Ready to learn how to use your DSLR camera? Check out our free DSLR photography for beginners PDF.
Did you just get a new DSLR camera? Or do you have a camera that never gets used because using your camera phone seems so much easier?
Do you feel overwhelmed by all your camera’s buttons and dials?
Understanding your camera can feel overwhelming!
If you’re ready to learn how to use your DSLR camera and take beautiful, professional looking photos, you’re in the right place!
I’ve created this page to help you learn how to use your DSLR camera step by step, starting with beginner concepts and moving to more advanced photography techniques.
How To Use Your DSLR Camera Step by Step
DSLR Camera Basics
Advanced Photography Techniques
–>> Don’t miss this free photography PDF.
How To Use Your DSLR Camera – Step 1
If you’re a photography beginner, the exposure triangle is the first thing you need to study when learning how to use your DSLR camera.
It’s the foundation for learning photography.
Every camera utilizes three elements – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO – and balances them to create an “exposure,” or photo.
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 and under dark conditions, such as indoors.
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.
This photo was taken under dark conditions with a high ISO setting:
When you zoom in closer you can see the digital noise created by the high ISO setting:
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).
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.
This flower was photographed when the wind was blowing. It was moving around wildly, but the camera froze its motion with a shutter speed of 1/8000 (one eight-thousandth of a second).
This photo was taken at shutter speed 1/60 (one 60th of a second). As a result of the slow shutter speed, this photo has motion blur:
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.
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.
Two other factors that help produce an unfocused background:
•the subject’s distance from the background (one of the most important tips for creating a blurry background portrait)
•the focal length of your lens
–>> Remember to download this free beginning dslr photography cheat sheet.
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.
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).
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 affects exposure
A higher ISO setting makes your camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. So a higher ISO setting raises (brightens) your exposure. 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, creating a darker exposure. A slower shutter speed gives the camera more time to gather light, so more light will reach the camera’s sensor, creating a brighter exposure.
A wider aperture (lower f/stop number) lets more light reach the camera sensor, creating a brighter exposure. A narrower aperture (higher f/stop number) lets less light reach the camera sensor, creating a darker exposure.
ISO affects EXPOSURE and NOISE
SHUTTER SPEED affects EXPOSURE and FREEZES MOTION
APERTURE affects EXPOSURE and BACKGROUND BLUR
When shooting in manual mode the goal is to balance each leg of the exposure triangle until you achieve proper 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.
Instructions on choosing your camera settings are below.
How to Use Your DSLR Camera – 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.
Check out this post on How To Change Your Focal Point.
Change Your DSLR Metering Mode
If you need camera metering modes explained <<– this post will help you.
In most situations, it’s the most precise. DSLR metering mode.
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) 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, depending on your camera) 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.
I recommend the following procedure for choosing your camera settings:
1. Decide on your ISO setting.
If you are shooting in low light, such as indoors, start with a higher ISO setting, perhaps 800 or 1000. If you are shooting in bright light, such as outdoors, start with a lower ISO setting such as 200.
2. Choose Your f/stop setting.
F/4.0 is a good starting point.
3. Choose Your Shutter Speed Setting.
Dial in your shutter speed to a minimum of 1/125 to avoid motion blur.
4. Adjust your camera settings – your ISO, aperture and shutter speed until your in-camera meter is at zero.
This will give you proper exposure. Remember, there is no “right” set of camera settings to achieve proper exposure.
If your photo is too dark (below 0 on your in-camera meter), you could do any of the following to let in more light:
Raise your ISO Setting
Lower your f/stop setting
Lower your shutter speed (but not below 1/125)
If your photo is too bright (above 0 on your in-camera meter), you could do any of the following to let in less light:
Lower your ISO setting
Raise your f/stop setting
Raise your shutter speed
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 DSLR Camera PDF
If the photography terms you’ve learned here still feel intimidating or confusing, I recommend downloading my free easy to understand DSLR Photography for Beginners PDF.
This cheat sheet and quick start guide provides you with a quick exercise to help you understand how your camera settings work together by trying them out.
Here’s the truth: you can’t learn photography by reading about it. The learning is in the DOING and this guide will help you learn by trying out what you’ve read about on this page.
Learn How to Use Your DSLR Camera With Confidence
If you’d like personalized help and guidance as you learn how to use your DSLR camera, be on the lookout for my digital photography course for beginners Love Your Photos 101.
This course will teach you how to use your DSLR camera with confidence and includes personalized guidance and the opportunity to get all your questions answered.
How to Use Your DSLR Camera – Advanced and Creative Techniques
Once you learn how to take control of your camera settings and shoot in manual mode, your ability to get creative with your camera will grow!
