12 min read

How to Use a DSLR Camera: Basic Guide for Beginners

12 min read

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learn to use a dslr camera.

Using Your DSLR Camera

Learning to use a DSLR camera is on the mind of every new photographer who has one. These cameras are complicated pieces of technological equipment. If you own a new DSLR camera, you don’t want to be stuck using it in auto mode. This is what you use your phone for, not your DSLR camera.

If you only use settings like aperture priority mode, then you are not getting the most from your DSLR camera. Shutter priority mode and program mode are much the same. You need to learn how to make the best use of your digital single lens reflex camera.

This article will help you gain a better understanding of whether you use a Canon camera or if you have a collection of Nikon cameras. Using the aperture priority modes and the shutter priority modes are only going to limit what you can do with your DSLR camera.

Most of today’s DSLRs (Digital Single Reflex Camera) are similar in design. But the buttons and controls can be found in different places, depending on brand and style. There are a lot of settings available for you to use to capture unique photos. But while there are many settings to choose from, not all are completely understood before being used. It is important to know about your DSLR camera settings so that you can choose the best one for what you are seeking to accomplish.

Digital photography is a lot more fun when you know what you are doing. When you have a new DSLR camera, it’s important to know how to use it. The same goes for a mirrorless camera.

Canon DSLR camera.

What are the Basics of a DSLR Camera?

Here, we will take a good look at how to use DSLR camera settings. It’s not complicated when you take the time to understand what you are doing.

If you have a new camera or a mirrorless camera and want to learn how to use it, check out the 365 Days of Photography Course, which takes you step by step on how to use your new camera in manual mode. It also looks at manual focus mode and every aspect of how to use a DSLR camera. No matter what camera model you have, this beginner’s photography guide will teach you much more about it than your camera manual will.

DSLR cameras are amazing. When you use your camera well, you’ll be able to take your digital photography to a new level. You really want to get off the aperture priority mode and any auto mode. Your camera will not be able to make creative choices for you in these modes. You are much better off learning how to take photographs in manual mode. All you really need to do is learn to control the shutter speed and aperture, so the right amount of light reaches the camera’s sensor. This will give you a correctly exposed image no matter what camera model you have.

Learning to use manual focus mode is not so important because the autofocus on every camera is getting better and better. You do need to know how to manage your focus point and focus mode and the difference between a fast shutter speed and a slower shutter speed. These are things that influence how much blur is in a photo.

DSLR camera settings.

Basic Settings and Steps to Start Using Your DSLR Camera:

1. Make sure the batteries are charged.

You don’t ever want to be out with your camera and discover that you don’t have any charge in your battery. It really is essential to take photographs.

2. Make sure you have a memory card.

Purchase extra memory cards so you have plenty of memory for shooting pictures. The quality of the pictures you are taking determines the memory space you will need.

memory card.

3. Turn your camera on.

This is the first aspect of using a camera that you’ll learn to do automatically. In no time, you will not even have to think about where the on/off switch is. Next thing, you’ll be managing the aperture setting, shutter speed, and ISO the same way. 

The more often you use your camera, the easier it becomes. You’ll be able to adjust the settings well without having to pay full attention to them.

4. Choose a “mode” on top.

Most cameras have a selection of exposure modes to choose from. The most commonly used mode is the aperture priority mode. Shutter priority mode and auto mode are also popular.

This is more so with new photographers who have not discovered the joy of taking photos with their cameras in manual mode.

camera modes.

Automatic Mode

When you set your camera to automatic, you let the camera figure out the exposure for you. This means if it requires a flash, the flash will go off unless you set it to the no-flash auto mode. This is most often used for simple point-and-shoot photography.

Program Mode

In program mode, your shutter speed and aperture are set by the camera. This mode is good for snapshots and when you don’t have time to adjust settings. In this mode, the camera also makes the choice of how the exposure is set. This is always only controlled by how the camera is programmed and works the same for Canon cameras and Nikon cameras.

