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Despite what seems like a relatively well put together Instagram, I am definitely not the worlds best photographer. I have a pretty neat Nikon DSLR, but I still manage to take pictures of beautiful rooms with perfect mood lighting that end up looking like the corner of some sleazy 70’s night club. All my sunset photos are horribly washed out. And let’s not even get into my selfie game…

Basically, it’s clear I need to develop my skills here. The best way to learn is to teach others, so I’ve compiled a handy wee DSLR 101 below. Hopefully it’ll inspire you to aim to become part of the upper echelon of photographers and channel your inner Andy Warhol.

Or at least allow you take better pictures of your avocado-based brunch for the ‘gram!

So, let’s start with the basics – What even is a DSLR camera?

What is a DSLR Camera?

DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex – But this still doesn’t explain much, so let’s strip this down a bit.

With DSLRs, you are able to see exactly what you are taking a photo of because behind the big, main lens of the camera, a mirror reflects the image into the camera viewfinder – You are seeing everything through the one lens. When you take a picture, this mirror quickly flicks down to allow the photo to be taken, before snapping back up ready for the next shot.

With other cameras, like basic point-and-shoots, the viewfinder has it’s own, separate lens, so you aren’t seeing what the camera will truly capture. P.S. – The viewfinder is the little window you look through to see what you’re snapping.

Big DSLR brands include Canon, Nikon, Sony and Leica, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, which I won’t go into here – There seem to be some weirdly intense debates raging online about the favourite brand!


One of the most appealing factors about DSLR cameras is that you can change the lens to suit your needs. At the moment, I have one lens that allows excellent zoom, and another everyday lens that I find fantastic for doing close-up shots with a single point of focus. Most big camera brands will have a huge selection of lenses that fit their models, and some of the main types include:

  • Ultra Wide Angle / Fish Eye – When you really need those 90’s skater video vibes. These are good for wide panoramic shots, but you’ll find distortion around the edge of your photos.
  • Wide Angle – Good for taking photos of landscapes and buildings.
  • Standard – As described – A general, all-round lens, these usually come with the camera, and are also called kit lenses.
  • Telephoto – Best for portraits, sports and allow for fantastic zoom.

Using a DSLR – What are all these buttons for?!

DSLRs are absolutely covered in buttons, knobs and dials, and this can be very daunting for newbie. I have to admit that I used to rarely venture from the Auto setting, because even if you do stick solidly to that auto setting on your DSLR, you’ll still snap some fairly decent photos. But if you really want to develop your skills as a photographer, and take outstanding shots, you’ll need to take off the training wheels and tackle manual adjustments.

Notice how I’ve handily crossed out Auto mode on the photo? This is your DMZ now, no-man’s land. The brave new world of the manual adjustments is where you party now!

Firstly, there are the two semi-automatic modes Aperture and Shutter Speed priority. These are semi-automatic, as you adjust one aspect yourself, and the camera automatically adjusts the other. For example, if you manually change the aperture, the camera will select the best shutter speed to go along with it. Then, we have Program and Manual modes, each with more control than the last. Click along the slides below to get the details on each mode!

Aperture Priority

This will be labelled as “A” or “Av” on your dial, and allows you to change the aperture, while the camera automatically chooses the best shutter speed.

Aperture is how wide or narrow the opening in the lens is, and alters the amount of light that can get through. The wider the aperture, the more light.

As it would be too simple to have a nice, neat numbering system, aperture is selected by it’s “f-number” which is the focal length (f) over the diameter of the aperture. For example, selecting f/2.0, a small f-number, results in a wider aperture. Narrower apertures have higher f-numbers such as f/11 or f/22. I find it easy to think of the “f” as 10 – So 10/2.0 would be more than 10/11 i.e. wider over narrow.

Controlling the aperture allows you to change how much of your image is in focus. If you were taking a wide landscape shot, you’d want as much as possible to be in focus. A narrow aperture would be best for this.

If you wanted to focus on a particular subject, and have the background out of focus or softer, a wide aperture would be best for this – Remember, a wide aperture is a small f-number. Taking portraits is best done with wide aperture.

