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A DSLR is an acronym for a digital single-lens reflex camera, which is a relatively new camera on the market that has combined the digital camera and the optics.

When you purchase your first DSLR it can be intimidating to know how to use all its features. So we’ve put together few useful tips to help get you started in using your new camera.

5 Tips For Learning How to Use a DSLR

Camera Mike

Shooting Modes

The first thing to get acquainted with when it comes to a new camera are the available shooting modes. The shooting modes determine what happens when you press the shutter to take a picture.

You’ll generally find shooting modes on the dial on the top of your camera, with letters written on it. This dial will always include, at the very minimum, these four letters — P, A (or AV), S (or TV), and M. There will also be a fifth mode entitled “Auto”.

If it’s your first time using a DSLR, we recommended setting your camera to “auto”, as this means the camera will utilize pre-set parameters and adjust settings like exposure, shutter speed and even aperture for you automatically.

As you master the camera you can start experimenting with other modes which give you more control.

RF Street photography camera

Learn About Lighting and ISO

Light plays a crucial role in determining how your picture will look, and the ISO of a camera determines the camera sensitivity to light and the ability to capture it.

The ISO is measured as a numeric number, and you can adjust the settings to suit different lighting conditions. When in natural light conditions, like during the day, it’s advisable to use low ISO, and raise it to be higher in dark conditions.

But keep in mind that if too much light is captured, or you try and compensate for dark surroundings by changing to a high ISO, the image may appear grainy. “A high ISO such as ISO 1,600 will produce a brighter picture than a lower ISO such as ISO 100.” But increasing the ISO creates a lot more grain.

Learn About the Aperture

The aperture is a small set of blades in the lens that controls how much light will enter the camera. The blades create a octagonal shape that can be widened or closed down to a small hole.

This allows you to adjust the lighting, and still take a good picture even if the conditions are too bright. You’ll find that aperture sizes are measured by f-stops. A high f-stop like f-22 means that the aperture hole is quite small, and a low f-stop like f/3.5 means that the aperture is wide open.

If you shoot with the aperture wide open, then more light is allowed into the camera than if the aperture is closed down to only allow a tiny hole of light to enter the camera. The smaller the aperture, the more your subject will be in focus, where-as a wider hole will create a more shallow depth of field.

Coastal Pavilions at Freycinet Lodge

Shutter Speed

Along with ISO, and aperture, one of the three pillars of photography is Shutter Speed. This is the length of time your camera shutter is open, ie, how long your camera spends taking a photo.

Shutter speed is “responsible for changing the brightness of your photo, and creating dramatic effects by either freezing action or blurring motion.” And how quickly you take a photo will have a profound effect on how your images will appear.

When you have a slow shutter speed you achieve a blurry image effect, especially if your subject is in motion. If you’re aiming for a motion blur, or creating a sense of motion in a landscape shot (like a river or waterfall), this is when you would use a slow shutter.

However if you’re shooting a subject in motion and need a quick, focused shot, whether it’s wildlife, or adventure sports, you’ll need to use a much faster shutter.

Photo credit: Sherly Clarke. 


Today the modern DSLR comes with autofocus, and with every new model, more advanced technology allows cameras to quickly pinpoint the subject you’re focusing on without missing the moment.

We recommend beginners start by utilizing the autofocus features, but after you become more experienced with the camera you can start experimenting with manual focus mode to get more precise control over your shots.

For certain shots, like macro (when you’re shooting something close up with a very shallow the depth of field), manual focus allows you to have complete control over exactly is in focus.

This is also beneficial in crowded settings, where you might want to focus on one specific subject, in low light, or if you’re trying to shoot “through” an object.

For these tips and more, check out;


Nikon D5300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera

Canon PowerShot SX50 HS 12MP Digital Camera

ZoMei Z818 Light Weight Heavy Duty Portable Travel Tripod


Megan is an Australian Journalist and award-winning travel writer who has been blogging since 2007. Her husband Mike is the American naturalist and wildlife photographer behind Waking Up Wild; an online magazine dedicated to opening your eyes to the wonders of the wild & natural world.

Having visited 50+ countries across all seven continents, Megan’s travels focus on cultural immersion, authentic discovery and incredible journeys. She has a strong passion for ecotourism, and aims to promote responsible travel experiences.



  1. Great tips – personally I use a camera phone and it’s fine for just posting photos to social media, though I don’t do anything professionally. I think a lot of the things you’ve covered like learning about lighting and focus can be applied to beginning with any camera.

    • Thanks Rodney – so glad the tips were helpful for you. Camera phones these days really are amazing, and you can definitely get some great shots without having to tackle the learning curve of a DSLR. Agreed that learning about things like lighting and focus apply regardless of the camera you’re using :)

      Happy shooting!