Shutter Priority Mode

You set the shutter speed, and the camera selects the best aperture.  This setting is good if you are trying to freeze or blur motion. Also, the shutter priority mode is good when you are first getting used to your settings.

Learning how to manage your shutter speed well is important. You don’t want to end up using a slower shutter speed than is what is best. When you have a moving subject, this is most important to know. A fast shutter speed will also help you to avoid blur from the camera shake. This is what happens when a slow shutter speed is used, and the camera moves during the time that the shutter is open. Then, the whole of the photo will appear to be blurry.

For more information, see: Shutter Speed

photographer holding a camera.

Aperture Priority Mode

Here you get to choose the aperture, and the camera sets the shutter speed. If you want the background blurry or everything in focus (Depth of Field), the aperture priority mode would be your best option. Also, for any beginner photographers, this mode will help you learn how to control the depth of field and put you at a good start above others.

For more info see: Introduction to Aperture and Aperture Setting.

Manual Mode

With the manual mode, you choose shutter speed and aperture yourself. You can do this by holding down the +/- button and moving the dial until you are satisfied with your setting. Using this exposure compensation control does not provide you with such accurate control over your exposure settings. This is best achieved by learning to manage the aperture setting and shutter speed setting yourself. 

The ISO setting also has an influence on exposure and should never be set to auto ISO if you want to be in control of your exposure. Leaving the ISO set to auto means that the camera is in control of the exposure. No matter how you adjust your aperture and shutter speed, the camera manages the ISO automatically. This means that the camera is in control of the exposure setting as well. It will determine what it is programmed to and adjust the ISO accordingly.

For more info see: How to Shoot Using Manual Mode.

camera on a tripod in outdoor setting.

Effects or Scene Modes

These modes are for special effects and optimizing the settings for the scene being photographed. If you want to learn to use your camera well, forget about these settings. They are only there to make it seem like photography is easy. If you want to do easy photography, there is not much point in owning a camera. A phone will do just fine.

The scene modes in cameras can cause more confusion than they are worth. Take a little time to learn to use your camera well. There are not many important settings. Once you have learned to control them, you will have no inclination to even look at the scene or effect modes.

Information Display Options

Just about any digital camera has this Information Display or “info” button or some variation of it. Shooting information is displayed on the monitor when this button is pushed. It’s all there! Learning to read what is the most important and relevant information on this screen takes time. But it is worth making an effort to understand it. This will help you to become a better photographer than you are now. It’s typically used when reviewing photographs.

See: Histograms and other Camera Settings.

person shooting with a DSLR camera.

Image Quality

There are two basic image quality choices. You can set your camera to save your photos as RAW files or as jpg files. This is an important choice. You need to learn how to best save your photographs if you want to edit them or if you prefer not to.

File Format and Compression Ratio(Quality): Set to NORM

For more info see: Quality.

Image Size

Measured in Pixels: Set to Large

For more info see: Megapixels and Resolution.

White Balance

Helps adjust the lighting and colors depending on the lighting. Most of the time you can be confident that the camera will get the white balance right when it is set to auto. Auto white balance means the camera decides if it needs to filter out any color cast that may be present in the ambient light where you are taking photos. If the light has a different tone, the camera will add an opposite-toned filter to correct the photos you capture. Most of the time you will not even be aware of this.

The only times when it’s best to set the white balance manually is when there is light from different sources of different color temperatures. The other time that auto white balance is not so good is when you are taking photos using studio strobe lighting.

For more info see: White Balance.

Nikon DSLR camera.

ISO Sensitivity

This adjusts how responsive the camera sensor is to light. A low ISO setting is best in bright light. Like on a sunny day. On a cloudy day, a setting that is a little bit higher is good. When the light is low, like at night, you will need to adjust the ISO to a higher setting. At higher ISO settings, photos will be affected by digital noise.

For more info see: ISO Sensitivity.

Release Mode

This setting controls how many photographs are taken per second when you press the shutter release button. Most cameras have the options of single and burst mode. So you can set this to only take one photo at a time. Or you can manage the setting, so the camera takes a lot of photos continuously as long as you have your finger on the shutter release button.

