How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner’s Photography Guide


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So you’ve got yourself a new DSLR camera! Congratulations, there’s a whole world of photography possibilities about to open up to you. But you might be wondering, as you open up the box and check out the lengthy how-to manual, exactly how best to go about getting the best (the most?) from your new camera.

In today’s post, I’m going to break down in simple terms the key features of your camera, and give you all the most useful tips that you need to get the most out of it.

This guide is written specifically perspective to help a new DSLR camera owner, but will also be largely applicable to those of you with a mirrorless camera. However, I’ll also be writing a similar guide for mirrorless cameras specifically in the coming months as there are some notable differences.

This post assumes no prior knowledge of cameras or photography, and hopefully will help you understand the features you have available to you, as well as get you out and shooting better photos quickly.

However, please don’t be frustrated if it takes a bit of time to master some of the concepts of photography. Photography is a skill that takes time to master, and many of the principles of photography are not necessarily obvious or intuitive. With time and patience though, it will become second nature!

I appreciate that the world of photography jargon can be a little overwhelming, so I’m going to start with the basics.

What is a DSLR Camera?

A digital single lens reflex, or DSLR camera, is a camera with an internal mirror and prism system. This system is used to direct the light from the lens up to the viewfinder that you look through to compose the image.

I appreciate this may sound a little opaque, so let me break it down a bit.

All digital cameras essentially work in the same way. First, light is collected and focused by a lens, and then captured on a digital sensor. The sensor saves that light information into an image file that you can view and edit.

The difference between a DSLR camera and the other cameras on the market today is that a DSLR has this mirror and prism system which is used to send light to the viewfinder. If you take the lens off a DSLR and look inside the lens mount, you’ll see the mirror sitting at around a 45 degree angle. It’s just reflecting the light up towards the optical viewfinder.

When you press the shutter button, the mirror will flip up inside the camera, out of the way of the sensor. Then the light will pass onto the sensor to record the image. This is why, when you take a photo with a DSLR camera, the viewfinder goes dark when you press the shutter button. The mirror is no longer reflecting the light, and so the viewfinder goes dark.

DSLR Camera Controls: A Guide

When you first take your new DSLR camera out of its box, you are going to notice that it has a lot of buttons and dials. And these can certainly be overwhelming. Which is likely why so many people I teach photography to confess that they just leave their camera in Auto and hope for the best.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide

For the most part, on a modern DSLR camera, Auto mode will actually do a pretty decent job in 80% of situations.

However, this also means that there are going to be times (let’s say 20%) that you aren’t going to get the shot you want if you leave everything up to the camera.

Because of this, learning how to use your camera to its fullest potential, and taking full control, should definitely be your end-goal.

Don’t worry if this takes you some time, or if you don’t understand everything at once. As I’ve already said in this post, photography is complicated and learning how a camera works is a process that takes time and practice.

A good start is reading a post like this, but do also consult your manual for your camera model. If your camera didn’t come with a manual, you can usually find relevant information by searching online for “your camera model manual”.

Here’s an overview of the key controls on your DSLR Camera. Note that different camera models will have slightly different controls, but the majority will have the following options.

Mode Dial

The mode dial is the first dial you’ll want to locate. This is the dial that tells the camera how much control you want over its various settings. To change the mode, you just rotate the dial.

Most mode dials have a wide variety of options, which will include an “Auto” mode, for full automatic, and an “M” mode, for full manual.

They will also often include a variety of scenery modes, which are automatic modes where you give the camera a clue as to what sort of scene you are shooting, say a landscape or a portrait.

In between the Automatic and Manual modes there will also usually be a number of other modes which bridge the gap between fully automatic and fully manual, and it is these modes, particularly the last two, that I suggest you become familiar with and start to use. These are as follows.

  • “P” mode. This is the Program Automatic mode. It is basically just another automatic mode, albeit one where you have control over some settings, including exposure compensation, ISO and white balance. I would generally advise skipping over “P” and moving straight to one of the two modes below instead, “A” or “S”.
  • “A” or “Av” mode. This is the Aperture Priority mode. This mode and the mode below are the half way house between full automatic and full manual. Aperture priority mode means that you set the aperture (useful for controlling depth of field) and the camera will judge the light in the scene and set the shutter speed to get the correct exposure. You can also control ISO, exposure compensation and white balance. As a landscape photographer, this is my go-to mode for 90% of my photos.
  • “S”, “T” or “Tv” mode. This is known as Shutter Priority Mode. Shutter priority is similar to aperture priority mode, except you set the shutter speed, and then the camera sets the aperture based on the light in the scene. Shutter priority is good for when you want to control movement in a shot, such as for isolating the flight of a fast moving bird, or to show movement in a long exposure shot.

