If you want to irritate a photographer, compliment one of their photographs by saying “wow, you must have a really good camera!” – watch their face. It’ll be funny, but you won’t win a friend there, a good photo is so much more than the kit used to capture it. It’s not rocket science though, it’s easier than you think. Here are the basics of how to use a DSLR…

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Screen information
Shutter Speed
Priority Mode
Example images with explanations


To get a good photograph, you need three things – here they are in order of importance:

  1. A good lens
  2. A photographer who knows how to compose the shot
  3. A decent camera

The camera is the least important thing in the bag.

Why photography?

Some people get incredibly bored when photography gets brought up. I get it, I really do – people talking about ISO, Exposure, f-Stops, rules of third etc. It’s dull – but I guarantee that everyone can appreciate a good photograph. I got into photography for the end result – but I fell in love with the technical side of it because I could tweak what I wanted, I could control the light and capture what I wanted to capture.

Photography is all about light, and taking a good photograph is all about how you let light through the lens and onto the sensor. I mainly take natural-light photographs – that’s just how I like to do it. This does limit me with product shots, for example, where a light box would more suited (see these from LED Light Guides if you’re in the market for one!).

My first camera

I got my first camera in 2003 – it was a Sony Cybershot DSC-P92. I loved it, it had very limited functionality but that just forced me to be a bit creative with the shots. This was one of my first ever photos taken with it:

How to use a DSLR
Not the best in terms of quality. The setup had me sitting at the side of my bed with the camera on a tripod in night mode, and an LED torch on my face as I tried to capture it all in the 3 seconds that night mode afforded me. I was happy with the result, but more importantly I was hooked on photography – I decided to learn how to use a DSLR, eventually.

I moved to a Bridge camera soon after, and then went full DSLR. I’ll spare you the details, they’re not that interesting!

Note: technical parts, which you can skip past if you wish, are labeled “Tech bit:” and are in bold,

How to use a DSLR – screen info

Right – take the damn camera off automatic mode and stick it on manual mode (denoted by a big friendly “M”). We’re about to get acquainted with the settings and intimate with the viewfinder, if you like. I’ll leave off things like autofocus points and custom scenes, you can play with them at your leisure. This will tell you how to use a DSLR, what to look for in a good shot and what you need to be able to take a decent photo. All photos in this article are taken by me, unless stated otherwise.

I’ll likely be updating this in the future, so do let me know if you would like anything included. Right now it’s raw basics.

The screen shows you everything you need to know about the values you’ve set. No matter the make, they’ll all pretty much be the same. I have a Canon 550D and a Canon 70D, their screens are remarkably similar.

How to use a DSLR
Big difference in price, small difference in screen info

At a glance I can tell that both are set to 1/100th of a second exposure, F4.5 and ISO 200. That’s all I need to know most of the time. These put a lot of people off because they’re letters and numbers, but it’s easy. Trust me.

So what do these figures mean?
Shutter Speed

How to use a DSLR – Shutter Speed

You’ll probably know that cameras contain shutters. Think of a shutter as a curtain that opens, lets light on the sensor, then closes again. In fact that’s exactly what it is.

Tech bit: the shutter in most digital SLRs is actually two curtains, but rather than opening like you’d think, the first curtain drops – exposing the sensor – then the second curtain drops a set time afterwards. I guess it’s less energy to have two move the same direction than to have one move and change direction.

Shutter speed is the length of time that this curtain remains open for. A good analogy is to think of light as water and the camera sensor as a cup. Hold the cup under an open tap for longer and more water will fill it. Likewise, open a shutter for longer and more light will fall on a camera sensor.

You want to find a shutter speed that’s just right for the picture, obviously. Underexpose and you’re going to see a very dark picture with no detail, overexpose and you’ll get a white, washed out image. These can be fixed to an extent in editing, but if you’ve gone too far either way you’re not going to be able to pull back any detail. You can’t make a picture from a white or black square – despite what the CSI drama series will have you believe. See below for an example of underexposure and overexposure (values in seconds).

How to use a DSLR
All photos taken at f4, ISO 200. You can see how shutter speed limits light.

The problem here, though, is that you need a steady hand the slower the shutter speed you use. If anything moves while the sensor is exposed then that will blur on the photo. I once took a photo of the stars and exposed the shot for minutes thinking I would be letting all the light in, it turns out the stars had turned into short lines because of the rotation of the Earth. Interesting, but useless as a photo!

