September 3, 2010

Photography Tutorial: A Quick Guide to Understanding Your DSLR Camera

Hi guys! With Labor Day weekend coming up, I know a lot of us are going to be out there taking pictures! :) Since we have a long weekend to practice, I wanted to share with you this basic intro to SLR photography. If you have an SLR camera and are nervous to take it out of auto mode, this is the tutorial for you. You may have heard words like aperture, exposure, and shutter speed and wondered just how on earth they come together to give you a better photo. I’ll give you a brief introduction on what they do and how they affect your photos turning out too bright, too dark, too blurry or JUST RIGHT. :) This guide will show you how to get the most out of your SLR camera and give you confidence to take it out of auto mode in no time!

Photography Tutorial
Left: Canon T2i. Right: Nikon D40.

To start, let’s put your camera in Aperture Priority mode or Shutter Priority mode. On a Canon, this is AV or TV. On a Nikon, this may be represented as A or S.

Photography Tutorial

1. Aperture Priority

Let’s talk a little bit about Aperture. On both cameras above, the aperture is set to 5.6.

Photos taken with a low aperture let in more light, allowing you to take pictures in situations where there is not much light (like indoors and at night).

A low aperture will also give you a shallow depth of field. You know, the photos where one thing is in focus and the background is blurred?

Photography Tutorial

Canon 50mm f/1.8
1/200 sec
ISO 800

In the photo above, the aperture was set to 1.8, a low aperture. One earring is in focus, the rest is blurred.

Top of the Rock NYC Skyline

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
1/60 sec
ISO 100

In this picture, the aperture was set to 16, a high aperture, allowing everything to be in focus. However, when you take pictures with a high aperture, you need to have a lot of light, like outside during the day.

Note: Depending on what lens you have, you may not be able to set your aperture much lower than 3.5. And at 3.5, you may not be able to achieve much of a blurred background. If you like the blurred background look, you might consider purchasing a lens with a low aperture.

Now you try!

Turn the dial on your camera so that you are shooting in Aperture Priority mode. That means that you will be setting the Aperture, and the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed. The camera will attempt to give you a correct shutter speed so that your photo turns out just right- not too bright, not too dark.

Set your aperture. In most cases, you can change the aperture by turning that little black dial on top of the camera, but double-check your manual if you can’t find it.

Set it to a low aperture if you want a blurred background, or a high aperture if you want everything to be in focus.

Photography Tutorial
Left: Canon XSi. Right: Nikon D40.

Look on the LCD screen of your camera for a grid that looks like the image above. That’s your exposure. The exposure determines if the picture is too bright or too dark. Usually when it’s set to 0, that’s just right. In Aperture Priority mode, it will always stay at 0 unless you specifically tell it to move. (Check your manual for setting the exposure compensation.) If you tell it to move higher (to the right of the 0) the picture will be brighter. If you tell it to move lower (to the left of the 0), the picture will be darker.

Try taking a few pictures in Aperture Priority mode with the exposure set to 0. If the pictures need to be brighter, move your exposure to the right a few notches, until it looks right to you. I like bright pictures, so my exposure is usually set above 0! :)

Photography Tutorial

Note: Be sure to keep an eye on your shutter speed as you do this. See the number 125 in the picture above? That number represents the shutter speed. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t really want to let the shutter speed get below 50, unless you have an extremely steady hand. If the shutter speed gets below 50, the camera cannot take the picture fast enough to compensate for the shakiness in your hands, so the picture will be blurry. If the shutter speed is getting low, try using a tripod or table to steady the camera, or lean against a wall, door frame, or tree to steady yourself.

If you find it difficult to get a high enough shutter speed when trying to take pictures inside, you can try setting your ISO higher…

2. Let’s talk about ISO real quick

The lower your ISO (100-200), the smaller amount of light your camera will use. So if it’s a really bright sunny day and you’re taking pictures outside, set your ISO to 100. The higher you set your ISO, the more light your camera will use. So if you’re trying to take a picture inside without a flash, and need more light, you can try setting your ISO to 800 or higher to see if you can get a high enough shutter speed to hand hold your camera. The catch with using a high ISO is that it makes your pictures pretty grainy, and it shows up REALLY bad in reds and oranges, so I always try to use the lowest ISO possible.

3. Shutter Priority

Now turn the dial on your camera so that you are shooting in Shutter Priority mode. That means you will be setting the shutter speed, and the camera will be adjusting the aperture. Shutter speed is how fast the camera records the picture.

Photography Tutorial

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
1/4 sec
ISO 100

In the photo above, the shutter speed was set to 4. That’s a slow shutter speed, allowing me to capture the movement of the water. A tripod was used to take this photo.