Some photographers will tell you that you have to shoot in manual to have full control over your photos. Personally I disagree with this. The main thing is to understand what the different modes are, and what effect the different settings in your camera have on your shot.

As long as you are comfortable with this, and you understand how changing aperture, shutter speed and ISO can affect your shot, that is the key.

If you are unclear on how these three elements, known together as the exposure triangle, work together in photography.

Once you understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, the choice of whether to shoot in manual, shutter priority, or aperture priority is up to you. It will likely come down to personal preference, and the scene you are shooting. There is no “right” option.

As a rule of thumb, I find aperture priority works well for most of my photography because it lets me control depth of field, which is a key compositional technique.

For portraits and landscape work, this is usually more important to me than controlling motion – except when I am doing landscapes where I want to capture movement.

For any scene involving movement, such as action photography, shutter priority often is the most useful mode. This lets me control whether I freeze the subject with a fast shutter speed, or show a bit of movement with a slower shutter speed.

When a scene has particularly challenging lighting, or depth of field and movement are both key considerations for the composition, then I will shoot in manual. This is often the case for scenarios like fireworks photography, photos of the Northern Lights or any long exposure photography.

Exposure Compensation (+/-)

Nearly every camera out there, including smartphones, will have some form of exposure compensation feature. This lets you quickly make the image brighter or darker by either increasing or decreasing the exposure compensation.

The exposure compensation will either be a dedicated button or dial on the camera, or will be easily accessible through the camera’s menu system.

As an explanation for the name, when you take a photo, the process that camera goes through is actually known as an exposure. The sensor inside the camera is “exposed” to the light. This is a throwback to the days of film photography, when exposing the chemicals in the film to the light caused it to react.

Today, the sensor just records the information electronically, but the term exposure has stuck.

Whatever mode your camera is in, it will always judge the light in the scene. It uses this to calculate correct settings so as to get an image that is neither too bright nor too dark, known as a correctly exposed image.

If your camera is in automatic mode, all of this is done for you.

On a DSLR camera, in Program Auto, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes, you can override these settings with exposure compensation.

As an example, if you have your camera in aperture priority and set an aperture of f/8, the camera will calculate the exposure in the scene and set the shutter speed to give what it thinks is a good exposure.

Sometimes however the camera will get it wrong, and the image will be too dark or too light. You can use exposure compensation to basically tell the camera to increase or decrease the amount of light. As you have fixed the aperture, the camera will adjust the shutter speed accordingly.

Exposure compensation is a quick and handy way to adjust the overall brightness of an image without having to go into full manual mode.

Control Wheel for Shutter and Aperture

If you are shooting in aperture priority or shutter priority, you will need a way to change the aperture or shutter speed.

Nearly every camera has a control wheel, which you rotate to increase or decrease these settings. If you are in aperture priority mode, the control wheel will increase and decrease the aperture setting.

If you are in shutter priority mode, the same wheel will increase and decrease the shutter speed.

If you are in manual, then you will need to be able to adjust both the shutter speed and the aperture. Different cameras handle this differently – some have two wheels, some offer a button that you depress to switch what you are changing.

Consult your camera manual to see how to change aperture and shutter speed in manual mode.

ISO Button

ISO is the third control you have over the exposure of an image. Increasing the ISO makes the camera’s sensor more sensitive to the light, and reducing it reduces the sensitivity to the light.

If you are in manual mode and set the aperture and the shutter speed and then change the ISO, you will notice the image getting brighter and darker.

However, increasing the ISO also makes the image more grainy, as the increased sensitivity of the sensor means that digital “noise” is added to the image.

As a result, ISO is usually the last thing we want to increase. Ideally, ISO will stay at a range between ISO 100 and ISO 400, a range in which most cameras produce nice clean images.

