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Where to Start With a DSLR Camera

Where to start with a DSLR camera
DSLR camera's are a bit of a learning curve. Nobody wants to give you a straight answer to your questions because it's like asking how long is a piece of string.

Q. Which is the right camera to use?

A. The one you've got on you!

But that doesn't really help you does it?

My newbie tips from one newbie DSLR user to another.

What camera should I buy?

The camera body is the cheap part of owning a DSLR and the part that gets upgraded regularly with each new release. (It's the lenses that really make the difference, cost a lot and will last until you accidentally smash it).

Features that really made a difference to me between my first (hand-me-down) DSLR and my very own DSLR were:
  • ISO The hand me down had a maximum of ISO 1600 and my new has a maximum of 6400. I can take low light photos far more successfully then I used to. 
  • Live view screen My new camera has a screen that flips out and rotates and this means I can take shots from crazy angels, without having to have my face in the view finder. I just angel the live view screen so I can see and stretch my arms into whatever crazy position (like above my head) needed to get that shot. 
Does brand make a difference? One brand of lens may not fit another brand of camera but there are often adapters to get around this. All the same, it's best to choose a brand and stick with it.

What lens should I get?

You've heard that kit lenses are awful and you shouldn't get them. So you ask what lens should you get and the answer is 'What kind of photos do you want to take?' Agghhhh!

If you're doing all close up work or all landscapes or all portraits the answers will be very different and you will find it easier to get some guidance on choosing the right lens.

However if you want to do it all, from close up macro shots to bird shots you're likely to find all the various answers rather mind boggling.

I reach for 2 lenses when I want to be armed with the right lens to get 'that shot' but I have no idea what 'that shot' will be.
  • 17-70mm for close up's and portraits 
  • 55mm-250mm for portraits and distance/bird shots
Both are zoom lenses. Zoom lenses give you lots of options where as prime lenses do a better job but only give you one option. The 'Nifty fifty' - 50mm lens is probably the most used prime lens and is good for portraits.

I took the same shot standing in the same position with my 55-250mm lens so you can see the difference zoom makes.
55mm - zoomed out

250mm - zoomed in


So now you've got a new DSLR and some lenses but you have no idea how to use it, or even where to start educating yourself.

My tip is to learn 3 things only: ISO, AV & f-stop.

If you need a setting and are at a complete loss, set your dial to AV, ISO to auto, and f-stop to f 6. This should give you a photo unless your lighting is really dark or really bright.

Selecting ISO

I leave my ISO setting on auto for 95% of my photos. But sometimes that doesn't work very well.
  • If it's really bright with lots of glare you will want to select an ISO of 200 or 400 ish
  • If it's dusk or evening or inside you will want to choose an ISO of 1600 or 3200 but the higher the ISO the more 'noise' you will get in your picture. Noise is the grainy dots and you can usually fix it up a bit in post processing. 

Selecting f-stop

F-stop effects the focus of the photo. There's more to it then that, but I don't want to go into huge detail, there's loads of that out on the web already. I want to give you a starting point. 

F-stop terminology is confusing as well, because the bigger the f-stop the smaller the number, or something like that. 

The best way to learn f-stops is to take the same photo with all the same settings except change the f-stop from the lowest setting to the highest setting and then see how changing the f-stop effected the photo.

Anyway here's the simple explanation
  • f 2.8 is going to make the center of the photo in focus and give a pretty blurred background so that the eye is drawn to subject, great for shots with lots of distracting background. 
  • f 11 is going to have everything in the photo nice and sharply in focus, great for scenery shots. 
  • f 5-7 is a good midrange that will work for most shots. 
f 2.8

f 11

So your lens doesn't have f 2.8 but starts at f 5.6? The smaller that f-number (the bigger the f-stop) the more expensive the lens is and the easier it is to use in less then perfect lighting.

ie: lens with f 2.8 capability will cost more then a lens with an f 5.6 capability


The Aperture is the bit that opens up to allow the light into the camera to take the photo. 
AV = aperture value. It is directly related to f-stop.

Imagine the Aperture is an eye.
When the eye is squinting it is nearly closed and doesn't let in a lot of light. When it's wide open it lets in lots of light.

Squinting = f 11 
Wide Open = f 2.8

See how the big (most open aperture) f-stop has the smallest number - f 2.8

When you set your camera to AV you are telling the camera you are choosing your settings based on how open the eye is. That means the camera will use the f-stop to make it's decisions for ISO and everything else.

Time Value

When you set the camera to TV instead of AV you are telling the camera you want all the other settings to be based around how quickly you want to take the shot.

If your doing a sports shot or want to catch water droplets from a fountain you want to take really quick photo and let the camera make all the other setting decisions based on that.

If you want to take a time-lapse photo of the stars moving across the night sky so you get streaky star-light across your photo you want a really really slow shot (btw don't do this until you know all about time lapse photography - it's not that simple and you can hurt your camera sensors). 

Other settings on your camera dial

M=manual settings

You will have to manually select the ISO, the f-stop and the focus - don't use this until you understand your camera better.