Photography Tutorial

Canon 70-200mm f/4L
1/640 sec
ISO 200

In this photo, the shutter speed was set to 640. That’s a fast shutter speed, allowing me to stop my boston terrier (and the water!) in his tracks!

To change your shutter speed, you will probably use the same little black dial you used to change your aperture. When set in Shutter Priority mode, the dial will control your shutter speed. Turn it to the left for a slower shutter speed and to the right for a faster one. I generally keep my shutter speed around 125 when taking portraits of something that’s going to be relatively still. If there’s movement, you might want to go higher.

Note: Be sure to keep an eye on your aperture as your change your shutter speed. If your aperture number starts flashing, that means that the shutter speed you selected is too high to or too low to correctly expose the picture.

If it’s too high, that means you don’t have enough light, and the aperture can’t go any lower to allow in more light and your image will be too dark. You need to lower your shutter speed until the aperture number stops flashing. That means the picture will be correctly exposed again. (You can also try increasing your ISO to compensate.)

In rare cases, your shutter speed may be too low (say you’re trying to take a picture of a waterfall in bright sunlight). That means you have too much light, and your image will be too bright. You need to set your shutter speed higher until the aperture number stops flashing for the picture to be correctly exposed. (You can also try decreasing your ISO to compensate.)

4. Focusing

Photography Tutorial
Canon 85mm f/1.8
1/250 sec
ISO 400

If you’re having trouble getting your camera to focus on exactly what you want it to focus on, you might want to take a look at the AF Selection. If you’re shooting with a low aperture, this can sometimes be a real problem. Have you ever taken a picture and the camera focused on the background, and not the subject?

Check your manual on how to set the AF Area or Auto-Focus Area. If your camera is set to “auto selection“, your camera will attempt to “guess” what you’re trying to focus on, and automatically choose what it thinks you want. I get a lot of out-of-focus shots that way! Sometimes I like to change my camera to “Manual Point Selection“. That means the camera will always focus on one spot. I set mine to focus right in the middle, but you can change it to any point, whichever one you feel most comfortable with.

When set to Manual Point Selection, your camera will always focus in that one spot. If you press the shutter button halfway down and look through the viewfinder, the focus point you selected should highlight, and you will probably hear your lens focusing. That means your lens is focused on that one spot. Now sometimes, just because it’s focused in that one spot, doesn’t mean the picture is framed exactly how you want it. Just keep the shutter button pressed halfway down and move your camera until the picture is framed the way you want it. (Just don’t move any closer or further away from the subject! :)) Then press the shutter the rest of the way to take the pic. With practice you will be able to do this very quickly, and you’ll always know exactly what you’re focused on.

5. Manual Mode!

You’re almost there! Get a lot of practice shooting in Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. Some people will say that Aperture Priority mode is better than Shutter Priority mode and you should never use Shutter Priority. I disagree- they are both there for a reason and can be very useful in their own ways in different situations. With practice, you’ll learn which situations call for which shooting modes. Is a nice background blur or having everything in focus more important? Use Aperture Priority. Is capturing speed more important? Use Shutter Priority.

After mastering Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, it’s not that much of a leap to go to fully Manual Mode! To shoot in Manual mode, turn the dial on the top of your camera to M. Check your manual to see which buttons now control you shutter speed and aperture.

Photography Tutorial
Left: Canon XSi. Right: Nikon D40.

After all your practice in Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority, you are probably familiar with what shutter speeds and apertures you prefer. Now you can put them together! When changing the shutter speed and aperture, be sure to keep an eye on your exposure. You normally want to keep your exposure right around 0. Again, most of the time, I keep mine between 0 and 1 because I like brighter pictures. :)

6. Recommendations

Any number of shutter speeds and apertures will get you a “correct” exposure of 0. Which one should you use? The book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson is a great resource. After you’ve mastered Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes, get this book and read it cover to cover. It gave me a deeper understanding of my camera and SLR photography, and explained everything in small words that I could understand! It also gives real life analogies that just made things I had previously heard, but not yet grasped, *click*. I noticed an overall improvement in my photography from day one.

One of my all-time favorite lenses is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. It’s a prime lens, which means it does not zoom in and out at all. This was hard for me to understand until I got my first prime lens. But it doesn’t move at all! :) If you want to zoom in or zoom out on your subject you have to move closer or further with your feet! :) It’s a great lens for taking pictures indoors, because the low aperture (1.8) will let in a lot of light. The low aperture will also give you a beautiful blurred background.

Photography Tutorial

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
1/500 sec
ISO 100

7. What’s in my camera bag?

Photos taken on use the following equipment.

