Photography for Beginners - DSLR Photography

Photography for Beginners Series – DSLR Photography

DSLR is a little more complicated than phone photography but can lead to some fantastic shots when you have full control over the settings. I’ll try not to get too bogged down with technical jargon but in this article I’ll try and outline some tips and tricks to get you started. There are hundreds of authors who have written hundreds of books on the subject of photography and it would be a foolish notion to think I could condense it all down to just a few hundred words but I’ll try my best…

Camera Basics

Before we go any further, it might be worth briefly describing the make up of a camera as it makes the rest a lot simpler. A camera is essentially a box with a hole in it. Behind the box is a sensor. When light enters through the hole, it creates an image. We can control how much light hits the sensor in three ways…

  1. We can make the hole bigger or smaller (aperture)
  2. We can open the hole for longer or shorter (shutter speed)
  3. We can make the sensor more sensitive to light (ISO)

Adjusting these settings will depend massively on what it is we’re photographing and so it’s best to plan ahead and think about what your priority is each time. The combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO is also known as “the light triangle” and it’s what photographers are constantly balancing to create a pleasing and well exposed image.


The hole of the camera or lens is called the aperture. This hole can be made bigger or smaller either manually on the lens or electronically through the camera. As the hole gets bigger, more light is allowed onto the sensor. This does a few things:

  1. It makes the focal plane get narrower
  2. It makes the background more blurry
  3. It makes the image brighter

The aperture is denoted by an F-number; the smaller the F-number, the bigger the hole.

Photography for Beginners - Aperture

A wide aperture here allows a soft background and removes distraction from the subject.

  • When you’re taking a photo of person or group of people using a low F-number will allow you to achieve a really smooth background and a very standout image.
  • When you’re photographing a landscape you can use a larger F-number to have a deep depth of focus to get lots of detail throughout the image.
  • When there’s not much light, use a lower F-number to allow as much light as possible onto the sensor.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is the amount of time which the hole is open to allow light onto the sensor. This is usually denoted by seconds or fractions of seconds. It might look like 1” (1 second) or 1/250 (a two hundred and fiftieth of a second). In order to freeze and capture a fast moment, you need a fast shutter speed; if you want a blurry image then you use a longer shutter speed. It’s worth remembering though that having the shutter open for less time allows less light onto the sensor and so you’d need to compensate with either the aperture or the ISO to get a correctly exposed image.

Photography for Beginners - Shutter Speed

The flapping of a kingfisher’s wings need a very fast shutter speed of around 1/5000

  • When trying to capture fast movement like a running child or a flying bird.
  • In a low light environment when there’s not much movement, use a slow shutter to allow more light onto the sensor.
  • If you’re trying to create an interesting image through movement, use a slow shutter speed to deliberately create blur in an object – for example a flying football or a crashing wave.


In the old days of film cameras, people could buy films of different ISO. The ISO is essentially the camera’s sensitivity to light. A lower ISO is used in bright light, and a high ISO is used in low light. Generally it’s best to leave ISO to “auto” and let the camera work it out. However, it’s worth remembering that a high ISO value will bring in noise to your image so if possible, you want a low ISO in your images. To be honest though, this doesn’t matter so much unless you’re planning on printing an image; Instagram uploads don’t really show noise!

  • When it’s a very bright day or there’s lots of light, use a low ISO to create a clean image.
  • When it’s quite dark or there’s not much light, use a higher ISO to create a usable image.
  • Use AUTO-ISO to allow the camera to work out the best settings.

Camera MODES

All modern DSLR cameras come with the same in built settings but each one can have profound impact on how an image looks or the story it tells.


In this mode the camera decides all the settings. This is usually a correct balance of all the variables but it also opens up the camera to making a mistake. If you’re in a rush, AUTO can be very useful but if you’re confident and competent then try and use an alternative setting to avoid disappointment.

Aperture Priority

As the name suggests, AP allows you to only change the aperture and tells the camera to work everything else out. It’s can be very useful for beginners who may not know their system well. It allows you to have some control of the image but without risking ruining an entire shot.

Shutter Priority

Similarly, shutter priority allows you to only change the shutter speed and tells the camera to sort the rest out. This is great if you’re photographing something fast moving and don’t have time to set up the entire image. In a pinch Shutter Priority is very useful and can save a rushed shot but again, it means that you don’t have complete control over what the camera is doing.

Scene Modes

These vary from camera to camera. Some can be very accurate and useful but from my experience you’re better off learning the light triangle and setting up your camera for yourself.

Manual Mode

Once you’re confident with the light triangle and using your camera you should try and shoot in Manual. I think a lot of novice photographers are scared of the idea of complete control of an image but this is by far and away the best way to capture the image you want. The camera doesn’t do anything for you and you have the ability to manage everything. A caveat to this is that I tend to shoot in manual but with my ISO set to AUTO. This way I can control the shutter speed and aperture but if the environment is a little too dark, I can trust the camera to kick in and boost the ISO for me. This way I can use the ISO as a sort of speedometer; I keep an eye on it and make sure it’s not auto-adjusting too high. Changing my parameters to the shutter speed and aperture to compensate. Setting the ISO as auto should be in your camera’s manual.

Photography for Beginners - Digital - Modes

This was shot in manual mode. That allowed me to have some softness in the snowflakes and background but also freezing the subject.

In Conclusion

Photography with a manual camera is far more complicated than a simple point a shoot mobile phone or digital camera. However, it can offer much more flexibility for style and skill; giving you better control over the stories you want to tell with your images. It is worth learning the basics of shutter speed, aperture and ISO before you go out on your adventures – the last thing you want to be doing is fiddling with settings and missing that perfect shot. The way I like to think about it is by asking myself “what is the priority?” Is it more important that I freeze a moment using a high shutter speed, or that I have a lovely blurry background by having a wider aperture? As always, practice is best. So make sure you go out with your camera in a range of different environments before you depart!

Definitions and Meanings

  1. Plane – the part of the image which is in focus
  2. ISO – International Organization for Standardisation
  3. Noise – is when an image looks grainy or dirty

About Will Hall

Will Hall – Wildlife Presenter and Photographer. Will is an animal biologist from Hampshire, UK. He has a passion for bushcraft, wildlife and tracking which has lead him to pursue a career in outdoor education and adventure. His videography work has been seen on BBC and ITV while his photography has been featured in the Times, Telegraph and Mail. Will is currently living in Scotland where he works as a bushcraft instructor and wildlife guide in the highlands; teaching young people about nature, conservation and bushcraft – often through the medium of photography.

Why not visit Will’s Instagram for more inspiration.

More Articles in the “Photography for Beginners Series” by Will Hall

  • Phone Photography Read Now
  • Easy Photography Techniques Read Now
  • Editing – Coming Soon

Practised and mastered your DSLR photography techniques?  We can’t wait to see you use your photography skills on expedition.

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