And the rest of the settings. 

I don't use these, they are best guess settings for what you might want to take a photo of. They are usually not the best and won't help you to learn how to use the camera. 

  • P= Portrait settings
  • Mountain picture is for landscape shots
  • Tulip picture is for close up shots
  • Stick figure dude running is for fast sporty shots
  • Stars and moon and stuff picture is for night shots
  • Lightening picture with a line through it tells the camera not to use flash
  • Cam corder picture is for video
  • A+ is fully automatic (you may as well use a snapshot camera and not bother with a DSLR)
  • My camera also has A-DEP and CA which I have no idea what they are for. 

Things you will want to be learning soon, but don't need to worry about yet

  • Picture Style
  • Exposure compensation
  • Focus point selection
  • Metering mode
  • Flash control

So are you confused yet? Lets recap

You need a camera body and some lenses. I like the 
  • 17-70mm for close up's and portraits 
  • 55mm-250mm for portraits and distance/bird shots

I leave my camera set to:
  • AV on the dial
  • ISO Auto
  • F5-7

That's it. I can pretty much pick up my camera and take a usable shot so long as it's set to those settings. It might not be a perfect professional photographer shot, but it's a usable shot that looks better then what a snapshot camera will take.

Taking great photos from day 1 is easy. Where to start with a DSLR camera.

The Walker Fireside Chats


  1. Hi I am popping over from How To Get Organized At Home, I just wanted to say thank you for visiting and sharing, this article is so informative thank you for writing in such detail, thanks again for sharing, I have learnt something new:)

    1. Thank you so much Sharon. I'm so pleased it was helpful and that it made sense :O)

  2. This is the BEST AV explanation I have read anywhere- professional or novice. I am pinning this for future reference! Thank you, and Happy New Year! :)

    1. Nothing makes me happier then hearing that I could help someone out. Thank you so much for your lovely words, what a great way to end 2014 :D Happy Snapping in 2015!

  3. I've been looking into buying a DSLR and this is a very helpful post, thanks for sharing.

    Alex - Funky Jungle

  4. I love this! I always get confused by the instructions for DSLR cameras, so I am so grateful for your guide : )

    1. Me too! That's why I had to write this before I forgot what it was like to be confronted with trying to decipher all the info. I found that once I could separate out ISO, f-stops and aperture I could then start asking questions about how to take a better photo and get an answer that I could actually make sense of.

  5. This is awesome! You did a great job putting this together, it's super easy to understand!

  6. Popping over from Totally Terrific Tuesday and because I like your blog =) How did you know I got my very first camera for Christmas? Great tips, thank you!

    1. Santa told me that a blogger I knew was getting a camera, so wrote this! But seriously, how exciting to get a camera what one did you get?

  7. Great tips! I have a DSLR camera, but I only use the auto mode. I'm planning on taking a class soon, though. I'm stopping by from the Totally Terrific Tuesday Link Party since I'm co-hosting this week with Jessica. Thanks so much for sharing and linking up this week!

    1. Oh Christie you will love it when you get out of Auto mode, I promise! I hope you're enjoying co-hosting.

  8. Hi Stella Lee! You are amazing! I ordered my very first DSLR last week and just charged the battery last week. Thank you so much for writing this in plain english, I don't feel so anxious about getting started now. Also, thanks for joining the Monday Mash-Up!

    1. I've had my DSLR for a couple of years now and there's a lot to learn, but the sooner you can get snapping without using the auto mode the sooner you will be ready to get more out of your camera and really have fun with it! I can't wait to see your photos :o)

  9. This is very informative. I pinned it and featured it during this week's Retro Repin! Hope you stop by to link up again :) !!!!


  10. I wish I had these tips when I first started shooting in M mode! Oh gosh that was so hard to figure out. You have some great examples and honestly it all makes SENSE! Thanks for linking up to Totally Terrific Tuesdays last week! I just signed on as co-host and I hope to see you link up this week so I can see other great stuff you have!


    1. I also wish I'd had these tips to refer to when I started out. I had hubby to tell me what to do but he would go into these big long confusing explanations when all I wanted was a small handful of things to remember to get me going. Now I love his big long explanations. I'm so glad it makes sense. I'm sure this article leaves professional photographers cringing but until you get a handle on ISO, AV and f-stop the rest is just information overload. Congratulations on co-hosting!

  11. Hi Stella, this post is just what I need! I'm still getting to grips with the camera my family gave me for Christmas and there is so much I want to learn,but can't get my head round, probably as time is short, but the learning is going to take a while.

    I'm pinning your post for when I have the time to sit with my camera and get my head around ISO, AV and f-stop.

    Thank you so much!

    1. It seems so daunting at first but taking photos is the best way to get your head around it. Once you're taking photos and then something isn't working for you, then come back and see which of the settings are going to help with that specific problem. Once you're solving a problem it's much easier to grasp what's what, or at least that's how it went for me. I hope you have loads of fun with your new camera!


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