The Beginner's Guide to Getting Started with a Digital SLR Camera

March 22, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

     So.... You got your first digital SLR camera and you want to start taking some pictures? Yay! But, WOW! There are a lot of buttons on this thing. It is tempting to put it back in the box and reach for your trusty point-and-shoot, or better yet, your phone. Don't waste this investment. Let me introduce you to some basic information and simple steps to get you started. Once you understand how to make a few adjustments to get the images you want, you will be hooked!

     Let's talk buttons. Not only do you have buttons and dials, but you have banks of menus and menus to further customize your buttons and dials. It is enough to make your head spin. Since camera bodies differ by manufacturer and model (I shoot the Nikon D500), I won't get into specifics about where to find these settings on your camera, but I will encourage you to read your manual and experiment. However, much of what is in your manual will make more sense after you have had some experience using your camera.

STEP 1 - Battery and Memory Card
     A wise first step is to be sure that you have the appropriate charged battery and memory card inserted properly. Be sure that your camera is OFF before changing batteries or memory cards. When it comes to memory cards, it is worth the investment to buy good quality. Personally, I prefer the SanDisk Extreme PRO SDHC card. I have been most happy with 32 GB cards because they can hold an entire session of images even when shooting in RAW. However, on a wedding shoot, I like to have several cards so that I can have one card for each segment of the day. (This is just personal preference.) Once your memory card is inserted, find the menu option to format the memory card. You may need to reference your manual for formatting memory cards. I like to re-format my memory cards between sessions to reduce the risk of corrupting a card and making it unreadable.

SD Memory CardsI label my memory cards so that I can dedicate certain cards for specific segments of a shoot. This is especially helpful when shooting weddings.

STEP 2 - Lens
     Most entry level and some higher level DSLRs come with a lens kit of some sort. Don't fuss about your lens choice at first. Our first priority is to get you taking some pictures. Once you understand how to manipulate your camera settings to get desired results, then you can think about fine-tuning with lens selection. I'm not insinuating that using high quality and appropriate lenses play a minor role in photography. I'm simply trying to take a simple approach. If we attempt to tackle every aspect of this high-tech camera at once, we are certainly setting ourselves up for frustration.

     So, if you have more than one lens already, then choose one with a lower f-stop number. This will allow you to get better acquainted with the power of the f-stop. If you can get your hands on a lens that will shoot as low as f/2.8 or f/3.5, that will be great. Be sure to attach it properly and do so with the camera OFF.

STEP 3 - Camera ON... Lens Cap OFF!
     You may laugh, but I can't tell you how many times I look through my eyepiece and see black. Ha ha!

     Okay, let's set up a few more parameters so that we have fewer variables to manipulate. In the next several steps, we are basically telling the camera how we want it to behave. As we gain a more clear understanding of the basics, certain situations may require us to change some of these settings. We are simply putting these in place to make our learning process easier. Many of these settings are programed in the menus or by dedicated buttons. Refer to your owners manual to gain access to these controls.

STEP 4 - Image Quality
     Image quality refers to the kind of file we want the camera to create as it captures the image when we take a picture. Some file types require more memory than others. I always shoot in RAW file format, and I am suggesting that you do the same. The short explanation is that the RAW file format allows your camera to record an image with the most data about the image as possible. With all of this data, I am able to get the highest image quality level which I always desire. It also means that I am able to make more precise adjustments in the editing phase. I can explain the power of post-processing in another blog post, but rest assured, RAW files are so worth the larger file size.

     ISO is a scale for measuring sensitivity to light. A low ISO setting (100) is good when bright light is available. It would be like wearing sunglasses on a sunny day. A high ISO setting (800 or higher) would be needed to get low light shots or to freeze an image in motion. The downside to using high ISO settings is that the image may appear grainy (noise) which is more noticeable when enlarged.

     Another option is to set your camera to AUTO ISO. This may be fine to "get the shot," but if your goal is to learn how to manipulate the other two factors that affect exposure (aperture and shutter speed), then allowing your camera to choose ISO for you will introduce a third variable that will complicate how you interpret your results. My suggestion is to set your ISO at 320 for now. You can always change this later, and should be adjusting once you recognize when that is needed. One step at a time.