However, sometimes it is just too dark to produce acceptable images without increasing the ISO. For this reason, most cameras will have a dedicated ISO button, which provides a shortcut for quickly increasing and decreasing the ISO.

It is really important to remember to check the ISO before you take any image. If you set it to a high value manually, the camera will remember that value until you change it.

I have spoken with travelers who have ruined a whole trips worth of photos because they set their ISO to a high value for an evening, and then forgot to put it back down to a lower value for the daytime.

It’s really hard to see the resulting noise on the back of the camera screen – it’s only when you get home and look at your images that you will notice the graininess in all your images.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide
Key buttons on my Canon DSLR

Focus Mode

Focus is the process of ensuring the subject we are taking a picture of is sharp. An out of focus image will produce a blurry result that is not ideal.

To help with focus, DSLR cameras have a range of focus modes. Which you use will depend on what you are taking a photo of.

The first option that the camera is likely to be set is the standard autofocus mode. In this mode, the camera will default to focusing on what it thinks the subject is. You can take control of this by specify the region of the image you want the camera to focus by changing the image focal point.

This will either be with a dedicated button on the camera, or perhaps by using a touchscreen interface to touch the focus point.

If your subject is moving, then the camera has a different focus mode, which might be called continuous autofocus. It is called continuous because the camera will continue to adjust the focus as the subject moves, rather than just getting focus once.

Finally, the camera will also let you control the focus yourself manually. In this mode, you will have to adjust the focus ring, which is normally found on the cameras lens. It will be a ring all the way around the lens which you can rotate to change the focus.

Metering Mode

I have mentioned throughout the post that your camera evaluates the light in the scene you are taking a picture of in order to calculate the correct exposure. This process, where the camera meters the light to come up with the correct exposure, is known as metering.

You can change the metering mode of your camera, depending on the scene you are taking a photo of, to help ensure your subject is correctly exposed.

The main control you have is over how much of the scene is used for the metering. The default mode, which will work for most photos, is known as evaluative metering on Canon cameras and matrix metering on Nikon cameras.

This mode looks at the light across nearly the whole frame of your image, to produce a balanced exposure. This will cover nearly all your photography requirements.

Sometimes however, we are shooting a scene with challenging lighting – like a dark building against a bright sky. In this case, the default metering mode might give you an image which is technically well balanced, but the building will likely be too dark to be usable.

To resolve this, you could use exposure compensation, or you could change the metering mode.

Different cameras have different metering modes you can choose. The most common is a spot metering mode or a partial metering mode, which means that camera will just use the centre part of the scene to do its exposure calculation.

This means that bright sections of the image around the edges away from the middle will not impact the final shot, and in our example, the building would end up correctly exposed.

Focus Ring

The last two controls on your DSLR camera that we’re going to talk about are on the camera’s lens. The first one is the focus ring, which we briefly touched upon.

If your camera is in manual focus mode, the focus ring is what you will use to achieve focus. On some cameras, even if the camera is set to autofocus, you can override that with the manual focus ring as well.

Focal Length Ring

The focal length ring is also on the camera’s lens, and is found on any lens that has a variable focal length. In basic terms, this is the camera’s zoom. Changing the focal length changes the zoom, and rotating the focal length ring is what you do to change the zoom.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide
More key buttons on my Canon DSLR

How to Use Your DSLR Camera

I’m now going to cover some tips and tricks for using your DSLR, and some areas you should focus on to improve your photography.

1. Learn How to Hold a DSLR Camera Properly

The first thing you are going to need to do is learn how to hold your new DSLR camera properly. It’s really important to try and minimise camera movement when taking photos, as this will translate directly into blurry images.

Most DSLR cameras are relatively heavy, and should always be held with two hands. This will stabilize the camera a great deal more than if you just try to operate it one handed.

If you are right handed, the correct way to hold the camera is with your right hand around the hand grip and one of your fingers over the shutter button. I prefer to use my index finger for the shutter button. Try to ensure the rest of your fingers are tightly gripping the camera’s grip, if they all fit.

Your other hand should be holding the cameras lens from underneath to support it.

Ideally, you will have your elbows tucked in tight to your body which will provide additional stability.