Canon 7D. My camera. I upgraded from the XTi and I couldn’t be happier. The white balance is excellent! And the auto-ISO feature is so convenient. It can also take 8 pictures per second, which is fun when taking pics of our two boston terriers.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. This is what I call my “go-to” lens. It’s the lens I take with me when traveling. When I can only have one lens, and I’m not sure what kind lighting or space situation I’ll be up against, this is the lens I want in my arsenal.

Canon 50mm f/1.8 and Canon 85mm f/1.8. I normally use these two lenses for portraits and food photos. The low aperture gives me that super-blurred background, and allows me to take pictures in low-light situations (like my kitchen!). The 85mm zooms in a little closer than the 50mm, which means I have to be farther away from the subject than I do when shooting with the 50. So if space is an issue, I use the 50. If space is not an issue, I use the 85, because it gives a slightly blurrier background than the 50.

Got it? 50. 85. Okay.

So, those are my favs, but I do have a few more. :) See our Amazon Store for my complete Camera Lenses & Equipment Info. The most updated equipment info can always be found there!


Have a great Labor Day Weekend! :) We’re going white water rafting with some friends… it’s my first time. Wish me luck!! I’ll be back on Monday with a follow-up to our Chicago pics.. where we ATE! :) Including my favorite place we ate all weekend.

Give this tutorial a try over the long holiday weekend, and show me your pictures when you get back! :) Talk soon!

See More Posts About: Photography TutorialsTutorials


Tom March 9, 2013 at 8:13 pm

thank you much


Carmina Hughes March 19, 2013 at 7:02 pm

I know you have a million comments on here already but I just wanted to really say THANK YOU. This tutorial is wonderful and I wish I could adequately express how thankful I am to you for sharing this. It has helped me SO MUCH and taking pictures makes me SO happy- especially now that I know what I’m doing. ;)



Elaine Bennett March 20, 2013 at 10:56 am

Hi Amanda,
I’ve been enjoying your site for over a year now, and love the photo and cooking advice! One challenge I’m now facing is how to organize digital photo files and back-ups. Have you done a post on this yet? If not, please do! I know you must have a million+ digital images by now! I have just had an external drive fail, so have lost 3 months of family pictures, including one shot I had in mind to enlarge for a gift. So sad!


Soumya March 24, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Very Informative!!! As my first DSLR is on the way – I am pretty excited to explore my photography with Nikon D5100. Thanks a lot!!!


terrie higgins March 25, 2013 at 8:08 am

thank you very helpful nice to know there is still selfless people out there to help people out when in need giving your expert knowledge making hard things simple for the simple minded love it


leftylimbo April 5, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Thanks so much for posting this tutorial. It’d been years since I used an SLR and I’d forgotten the dynamics of aperture and shutter settings.

I’ve recently been assigned to shoot stills for my work conferences and seminars, using a Nikon D40. Although the “P” mode is sufficient for spontaneous snapshots, I wanted to delve into more creative shots with shallow depths of field, etc. Doing a quick Google in between shoots, I found your site and couldn’t be happier that you decided to use a D40 as your example DSLR cam. It was a quick and easy lesson.


Alexandra A. April 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Amazing tutorial! Thank you!
For those still wanting to learn more, I’ve been loving the “Master Your DSLR” book for iPad:


Staci April 14, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Omg, Thank you!!!! This was so helpful! I have had my Canon camera for almost 2 years and have had no idea on how to use it outside of the auto mode. I am taking up photography and you will never know how much this has helped and more confident I am in using my camera.
Again.. Thank you!


Jamie Smith April 21, 2013 at 1:24 am

You don’t know how helpful this is! I echo the HUGE THANK YOU!!! I was considering a sigma 24-70 lens, but should I go with the canon? I know there is a big price difference, so is it worth it? Thanks again for the awesome tutorial! Sending it to all my peeps!


Jenn April 24, 2013 at 4:24 pm

this is fantastic! :) just received a Canon for my birthday and I would love to take it off of the Automatic setting sometime… this just may do the trick.


toper April 25, 2013 at 8:40 pm

your detailed tutorial and examples make it easy for us beginners to understand. thank you!


Apryl April 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Thank you for sharing this information! I have always loved photography, and have recently upgraded to a DSLR. I’m usually really good at figuring out things on my own. However, with two year old twin boys running around, I don’t have as much time to mess around with my camera as I’d like. I’m so glad I found this. It is a huge help to find such an easy to read/follow break down of things!!!!!


David Hardwick Photography April 30, 2013 at 5:51 am

Thank you for an interesting read. I will show this tutorial to my lad when he gets one of my old DSLR cameras .