STEP 6 - Metering Mode
     Setting the metering mode is a way to tell your camera how you want it to interpret the amount of light that is in the frame that you want to capture. Most cameras have a matrix or pattern metering mode that will evaluate the over-all frame. In this setting, the camera will try to choose settings that will properly expose the entire frame. It is taking an average of the whole scene. This can be good for landscapes. Another setting, center-weighted metering, tells the camera to expose for whatever is in the center part of the frame. This option is preferred if you are shooting a portrait of someone or an object that is in the center of your frame. The third option is spot or partial metering. This tells the camera to meter for a very small area right in the center of the frame, or wherever you see the single little box in the viewfinder. This allows you to capture detail in a very small specific area, especially if that area is darker or lighter than its surroundings. I prefer this spot metering method for portraits because I can purposely meter for the face/eyes which is the most important part of my portrait. My suggestion is that you choose either center-weighted or spot metering for the purpose of learning the other aspects of your camera.

STEP 7 - Focus Mode
     Camera brands vary in terminology as it relates to focus modes. I suggest that you start with "Single Area AF" for the purpose of learning and experimentation. Check your owners manual to see what label is used for your camera. Continuous/Al Servo Focus is needed for tracking moving subjects, but will not be helpful for your first learning exercises.

STEP 8 - Autofocus Points
     Much like setting your metering mode to be center-weighted or spot metering, we need to do the same for autofocus points. When setting autofocus points, we are telling the camera where we want it to focus. This allows us to have control over the surface plane (the distance from the camera) that will be in sharpest focus. The easiest way to choose this precisely is to use Single Point AF Area Mode. The other modes have their purpose, but Single Point AF will help us to see the power in manipulating aperture and shutter speed.

STEP 9 - White Balance
     Rather than measuring and managing the amount of light, white balance is a measure of the temperature of light. It is measured in Kelvins. Warm light has more yellow tones and cool light leans toward the blue end of the scale. Getting proper white balance makes all the difference in the quality of an image. In order to reduce the number of things we need to think about, I am going to have you set the white balance on AUTO for now.

     HOLY SMOKES! We haven't even taken a picture, yet. Stay with me. We are almost there.

STEP 10 - Shooting Modes
     Your DSLR probably has a cute little dial on top with some letters and maybe little icon images. You might be very tempted to drop it into AUTO mode and start hitting the shutter. But, that is not why you bought a DSLR! As for all of those other little icon modes (portrait, landscape, sports, close-up/macro, night)... forget about them!

Image taken from Nikon USA

     You have POWER in the ability to control your settings to make purposeful choices. The only way to harness that power is through experimentation and practice. So, let's do this!

     The setting that truly allows you to be the artist of your images is Manual Mode (M) because you are making all of the decisions. Successfully using this shooting method is the goal. But, let's be honest, that is a lot to think about. We just want to start taking some pictures, already.

     The two shooting modes that will be most useful to you in the beginning are Aperture Priority (A) and Shutter Priority (S). In my brain, I also think of Shutter Priority (S) as "speed." When you are using Aperture Priority, you determine the aperture and allow the camera to choose the best shutter speed based on the metered information about light that it is taking in and your ISO setting. (We already set our ISO at 320.) When you are in Shutter Priority, you choose the shutter speed and let the camera determine your best aperture based on the metered information about light and your ISO setting.

     In order to know which setting would be most appropriate, we need to discuss what they are and how changing them affects an image.

     I'm sure you have heard many times that photography is all about light. Making adjustments to your camera is telling it how you want it to handle that light. When you press the shutter release button, the shutter opens and allows light to pass through to the electronic sensor that records the light digitally. The sensor interprets the ambient and reflected light to create an image, much like our own eyes and brain allow us to interpret images. If the shutter opens up to a wide opening (aperture), then much light is able to pass through to create a brighter image. It is like having dilated pupils or opening the window shades as much as you can. If the shutter says open for a long period of time (shutter speed), then more light will be able to pass through to create a brighter image. So, whether you are in aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode, you are still controlling how much light is being "exposed" to your sensor, and ultimately your image. That is, you are controlling one aspect of exposure.

     You just have to decide if you want direct control over aperture size or shutter speed. In order to make that decision, you need to understand the other ways aperture size and shutter speed affect the outcome of an image.

Aperture = Depth of Field
     The aperture setting refers to the size of the opening that is made when the shutter opens. The size of this opening affects the amount of light that is able to pass through to the sensor, thus contributing to exposure (how light or dark the image will be). The size of the opening also affects the angles of light passing through the lens. The way these angles of light converge determines the depth of field (how many focal planes are actually in focus). A shallow depth of field (achieved with a wide open aperture) means that only surfaces at a very specific distance will appear clear and in focus. Anything closer or farther away will appear blurry. A deep depth of field (achieved with a small aperture) means that surfaces close, middle and far will be clear and in focus.

From ™2011 HowStuffWorks

     Aperture openings are measured in f-stops. An understanding of how aperture affects the outcome of an image will give you the power to control your outcome.