Shutter Speed Priority

This is marked as “Tv” or “S” on cameras and this is basically the opposite of aperture priority, as you select the shutter speed, and the camera will deal with setting the aperture. Shutter speed is how long the camera shutter stays open. If the shutter is open for longer, more light will be captured.

Shutter speeds can be the smallest fraction of a second, even down to 1/4000th. These speeds are best for shooting fast moving subjects, such as sports players or wildlife.

And at the opposite end of the spectrum, keeping the shutter open for long periods (from minutes to even hours) blurs slowly moving objects like rivers, ocean waves, or even the movement of starts across the night sky. You’d need to make sure your camera is stable for this, so a tripod is vital here.


Marked as “P” on the camera, as you would expect.

Program is basically a combination of Shutter and Aperture Priority modes – You can set either, and the camera will adjust for the other. The advantage of this is that you can change either shutter speed or aperture without having to constantly switch between the two modes – kind of like a two-in-one deal.


It’ll be “M” for manual on the camera.

This is the deep end – You are totally in control of setting the shutter and aperture yourself, your camera won’t help you now.

It will give you hints though – Usually, there is an exposure indicator, and on my Nikon a small notification actually comes up if the subject is too light or dark with my settings.

Preset Modes

As well as the modes described above, you may notice there are some other strange little symbols on the mode selection dial. These are all preset modes. Each one will have specific settings for aperture, shutter speed, etc. that suit their subject. All cameras differ, but for example mine has , from left to right:

  • Night Portrait Mode  – Wide aperture to capture as much light as possible and ensure subject is in focus, plus flash will be fired
  • Macro Mode – For teeny tiny subjects, like insects and flowers. A macro lens is recommended for this mode, as well as a tripod. The slightst movement could make your subject totall out of focus
  • Sports Mode – Insanely fast shutter speed to capture the fastest of movements
  • Child Mode – A mash-up of portrait and sports mode, this compensates for the fact that children are full of demonic energy and can’t sit still for portraits.
  • Landscape Mode – Small aperture and short shutter speed, to make sure the entire image is in focus from foreground to background
  • Portrait Mode – Wider aperture, so the subject is in focus, and the background is softly blurred. Serve 100% face with this mode.

A Note on ISO

ISO is a throwback from the days of film photography. Different films would have differing levels of sensitivity to light, and this was standardised by the International Standard Organisation back in 1987 – Hence ISO.

ISO is pretty straight forward on DSLRs – a low ISO number (like 100) means low sensitivity, and high ISO number (like 6400) means the camera will be highly sensitive to light. In practice, low ISO settings are used when there is a lot of light available, like direct sunlight or well-lit rooms. This produces very high quality images that are sharp and not grainy. High ISO is used in low light, where it works to boost the amount of available light. Think of sunset and sunrise. However, this boost comes with “noise”, which is basically a grainy appearance to the photo.

Your camera will usually have an auto-ISO function on, even in manual mode. However, you can adjust manually – Try keeping shutter speed and aperture the same and play around with adjusting the ISO to get an idea of what works best in different lighting conditions.

A Note on White Balance

Ever noticed how some of your pictures will have a weird, cold bluish tinge? Or that some will have some strange orange haze filter going on? This is because different light sources emit light of different wavelengths, which affects their colour. For example, sunlight or candle light is mostly made up of wavelengths that translate into reddish-orange colours, so is very warm. In constrast, fluorescent lights throw out cooler, bluer light, which is why they always make you look ill AF.

Luckily, your camera can compensate for the colour temperature, and you can manually adjust the white balance with preset settings for direct sunlight, overcast or cloudy conditions and different lightbulbs such as incandescent or fluorescent.

Below, my beloved cat Tigger kindly agreed to pose in a patch of sun while I tried out all the different white balance settings (from left to right: Fluorescent, Incandescent, Cloudy and Direct Sunlight). As expected, the direct sublight setting resulted in the warmest and best photo, while the flourescent setting looks a bit strange and cold.


So, a quick run-down of all the main features of a DSLR camera, and the main factors that go into getting a better than average picture. The main factor in becoming a better photographer is, as with most things, practice. I try to take at least one photo a day, even if it’s simply a quick picture of my houseplants (it’s reallhard to mess up taking a photo of a plant).

