dslr camera basics

DSLR Camera Basics or (How to Use Your Fancy New Camera)

DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras are becoming much more affordable these days, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals or clearance sales of last year’s models, so it’s much more common to see people in the wild using a DSLR instead of a point and shoot camera. However, there have been times that we’ve been in D.C. with all of the tourists and there are folks shooting on DSLRs using the screen instead of looking into the viewfinder. I die a little on the inside every time I see this…

DSLR cameras are incredibly powerful tools and using them like a point and shoot is, to use an analogy I’ve heard about other electronics, like driving a Ferrari IN FIRST GEAR! Anyway, I want all of you to drive your Ferraris using at least the first three gears, so I’m writing this guide to using a DSLR. Plus a lot of my friends are too lazy to Google this stuff themselves! =D So take your cameras off of P or whatever its Full-Auto Mode is, switch it to Manual, and let’s do this thing!

I always tell people that are just starting out to focus on three settings in their camera when taking a photo: SHUTTER SPEED, APERTURE, and ISO (which also happen to be the three pillars of photography). All of these work together to make a good exposure (look in the viewfinder for the light meter in the middle at the bottom—you want the marker to be in the center most of the time after you hold the shutter release button to focus). The other settings on your camera can wait—just worry about learning these three things and how they relate to each other and you’ll be taking way better photos in no time!

Shutter Speed – That Sound That Phones Make

When you press the button to take a picture on your phone, the sound it makes is what real cameras make when the shutter opens and then closes again after pressing the shutter release. Shutter speed (the number that’s a fraction on your setting screen like 1/60) is the amount of time that the sensor in your camera is collecting light, measured in fractions of a second. So 1/60 is a sixtieth of a second, etc. Shutter speed affects how well you can capture an object in motion. If your shutter speed is too slow, then you have a photo of a blurry pet running around a room. If your shutter speed is fast, then you can get the kinds of shots you see in newspapers of athletes freeze-framed at the perfect moment!
fast shutter speed

1/2500 s: With a fast shutter speed, you can capture something like someone’s hair blowing in the wind.

slow shutter speed

1/4 s: Too slow of a shutter speed can turn a yawning kitty into a demonic spawn from the depths…

Try taking a photo at 1/500 shutter speed in the room you’re sitting in. It probably came out dark if anything came through at all. This is because the shutter wasn’t open long enough for enough light to be captured by the sensor to record the image. We’ll get into how you fix this, but first let’s go over the other two pillars of photography.

Aperture – The Camera Eye

Well, more like the camera pupil, actually. The aperture (the number that has an f/ before it, called an “f-stop”) is the setting that changes how much light a camera lets in when the shutter opens. What confuses people is that the lower the number, the wider the opening (more light coming in) and the higher the number, the more narrow the opening (less light coming in). So why does this number matter? Because aperture is the best setting. Because aperture makes the biggest difference in how your photo turns out. Because if you’re anything like me, the reason you wanted to get into DSLR photography was to have photos where the background is all blurred out—this is achieved through a wide aperture (lower f-stop).
shallow depth of field

You can’t get a shot like this with a point-and-shoot…

Think of wide aperture vs narrow aperture (low f-stop vs. high f-stop) as the difference between a near-sighted person and a person with 20/20 vision. Here are two photos framed exactly the same with a very wide aperture (f/4.0) and a very narrow aperture (f/22):
aperture side by side

Notice how on the left, you can’t make out the titles of the movies like you can in the image on the right.

Having the background out of focus (also known as shallow depth of field) can help highlight the subject of the photo, so having a wide aperture is good for photos of people or close ups of objects where you want the viewer to focus on something specific. Having a narrow aperture is good for landscape photos or more wide angle compositions, where you want everything to be in focus.

If you’re not sure what f-stop you should be at when you’re out taking photos, my photography professor once told me that when she was first starting out as a photojournalist and was stressing out about what to set her aperture to before going out and shooting for a story, her photo editor told her that a good guideline to follow was “f/8 and be there.” which I always thought was a cool saying…

ISO – Film Made with Real Grains

ISO is actually a measurement of film speed set by the International Organization of Standardization. I know what you’re going to say, but those letters aren’t in the wrong order! The founders of the International Organization of Standardization shortened it to ISO because of the Greek word isos, which means equal. But we’re not talking about that, we’re talking about film speed!

The lower your ISO, the slower your film speed and the higher the ISO, the higher your film speed. The lower your film speed, the less grainy your photo will be, the higher your film speed, the more grainy your photo will be.
iso side by side

ISO 25600 is an extreme example, but look at the graininess to the right of Ellie—this type of grain is especially clear if you take a photo at night in a place that isn’t well-lit.

iso eye side by side

Be especially careful with ISO when taking portrait shots. You want the subject’s eyes to be as clear as possible and higher ISO makes eyes grainier and less defined.

