The Ultimate Guide to Learning how to use Your first DSLR
If you’ve bought yourself a DSLR (or mirrorless camera) and, after unpacking it from the box, you are intimidated by the number of buttons and dials, and by the thickness of the manual, it can be very tempting to put the manual down, flick it onto ‘Auto’ and start shooting.
Whilst that is fine for some, it may not belong until you crave the creative control that inspired you to purchase a DSLR in the first place, but where do you begin?
If you consider yourself a beginner who is unsure of how to make the most of your camera, this post is designed for you. It’s intended to be a brief, a one-stop shop to help you take your camera off auto, and take control of your DSLR. It isn’t intended to be a replacement for your camera manual, so will not explain every last setting in great depth, but will cover enough of the basics to get you in control of your camera, and give you the key topics to go back to your manual to read.
Steps for Learning How to Use Your DSLR include:
Here’s some steps for learning how to use that new DSLR that we’ll cover in this article.
- Master Shooting modes (including priority modes and full manual)
- Understand ISO
- Learn the ‘exposure triangle’
- Master Metering including exposure compensation
- Learn About Focussing
- Understand file size/types
- Learn about White balance
There’s lots to learn if you want to get the most from your DSLR but lets start by digging into each of these topics.
Note to Mirrorless Camera Owners: almost everything in this article is relevant not only to DSLR owners but also mirrorless camera owners too!
1. Master Shooting modes
The best place to start is with shooting modes. The shooting modes will most likely be found on a dial labeled with ‘auto, Av, Tv, P, M’ and maybe more. Selecting a shooting mode will determine how your camera behaves when you press the shutter, for example, when ‘auto’ is selected, the camera will determine everything to do with the exposure, including the aperture and shutter speed. The other modes, ‘Av, Tv, P, M’, are there to give you control:
Don’t worry if your mode dial looks a little different; different manufacturers use different abbreviations for the shooting modes. Your mode dial may have the letters ‘A, S, P, M’ (instead of Av, Tv, P, M), yet they all function in the same way. Below, I have given each abbreviation for the given mode.
Aperture Priority (Av or A)
Aperture priority can be thought of as a ‘semi-automatic’ shooting mode. When this is selected, you as the photographer set the aperture and the camera will automatically select the shutter speed. So what is aperture and when would you want to control it?
The aperture is the size of the opening in the lens through which light is allowed to pass whenever the shutter is opened – the larger the aperture, the more light passes through.
The aperture is measured in ‘f-stops’ and is usually displayed using an ‘f-number’, e.g. f/2.0, f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0, etc, which is a ratio of focal length over the diameter of the opening. Therefore, a larger aperture (a wider opening) has a smaller f-number (e.g. f/2.0) and smaller aperture (a narrower opening) has a larger f-number (e.g. f/22). Reducing the aperture by one whole f-stop, e.g. f/2.0 to f2/8 or f/5.6 to f/8.0, halves the amount of light entering the camera.
Aperture is one of the most important aspects of photography as it directly influences the depth of field – that is, the amount of an image that is in focus. A large depth of field (achieved by using a small aperture (large f-number)) would mean that a large distance within the scene is in focus, such as the foreground to the background of the landscape below.
Whereas a shallow depth of field (achieved by using a large aperture (small f-number)) would produce an image where only the subject is in sharp focus, but the background is soft and out of focus. This is often used when shooting portraiture or wildlife, such as the image below, to isolate the subject from the background:
So when using aperture priority, you can get complete control over your depth of field, whilst the camera takes care of the rest.
Shutter Priority (Tv or S)
Similarly to aperture priority, this is another ‘semi-automatic’ shooting mode, though in this instance, you as the photographer set the shutter speed and the camera will take care of the aperture. The shutter speed, measured in seconds (or more often fractions of a second), is the amount of time the shutter stays open when taking a photograph. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light passes through to the sensor to be captured.
You would select a short shutter speed if you wanted to freeze a fast moving subject, such as shooting sports, action or wildlife, for example:
You would use a long shutter speed if you wanted to blur a moving subject, for example water rushing over a waterfall (slower shutter speeds will require you to put the camera on a tripod to ensure the camera is held steady whilst the shutter is open):