Get your photo’s color right with a correct white balance.
Good color can make a dramatic difference in your photos, as you can see in these white balance examples:
There are 2 easy ways to nail your white balance:
1. Learn how to set your white balance while shooting using your camera white balance presets so you can get your color right in camera. Check out this white balance chart to help you understand the color temperature of light.
2. Learn how to correct white balance in Lightroom using the white balance dropper, Lightroom’s white balance presets, and the temperature and tint sliders.
A fun creative technique you’ll want to try is a Silhouette Photo. Here are some tips for success:
1. Find a location with open space and few objects on the horizon, like houses or trees (beaches make a great location for silhouette photos.
2. You’ll have the easiest time shoot a silhouette right before and just after sunset.
3. Get down low to include as much of the sky in your image as possible.
4. Set your exposure for the light coming from the sky.
5. Try to isolate your subject from objects and people around them so their features will look distinct. Make sure they aren’t intersecting with any other objects like trees or buildings, or other people in the photo.
Beginners often struggle with taking photos that are sharp and in focus. Check out this detailed post with 8 Tips For Laser Sharp Focus In Your Photos.
1. After you take a photo, zoom in on the back of your camera to check your focus.
2. Use a fast shutter speed (1/125 or faster)
3. Choose your own focal point.
4. Use Continuous Focus Mode for moving subjects.
5. Focus on a point of contrast.
6. Hold your breath and lock your elbows.
7. Close down your aperture to get more of your subject in focus.
8. Calibrate your lens if necessary.
Every photographer needs a basic understanding of the qualities of light. Check out these photography lighting tips:
Seeing The Light
Learn about how to see, find, and harness the Types of Light in Photography.
Light can make or break a photo. Learning to use your camera in manual mode is the first step toward beautiful photos, but even in manual mode, without beautiful light a beautiful photo is impossible.
Light has a direction, an intensity, and a color. The post above covers direction and intensity, but be sure to check out this post on understanding color temperature in photography.
The 3 main directions of light are:
front (called front light, or flat light)
side (called sidelight, or directional light)
back (called backlight)
Learn how the benefits and challenges of working with each type of light and tips for success.
If you feel limited by the lack of light in your home this post will help you learn how to take great photos in a dark house.
1. Embrace the low light. It’s a myth that great photos only happen when there’s lots of light to work with. Low light photography yield photos with more interest, depth and dimension.
2. Raise your ISO and open up your aperture in order to gather more light for your low light photos. Expose “to the right,” meaning make sure the ticker on your in-camera meter falls to the right of 0, toward the + side. This helps to reduce the noise caused by a higher ISO setting.
3. Move closer to the light source. Light falls off rapidly and exponentially the further you get from the light source, so getting closer to it gives you lots more light to work with.
DIY Family Photos
1. Coordinate, don’t match your outfits.
2. Shoot in good light – either a time of day when the light is less harsh, or in open shade.
3. Use a tripod. This will give you more flexibility in composing your photo.
4. Use your camera’s self-timer mode and turn off auto focus. This is the most important key to success when you take your own family photos. <<– Detailed instructions are included.
5. Get close and interact. This will ensure that everyone looks close and connected and will help you get natural smiles.
Fall Photography Ideas
Check out this post with 8 creative fall photography ideas to try this year.
This post includes ideas on
•choosing your outfit colors for fall photos
•using light to enhance the beauty of fall leaves
•the best white balance settings for fall photo
•a tip to add depth to your photos using fall foliage
•a Lightroom Autumn Color Tutorial video
Learn The Principles of Composition In Photography
Learning the principles of composition in photography can take your images to the next level! And this Composition In Photography PDF will help jog your memory when you’re out shooting!
This post covers 9 composition principles:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Use of Symmetry and Reflections
- Simplify The Frame
- Add Depth In The Foreground
- Avoid Limb Chops
- Use Negative Space
- Use Perspective
- Leave Space In Front Of Your Subject
Don’t miss the different types of composition in photography PDF!
Organize and Print Your Photos
What’s the point of taking beautiful photos if they won’t be around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy in 20 years?
Bad news: digital photos don’t last forever. Hard drives crash and digital files can be corrupted.
If you want to have photos to pass down to your children, you need to print your photos.
The fastest and easiest way to get your photos printed is with a Lightroom Photo Book. <<– This post will show you how with step by step instructions and a video tutorial on how to assign keywords and pull together a photo album in moments.
If you’re ready to get your photos organized and printed check out my ebook: Organize Your Photos Step By Step.
Please be sure to pin this page to your photography board on Pinterest and check back often as I update it with new tutorials and tips