Shutter speed can also be used for different effects. In the images below a very long shutter speed was used (rather than, say, 1/100th of a second, these pictures were exposed for actual seconds). See the creepy picture at the start of the article for another example of a long exposure. If you’re wondering why they’re not too bright and washed out – it’s because I compensated by letting less light in with the aperture – we’ll cover that shortly.

How to use a DSLR
Long exposures smooth water out
How to use a DSLR
A long night time exposure of traffic

Shutter speed and blurred photos

Ever taken a photo that’s blurred? As I mentioned earlier, that means the shutter has stayed open too long and there has been movement while it’s been open – either from the subject or from the person holding the camera. This happens often in automatic mode in low light, because the camera is lazy and just adjusts the shutter speed and not the f-stop and ISO. You can set the camera to Aperture-Priority mode (Av), but why not go full manual instead?

The long exposure causes a blur (bloody kids, they never keep still). In the pictures above I’ve taken advantage of that and used the blur. You need a tripod for this though, and set a 2 or 10 second delay timer so you pressing the shutter down doesn’t cause any initial movement.

Compare the above to an image taken with a very fast shutter speed, and it’s easy to see the difference. You can almost stop time with a fast enough shutter:

How to use a DSLR
A very short exposure almost freezes time. Think 1/1000 or faster.

(This photo was taken in my parents’ shower, the blue background is my mum’s dress. Use what you have to hand!).

How to use a DSLR – Aperture

How to use a DSLR
A lens with the aperture almost closed – so a very high F-number

If the camera were an eye, then the aperture would be the pupil. It works in the same way – it can widen to let more light in, or narrow to lessen the light hitting the camera sensor. Again, photography is all about light – so it’s important to use aperture to your advantage.

Tech bit: Aperture is denoted with an f-stop number (focal-stop). It’s the ratio of the focal length to the diameter of the opening.

Just know this: The higher the f number, the less light that gets in. This is because the number is actually f divided by the number, so f/22 is a lot lower a number than f/2. The example image of shutter speed above (Matthew Street, Liverpool) could just as easily be the aperture changing, from a high f-stop to a low f-stop.

Aperture – depth of field

Much like the shutter speed could be adjusted to obtain an effect, the aperture can be used to create depth of field (DoF). Depth of field is the amount of image that is in focus. You’ll see this on most portrait photography – where the subject is in clear focus and the background is blurred. The blur is called Bokeh – and if done right it looks stunning. The latest iPhones simulate this effect, with varying results, but nothing substitutes the real thing.

Depth of field (DoF) can be had by setting a very low f-stop. I have a lens that can stop down to f1.8, which means if I want to take a picture of someone close up, I pretty much have to choose which facial feature I want in focus. If I choose the tip of the nose, the DoF is so strong that their eyes will be out of focus (see image below with the flower). Likewise, be careful if you’re taking a general photograph and you want a lot of the scene in focus, using a low F-stop will prevent this for close-ups. With landscape and far-away pictures, this isn’t an issue – the lens is basically focused on infinity anyway.

Check out the example below:

How to use a DSLR
The higher f-stop means more of the image is focus, DoF is less

At the higher f-stop, the background is more in focus. At f1.8, the inside of the flower is barely in focus, leaving a small section of the petal in focus. These are two extremes, it’s rare you’d use either one of these f-stops, but they’re here as an example.

How to use a DSLR – ISO

Simply put, ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor. You can adjust this, but there are consequences. Shutter speed and aperture control how much light hits the sensor, whereas ISO controls how much light the sensor needs to get an image.

The lower the ISO, the higher the quality of the image, and vice versa. At a high ISO setting, the sensor is super-sensitive and this leads to noise in the picture. Modern cameras do a great job of reducing this but there’s no avoiding it, especially in low light situations.

However, there isn’t always enough light is there? Sometimes we take photographs indoors – and despite setting a low shutter speed so light has longer to hit the sensor (as low as we can get for a handheld shot) and a low f-number so more light can get in (as low as we can get on the lens, and considering Bokeh), we will probably still need to increase the ISO.