     When you are in Aperture Priority Shooting Mode, you are telling the camera what aperture (f-stop) you want to use and allow the camera to choose the shutter speed that will give the optimal amount of light for proper exposure. So, if you choose a large aperture (f/2.8), your camera may have to choose a fairly fast shutter speed to prevent too much light from being exposed to the sensor and overexposing (blowing out) your image. If you choose a small aperture (f/22), your camera will need to use a much slower shutter speed so that it can bring in enough light to prevent underexposure (an image that is too dark).

Depth of field and f-stopsNotice how the number of shells that are in focus increases as the f-stop number increases.

Shutter Priority Mode (Speed)
     Shutter speed is the length of time that your shutter remains open allowing light to pass through to the sensor. Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second. Occasionally, it is measured in whole seconds if a long exposure is desired. A fast shutter speed (1/1000th of a second) will be needed if you are trying to capture a moving object without any motion blur. If the object is stationary, a slower shutter speed (1/200th of a second) may be sufficient to get a crisp image. If you actually want some motion blur (to show movement in flowing water), then a shutter speed of 1 or 2 seconds may be desired. A tripod is required for slow shutter speeds to avoid camera shake which blurs parts of your image that you want to be clear.

     Note that shutter speed on most cameras is expressed as a whole number rather than a fraction. So, if you are in Shutter Priority Mode and select 125, you are really going to have the shutter open for 1/125th of a second. Whole seconds often have a quotation mark after the number. Selecting 2" will be telling the camera to keep the shutter open for 2 whole seconds.

     So, when you are in Shutter Priority Mode (S), you are telling the camera how long you want the shutter to remain open to give you the desired effect of allowing for motion blur or freezing action. If there is no action, then a more moderate speed may be preferred. Your camera's sensor will meter the light and determine what aperture will be needed to get proper exposure. If your subject is a stationary object, you may choose a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. Your camera will use a moderate aperture to allow for the optimal amount of light, based on the conditions. If your subject is a bird in flight and you are wanting to freeze its motion, you may choose a faster shutter speed, such as 1/4000th of a second. Your camera will need to use a wide aperture to allow enough light to pass through to the sensor to capture the image.

Shutter SpeedNotice that the motion becomes less apparent as you increase the shutter speed by choosing a smaller shutter speed number. Increasing shutter speed also decreases exposure.

Choosing Your Shooting Mode
     We have identified our role and the camera's role in both shooting modes: Aperture Priority Mode and Shutter Priority Mode. How do we know which one to use? Well, we need to determine which variable is most important for us to control in the given situation.

     If I am taking a portrait, I obviously want my subject to be in focus. However, I want my background to be blurred. This means that I want to control the variable of depth of field. Depth of field is determined by aperture, so I will choose Aperture Priority Mode. My desired shallow depth of field is achieved with a wide aperture, so I will choose a small f-stop in Aperture Mode.

     If I want to capture a landscape where I have some rocks in the foreground, trees in the middle ground and mountains in the background, I want all of it to be clear and in focus. Again, I want to control the variable of depth of field, but I want a deep depth of field this time. I will still need to choose Aperture Priority Mode, but to achieve a deep depth of field, I will need a very small aperture with a high f-stop number.

     Suppose I am taking pictures at a sporting event and I want to freeze the action to get a clear picture of the athletes in motion. Freezing motion is controlled by shutter speed, so I will choose Shutter Priority Mode and select a fast shutter speed.

     Finally, if I am taking pictures of a waterfall and I am hoping to show some motion in the moving water, I am wanting to control the variable of motion blur. Motion blur is controlled by shutter speed, so I will choose Shutter Priority Mode with a slow shutter speed and my camera mounted on a tripod.

     Basically, you determine the priority of your desired outcome and shoot in the mode that gives you control over that variable.

Let's Practice
     If you remember in the very beginning, we set up many parameters for your camera. With those predetermined, we can now focus on just two variables at a time and really get a sense of how they work together to give you proper exposure.

     I suggest that you start in Aperture Priority Mode. I shot almost every portrait session in Aperture Priority for the first several years in photography before moving to Manual Mode. It is still my "go to" if I am in a situation where I have to be shooting quickly in changing conditions (wedding reception). So, set your shooting mode to A. Now, play around with the various f- stop settings while shooting the same scene and see if you can notice a difference in the depth of field. Choose a scene where you have some surfaces close to you and some farther away. As you moved up and down the f-stops, do you notice a difference in your camera's shutter speed?

     Take a picture of something at the lowest f-stop (wide open aperture) that your lens will allow. Now, crank it down to the highest f-stop (narrow aperture) that your lens will allow. Can you hear the difference in the shutter speed? Take a look at the metadata in your camera for the two images. How has the shutter speed number changed? Is there a difference in the exposure of the two images?