If you struggle with maintaining stability when holding a camera, consider investing in a travel tripod to provide the necessary stability that your camera needs for sharp photos.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide

2. Get the Horizon level

This is a personal bugbear – I find photos where the horizon isn’t level to be quite off putting!

Sure, this is something that you can fix in editing software, but rotating an image can degrade the quality. So ideally you want to try and get the horizon level whilst you shoot.

Most cameras will have the option to overlay a grid on the screen, or markers inside the optical viewfinder that can help with this, but ultimately it just takes practice to get this right.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide

3. Understand the Exposure Triangle

I’ve talked about the exposure triangle a number of times already in this post, and that’s because it’s one of the most important photography concepts to understand if you want to take control over your camera.

It can also a fairly challenging concept that takes time to understand, because it includes three different variables, all of which also change how the final image looks.

The Exposure Triangle is called the exposure triangle because it refers to the three things you can change, all three of which affect the exposure of the image.

The three things you can adjust to change the exposure of the image are the aperture, the shutter speed and the ISO.

The aperture is a hole inside the lens which lets light through. You can make this hole bigger or smaller, to let more or less light through.

The shutter is like a curtain inside the camera that whisks aside to let light onto the sensor. Changing the shutter speed changes the length of time the shutter is open – longer time lets more light through, less time lets less light through.

As you will see from the above two controls, they are both related to how much light is hitting the sensor.

The third control you have over exposure, and the third “side” of the exposure triangle, is the ISO setting. ISO controls how sensitive the sensor in your DSLR is to that incoming light.

If you increase the ISO, you increase the sensitivity, and vice versa.

You might wonder why you need three different settings to essentially control the same thing – the exposure.

Well, the answer is that these three settings also control how the final image will look. Aperture and shutter speed in particular are important compositional tools, whilst ISO contributes to how noisy the image is.

More specifically, aperture controls depth of field, and shutter speed controls how movement is portrayed in a shot. These will be covered in the below tips in a bit more detail so you can see when and why you might want to change any of them.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide

4. Master the Rules of Composition

I am of the belief that there are three main areas of photography that you need to master to get great photos.

The first of these is understanding your camera, which will let you be sure you can set your camera up properly to get great images. This post is primarily focusing on this area of photography.

The second thing you need to understand is composition, which is the art of placing your subjects within the image and using elements of the world to create a visually pleasing image.

Composition includes things like the rule of thirds, use of colour, leading lines and framing. As you would imagine though, such a major topic requires more than a few sentences to properly cover.

Finally, the third thing I think everyone should master is photo editing, which is how you get the most from the photos you’ve captured with your DSLR. As a starter with that.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide

5. Learn about Depth of Field

As I discussed in my section on the exposure triangle, aperture controls depth of field. So you might be wondering what this is.

Well, if you’ve ever seen a portrait shot, where the subject is clearly in focus, and everything else in the shot is nicely blurred away, then you have seen an example of a shallow depth of field.

Depth of field basically refers to how much of the image is in focus in front of and behind the subject, relative to the camera.

For landscapes, you usually want the majority of the image is focus, so you would want a deep depth of field. For portraits, you want the opposite, so you would want a shallow depth of field.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide

6. Consider Movement

Movement can be a powerful compositional technique, and this is controlled by shutter speed, another part of the exposure triangle.

When you want to freeze motion in an image – say that of a hummingbird flapping it’s wings, or a fast moving vehicle, you will want to use a fast shutter speed. Fast in this context might be anything from 1/500th of a second and higher.

On the other hand, if you want to show motion in your images – perhaps the movement of water, or give the impression of movement by blurring a person who is moving, you would use a slower shutter speed. In this case, slow would generally be anything from 1/15th of a second and slower.

Hopefully now you can see how aperture and shutter speed affect your final image differently, and see why it’s so important from a composition point of view to understand how to change these yourself rather than leaving it up to the camera!

7. Use the Light

Photography is all about light. The photos you capture are basically that – the light in the world, reflecting off surfaces, and being recorded by the sensor in your camera.

So as you would imagine, understanding how best to use light will help you with your photography no end.

First, you need to appreciate that the position and angle of the light relative to your shot will make a big difference. An overhead light will create flatter images, whilst a low light will create more visually pleasing images with depth.

This is why shooting at the start and end of the day is generally preferred. The light at these times of day is also a nice yellow tone, which we refer to as being warm. This also makes for more pleasing images.