Take a look at the example below. I’ve taken the same picture twice, once with a low ISO and once with a high ISO (I used less light for the high ISO). Can you see the difference in the noise levels between the low and high ISO setting? I’ve cropped the image for emphasis.

How to use a DSLR
Higher ISO values introduce more noise

Again, certain pictures look better with this noise/grain (see panoramic picture below). I’ve taken a picture at ISO 100 before, only to add false grain in afterwards because I thought the picture needed some. You can always add grain, but it’s difficult to convincingly take it away in editing. If you’re in bright sunlight though, and you’re already using a really high f-stop and the fastest shutter speed, you may not be able to increase the ISO for fear of overexposing.

Tech bit: If you already have a properly exposed image at the highest f-stop and lowest shutter speed (think midday in summer) then you can’t increase the ISO to add noise – it’ll overexpose the shot. You need a Natural Density (ND) filter – sunglasses for your camera.

Priority Mode

How to use a DSLR – Priority mode

Priority mode doesn’t cover anything we haven’t covered before. You can have shutter priority (Tv) or aperture priority (Av). All these do is allow you to set a specific shutter speed or aperture, and the camera will adjust the other to make sure the picture is exposed adequately. These are semi-automatic modes. As I said earlier though, full manual is the best bet in my opinion, nobody likes a semi, do they?
Example images with explanations

Example images, with figures explained

Here I’ll insert some pictures that I’ve taken, and explain the settings that were used.

Medium shutter speed, high f-stop, high ISO

how to use a DSLR, panoramic picture
A panoramic picture of Liverpool, taken with a high ISO

Apologies for the size of the image, it’s supposed to be viewed at full resolution but the site won’t allow for it. I took this with 4 or 5 separate shots and combined them in Photoshop. The sun had just set and I had to use a high ISO, I couldn’t use a low shutter speed because I had no tripod and didn’t want a shaky hand introducing blur. The f-stop was high because I didn’t want anything out of focus here, so the only option I had was for a very high ISO. I actually like the noise/grain that has been introduced, though.

High shutter speed, low aperture and low ISO

how to use a dslr
Close-up of a butterfly

There was plenty of light available when I took this picture. That meant I could use a fast shutter speed (the butterfly kept opening and closing its wings, I didn’t want the blur in the photo). I used a low f-stop because I wanted the depth of field (blurred background), so this allowed more light in too. I used a very low ISO here because there was plenty of light, and I wanted good quality to bring the details out.

Low shutter speed, high aperture and medium ISO

how to use a DSLR
Sheet music in a museum in Venice

This was taken in a museum in Venice – and to preserve the piece they’d used a soft, low light to illuminate it. I used a low shutter speed here and kept a very steady hand (any movement here would show up a lot with those straight lines!). I used a low aperture (f1.8) to let more light in, but this meant the depth of field was higher than I’d like. I’m not sure if I like the bokeh on the sides. ISO was set at 200.

I could have gone higher on the ISO here without introducing noise, and that would have allowed me to use a higher f-stop and remove some of the bokeh.

Very low shutter speed, high aperture and low ISO

How to use a DSLR
One of my favourite pictures!

There are rare occasions when you want to go against the norm. A mixture of high aperture and low ISO gives a very dark image at night time, even with a very low shutter speed. That’s what I wanted. I basically wanted a black picture. Why? Because I had hold of my phone with the LED torch on, and I wanted to “paint” with it. By “paint”, I mean waving my arms round like an idiot and trying to draw.

Luckily a car went past as I was taking this. It gave that red trail you see, which adds to it a lot I think. The shutter was open for a whole 30 seconds here, at f22, ISO200.

Here are a couple more light paintings I did at a wedding:

how to use a DSLR
I looked like an absolute crazy man waving my phone around

This was a 30 second exposure, the maximum allowed by my camera at the time. 30 seconds is not a long time when you have to run into what you guess is the framing of the picture, then try and draw this with an LED torch. I can’t draw at the best of times, let alone with a phone when standing in pitch black.


Seriously – the only piece of advice I can give is to get the camera out and start taking pictures. Experiment with everything, it’s the only way to make things become second nature. Start seeing your surroundings differently, everything is a potential great photograph but you just have to look at it differently.

If you’re not already following me on Instagram, please do – I’ll be uploading regularly on there from now on: www.instagram.com/thehonestfather