15 min read


The first time you hold your DSLR camera could be a little intimidating, I know this first handed. You have all these buttons and options and don’t know where to start.

But never fear! Hopefully, this simple guide on getting to know your DSLR camera will give you a good idea of where to start, and with practice, you’ll be more confident every time you hold it!

First things first, your camera has different modes, with pre-programmed settings to choose from. The settings we are going to go over here come very in handy when shooting in Program Mode (P),  Aperture Priority (AV), Shutter Priority (S), and Manual Mode (M).

Now, let’s get to know the options your camera has, and how they affect your photo.


Aperture is a hole within a lens, through which light travels into the camera body. If you think it as the human eye, the aperture is like the pupil of your camera, which can open and close to change the amount of light that passes through.

Aperture, lens, light, depth of fiel, photography

An aperture in a lens. (Photo credit: Pixabay)

How the aperture affects exposure?

One of the most important effects that aperture has is how it alters the brightness, or exposure, of your images. As it changes in size, it modifies the amount of light that reaches your image. A large aperture will let a lot of light get through, resulting in a brighter photograph, a small aperture does just the opposite, making a photo darker.

Another aspect to consider is the depth of field (how sharp your image will be). With a small aperture, your image will be sharper, and with a large aperture, just the opposite.

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Aperture Scale. (Photo credit: art 209 photography)

Aperture is expressed as a number known as “f-stop”, for example, f/8. It is important to remember that small numbers are large apertures, and large numbers are small apertures. This could be confusing at first, but I promise, with time and practice you’ll get used to it.

The image above shows the aperture scale.

2.Shutter Speed

To put it in a simple way, the camera shutter is like a curtain in front of the camera sensor that stays closed until the camera fires. The button that fires the camera is called “shutter button,” because it triggers the shutter to open and close.

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Camera shutter and mirror

Shutter speed is the length of time your camera shutter is open, letting the light go into the image. In other words, it’s the amount of time your camera spends taking a photo.

How this affects your photo?

When you use long shutter speed, the first big effect of shutter speed is motion blur. If your shutter speed is long, moving subjects in your photo will appear blurred.
On the other hand, fast shutter speed can be used to do the opposite: freeze motion, as a result, your images will be sharp.

The other important aspect of shutter speed is exposure. If you use long shutter speed, the resulting photo will be quite bright, on the contrary, a quick shutter speed will result in a darker photo.

Shutter Speed Scale, Camera, Light, Photography

Shutter Speed Scale

Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second when they are under a second. For example, 1/4 means a quarter of a second. With shutter speed below 1/15, you will need a tripod in order to get sharp images.

The image above will give an idea of shutter speed measures.

3. ISO

Along with the aperture and the shutter speed, the ISO will affect the light that enters your image.

To put it in a simple way, ISO is a camera setting that will brighten or darken a photo.

How ISO affects your photo?

As you increase your ISO speed, your photos will get progressively brighter. Therefore, ISO can help you capture images in darker environments. But, increasing your ISO has consequences. If the ISO is too high, your photo will show a lot of grain (noise).

So my advice is that you should only raise your ISO when you are unable to brighten your photo with the aperture or shutter speed.

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ISO Scale

Every camera has a different range of ISO speeds that you can use. A common set is shown in the image above.

At the lowest number, the image will be darker, but with higher quality, at the highest number, just the opposite, the image will be brighter but with a lower quality.

4. Focal Lenght 

The focal length is the distance between the optical center of a camera lens to the image sensor. Is what in common terms, is called zoom.

Cmaera, lens, focal length, photography

Camera lenses with different focal lengths. (Photo credit: Pixabay)

How the focal lens affects your photo?

The most important aspect is how focal length affects depth of field. Depth of field refers to distances from the camera that are in focus.

With a longer focal length (‘zoomed-in’), the depth of field is reduced, as a result, the background will be more out of focus and isolate the subject. This often is used for portraits photos. A shorter focal length (‘zoomed out’) will increase the depth of field and is commonly used for landscape photos.

Another aspect is the angle of view, with a shorter focal length you’ll have a wider angle of view and vice-versa.

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Primary lens categories

The focal length is measured in millimeters and often broken down into 3 categories: wide, standard, and telephoto.

The image above will give you a better idea of the lens types and their common uses.