     You will eventually realize that there are some limitations. Have you tried to take a picture of something in low light and a narrow aperture (high f-stop) and wondered why your camera was simply refusing to take the shot? That is your camera saying that it doesn't have enough light available at that small of an aperture to get an exposure that you can see. It could be the case that there isn't enough light for the camera to even find something on which to focus.

     You may also experience slow shutter speeds and unwanted blur from hand shake. If you don't have a tripod available, try allowing more light in by opening up your aperture (choosing a lower f-stop). With a wider aperture, your camera will be able to use a faster shutter speed to eliminate this unwanted blur. Conversely, if shooting in really bright light, you may need to narrow your aperture (increase the f-stop number) to prevent overexposure. As you gain familiarity with your camera, these are the times when you may decide to go back and adjust the ISO to get the shot you really want. We will save that for another time.

     Practice a lot in Aperture Priority Mode so that you become comfortable making adjustments to get desired results. Especially in the beginning, it is helpful to bracket your shots. Use the f-stop that you feel is best for your desired outcome. Then, take the same shot one f-stop below and one f-stop above that. Don't be tempted to make judgement calls based on what you see on your LCD screen on the back of the camera. Keep all of the shots and see how they look when downloaded to your computer. Remember, you are shooting in RAW, so all of the image data will show up on the computer where you can really assess which image is the best. Pay close attention to the metadata for each image on your computer. Metadata is the information that is part of the image file that will tell you the camera settings you used to capture that image. Chances are, you may not remember the exact aperture and shutter speed for each image you shot. Look for patterns that gave you results that you like. Try to implement these same settings the next time you are in a similar situation.

Metadata as seen in camera and then in editing software on the computer. (Shown in Adobe Lightroom CC)

     Repeat this same process for Shutter Priority Mode. You may want to spend several weeks in Aperture Priority Mode before you make the switch.

That Little Square in my Viewfinder
     Way back in steps 6 and 8, we set the metering mode to Spot Metering and the autofocus to Single Point AF Area Mode. Those settings make that little box in the center of your viewfinder quite useful. When you partially depress your shutter, you are asking your camera to assess the situation. Because we set those parameters for metering and focus, the camera is basing its assessment on what it "sees" at the spot where the little box is aiming.

Spot Focus in ViewfinderImage from Nikon USA.

     Knowing this is helpful and gives you, the photographer, more control. Suppose you are taking a portrait of a fair-skinned person who is wearing all black against a dark background. The person's face is your greatest concern. You want to get exposure that will clearly show the features of the face. If you make sure that little box is aimed at the face (I always focus on the eyes) the camera will choose an exposure appropriate for the light that it detects coming off of their face. Perfect! If, instead, I aim the box at their dark colored shirt, the camera will detect the small amount of light being reflected by the shirt and choose a high exposure. This higher exposure may be too high to maintain the features in the face and the most important part of the portrait will be overexposed and blown out.

     Conversely, if you are trying to get a picture of your black dog sitting in the snow, then you will want to aim the box at the dog. The camera will detect the amount of light being reflected by the dog and choose an exposure that will allow you to see the details in your dog. If you aim the box at the snow at the dog's feet, then the camera will interpret the large amount of light being reflected by the snow and choose a lower exposure to compensate. This low exposure may cause your dog to appear as a black blob with no discernible features.  Notice that the crosses photographed on the black and white backgrounds show the best overall exposure when the focal point/spot meter point is aimed at the brown cross.  The brown cross is not overly light or dark. 

     Understanding how your camera "thinks" and using that to your advantage by aiming that little box purposefully will give you even more power as you make decisions to get the outcome you are after.

You are on your way!

     Wow! That is a lot of information, and we are just getting started. Please note that I do not claim to be an expert! I simply remember the intimidation I felt getting started. I remember feeling overwhelmed by all of the buttons and dials and menus. I just wanted to take pretty pictures! I knew that I had to break it down and tackle one aspect at a time. In the beginning, I didn't understand why things worked the way they did. I just knew that if I turned the dial, I could make it better. Understanding why turning the dial made it better reduced a lot of frustration.

     I hope that sharing my suggested approach for beginners can be helpful to someone out there. If your fingers are itching to touch that DSLR and to start your journey into the world of digital photography, get that DSLR out of the box and let's start having some fun!

You make the memories; I will help you cherish them.

Love and Smiles,


*Please note that the information in your camera's owner's manual will always supersede any advice that I have given here. 

**A huge shout out to PicMonkey Photo Editor and Graphic Design Maker for helping me to create the images used in this blog post!


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