  2. I would add learn how to hold a camera properly – sounds obvious, but so many new photographers don’t hold their camera correctly, which causes camera shake and blurry images. Both hands, like you’re driving! And the closer you keep it to your body the less shake. If you really have problems I suggest getting a tripod.

    • Great tip Ericka, it does seem like it would be something that would be obvious, but you’re right that holding a larger, chunkier camera takes some getting used to :)

  3. I think it’s important to get out of auto mode, and start practicing with manual settings as soon as you can – you’ll never learn the camera’s full potential if you don’t start practicing. But that said, you’re right that you don’t have to do it straight away, especially if you’re moving from a point and shoot, you’ll probably be more familiar and comfortable with the auto mode.

    • Totally agree with you Mandi – it’s something I encourage people to take their time with so they’re not totally overwhelmed straight off the bat. But you’re right that the sooner you start experimenting with manual, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable using it :)

  4. Thanks for this! I still get confused about ISO and f-stops, but I’m slowly learning :)

    • You’re welcome Cindy, I’m glad the post was helpful for you :) It’s a big learning curve, and I was very confused when I started out with a DSLR too, but you do get there eventually!

      Happy shooting :)

  5. Thanks for covering the basics. Got my first DSLR last week, the instructions manual itself is going over my head but I’ve found Youtube tutorials are actually really helpful.

    • You’re welcome Dayle, I’m glad the post was a helpful overview for you :) Youtube tutorials are great, I don’t think I ended up reading through the entire manual for my D5300 when I bought it either, lol so you’re in good company :D

  6. Yes, important to know how to actually use a camera, but for any beginner photographer wanting to take professional grade photos, you should enroll in a photography course. The camera is just an object – it’s the photographer who ultimately takes good photos. A bad photographer can have an excellent camera but still take a bad shot.

    • Totally agree with you Todd that an actual understanding of photography is also required. If you’ve heard of any great courses for beginners feel free to recommend :)

  7. If I may, if anyone is questioning whether to upgrade to a DSLR, you only need to upgrade your camera when, and only when, you need a camera that can do something in particular that your current camera can not. Until you can articulate exactly what you wish to do photographically that your current body or other gear doesn’t allow you to do you don’t yet need an upgrade.

    People seem to buy DSLR’s purely for the sake of owning a DSLR, but it’s not always that case that it will take a better quality picture. Don’t expect the change in gear to make a marked improvement in your images until you actually need what the newer gear will offer. Because until your skill level and vision demands the improved capability of the newer camera (or lens, or lighting, etc.), you’re not going to be able to take advantage of the improved capability the newer gear offers you.

    • Unless you are a Pro and the camera is just a tool, the whole feeling of owning a new camera for enthusiasts and hobbyists, is amazing. Its equal to driving a new car straight from the forecourt.

      For most enthusiasts, it is more than just a need, it is a want, a desire! It creates a desire to learn new things, spend hours studying the manual and looking up videos and ultimately opens up your self realisation as to what your potential is and what you can achieve!

      It increases your self esteem when others compliment you on your new camera and images produced, and motivates you to produce better content.

      The point I am making; although logic dictates, we should only upgrade our camera when there is an absolute need for it, there are times when.

      “Need to Buy” has to be put to one side, and make way for, “want to Buy”.

      A new camera may not necessarily produce better images, but much like your car which feels as if it drives better after a valet, you will feel the same with your new camera and as a result, you will naturally strive to produce better images.

    • Very valid points from both arguments. Personally I agree with Abdul that owning a more professional grade camera motivates you to produce better content, to further your knowledge and learning, and boosts self esteem and pride as a camera / photography enthusiast.

      True though that if you’re not striving to produce better images with the better camera you’ve purchased, perhaps you could save the money :)

  8. My best tip is never to leave your camera at home :) I’m no longer “getting started”, but for beginners especially, you want as much practice as possible, and you miss a lot of great photo opportunities when you forget to take it with you.

    • Totally agree with you Eddy! I’ve missed so many photo opportunities from leaving my camera at home on things like just a walk down the street, or a trip to the grocery store. You never know when a photo opportunity might present itself, and there’s nothing worse than reaching for your camera and realizing it’s not there!!

      A great tip, thanks for sharing :)

  9. Favorite places to practice with my new DSLR at the moment are the local zoo, botanic gardens, and animal sanctuaries. Plenty of open space and great subjects for interesting photos :)

    • Great tips Jacquie, thanks for sharing. Everyone should have at least one of those close by them no matter where they live :)

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