How To Use Your DSLR Camera

Welcome, new photographer!  If you’re learning how to use your DSLR camera, you’re in the right place!

Learning photography can feel overwhelming! I know, I’ve been there.  But I’m living proof it’s possible to go from being clueless about photography to taking photos you love.  <<< Check out how my own photos went from bad to beautiful 8 years ago.

This page is intended to be a step by step roadmap for learning how to use your DSLR.  It will take you from beginner concepts to more advanced photography techniques.

Bookmark this page and come back often for new tutorials and updates!

How to Use Your DSLR Camera – Step 1

If you’re new to photography, the exposure triangle is the first thing you need to study. 

It’s the foundation for understanding your camera.

Every camera utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or photo.  

We’ll look at the function of each leg of the exposure triangle in detail below.  If you’re new, this can be a lot of information to take in, but I’ve simplified it for you with an easy to understand photography cheat sheet

If you’d like to download my free DSLR photography for beginners PDF you can get it HERE.

ISO – The First Leg of the Exposure Triangle

Your camera’s ISO setting determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor (the part inside your camera that captures an image) is to light.  The lower your ISO setting, the less sensitive.  The higher the setting, the more sensitive.

The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will be able to “gather”.  A high ISO is useful when shooting in low light, such as indoors.

Most entry level DSLR’s have an ISO range from 100 to 3200 or 6400, while pro-level DSLR’s have ISO ranges up to 32,000 and even higher! 

A higher ISO setting has one major drawback.  The higher you set your ISO, the more “noise” you’ll get in your photos.  Noise is similar to grain and reduces image quality.  Use the lowest ISO setting possible to avoid too much digital noise in your images.

Shutter Speed – The Next Leg of the Exposure Triangle

Shutter speed refers to how long your camera’s shutter stays open when you snap a photo, expressed in seconds or fractions of a second.

A shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter will stay open for one one-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second.  A shutter speed of 1/800 (one 800th of a second) is faster than SS 1/50 (one 50th of a second).

It’s also possible to keep your shutter open for longer periods of time, such as 5 o 10 seconds, or longer. This shutter speed is not written as a fraction, but a whole number, because it’s longer than a second.

You would use a slower shutter speed to capture motion blur.  A slow shutter speed can make running water look silky, or create a feeling of movement in a photo.  It can also be used to photograph still subjects in low light without having to use a high ISO setting.

A fast shutter speed of 1/125 or faster will freeze motion.  This is usually what you want when photographing people and if you’re photographing children, you’ll want an even faster shutter speed, like 1/250 or faster.  


Aperture – The Third Leg of the Exposure Triangle

Aperture is the leg of the exposure triangle that creates those beautiful blurry backgrounds people want when learning photography.  Aperture is also known as f/stop.

Your camera has an opening inside that allows light to pass through to the camera sensor.  The f/stop number, expressed as a fraction (yes, fractions again!) refers to how “wide open” or “closed down” the camera’s aperture is.

The wider the camera’s aperture opens, the lower the f/stop number will be, and the blurrier the background of the photo will be.  

The more closed the camera’s aperture is, the higher the f/stop number will be, and the less blurry the background will be.

The most important points to remember about aperture are:

A lower f/stop number creates a blurrier background.

A higher f/stop number should be used if you need more of the photo in focus, such as when you’re photographing a larger number of people or taking a landscape photo.

For more information on aperture check out this post on what aperture to use.  It provides two questions to help you decide, and a great tip for getting more of your photo in focus without changing your aperture setting.

The photo below was taken at f/1.8.  I love how those cute toes stand out with the blurry background created by using a low f/stop number.

how to use dslr camera

As mentioned above, aperture is the camera setting responsible for producing blurry backgrounds.  But there are other factors that come into play in capturing blurry backgrounds.  If you’d like to know how to achieve a blurry background in your photos without changing your aperture setting be sure to check out this post.

How to Use Your DSLR Camera – Step 2

The next step in learning how to use your DSLR is switching to manual mode.