For more info see: Shutter Release Modes.

Focus Mode

It changes how the camera will focus on the subject. This is an important setting to control on your camera. The wrong focus mode will mean that you do not get your main subject in focus. This is always disappointing because you cannot fix an out-of-focus photo.

Learn to set your focus point how you like. There are a variety of options for how to do this, including single servo and continuous servo modes. Some people prefer to use manual focus mode.

using and setting up a new camera.

AF-area Mode

What type of focus will be used for autofocus: Set to Auto-area AF.

This setting determines where the camera will focus in your frame. It can be on one point, or you can set it for multi-point autofocus. In this mode, the camera will decide what to focus on.

For more info see: Af-Area Mode.


Sets exposure depending on the setting you choose: Set to Average Metering.

This controls how the camera reads the amount of light. In Averaged mode, the camera reads light from the whole image and provides an average reading. This is a handy default because it is pretty accurate most of the time.

When you want to be more precise with your exposure reading, learn to use the Spot Metering mode on your camera.

For more info see: Metering Modes.

Active D-Lighting (Nikon)

Changes the difference between shadows and highlights: Set to OFF.

Auto Bracketing

Takes pictures at different exposures: Set to OFF.

This tool is helpful when you are not confident that you are getting the best exposure. It is also used to create HDR photos. With auto bracketing turned on, the camera will take a predetermined series of exposures at different settings. You can then choose which one you like the best.

For more info see: Bracketing and Auto Bracketing.

Set Picture Control

Changes the color pallet: Set to Standard.

Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation is used when your camera is set to any of the auto exposure modes. You can then use the exposure compensation to adjust an exposure that you are not happy with. Maybe you have taken a photo, and it is too bright. You can set the exposure compensation to -1 or -2 and see if it looks any better. The opposite can be done to add more light to an image that looks too dark.

For more info see: Exposure Compensation.

DSLR camera learning guide for beginners.

Flash Compensation

Helps compensate for flash: Set to 0.0

This is very similar to exposure compensation. The flash compensation allows you to control the amount of light from your flash that has an effect on your photos. You can add more light or control it to add less light when the flash is too bright.

Flash Mode

When the flash is fired: Set to Normal.

It is important to control when your flash will fire. If your flash mode is set to auto, the camera will set the flash off any time it appears to be a bit dark. So when you are taking photos of the night sky or fireworks, for example, the flash will go off. This will not help you take better photos. So it is best to be in control of when the flash will fire and not let the camera manage this setting.

AE-AL Lock

To lock exposure in one area. This is helpful when you are using any of the auto exposure modes. When you have an exposure that you are happy with, you can press and hold the AE-AL lock button to retain that exposure setting. This is good when the light is changing in your scene, and you don’t want your exposure to self-adjust as it will do in any auto exposure mode. If you are using manual mode on your camera, there is no need to use this setting.

For more info see: AE-L and AF-L Lock.

Photo Editing Software Included with Camera

If you are planning on taking pictures using the RAW file format, you need software to process your RAW files into the jpeg file format. Most new digital cameras include software to help you manage, edit, and store your images. Some software programs even allow you to control your camera using a tether wirelessly.

Canon offers its EOS Utility. Nikon has ViewNX-i software. This lets you browse still images and video files. You can edit still images via Capture NX-D or video files via ViewNX-Movie Editor. Sony has its Imaging Edge (Remote/Viewer/Edit) Image Data Converter. This displays RAW data and can adjust the brightness or color as well as output development to a JPEG or TIFF file format.

Take an Online Video Photography Course

There are literally hundreds of online video photography courses available. Online courses are a flexible and convenient way to learn photography and improve your camera skills. For starters, we recommend our 365 Days of Photography Course. You can access the course at any time on your desktop, laptop, tablet, or your smartphone. 


The most effective way to learn to use your camera is to study and practice with it every day. This will help you learn to manage the camera settings and enjoy photography. When you don’t need to stress about the settings, you can enjoy taking photos a lot more.