Marcie April 30, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Thank you so much.. Very useful information. I am starting a little photography business but still have lots to learn. Do you have tutorials on lightroom and photoshop?


Joe May 4, 2013 at 10:50 pm

great information on shutter speed, iso and aperture settings


Matt McVicker May 13, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Wow!! This is a great quick and easy tutorial for all the beginners out there. I’ve watched quite a few videos on how to use my new Nikon and none have them have even come close to teaching me what I’ve learned here!! Thanks for the great article!!


Vinay June 14, 2013 at 6:52 am

Thanks so much for this great post! I was going on vacation and wanted to use my new DSLR camera and this post gave some great tips and pointers for how to take the best photos for our family vacation and how to best capture the great memories.


Rishika June 18, 2013 at 5:36 am

Hey, Nice stuff.


380 June 19, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Have you ever thought about including a little bit more
than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and all.

Nevertheless imagine if you added some great photos or
video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and
videos, this site could undeniably be one of the most beneficial in its field.
Very good blog!


Cory June 23, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Thank you so much! I was just starting to play with aperture recently and I got the focused foreground, blurry background shots you mentioned…very exciting! The lowest aperture my camera will go to is 2.8 though. I never use the zoom since I mainly take close up photos of jewelry so I think I will look into an f/1.8 lense to get more of what I am looking for.


Debbie Chambers July 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Great job featuring this camera. I just took a photography class. I needed visuals and this info gives me the visuals I need to take great pictures. Thanks!


Katy C @ TastyLittleCrouton July 27, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Thanks so much for this! I’m just getting started on a new food blog and I’m shopping for a starter DSLR. I’m sure this page will be open on my computer screen nonstop!


Abi July 30, 2013 at 6:14 am

Thankyou so much for this tutorial! I have never before read through DSLR explanation and come out the other side with a better understanding! :)


Naini August 23, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Thanks a ton for posting this quick tutorial. I wish i could interact with you more. I just learned that I’m more interested in these cams, than i thought.


shaaphiq August 24, 2013 at 3:35 am

hi it was a really useful guide specially for a person who is new to photography. really impressed on your blog and keep the good work going on.


Venus vai August 26, 2013 at 10:05 am

This tutorial is very much effective for a beginner like me. I used the setting with my Nikon D5100, an excellent result is achieve. Hats of to you guys for providing such a wonderful lesson.
Hope you update more about *night photography, *fashion show photography and *Portrait photography.


Chrystal August 30, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Thank you so much for this. I purchased a dslr as a present to myself after graduating from grad school this past June. I am slowly learning how to use it while rebranding my old websites and launching a new one. Any help I can get is always appreciated, especially when someone breaks it down and makes it seem so easy.


Antony Cleetus September 1, 2013 at 4:02 am

So nice of really work for a beginner..Thank you so much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


K.Young September 3, 2013 at 10:15 am

I recognized your view from the Top of the Rock. I went during the holidays last year but really need to get back there this fall.

Great tutorial here.


kirti rai September 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm

thank you ! so much amanda and kevin….recently bought nikon 5100 dslr, i need some help in operating the instrument manually so kindly


Saptadeep Bhattacharjee September 19, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Thank you so much. Now I would be able to take some nice phtographs beside auto mode. :)


Kon September 29, 2013 at 4:13 am

How kind of you to take the time and explain that….

Thank you, i learned heaps!


Alison @SassyMomChicago October 5, 2013 at 4:22 pm

This is probably the best tutorial I’ve read so far. I just purchased the Canon 50mm and did not realize it was a prime lens. I love it for taking pics of food but it’s not so great when I need full body photos. Would you recommend the 80 mm for this?


g November 12, 2013 at 12:06 pm

THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH! Ive been browsing for information on how to get the most out of my camera, and if it wasn’t for this site I don’t know what I would do its been a saving grace!!! You actually EXPLAIN things, and you explain them in a way that everyone can understand!! Before this site I was LOST on all the terminology/gadgets/buttons/etc- but Ive learned so much through this site! Please dont stop! :)


Noel November 16, 2013 at 9:33 am

Thank you for your tutorial. I have referred back to it multiple times. I have a Ti2 canon with the kit lenses and I am currently in the process of buying a new lens. Price is an issue so I am limited to getting either the 50mm or the 85mm. Which one is better for shooting group shots? I have a family of 5 and I take pictures for other family members and would love to have really crisp family photos. Do you have a suggestion on which lens would be best?


