re shooting a dimly lit scene, you may want to crank it down to expose less and get a darker shot that matches what you see. If you’re shooting something bright, up the exposure to get a photo that shows the brightness that’s really there.

Pick it up: Your lightmeter looks for medium gray, so it made the snow the midtone (left). But we know snow’s white and bright, so crank up the exposure compensation to make it right (right).

Dial it down: The meter looked for details in the shadows, washing out the image (left). Cranking down the exposure comp brought back drama in the clouds and detail in the highlights (right).

Your camera has lots of settings — don’t sweat ’em ’til you master the basics of the drills. but, there are some things to take care of at the start. Dial these settings in once, then forget about ’em:

Metering: Select what’s called Evaluative Metering (it’s called Matrix on Nikons).
White Balance: Stick with Automatic (a.k.a. AWB). It’s so good, we often find it gives better results on our Certified Lab Tests.
Color Space: If you’re planning to color manage your print process and tweak your pictures in an image editor, go with Adobe RGB. If not, you’re better off sticking with sRGB, which is normally the default anyway.
Focusing: Use Auto and pick Center. That way, when you’re shooting, you can zero in on what you want sharp, hold down the shutter slightly, and then recompose — just like with your point-and-shoot.

Drill 2

Use Your Flash for More Flattering Outdoor Portraits. When the sun is causing unsightly shadows on your subject’s face, switch into program mode and turn on the flash. You might find that the flash is too much, so use flash-exposure compensation (not to be confused with regular exposure compensation). You can bump the flash power down to cast your subject in a flattering light. Note: You’ll often find flash-exposure comp among your camera’s LCD menu items.

Control your shutter speed or your aperture to make your picture look the way you want it.

Fire the flash: Sun-cast shadows don’t flatter anyone (left). Your flash can fill out the dark areas, but here it blew out half the detail (middle). Flash-exposure comp powered down the flash for a natural-looking portrait (right).

Drill 3

Up Your ISO to Handhold in Dim Light. Nothing ruins a picture faster than unnecessary flash. When you’ve got nice, natural — albeit low — light, get into program mode, and turn up your ISO to 800, 1600, or even 3200 if it’s really dark. Then start shooting handheld pictures that beat the flash any day.

Kill the flash: When you have beautiful light, don’t let the flash pop up, ruin the photo, and startle your subject (left). A high ISO gets good exposure, flash-free (right).

Get Your Priorities Straight

Control your shutter speed or your aperture to make your picture look the way you want it.

Drill 4

Quicken Your Shutter for Frozen Motion. To catch a fast-moving subject without motion blur, you need to use a fast shutter speed, but your camera’s auto mode may not know that you’re looking for a freeze frame. So choose shutter-priority mode, sometimes known as Tv. In this mode, you set the speed (at least 1/500 sec should do it for most action) and your camera fills in the aperture. If your camera warns you that there’s not enough light, up the ISO to get more exposure.

HALT! Dogs run fast (left). Freeze them with a high shutter speed and let the camera do the rest (right).

Drill 5

Open Your Aperture for Fuzzy Backgrounds.

If you want to focus the attention on one thing, whether it’s a portrait subject or an object in the foreground, blur what isn’t in focus by opening your aperture. For the most shallow depth of field, choose the largest aperture — that is, the smallest number — that your lens can shoot. Some “fast” lenses go down to f/1.2, but your kit zoom may only get down as far as f/4.5.

Attention! In auto mode, the flash fired and aperture narrowed, leaving too much in focus (left). A wider aperture commands attention (right).