A beginner's guide to understanding your first DSLR camera

Photography is an art form and a science, requiring skill and talent, as well as good knowledge of the tools used in capturing breathtaking imagery.

You’ve moved on from a simple point-and-shoot camera and have finally decided to pick up your first Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera (Also known as “DSLR”).

This is just the start of what could be a wonderful career or hobby in your life, but first you need to master your new camera. In the following article, we’re going to look at some of the most important settings you should learn from your camera.

How Does a DSLR Work?

A DSLR camera makes use of a mirror mechanism to do one of two things:

  • Reflect light from a camera lens to an optical viewfinder (This is essentially an eyepiece sitting at the back of the camera that you look through in order to see what you’re taking a picture of).
  • Letting light fully pass through onto the image sensor (Which captures your image) by moving the mirror out of the way.

What are the Advantages of a DSLR Camera?

One of the most obvious advantages of a DSLR camera is that it allows you to use interchangeable lenses. However, DSLR’s are also unmatched when it comes to image quality, this is because DSLR’s use very large imaging sensors.

DSLR’s also benefit from their ability to shoot at least 4 frames per second (This is the figure used to rate the speed and response of a camera), while higher end DSLR’s can shoot at upwards of 4 frames per second.

DSLR cameras also benefit from their ability to capture motion, flash and even panoramic photography, while offering the possibility to be equipped with filters, extendable battery packs and more.

DSLR settings

DSLR cameras are a little more complex than many point-and-shoot cameras as they feature a number of different settings and modes for you to choose from and play around with in order to achieve the results you’re looking for.


Aperture refers to the opening of a lens’ diaphragm in which it allows light to pass through. This is calibrated in f/stops which are usually written as numbers, for example, f/1.8, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 etc.

Low aperture allows more light to pass through the lens’ diaphragm, making it ideal for use indoors or at night when there isn’t much light. This setting also offers a shallow depth of field, which will result in the background becoming slightly blurred with focus on the foreground.

Higher aperture allows more light to pass through the lens, making it the perfect setting for outdoor photography, as it also offers a higher-quality depth of field meaning that everything within your shot is in focus and looks crisp.


Exposure refers to the amount of light per unit area reaching the electronic image sensor (or photographic film), and is determined by a variation of shutter speed, lens aperture and even scene luminance.

Higher exposure will result in your images being brighter, while lower exposure will result means darker images.


ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor – the lower the number; the less sensitive the camera is to light and the finer the grain will be.

The higher the ISO is set, the more sensitive the sensor becomes to light, this allows the camera to be used in darker situations and environments.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the length of time it takes for your camera shutter to open and expose the camera sensor to light. This allows you to play around and create various effects within your images.

For example,  a sunny day outside would usually require an ISO of around 100/200, while indoor photography without the use of flash usually requires an ISO of around 700/800 or higher depending on various factors.

Camera Modes

Aperture Priority

Aperture priority (abbreviated as A or AV on a camera mode dial) is a setting that allows the user to select their own aperture settings while having the shutter speed controlled automatically for optimal exposure. This mode can be used to control background blur in your shots.

Shutter Priority

Shutter priority (abbreviated as S or TV on a camera mode dial) is a setting that allows the user to select their own shutter speed, while having aperture controlled automatically for optimal exposure. This mode can be used to emphasis motion in your shots.

Exposure Mode

Exposure mode (abbreviated as P on a camera mode dial) is a setting that allows the camera to automatically adjust shutter speed and aperture to achieve optimal exposure.

Automatic Mode

Automatic mode (abbreviated as a small rectangle or a camera icon with “auto” written above on most camera mode dials) is a setting that allows the camera to select all settings; focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO amongst other settings, based on the scene being photographed.

Landscape Mode

Landscape mode (abbreviated as a photograph icon or a small mountain icon on most camera mode dials) is a setting that allows the camera to focus on as much of the scene as possible using a large depth of field, as well as increasing blues and greens within your scene.

Portrait Mode

Portrait mode (abbreviated as the icon of a person on most camera mode dials) is a setting that will soften skin tones, while blurring background tones in order to capture the subject in the foreground of your shots. This setting is usually best used in well lit conditions.

Sports Mode

Sports mode (abbreviated as an icon of a person running on most camera mode dials) is a setting in which a very high shutter speed is set in order to freeze motion for more dynamic shots in which the subject stands out clearly without being blurred from motion.

Marco Mode

Macro mode (abbreviated as an icon of a flower on most camera mode dials) is a setting that is useful for taking photographs of a subject smaller than your hand (often a small insect etc.). Macro mode will not give you close-up shots, but instead will brighten conditions and choose a shallow depth of field in order to capture the subject being focused on.

Manual Mode

Manual mode (abbreviated as the letter M on most camera mode dials) is a setting that allows the user to all of their own camera settings, from shutter speed and ISO to aperture and more, in order to create any match of settings desired.

Night Portrait Mode

Night portrait mode (abbreviated as an icon of a person with a star above them on most camera mode dials)is a setting very similar to portrait mode, but instead will have the flash of the camera fire in order to enhance detail in the foreground, while slowing the shutter speed in order to capture a detailed, naturally lit background.

Child Mode

Child mode (abbreviated as an icon of a child on most camera mode dials) is a setting used to produce the best results when photographing moving subjects such as children playing. It allows you to frame and select the subject so the camera will track this subject before shooting.

No Flash Mode

No flash mode (abbreviated as the flash logo with a line through it on most camera mode dials) is a setting used for photographing a scene, location or subject where flash photography is prohibited, like museums and plays.

You’ve learnt about ISO, aperture and shutter speed, and hopefully you now know what each camera mode is best used for and what effects it has on your photography.

Using pre-defined camera modes might be seen as amateurish by some people, but while you’re learning to use your DSLR, these might be the best way forward.

Once you’re feeling confident you can look to start using manual mode and adjusting your settings to fit what you’re looking for in your work.

Richard is the owner of Meadows Farm Studios, having started his photography career after graduating Art College in 1985. Now, more than 30 years later, he and Meadows Farm Studios are still going strong.


Older Post
Newer Post

1 comment

  • Just noticed well reading your article that Aperture priority, shutter priority and exposure mode are all repeated!
    Otherwise, great article. Thank you!

    Selina Dodd

Leave a comment

Close (esc)

Tax season is here!

Don't have any regrets this tax season or next - take advantage of our BIG sale this month only!

Our financial spreadsheets for photographers are $30 off now through April 15th, just time to to get ready for Uncle Sam.

No code needed, shop now!

shop now

Age verification

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now