How to Use Your DSLR Camera [to its Full Potential]

You have a fancy camera and you want to know how to use it! Are you still feeling excited about it or overwhelmed and frustrated at learning the settings?


If you answered the latter, do not fret! I completely understand those feelings and am going to teach you how to use your DSLR camera to its full potential!


There is a lot going on with this little piece of equipment. And truth be told, there is a lot of science and math to it but do not let that scare you if those subjects are not your strongest. You can do this!


You’ve probably bought the camera to explore your artistic side and it is the perfect tool for that. Know that it is a tool and once you learn how to use it, you will be off creating art in no time!


After reading this tutorial, you will be so equipped with knowledge that you’ll sound like an expert.


I am going to cover the technical basics here — the shooting modes and settings.


No matter what brand of camera you have, you will take something away from this as they all work the same way. The only difference is the terminology.


It is also good to note that I will also focus on the settings and modes that exist on amateur / hobbyist DSLR cameras and not on professional cameras. The professional lines of DSLRs have slightly different shooting modes.


Of course, if you have a professional level camera, you can read through this to establish a foundation and move on to find the missing information.


How to Use Your DSLR Camera: ISO


Alright, the ultimate goal when shooting is to get a good exposure. And that is what the camera is going to strive for every single time. To obtain a good exposure, the following 3 settings need to work together: aperture, shutter speed, ISO.

When choosing a shooting mode, recognize what type of photographing you will be doing — in studio or on-location? Is your subject alive and moving or inanimate?


Before I talk about the different shooting modes, I want to explain what ISO is as it plays a big role in achieving a correct / good exposure and you have control over it in most shooting modes.


The ISO is how sensitive your camera sensor is to light.


[If you are shooting with film, you will buy film with a set ISO and will have to know your shooting conditions and purchase accordingly. With digital cameras, you can change the ISO for every image if you’d like. It is pretty cool.]


ISO Rule of Thumb:

Low ISO: portraits, landscapes, studio lighting

High ISO: shooting at night, in the dark, want noise on images


The higher you set your ISO, the more noise you will see in your images (grain for film). If this is desirable, crank that sucker up. How low or high you can go depends on your specific camera.


With my old Nikon D60, I saw noise at ISO 500. My Nikon D7200 can go a bit higher and my Nikon D750 can go up to the thousands before I see noise.

How to Use Your DSLR Camera: Aperture


The aperture is the opening. It is measured by f stops. Similar to the medical field, the higher the number, the smaller the opening. f/22 is a small aperture whereas f/1.4 is very wide.


Here is a list of the whole (there are 1/2 and 1/3 stops) f stops for reference.


f/1.4 f/2.8 f/4 f/5.6 f/8 f/11 f/16 f/22


Wide aperture:

- small numbers

- shallow depth of field (blurs background)

- generally used for portraits


Small aperture:

- big numbers

- greater depth of field (everything is in focus)

- generally used for landscapes and architecture

How to Use Your DSLR Camera: Shutter Speed

The rate at which the shutter covers the aperture. Measured in seconds.

Here is a list of the whole shutter speeds for reference.


1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1sec



How to Use Your DSLR Camera: Shooting Modes

Auto (A) — Based on the available lighting, the camera automatically chooses the best aperture, shutter speed and ISO to create a good exposure. It is completely automated, just point and shoot.


Scene (Portrait, Action, Macro, etc)Like Auto mode, these modes are also completely automated but you get to choose which set of settings you’d like the camera to stick to rather than it constantly changing.


Aperture Priority (A or Av)You set the aperture and the camera will set the shutter speed. This is useful for portraits when you want a wide aperture (small number) while still making sure it is in focus and the exposure is good. You also set the ISO.


Shutter Priority (S or Tv) — You set the shutter speed and the camera will set the appropriate aperture. This is useful for an event in which you are constantly shooting and want to make sure every image is in focus. Examples: action / sports / moving subject that you want to freeze. You also set the ISO on this mode.


Program (P or Ae) — You set the ISO and the camera does the rest.


Manual (M)You have complete control over everything (aperture, shutter speed, ISO). Try one of the other modes before you try this bad boy. There is no shame in using the other modes!


The best thing to do is play with them! Pixels are FREE so shoot away and don’t worry about wasting film.


How to Use Your DSLR Camera: White Balance

This is important for skin tones and to avoid a color cast of orange, blue or green.

You have the choice of Auto, Sunny, Fluorescent, Tungsten, Shade, Cloudy and Flash. Phew. That’s a lot. I typically select the correct white balance for the lighting conditions. 95% of the time I shoot with Sunny white balance because I am an on-location photographer. I am out in the sun.

If I am shooting in a studio, I will choose Flash because I will have a flash. It is self-explanatory!

Auto works well for shooting in ever changing environments (i.e.: moving from indoors to outdoors and you don’t have time to switch WB).

Typically, cell phones will not offer a choice and will default to Auto.



How to Use Your DSLR Camera: RAW vs. JPEG

If you have found this setting, you have probably been scrolling through your camera’s settings. I believe the default for most cameras is JPEG (or JPG), but don’t quote me on that.


This setting has to do with the type of files your images will be and file quality.


RAW files are bigger. They take up more space on your SD card and they have more information than JPEG files.


So, if you are planning on uploading images to your computer and editing them at all, I recommend shooting in RAW. As I said above, RAW files collect more information so, say you completely mess up your exposure on an image (it is too dark or too light), you will most likely be able to recover the shadows and highlights using computer software. The image will still be usable! Hallelujah!








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Dog Photographer | Columbus, GA