Amanda November 18, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Both are great! With the 85mm you will need more room, so get the 50 if you like taking photos indoors. :) Hope this helps! :)

Melanie November 21, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Wow! I’ve had my Nikon D90 for over two years now and have been trying to figure out how to use it to it’s potential. This tutorial helped me immensely! I’m so excited to take more photos and practice using the different manual settings. Thank you so much!!


maves December 4, 2013 at 2:37 am

I was so happy to read your All your Useful TIPS. Thank you very much…


Umer malik December 9, 2013 at 2:05 am

Thanx … :D… I Appreciate ur help :D…


Evie December 21, 2013 at 8:35 am

How about a tutorial on how to ROCK your camera in MANUAL!?!? :)


Larisa December 21, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Very useful and well written, thank you. I am still new to DSLR photography and reference this article all the time. :)


lalit January 3, 2014 at 2:19 am

was very helpful for a beginer like me… thanks alot..


aP January 3, 2014 at 2:51 am

Great article!
I can only agree. 24-70mm 2.8 and 50mm 1.8 are also my favorites.



Alyssa January 3, 2014 at 3:17 pm

Very helpful, thank you!


Tracy January 6, 2014 at 10:19 am

Hi! I loved your tutorial, it was so simple! I recently wrote an article that has non-technical strategies for taking better travel photos, and linked to your article for the technical side of things! I hope that’s OK!


cin January 30, 2014 at 3:17 am

Very nice tutorials with all basics of DSLR and explained in simple language.
Thanks a lot…………


Kathy H. February 8, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Just found your site and this helped me tremendously ! I just bought a Nikon and the book Understanding Exposure, so hopefully with these tools I will gain more confidence using the camera!


Christine |Taste of Divine February 13, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Hey there Amanda! I stumbled onto this post looking for tips on using my new dslr camera. I am so lost with all the different settings! This post helped me so much in understanding things! I know I’ll come back to it as I learn. I’m just now starting to play with aperture priority mode :)
Thanks a ton!


eddie February 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Thank you so much for posting this! I feel like I understand my camera so much better now! I plan to practice this and hopefully have much nicer pictures! I’m not any more confuse about aperture,ISO and shutter speeds. Again Thank You so much!!!


Charo February 27, 2014 at 7:43 pm

Very detailed explanation. I had hard time understanding the features until I read your post. Now I’m so ready to explore my Canon 450D again. :) Thank you so much. Such an inspiration.


Joao Lucio March 19, 2014 at 9:51 am

APPLAUSE to you my friend!
Thank you very much for this tutorial, it’s perfect for me since I’m an amateur photographer!! :)
Now it’s time to take all of this info to the field!! :)


Aqiyl Aniys March 23, 2014 at 7:11 pm

I am a little late to your post but your guide to different camera settings is still great. I love shallow depth of field pictures.


Kevin Parker April 9, 2014 at 8:57 pm

Greetings from the UK.
I just wanted to thank you! I bought a DSLR Camera a few months ago along with several books to teach myself photography.
I have learnt more using this tutorial in one quiet night shift than from trying to understand the books in several months
Thank You Thank You Thank You


Ruby April 17, 2014 at 8:17 am

I can Now understand Photography. Thanks for sharing this tutorials.


Theresa April 21, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Can I take just as good photoes with a Canon rebel t2i??


Essence June 10, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Thanks so much for this explanation. I have been reading and searching all around so I could get a clear understanding of the camera settings for a Nikon and I am so appreciative of this post.


Bea June 16, 2014 at 3:55 pm

I came across this post after enjoying your Paris trip and all the eats from Scotland and London. I cannot tell you how appreciative I am for all this info. I have asked everyone, even begged but no help. So I was beyond words, this has made my day actually my whole year! You explained it in terms that I could understand and that in itself is so valuable. I love your blog and can’t wait for all the great news from your vacation.


meg July 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm

great tutorial! thank you :)


Kannan ps July 21, 2014 at 10:49 pm

Thanks for your information and its really helpful


debbie hannibal September 4, 2014 at 12:14 pm

FAB tutorial. I got so engrossed I deleted ALL my pictures off the camera playing with the settings :(


طراحی سایت در مشهد October 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm

tnx a lot. it was very helpful for me.


هتل های مشهد November 13, 2014 at 7:51 am

Thank you very much I Love It <3


KarlaJ February 27, 2015 at 1:16 pm

I just purchased my first (entry-level) DSLR. A Nikon d3300. I also ordered a 35mm f/1.8 lens. THANK YOU so much for this quick tutorial. It’s so confusing and this just cleared up so much! Can’t wait to start practicing.


Ef Mojica February 27, 2015 at 10:01 pm

What a great service you are doing! Thanks. I just got my first Nikon DSLR D3300 and am looking forward to learning all the fundamentals, etc.


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