Explained: The basics of a DSLR camera

5 min read

Christmas has come and past and you were gifted a shiny new DSLR camera. Or, you finally dug out your old one and decided to learn how to use it. Or perhaps you found one in your parents closet.

Whatever the case is, you have a DSLR and you are trying to figure out how to use it. Well, you are in the right place. Let’s go through the basic settings on your camera.



Your ISO setting determines how sensitive your sensor is to light. What this means is a 100 ISO shot will be darker than a 1000 ISO shot.The trade off here is that a higher ISO will lead to more noise in your photo. Noise typically takes the form of grainy photos with some strange color artifacts in your image.

Recommended setting

When you are just starting out, keeping your ISO on auto is perfectly reasonable. If you must manually set your ISO, the general rule of thumb is try not to go over 1000 to prevent noise. If you have a higher end camera though, you will be able to push the ISO higher with less noise penalty.

Why would I want to increase my ISO?

Having a higher ISO allows you to increase your shutter speed. This is preferable when taking action shots where your subject is in motion. If your shutter speed is too slow, your image will be blurry. With a fast enough shutter speed, you’ll be able to keep the subject in focus and well lit.

Aperture / F-Stop


Your f-stop controls how wide your camera opens up to let light in. A lower f-stop results in a wider opening. This means your camera gets more light and a smaller depth of field. It is how photographers get the subject in focus while the background is all blurry. A higher f-stop results in a smaller opening and lets less light in. This enables you to have more of your image in focus.

This setting is determined by the lenses, not the camera. You can have one lenses that allows a f-stop of 2.8 at the lowest, but you can have another lenses that allows a f-stop of 1.2.

Recommended setting

People tend to like to leave their f-stop at the lowest setting that their lenses allows. This gives them the nice blurry background while the subject is in focus.

Why would I want to increase the f-stop

A higher f-stop lets you get more in focus. This may be desirable if you are doing landscape photography and don’t have a clear subject to focus on. When I do group photos, I tend to increase the f-stop in order to make sure that everyone in the photo is in focus.

Another good time to increase your f-stop is when you want to let in less light for long exposure shots. When taking a 30 minute exposure shot, I had my f-stop up to 10 in order to make sure the photo wasn’t blown out when it was done. Unfortunately, it was then a little underexposed, so you are going to want to play with your setting under the stars to find a good balance for you.

Shutter Speed


The f-stop controls how wide your shutter opens, the shutter speed controls how long your shutter opens for. The longer your shutter speed, the more light you let in. The shorter your shutter speed, the less light you let in.

Recommended setting

You’ll want something fast. The slower your shutter speed, the more still you must keep the camera and the subject. With a faster shutter speed, you don’t have to be as still and careful. 1/60th of a second should be sufficient, though I tend to prefer to keep it at around 1/100th.

Why would I want to lower my shutter speed

As mentioned before, long exposure shots require playing with your settings. The entire idea behind long exposure shots, is you stop measuring your shutter speed in seconds and move to minutes. You’ll open up your shutter for 10 minutes or more in order to get shots of objects in the night sky like stars and the moon.

Another reason you may want to lower your shutter speed is to allow you to drop your ISO. Remember that a higher ISO lets more light in, but it will also introduce digital noise. In order to avoid this, you can lower your ISO and lower your shutter speed in order to keep the image at the same brightness. Shutter speeds lower than 1/30 may require a tripod or some other stabilization method in order to keep your image in focus.

Putting it all together

You’ll have to find a balance that works for you. In low light situations, getting a good looking image is harder. You’ll have to be a master of your camera settings in order to get the image you want.

If your image is too dark


You have a few options here. The most effective will be to increase your ISO or decrease your shutter speed. Another option is the increase your f-stop, but messing with your ISO and shutter speed should be sufficient.

If your image is too bright


You may be thinking that you can just do the opposite as what you’d do if the image was too dark. And you would be right. Decrease the ISO or increase your shutter speed. Decreasing your f-stop is still an option, but less effective in my experience.

If you are getting too much noise

digital noise

Your ISO setting is too high. You’ll need to lower that, typically to lower than 1000. However, once you do that your image will be too dark. To compensate for your lower ISO, you’ll need to increase your f-stop or decrease your shutter speed.

If you have unwanted motion blur

motion blur

Your shutter speed is too slow. You’ll need to make that faster. I like to use a 1/100 shutter speed with my 50mm lenses, but you might need something faster. Once you make that adjustment though, your image will be too dark. To fix this, you will have to increase your ISO or increase your f-stop.

We hope this guide is helpful to you. If you have any questions, feel free to leave your questions in the comments below!