Beginners Guide to Using a DSLR Camera

Date Posted:13 July 2017 

Acquiring your first DSLR can be a daunting experience for the budding photographer. For many, it’s a considerable investment of time, effort and money. While photography is an artform that takes patience and practice, starting off on the right foot can drastically improve your learning curve. Follow these tips to better understand how to use your first DSLR camera.

Shooting modes

When researching cameras and DSLRs in particular you may have noted mention of the Exposure Triangle; a combination of three features that work together to enhance photographic stills. The three elements of the triangle are:

  • Aperture size: the size of the hole that lets light into the camera.
  • Shutter speed: the length of time the shutter opens to allow light into the camera
  • ISO: the sensitivity of the sensor in a digital camera.

DSLRs have a number of shooting modes that help you better understand and manipulate the Exposure Triangle.

Aperture Priority

(Av or A setting)

Aperture is one of the most important aspects of photography. It influences depth of field and how much of the image is in focus. The general rule of thumb is:

  • Shallow depth of field = larger aperture: The foreground subject is in focus but background is soft or blurry.
  • Large depth of field = smaller aperture. More of the image is in focus, including fore, middle and background.

The aperture priority setting is sometimes referred to as 'semi-automatic’. Your DSLR allows you as the photographer to select the aperture, while the shutter speed is selected automatically by the camera.


The aperture is the hole in the camera which allows light to pass through. The f number corresponds to the size of the hole:

  • Smaller number, bigger hole.
  • Bigger numbers, smaller hole.

For example, an f/2.8 aperture is good for portrait photography. A larger hole let's in more light, capturing the subject, and blurring the background. An f-number of f/16 means a smaller hole, less light, and more detail in the fore and background.

Shutter Priority

(Tv or s setting)

Shutter Priority works in the opposite way as aperture priority. The photographer sets the shutter speed and the camera automatically selects the aperture.

Measured in fractions of a second the speed of the shutter determines how much light passes through to the sensor. Fast shutter speeds are better for capturing fast moving subjects like sports and wildlife.

Longer shutter speeds will blur objects in motion, like water cascading from a waterfall. Long shutter speeds are also best used with a tripod as the camera must remain steady for the length of the capture.


(P setting)

Once you understand Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, it’s easy to comprehend the Program setting. Essentially it’s just a hybrid of the two. Adjust shutter speed, and the camera automatically adjusts aperture. Adjust the aperture yourself, and the camera will change shutter speed. Easy!


(M setting)

Manual mode removes any automatic adjusting by the camera. As the photographer you have full control (and responsibility) over adjusting aperture and shutter speed.


The ISO setting on your DSLR relates to the sensor’s ability to capture light. The higher the ISO, the more light it will capture. High ISO also means the camera might capture more noise, potentially making the composition grainer.

When is it best to use high ISO?

High ISO is most commonly used by concert and event photographers, street photographers and other night shooters. High ISO works best at night, dusk and other low light situations, particularly with handheld shooting where a camera doesn't remain steady.

Practical application

In general terms you’ll want to keep the ISO as low as possible to achieve the exact image you desire. The more ISO, the more grain and noise in the image. Low light situations need more ISO to capture the composition without as much ambient light, but err on the side of caution and try to use as little ISO as necessary in any given shot.

Applying the Exposure Triangle

Now that you understand the three fundamentals of the Exposure Triangle, it’s clearer to see how each can affect the other. For example, let’s say you take a landscape shot with the following ratings:

  • f/16 aperture
  • ISO 800
  • Shutter speed 1/20th of a second

When you look at the results, you notice blurriness in the background, but this is a landscape shot where you want more depth of field. A smaller aperture (say f/4) will help capture more depth of field.

But now that you’ve changed one setting, the others are affected, because while ISO affects the amount of light the camera needs for the shot, aperture and shutter speed affect how much light actually enters the camera.

To counterbalance this you could:

  • Reduce the ISO to 200 (Same factor of 4 as the f/16 to f/4 reduction)
  • Reduce the shutter speed by a similar factor (ie. 1/80th of a second)
  • Combine changes to both (ISO 400, 1/40th second)

Understanding how each of these settings on your DSLR affects the entire composition is a big step on the path to shooting success with your camera.

Improving focus

We’re not just talking about you here. Most DSLRs come with a range of focus modes. Some you might find on your DSLR include:

  • AF-S (Autofocus Single): Best used when taking snaps of stationary subjects, a half press of the shutter button will cause the camera to lock focus on the target point and hold it.
  • AF-C (Autofocus Continuous): Used for moving subjects, a half press of the button will cause the camera to lock on the subject at attempt to keep it in focus even as it moves.
  • MF/AF switch: The Manual Focus / Autofocus switch is found on the lense. If you want to use the above features, you have to have the DSLR in autofocus. Manual focus gives you complete control over focusing the exposure.

So, AF-S focuses on a point, AF-C focuses on a subject, both only work in AF mode and MF mode lets you control the focus.

Buying the right DSLR

Knowing which Digital Single Lens Reflex camera is right for you can be tricky. Online product reviews can help you better understand the features, but the look and weight of the camera, as well as personal preference, are also important factors. Check out Paxton’s full range of DSLRs. With a range of cameras from leading brands and full specs sheets on every camera, you’re sure to find a DSLR that suits your unique photographic style.

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