As a general rule, it’s also best to shoot away from your light source rather than towards it. Shooting away from the light means your subjects will be correctly illuminated rather than in shadow.

How To Use A DSLR Camera: A Beginner's Photography Guide

8. Practice, practice, practice

I think I have already mentioned this in the post a few times, but just to reiterate, photography is a skill that takes time to master.

Until you start putting concepts like those I outline in this post into actual practice, they won’t really stick or make as much sense. I urge you to grab your camera and start playing with the different settings I’ve talked about in this post.

Get an idea of how changing different things changes the image. Learn how to read the shutter speed, aperture and ISO readouts that your camera overlays in the viewfinder. Play with exposure compensation.

It can be a good idea to set yourself challenges, and to get into the habit of taking your camera with you when you leave the house so you can get some practice in.

I definitely can’t emphasise this enough – practice makes perfect with every skill, and photography is no different.

How to Care for and Protect your New DSLR

Now you have your DSLR Camera, you will want it to last for a good long while. And with these tips, it will.

How to Protect your DSLR

A DSLR is a fairly robust piece of equipment, but it is still a piece of electronics with a number of glass components, and as such, it does need to be looked after.

The two accessories I suggest you buy for your DSLR are a lens hood, also known as a sun hood, and a clear UV filter.

These will both protect the lens on your DSLR. This is the bit that protrudes the most, and is the part of your camera that is most susceptible to damage from every day knocks and bumps.

UV filters are relatively inexpensive (around $15 – $40 a piece), as are sun hoods. You just have to get them at the right size for your lens – this should be clearly marked in the item description.

For filters, every filter has a mm rating, which will match the lenses filter thread diameter. For example, most of my lenses have a 77mm filter thread, so I use 77mm filters like this.

You can see a collection of UV filters here and lens hoods here.

How to Clean your DSLR

Over time, a DSLR will naturally pick up dirt and dust from the environment. I find the two things that come in useful for cleaning it are an air blower like this, and micro fibre cloths like this.

These are also available as an inexpensive cleaning kit which contains a number of items for cleaning your camera that you might find useful.

I don’t do any internal cleaning of my camera other than occasionally blowing air to remove dust specks from the sensor. See my section below on DSLR camera servicing for more thorough cleaning options.

Should you Service Your DSLR?

The short answer is yes. From time to time, I would suggest getting your DSLR camera and lenses properly serviced by a qualified technician.

I aim to get my cameras serviced around once a year, and usually I find a Canon certified dealer to do it for me. I’ve also been lucky to attend some Canon sponsored events like the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, where free servicing was offered.

A service will usually involve a thorough clean of the sensor and a careful inspection of any other elements of the hardware. I can definitely recommend trying to get this done on a fairly regular basis to keep your camera in good working order.

Best DSLR Camera for Beginners

If you came to this post and you don’t already have a camera, you might be wondering what the best DSLR camera is for you to start with.

However, for starting out, we suggest you consider the following two entry-level DSLR models. These have all the features you need to learn photography, but won’t break the bank.

1. Canon EOS Rebel T7 (EOS 2000D)

In the world of DSLRs, there are two main manufacturers – Canon and Nikon. For an entry level camera, we would recommend getting one from either of these manufacturers.

Canon’s entry level camera line carries the “Rebel” name in North America (EOS xxxD in Europe), and my first DSLR was a Canon Rebel XTi.

The EOS Rebel T7 shows just how much has changed since those days, with what would have then been flagship technologies now available even in the low end model. You get a 24MP sensor, WiFI and a 500 shot battery capacity. ~450 USD (with lens)

2. Nikon D3500

The entry level Nikon DSLR camera is the D3500. It offers great performance in a slightly smaller package than the Canon, and also has excellent battery life, rated for 1550 shots per charge.

You also get 24.2 APS-C sized sensor, good performance and an excellent selection of lenses. This is a great first camera that will last you for a good number of years.

When it comes to picking between these two cameras, some of it will come down to how they feel in your hand. The interfaces are slightly different too, but when you are starting out this doesn’t make a big difference.

In terms of what you get for your money, if you are manufacturer agnostic, the Nikon offers slightly better specifications for the same money. ~450 USD (with lens)

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