When you shoot in auto mode your camera decides how to balance the three elements of the exposure triangle based on the scene you are photographing and the light available.

When you shoot in manual mode you get to choose the best settings for the lighting you are in and for the effect you want to achieve.

In auto mode, your camera makes its best guess, but it can’t see the scene you are trying to photograph.  Only you can see that.

Many people ask if it’s okay to use a semi-automatic camera mode. 

I think it’s best to learn full manual mode first.  Then you will better understand how each of your camera settings affects your image and be able to use the semi-auto camera modes in the right situation for best results.

Manual mode is the only camera mode that gives you 100% creative control over your images.

As I mentioned at the outset of this article, every camera utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or image. 

But What is Exposure? 

Exposure is the amount of light captured when you take a photograph.  If too little light is captured, the image will be “underexposed” (too dark).  If too much light is captured, the image will be “overexposed” (too bright).

how to use dslr

When you shoot in manual mode, the goal is the balance your ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture so you have a good or “correct” exposure – not too dark and not too bright.

How each leg of the exposure triangle effects exposure

A higher ISO setting makes your camera’s sensor more sensitive to light.  In effect a higher ISO setting raises (brightens) your exposures.  A lower ISO setting lowers (darkens) your exposure.

A faster shutter speed allows less time for the camera to capture light, so with a faster shutter speed less light will reach the camera’s sensor.  A slower shutter speed gives the camera more time to gather light, so more light will reach the camera’s sensor.

A wider aperture (lower f/stop number) lets more light reach the camera sensor.  A narrower aperture (higher f/stop number) lets less light reach the camera sensor.

To summarize:




When shooting in manual mode the goal is to balance each leg of the exposure triangle until you achieve proper exposure (or desired exposure).

This can be done using any combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed.  There’s no such thing as a “wrong” set of camera settings.  Each situation, each set of lighting conditions and different creative effects can call for a different combination of settings.

How to Use Your DSLR – Step 3

After you switch to manual mode there are some camera settings you’ll need to change for best results.

•Switch your camera to single point focus.  This setting allows you to choose your focal point and decide what part of the image you want in focus.  You’ll be able to toggle through your camera focus points to create the best composition.

boy kicking soccer ball with camera focus points overlay

Switch to spot metering mode.  There are several metering mode options, but I recommend spot metering in most situations as the most precise way to take a meter reading.

What’s a Meter Reading?

The goal of shooting in manual mode is to balance your ISO, shutter speed and aperture so that your camera meter is at 0, or close to 0.  Each camera is different, but most cameras have a “ticker” inside the viewfinder that looks like this:

If you are spot metering on a Nikon camera, your active focal point (the point that’s highlighted as you look through your viewfinder and toggle through your focal points) also takes your meter reading.  If you are spot metering on a Canon camera, your center focal point takes your meter reading.

How to Take a Meter Reading

Place your focal point (center or active) over your subject and depress your shutter button halfway.  This will give you a meter reading.  Check the light meter inside your camera and note where the ticker falls on the meter.

Next, adjust your camera settings – your ISO, aperture and shutter speed until your in-camera meter is at 0.  This will give you proper exposure.

Once you achieve proper exposure you can toggle your camera’s focal point to change your composition if desired before taking a photo.

How to Use Your DSLR – Next Steps

Thus far, I’ve described the very basics of shooting in manual mode.  I recommend mastering this skill before moving on to more advanced skills.

Mastering manual mode made all the difference in my photos.  It’s enabled me to harness the light in any given situation for beautiful results.

Scroll through to see some of my recent favorites:

If you’d like detailed, step-by-step guidance as you learn how to use your DSLR in manual mode, as well as a supportive learning community, I recommend my soon to be launched basic photography course, Love Your Photos 101:

Once you master shooting in manual mode, I recommend moving on to more advanced concepts.  These include:

Setting a custom white balance for accurate color in your photos.

Composition Techniques

Seeing the Light

Getting your photos organized and printed in a Lightroom photo book.

Please be sure to bookmark this page and check back often as I update it with new tutorials and tips!  And…

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