Take your time to learn the essential controls on your camera. When you know how to manage these, you will be more confident to take better photos.

Also, check out our article on How to Get Started in Photography.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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  1. Jeez, guy! What year u livin’ in? Have u checked out the latest dSLR’s , Prosumers and even (gasp!) compact cameras? I mean u r talkin’ bout 3megapixel cams and 32/64Mb memory cards! it’s more like 14megapixels and 16gigabyte nowadays. Ya really gotta get out more man.

  2. yeah, this page on digital cameras does need some updating. we’re looking to add a bunch of new digital camera specific stuff. glad you enjoyed the other photo lessons.

  3. Thanks, this information was extremely helpful. It actually, taught me me more abuot my camera than the owner’s manual did. Though it was helpful too.

  4. This Website is an amazing way to introduce photography to people and get everyone to understand the techenique of art and science, I come to this site everyday for a little inspiration.

  5. Thank you so much for this guide, it’s incredibly helpful for us beginners – even on the digital side of things, it’s no fun to just keep the autofocus button pressed now is it?? I shall keep working my way through the lessons, thank you for taking your time to do this for us.

  6. I have had several digital cameras but did not know what was going wrong with a lot of the photos I was taking. Now that I am getting the mechanics down, it will make photography much more enjoyable and easier to understand. Don’t fret about keeping too up-to-date, most of us need to know the basics instead of who has the most Pixels.
    Thank you very much for helping me enjoy my new hobby!

  7. I thought the info on pixel vs. size of prints is very helpful for beginners like me. Now i know that i can print 8X10 with my Nikon. Good stuff. Thank you!

  8. I am one of those old-timers and this site has helped me begin the transition to the NEW Age of digital Photography. Thank you.

  9. I have a 4 megapixels Olympus digital Camera. can it do for me agood job? am doubting the quality of prints its giving me.

    Thanx for the good work

  10. Nice site, I’ve learned a lot of your videos regarding the lights effect of the photography shoots. I hope i can apply it in my jobs…


  11. I wish to take photographs that may be developed into poster size prints. I guess SLR film cameras 35mm will be best for this requirement. Or, will you suggest a DSLR for this? If DSLR, then which one?
    Also, I need a help on commercial aspects of photography. I have no clue about how professional photographers sell their photographs.

  12. I have liked your web site and I would like to be a student as well. I like photography but don’t have the slightest idea on which camera to purchase. I know I would like a digital camera. I understand the pixel thing though i need more descriptions for the best camera to purchase and i had forgotten, photography lessons.

  13. I am a newcomer in this line. Currently I’m using NIKON P100. It has only upto 10.3 mp. I want to participate in a photography competition where 12 X 18 photo print required. I have taken some cool photos based on subject. So what do You think whether my photo quality will be good or not?

    1. Welcome Sankhasuvro, If you take a look at our lesson on megapixels you’ll see that a 10MP camera at that size will be around 200ppi. That’s not ideal (300 ppi) but better than most inkjet printers (150ppi).

  14. Hello! Great classes! Congratulations! Well, as you talked about printers, I´d like to know the relation between PPI (Pixels per inch) and DPI (Dots per inch – as my printer manual uses as especification). Thanks!

  15. When you’re a nonetheless digital professional shooter, in a financial budget, which includes to get creative with the captures, all of us honestly can’t remember a Digital SLR camera much far greater compared to the K-r to fit these needs.

  16. THIS IS GREAT! Great lessons, great pics, great everything!! great job guys! i am learning tons!!! i am a freshmen in high school, but i wanna start learning now, and i found this!! thanks!

  17. This is a great site. Thanks so much for making everything so simple. While I don’t have a digital slr yet, I did just pick up a couple of older film sle camers, basically to learn on, without the expense.

    Keep up the good work

  18. Good information! I think a lot of people don’t take the time to learn how to use their cameras even though everything you ever wanted to know is online via articles and YouTube.

    A DSLR is a beast of a camera when the photographer knows how to use it, even an older DSLR will blow you away once you know how to use it.


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