So you have a new DSLR. Welcome to a wonderful world of creative control over your images! If you’re wondering how to get started with your new DSLR camera, you’ve come to the right place.
When you first open the box on a new DSLR, it can be overwhelming how much control you suddenly have in your hands. Buttons and dials you’ve never dealt with on a compact camera: What does it all mean? Let’s dive in!
Understand your new DSLR camera
A disclaimer before we begin: I shoot with Canon cameras, so some of the settings we discuss here may have different names on other brands. However, I assure you, they all have the same basic functions. You may need to check your manual if you can’t find the setting I’m talking about on your particular camera model.
You can also find all the information in this article (and more!) on a handy one-page printable PDF cheat sheet in my Ko-Fi store. Put it in your camera bag and you’ll have the information you need to get out of the car and into the manual.
First, like a compact camera, DSLRs come with a range of built-in modes.
There are automatic modes (the basic zone), semi-auto modes and full manual (the creative zone). The basic zone usually has a series of preset conditions, such as prioritizing wide aperture for portraits or fast shutter speed for action. The camera selects the settings for you in the Basic Zone.
That’s about all I’ll say about the Basic Zone. We’re here to learn how to control the camera itself, not let it decide for us!
Crash Course: Getting Started with DSLR Exposure
Before we continue, there are one (or maybe three?) things you should know: Correct exposure is a balance between the camera’s shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These three things form what is commonly known as the Exposure Triangle.
What is shutter speed?
Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open. It is measured in seconds, e.g. 1/200 means that the shutter is open one two-hundredth of a second; 5” means it is open for 5 seconds. Long shutter speeds let in more light, but blur moving objects across the frame. Short shutter speeds let in less light, but freeze moving objects in the frame.
What is diaphragm?
Aperture is how wide the lens opens to let in light. It is measured in f-stops. A smaller number (like f/1.8) means the lens is wider open. A wide aperture lets in more light and creates a shallow depth of field (DoF). This means a thin layer of the image is in focus and the rest is blurred. For example, you would use a wide aperture to take a portrait of a person where they are in focus and the background is blurred. A narrow aperture lets in less light and creates a deep depth of field: The foreground to the background will all be sharp.
What does ISO mean?
ISO is the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light. A high ISO captures more light, but creates more noise (electronic fluctuations that appear as grainy colored specks on the image). A low ISO captures less light, but produces a cleaner image. (You may remember that once upon a time you had to choose the right speed film for your film camera. ISO is the same concept in a DSLR.)
These three settings must be balanced to expose the image correctly. If you choose a faster shutter speed, you may need to increase your ISO to capture enough light. If you want a shallow DoF and therefore choose f/1.8 for your aperture, you need to speed up your shutter speed, and/or drop your ISO, to avoid overexposing the photo.
Start with DSLR creative zone
Now that we know how aperture, shutter speed and ISO work, let’s move on to the Creative Zone of your new camera’s modes.
The Creative Zone gives you control over an increasing combination of settings. First, programmed auto (P on Canon and Nikon) lets you change certain settings like ISO while leaving the camera in control of correct exposure with shutter and aperture.
Shutter priority (TV on Canon and S on Nikon) gives you control over the shutter speed and ISO, while the camera sets the aperture. This is a great way to play with the different effects that shutter speeds have. For example, freezing the movement of a waterfall versus blurring the water into a beautiful glistening stream, or letting the movement of dancers at a wedding create a fun atmosphere.
Finally, aperture priority (Av on Canon and A on Nikon) lets you choose the aperture and ISO, and the camera sets the appropriate shutter speed to capture enough light. This is the place to play with DoF: Try a low aperture like f/1.8 to blur the background in a portrait.
How do I learn to use Manual on my new DSLR camera?
Manual (M on both Nikon and Canon) is not as scary as it seems, I promise. You simply balance aperture, shutter speed and ISO to capture the light available.
Start by practicing in the shutter priority and aperture priority modes. You can set ISO to auto if you want to focus on learning more about one component of the exposure triangle at a time.
Start with DSLR by practicing your settings in pairs
Then add ISO to your repertoire, paired with shutter speed. First choose your shutter speed: Want to freeze motion? Choose a shorter shutter speed, 1/200 or more, depending on how fast the subject is moving. You will also need to consider how bright it is. Outside in the sunshine, you may need to shoot at 1/1000 or more to avoid overexposure. Find your camera’s light meter (it will be somewhere in the viewfinder, and is usually on the back screen as well). Dial in the correct ISO to zero the light meter.
Once you have that under control, it’s time to pair ISO with aperture. First choose your aperture: Do you want a blurred background? Choose a wide aperture, such as f/3.5. Now dial in the ISO to get the light meter centered. The larger your aperture, the less sensitive you can go with ISO. You will need to raise your ISO higher the darker it gets.
Turn the dial to M and put it all together
Once you have that under your belt, it’s time to turn the dial to M. You are allowed to set ISO back to auto to boot. Now you plug in shutter speed and aperture. I usually start with aperture and then choose a shutter speed to freeze motion. Because I photograph people, I am more interested in the creative effect of depth of field.
Finally, once you have some speed and confidence in choosing the right aperture and shutter speed for different subjects, add ISO back into the mix. Remember, you’re always trying to balance the light meter in the middle, trading off between:
- Deep or shallow depth of field (aperture).
- Frozen or blurred motion (shutter speed).
- More or less noise/grain in your image (ISO).
Getting Started with DSLR Lenses: What Do the Numbers on My New Lens Mean?
If this is your first DSLR, you may have bought one that included a kit lens. Probably an 18-55mm f/3.5-f/5.6 lens, it’s a great little lens that gives you room to learn the features of your new camera.
A kit lens like the 18-55mm f/3.5-f/5.6 is a zoom lens. It can change focal length from 18mm to 55mm. At 18mm it’s a wide field of view, and at 55mm it’s a narrow, zoomed-in field of view.
The f-stop numbers refer to the widest f-stop available for the lens: In this case, the f/3.5 means at 18mm, you can open the lens up to a maximum of f/3.5. And likewise, on the 55mm side of the zoom, you can open it up to f/5.6.
Better quality lenses will have an f-stop available across the entire zoom range, for example, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens can open to f/2.8 at each focal length.
You can also get a fixed lens for your camera, which doesn’t allow you to zoom. For example, the “nifty fifty” 50 mm f/1.8 lens. It’s cheap in both Nikon and Canon, and gives you access to the glory of f/1.8. This is a beautiful wide aperture for beautiful portraits and a great variety of creative effects.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your new DSLR
I shot aperture priority for years because I just thought manual was way too complicated. Once I forced myself to learn, I was shocked at how quickly I got a feel for it. Honestly, 90% of the time I use a shutter speed of 1/200, an aperture of f/2.8 (I love, love, LOVE shallow DoF), and whatever ISO I need to, around the light meter to get in the middle. The other 10% is tweaking the triangle depending on what’s in front of me and what effect I want. That’s all there is to getting started with DSLR photography!
Remember, you can find all the information in this article (and more) on my handy one-page printable PDF cheat sheet. It’s a perfect quick field reference to get to know your new camera. And check out this article to avoid the five mistakes I made as a beginner!