5. White Balance

In simple words, white balance in digital photography means adjusting colors so that the image looks more natural.

The color of an object is affected by the lighting conditions. Most light sources (the sun, flashlights, bulbs, etc.) don’t emit purely white color and have a color temperature.

Color Temperature, White Balance, Photography, Light

Color Temperature

How light sources affect your image?

Depending on the light source, or the predominant color of the ambient conditions your pictures might appear to be bluish or yellowish in color, and might not look natural, this can be fixed by adjusting the White Balance.

The image above shows how the same image can be affected by different color temperatures.

To adjust the white balance on your camera, look for the “WB” button on your camera, or “WB” option on the menu. Most current DSLR cameras have white balance presets, which could make your life easier!

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Color Temperature in Kelvin

As I said, light sources, have different color temperatures, and these temperatures are measured in Kelvin (K). As you can see in the image above, between 5000K and 6000K, you’ll have a more ‘neutral’ light, as the Kelvin increases, you’ll have a colder (bluish) light, and as the Kelvin decreases, you’ll have a warmer (yellowish) light.

6. Metering

Metering is how your camera measures the reflected light of your image and determines the optimal exposure. This is very helpful to know whether your image is underexposed (too dark), or overexposed (too bright).

Every DSLR camera has an integrated light meter, which depending on the metering mode of your choice, indicates you if what you want to photograph is correctly exposed. The most common metering modes are:

  • Multi-segment: The camera sets the exposure automatically to suit the scene, favoring the focus chosen area.
  • Center-weighted: Evaluates the light in the middle of the frame and its surroundings and disregards the corners.
  • Spot: Only evaluates the light around your focus point and disregards everything else.

(Note: Multi-segment mode in some cameras is called “Matrix” or “Evaluative”).

Metering Modes, Camera, DSLR, Photography

Metering Modes

How to change the Metering Mode?

Unfortunately, every camera has a different way to change the metering mode (MM), but usually, it is on the menu setting.

How do you know if your photo is under or overexposed?

In the viewfinder, you will see the metering mode (MM) shown as numbers from -2 to +2. When the number is 0 it means your image has the correct exposure, from -1 to -2, your image is underexposed, and from +1 to +2, your image is overexposed.

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Camera Meter

When your image is under or overexposed you can compensate this with the aperture, shutter speed, or ISO (which we covered earlier).

7. Autofocus Mode

Focus is a matter of the distance of the objects/subjects from the lens.

Sometimes Manual focus is essential and will give you more control, for example, when you focus on a subject that is in the background with a predominant foreground. At this point, you’ll have to trust your eyesight to do a good job.

The good thing about digital photography is that you can instantly see your photo and know how it went. (Remember that focus is one of the few things you can’t repair in post-processing.)

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Autofocus modes

Luckily, most of the times, autofocus will do all the work for you in this matter and will get you sharp images in much less time. Let’s go over the autofocus modes:

  • Single Shot (AF-S): You pick one focus point and your camera will search for contrast only in that single focus point.
  • Continuous (AF-C): This mode is used for following moving subjects. This mode works analyzing the subject movement and predicting where the subject will be, placing the focus at the predicted point.
  • Automatic AF (AF-A): This mode automatically switches between Single-Shot and Continuous modes. The way this works is that the camera recognizes if the subject is motionless, in which case it automatically switches to Single focus, and if the subject moves, it’ll change to Continuous focus.

8. Autofocus Area

Once you’ve chosen your autofocus mode, you’ll need to choose your focus area.

The Autofocus area is a function that sets the range to be focused on automatically. There are three types of AF area options:

  • Wide: the camera automatically chooses one of the multiple local focus areas available.
  • Local: One of the multiple local areas can be manually selected to use as the focus area.
  • Spot: The camera focuses on the center of the focus area.

(Note: some cameras also have a 3D focus area to choose from).  

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Autofocus Area

And with this, we have covered the basics (in a simple way), but hopefully, by now you have a better idea of how to use your DSLR camera. And remember the easiest way to get familiar with a new camera is to spend time getting to know where the controls of the camera are and, of course, use it every chance you’ve got.

If you have any question, don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments, I’ll be happy to answer it! And don’t forget to download the Cheat Sheet.


If you want to learn some composition techniques to improve your pictures, check my post “10 Photography Composition Techniques”.

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