Did you finally get that camera you have been wanting, but have no idea what all those settings are or how they work? Or maybe you have had a DSLR for years, but never learned how to get started with your DSLR and have just used it as a point and shoot. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Having a DSLR is exciting, but also can be very intimidating if you haven’t had any training and just don’t know where to start.

get started with your DSLR

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I had my first DSLR for almost 10 years before I finally figured out what to do with it. I was always too scared to take it out of auto mode for fear that I would miss my shot.


Then one day a friend taught me a few things about the settings and how to get started using my DSLR so I never looked back. I forced myself to keep the dial set to manual no matter what the shot was, which gave me no other option than to learn how all the settings worked together.


Within a couple weeks of practicing, reading everything I could, my photos were a million times better and I was feeling much more confident as a photographer. Of course, I had a long way to go, but my photos were instantly transformed.


This is what I want for you. I want to be that friend that teaches you a few things about your settings so you can transform your images!


Once you know the basics of how your camera works and how the settings work together, you will begin to see the magic happen.


How to get started with your DSLR


First let’s look at the difference between these two photos. The first is taken in automatic mode with settings the camera chose. The second is taken in Manual mode with settings I chose. Same exact place, time, and lighting. 

getting started with your dslr


A camera can only do so much to determine the best settings for a photograph. You will get decent images by using automatic mode, but notice the difference when I was able to adjust the settings myself.


Depending on the lens you have and your camera, there will be some limitations with your settings. For instance, lenses have a max aperture. The bigger (smaller number) the aperture, the more expensive the lens will be, but the more light your camera will allow in. We will talk more about this in the aperture section. Your camera body will also have limitation, such as, the max ISO setting and shutter speed. These settings will not affect your everyday photos so don’t worry about this too much.


Not sure what camera is right for you? Read , “7 Questions to Ask Yourself when Buying a New Camera“.


Basics of a DSLR

The difference between a point and shoot and a DSLR is the ability to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO manually rather than your camera determining these settings for you.


On both a point and shoot and DSLR you will likely have a selection of automatic options, such as, low light, portrait, scenery, and more. These settings help your camera determine what kind of lighting you are in so it can automatically set your camera to take the best photo. While this creates decent images, it is nothing like what you can created if you learn how to manipulate the settings on your own.

The body of your camera does not matter that much if you are just a hobby photographer. The more important part of your DSLR is the lenses you use. Most camera’s will come with one or a couple lenses to get started. It is well worth the money to invest in an additional lens that will help you meet your photography goals. A 50mm 1.8 is a great starter lens.

If you plan to take a lot of portraits, a 35mm, 50mm, or an 85mm are all good choices. Make sure they have an aperture of at least f/1.8. (f/1.4 or f/1.2 would be even better if you can swing the price tag.)


How to take better photos


The 3 Pillars


These 3 settings work together and are known as the 3 pillars. They are the settings that determine the amount of light that enters your camera and create your image.


Let’s talk about each setting in more detail:


Shutter Speed- 

Shutter speed is the speed at which your shutter opens and closes. The faster it opens and closes, the less light gets in and the slower it is, the more light gets in. Shutter Speed determines the motion in your photo. To freeze motion, you will set the shutter Speed faster. Want to freeze your child in mid air jumping off a rock? Choose a faster shutter Speed. If you want to show some motion, such as a blur as your child runs, you will slow your shutter Speed down.


Shutter Speed is measured in fractions of seconds or full seconds. You will see a number such as 1/250. This means your shutter will open and close in 1/250th of a second.



ISO determines how sensitive your sensor is to light. If you are in a low light situation you can raise your ISO to increase the light sensitivity. However, you need to be careful. As you increase this number you will also add “noise” or “grain” to your photo. If possible, try to use your other settings to get more light into your photo and keep ISO set below 1000.



Aperture is the amount your lens will open. The farther it opens, the more light goes in. Think of aperture like the pupil in your eye. When it is dark, your pupil is bigger and when it is light, your pupil is much smaller.


Aperture also determines the depth of field of your photograph. The more open your aperture is, the shorter depth of field you will have. Have you seen photos of people where the person is in focus, but the background is blurry? This is because the photographer opened the aperture to lessen the depth of field to create a stunning portrait.

get started with your dlsr

Some lenses do not have the capacity to open far enough to cate this effect. As you begin to purchase your own lenses, you will want to look at the aperture to ensure it will meet your needs.


This is where it gets a little confusing. Aperture is measured in f-stops. The larger the f-stop number, the smaller the opening, and the larger the depth of field. The opposite is also true. The picture above has a smaller f-stop number so the opening is bigger and the depth of field is small.


Bigger number = bigger depth of field (smaller opening)

Smaller number = smaller depth of field (larger opening)


For example:

f/16 has a bigger depth of field and is great for vast scenery photos.

f/2.8 has a much smaller depth of field and can be great for portraits.


get started with your DSLR

You may also want to read these photography tips:

Bringing it all together

In order to start taking photos in manual mode, you need to be able to put all these things together. Each setting works together to help you get the photo you want.


Finally, here are a few key things to remember to help you simplify all of this information:


Shutter Speed- this should be your main focus when movement or action is an element in your photograph.

ISO- this should be used only when it is the only way to get enough light and when grain doesn’t matter as much.

Aperture- this should be the main focus when depth of field is important.


Pick the most important setting for your photograph and then adjust the others to support that setting.


It may sound a bit complicated, but trust me, the best way to get started with your DSLR is to keep your camera in manual mode and just start practicing. You will start to notice patterns and how everything works together. As soon as you start to see the difference in your images, you will never look back.

Your next step is to get signed up for Manual Mode Made Simple. In this free course, I’ll guide you through easy to follow video lessons for each setting and teach you how they all work together. Get signed up for free here

learn to use your DSLR

learn to use your dslr learn to use your DSLR

get started with your dslr

get started with your dslr

get started with your dslr