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So you got yourself a new DSLR camera! Congratulations, a whole world of photography possibilities is about to open up to you. But you might be wondering, as you open the box and peruse the lengthy manual, exactly how to get the most out of your new camera.
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Well, I’m here to help. I’ve been shooting with an SLR camera since 1993, starting with a film Canon camera and then several Canon digital SLR (DSLR) cameras when digital began to replace film.
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I have been shooting professionally since 2010, and I also teach an online photography course. I feel lucky to be able to help people around the world get more out of their cameras.
In today’s post, I’m going to break down the key features of your DSLR camera in simple terms, and give you all the tips you need to get the most out of it.
This guide is written specifically to help the owner of a new DSLR camera, but it should also be largely applicable to those of you who own a mirrorless camera. However, if you have a mirrorless camera, you may prefer to read my guide to using a mirrorless camera, which will be more applicable. I have a guide for using a point and shoot camera.
This post assumes no prior knowledge of cameras or photography, and will hopefully help you understand the features available to you, as well as get you out and about taking better photos faster.
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However, don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to master some photography concepts. Photography is a skill that takes time to master, and many principles of photography are not necessarily clear 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.
A digital single lens reflex, or DSLR camera is a digital camera with an internal mirror and prism system This system is used to direct light from the lens to the viewfinder to compose the image you see
All digital cameras work basically the same way. First, light is collected and focused by a lens, and then captured on a digital sensor. The sensor stores that light data into an image file that you can view and edit.
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The difference between a DSLR camera and other cameras on the market today is that a DSLR has this mirror and prism system that is used to send light to the viewfinder.
If you remove the lens from the DSLR and look inside the lens mount, you’ll see the mirror sitting at about a 45-degree angle. It is reflecting light towards the optical viewfinder.
When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips inside the camera, out of the way of the sensor. The light then travels to the sensor to record the image. Because of this, when you take a picture with a DSLR camera, the viewfinder darkens when you press the shutter button. The mirror no longer reflects light, and so the viewfinder becomes dark.
There are some differences between a DSLR camera and the other types of cameras available, which are covered in more detail in my post on DSLR cameras.
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I would also add here that DSLR cameras have largely replaced SLR cameras with the advent of digital sensors. The main difference is that instead of a roll of film they have a digital sensor inside. However, the prism and mirror system is still a key part of the design.
When you first take your new DSLR camera out of its box, you’ll notice that it has a lot of buttons and dials. And this can certainly be overwhelming. Perhaps this is why so many people I teach photography to admit that they just leave their camera on auto and hope for the best.
In most cases, on a modern DSLR camera, Auto mode will actually do a pretty decent job in 80% of situations.
However, this means that there will be times (let’s say 20%) that you just don’t get the shot you want if you leave everything to the camera.
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For this reason, learning how to use your camera to its full potential, and taking full control, should definitely be your ultimate goal.
Don’t worry if it takes you a while, or if you don’t understand everything at once. As I already said in this post, photography is complex and learning how the camera works is a process that takes time and practice.
A good start is to read a post like this one, but also check your manual for your camera model If your camera doesn’t come with a manual, you can usually find relevant information by searching online for “
Here’s an overview of the main controls on your DSLR camera. Note that different camera models will have slightly different controls, but most will have the following options.
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The mode dial is the first dial you want to identify. This dial tells the camera how much control you want over its various settings. To change modes, you just rotate the dial.
Most mode dials have a variety of options, including an “auto” mode for fully automatic and an “M” mode for fully manual.
These often include a variety of Scenery modes, which are automatic modes where you give the camera a clue as to what kind of scene you’re shooting, say a landscape or a portrait.
Between automatic and manual modes there will usually be a number of other modes that bridge the gap between fully automatic and fully manual, and it’s these modes, especially the last two, that I recommend you get familiar with and start using. . These are as follows.
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Some photographers will tell you that you need to shoot in manual mode to have full control over your photos. Personally I don’t agree with this. The key is to understand what the different modes are and how different settings on your camera affect your shots.
As long as you’re comfortable with it and you understand how changing aperture, shutter speed and ISO can affect your shot, that’s the point.
If you’re unclear about how these three elements, known as the exposure triangle, work together in photography, we have a detailed guide to the exposure triangle to help you out.
I also recommend reading my guide to the field of photography in depth, which explains this in more detail. You might also consider signing up for my online photography course, which covers the exposure triangle and more in detail.
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Once you understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO, it’s up to you whether to shoot in manual, shutter priority or aperture priority. This 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 that aperture priority works well for most of my photography because it allows me to control depth of field, which is a key compositional technique.
For portrait and landscape work, this is usually more important to me than controlling motion – I’m doing landscapes where I want to capture movement.
For any scene involving movement, such as action photography, shutter priority is often the most useful mode. This allows me to control whether I freeze the subject with a fast shutter speed, or show some movement with a slow shutter speed.
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When the lighting in a scene is particularly challenging, or both depth of field and movement are key considerations for composition, I’ll shoot in manual. This is often the case with scenes like fireworks photography, northern lights photos, or any long exposure photography.
Almost every camera out there, including smartphones, will have some form of exposure compensation feature. This allows you to quickly brighten or darken the image by increasing or decreasing exposure compensation.
Exposure compensation will either be a dedicated button or dial on the camera, or be easily accessible through the camera’s menu system.
As the name explains, when you take a picture, the process the camera goes through is actually known as an exposure. The sensor inside the camera is “exposed” to light. It’s a throwback to the days of film photography, when chemicals in the film reacted as they were exposed to light.
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No matter what mode your camera is in, it will always judge the scene’s lighting. It uses this to calculate the correct settings to get an image that is neither too bright nor too dark, known as a properly exposed image.
In a DSLR camera,