Some simple guidelines are that if you’re outdoors during the day, unless it’s a little cloudy and gray, you can set your ISO to between 100 and 400 and still easily have fast enough film for your shots (more on what that means in a little bit). If you’re shooting indoors, the lowest you can probably get away with is something like ISO 800 depending on how many lights are in the room, but typically I shoot indoors at ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 at the very most. On most cameras, anything higher than ISO 6400 is too poor quality with the amount of grain, but if you’re in some low-lit place at night with your camera just hanging out with friends and want to post some fun photos on social media later, then it’s probably not a big deal to go to a really high ISO!

All Together Now

“Boom baboom, choose the stop! Boom baboom, set the film! Boom baboom, set the speed! Boom baboom, LOOK AT ME!” –The Beatles of Photography

So now that you know what all three of those things mean and how they affect photos, its time to talk about how they affect each other. These three settings all have a relationship depending on how you set one of them.

Shutter Speed Focused

Let’s say you need to take a photo of something moving quickly like we talked about before—a child running around the living room, athletes at a sporting event, or the moment you break a cinder block with a karate chop. You’re gonna need a fast shutter speed, but when we took the photo earlier at 1/500, it was dark. To allow more light to get in during that short period that the shutter is open letting light in, we need to adjust the other two pillars accordingly. First try setting your aperture to be more wide open. If this doesn’t let enough light in to get a good exposure (tick mark in the middle of the light meter), then you’ll also have to bring your ISO up.

You can also set your camera to Shutter Priority mode (Tv on Canon and S on Nikon)—if you know that you need to hit 1/500 or whatever shutter speed you set it to in this mode, the camera will automatically adjust your aperture and ISO to get a good exposure.

Aperture Focused

How about if you want to take a portrait shot of someone and want the most shallow depth of field that you can get? If you set your aperture to the lowest f-stop that your lens allows, it’s going to let a lot of light in once that shutter opens. So you’ll need to adjust the shutter speed to be faster or else too much light will get in and your image will be blown out. If you’re in a situation where you have light to spare, make sure you bring your ISO down as low as you can to reduce the amount of film grain as well.

Like with shutter speed, there is also a mode called Aperture Priority mode (Av on Canon and A on Nikon). It’s the same idea as Shutter Priority mode—you set the aperture to what you want, then the camera automatically adjusts shutter speed and ISO to get a good exposure.

Be warned that if you use these automatic modes that sometimes you may be disappointed with the photos you get once you actually look at them on the computer. There have been many times where I’ve been lazy and used Av mode on my camera and gone back to find that the ISO was cranked way up and all of my photos were grainy. You can alleviate this by setting a limit to how high ISO will go in automatic mode, but now we’re starting to get into the higher gears of driving your Ferrari…

Go Forth and Photograph

Hopefully you’re ready to get out there and apply what you’ve learned here and use your camera the way it was meant to be used! Just remember that all three of the pillars of photography work together—so if you’re set on locking one of them to a specific setting, adjust the other two accordingly. It’s always good to take a few test shots in the environment that you’re shooting in just to get your settings honed in, then you can just keep shooting without having to worry about settings.

Please feel free to ask me any questions in the comments if something didn’t make sense or needs more explaining. Or comment if there’s something else that you have questions about that you think I’d be able to answer! And comment with links to your photos if this guide helped you! Maybe we can get into the higher gears in future posts…


  1. Frank Walter   •  

    I’m leaving a comment for Frank, hoping this will sign him up for your blog so he can read it, too. I (Lucille) really enjoyed this one because even someone like me can understand it! I’m getting farther and farther behind in technology and, interestingly, I don’t care very much! But thanks for this one.

    • Michael Baker   •     Author

      On the right side of the page, there’s a box that says “Get Email Updates”. If you type his email address and submit it there, he should receive an email to confirm that he wants a subscription, then after he confirms he’ll get an email every time we post anything on the blog.

      I’m glad that you liked it! I was hoping that it wouldn’t be too technical…

  2. Kathy Klammer   •  

    This is great! Now maybe I can get my fancy camera to do more than point and shoot! Thanks Mike! 🙂

  3. Mike Sloan   •  

    Very nice article, I knew how they worked together in playing around with those three settings before, just didn’t know what exactly they were and the idea behind them on getting a better photo. I did not know about the grainy from high ISO though, that was one of the reasons I wanted to get a DSLR was because of other cameras seeming to be very grainy.

    I’ll be in cancun in a few weeks so hopefully I can get a lot of good shots in and link them on here.

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