How often do you take photos? And what are your main challenges when using a DLSR?


  1. Kristy Bullard

    This is a very thorough post! I bought a Canon 5D a few years ago. It’s a workhorse and I’m using it until it turns to dust! Learning how to use a DLSR and getting out of Auto takes some time and practice, but it’s so worth it when you get those beautiful portraits!

    • RenaissanceGirl

      I’ve heard Canon’s are fantastic cameras! I agree with the practice aspect, I still have a long way to go!

  2. Josie

    A few friends of mine own DSLR cameras, but the size alone intimidates me! Thank you for a quick run-down on how they work 🙂 Maybe I’ll start saving up for one and stop using my phone’s camera!

    • RenaissanceGirl

      They’re definitely worth the investment – You get such a rich picture 🙂

  3. Lisa Rios

    We have a DSLR and couldn’t love it more! It’s our go-to for high-quality pictures and we love it. Since we all blog, we definitely need it for posts and events and everything pretty much LOL

    • RenaissanceGirl

      The difference in photo quality is amazing, isn’t it? I constantly use my DLSR pics on instagram, even though it’s a lot of extra work getting them on there!

  4. Luci

    I take picture almost everyday. I’ve been looking to get another camera and a DSLR has allows intimidated me. This guide really helps.

    • RenaissanceGirl

      Glad to know it helped! 🙂

  5. Karla

    My husband owns a DSLR but I often use it since I don’t know how to used it properly. Great tips! Thanks you.

    • RenaissanceGirl

      Well, you definitely have the know-how to steal it from time to time now! 🙂

  6. Geraline Batarra

    I have DSLR. That was my husband gift for me last month. Since then I haven’t used it because I don’t know the settings. I am happy with my phone cam. Glad I found this maybe I can use my DSLR now.

    • RenaissanceGirl

      For sure, definitely start using it! You’ll become familiar with the settings very quickly even taking just 5 quick photos a day 🙂

  7. Pujarini

    Loving this post and pinning it. Great tips for DSLR use.

    • RenaissanceGirl

      Glad to know you liked it, thanks for the share! <3

  8. Czjai Reyes-Ocampo

    I’ve been planning to upgrade to a DSLR for the longest time, but the hassle of lugging it around whenever we travel has deterred me from doing so. I took photography classes when I was in college and reading this article was like a refresher for me. 🙂

    • RenaissanceGirl

      They can be a total nuisance, can’t they? Especially with more than one lens! I tend to be lazy and just use a generic one haha! Glad to know you enjoyed the post 🙂

  9. Corina

    You sure seem to know your way around the camera Wish I could say that about myself! I have a Cannon EOS 6D but I know I’m using the minimum of what it can really do! Very useful reading, thanks for sharing!

    • RenaissanceGirl

      I’m definitely still learning 😉 Great to know that you found the post useful, good luck with the Cannon!

  10. Lindsay

    Thank you for answering the questions I have been too embarrassed to voice! I have always wondered what DSLR meant and why I should be investing in that type of camera. I am bookmarking this page, as I am trying to improve my photography skills. You explained this complex info very well.

  11. Elizabeth O

    You provided an article full of great advice here! Getting to grips with DSLR is hard work so it will really help people out.

  12. Tara

    this is so super helpful! my husband takes my pics when i’m not with my photographer and i’m totally clueless when it comes to the camera! loved these little tidbits!

  13. Preet

    These are some great tips and information about the basics. I have the Nikon DSLR since last few years and I did not still get enough time to play with it. I would definitely be checking and trying the different features now.

  14. Jennifer Prince

    I’m not good at reading about how to do things! I’m so bad – I like to try to figure it out on my own, but I just can’t with the camera. Thanks for breaking it down and making it easy! 🙂

  15. Gladys Parker

    I have Canon Rebel 3 and it sits. I tried it when I first received it too impatient to read the manual and it went out of focus somehow. Then my adult son tried and put the wrong piece on that had to be taken off by the company. I am a black thumb to plants and finger to photos. Although after reading your article I feel there is hope. I’m going to follow you in hopes of more camera lessons. You describe everything so clearly I love it!


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