September 06, 2023

Begin at the beginning: learning the buttons and wheels on your new camera

By Laura Merz
Begin at the beginning: learning the buttons and wheels on your new camera
Congratulations on your exciting new journey into the world of photography!  Whether you're a complete beginner or just looking to refresh your photography skills, this post will help you understand the key features of your DSLR camera and provide you with valuable tips to enhance your photography.


I’ve been working as a photographer since 2018 but my experience in photography goes way back…to earlier on the timeline than I’d like to admit. Let’s just say I have 20+ years of experience that started with developing film in a dark room. But over the last few years I’ve encountered more and more people who either own cameras and don’t know how to start, or want to buy a camera …and don’t know where to start. 

So in this post, I'll simplify the complexities of DSLR photography and equip you with essential knowledge to start understanding the wheels and gears of your camera. (In the next post, I'll cover how to actually start making pictures!) While this guide primarily targets new DSLR owners, much of the information applies to mirrorless cameras as well. 

Before we dive into the details, remember that photography is a skill that takes time to master. Don't be discouraged if you don't grasp everything immediately; it's a learning process. With practice and patience, you'll become a proficient photographer.

Let's begin with the basics of how your DSLR camera works:

The Anatomy of a DSLR Camera:

All digital cameras operate in a similar manner. Light is collected and focused through the lens, then captured by a digital sensor, which saves the information as an image file. (In the old days, the "sensor" was the film!) The key difference with DSLR cameras over mirrorless or point and shoot is the mirror and prism system, which redirects light to the optical viewfinder.

When you press the shutter button, the mirror inside the camera flips up, allowing the light to reach the sensor and record the image. This action causes the viewfinder to go dark temporarily because the mirror no longer reflects the light.

Understanding Your DSLR's Controls:

Upon unboxing your DSLR, you'll notice numerous buttons and dials that can be overwhelming. Many beginners leave their cameras in Auto mode, but to truly maximize your camera's potential, it's essential to take control.

Here's an overview of key controls you'll find on your DSLR camera:

Mode Dial: This dial determines how much control you have over camera settings. It includes Auto (fully automatic) and M (full manual) modes, as well as other modes like P (Program Automatic), A (Aperture Priority), and S (Shutter Priority), which offer a balance between automation and manual control. The choice of mode depends on your preferences and the scene you're shooting.

Control Wheel for Shutter and Aperture: If you're using Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes, this wheel lets you adjust aperture or shutter speed. Consult your camera's manual for instructions on changing these settings in Manual mode.

ISO Button: ISO controls your camera's sensitivity to light. Higher ISO values make the image brighter but may introduce noise. Keep ISO between 100 and 400 for cleaner images, adjusting when necessary.

Focus Ring: when you're manually focusing your camera instead of allowing the lens to auto-focus for you, use the focus ring to achieve sharp focus. Some cameras also allow manual focus override in autofocus mode.

Focal Length Ring: This ring changes the zoom on lenses with variable focal lengths.

Focus Modes and Metering:

(These are a bit beyond what you need to get started, but I didn't want to leave them out!)

Focus is crucial for sharp photos. Your camera offers various focus modes:

- Autofocus (AF): The camera automatically selects the focus point.

- Continuous Autofocus: Useful for moving subjects, the camera continuously adjusts focus.

- Manual Focus (MF): You control focus using the focus ring.

Metering determines the exposure by assessing light in the scene. The default mode is often evaluative or matrix metering, which analyzes the entire frame. For challenging lighting, you can use spot or partial metering to focus on specific areas. This can be especially useful when photographing a group with different skin tones, or a scene with high contrast. I'll cover this more in depth in another post.

Proper Camera Handling

Minimizing camera movement is vital for sharp photos, especially with DSLRs' relatively heavy bodies. Always use two hands to hold the camera, with one hand gripping the handgrip and the other supporting the lens. Keep your elbows close to your body for stability. If stability is an issue, or if you plan to shoot fast moving subjects, consider investing in a tripod. 

Over time this position will start to feel more natural, but remember to practice holding your camera properly so that you protect your back and keep your shots sharp. 

Now that you've grasped the essentials, you're ready to embark on your photographic journey. Next we're going to dive into the basics of capturing your very first image. Remember, practice and patience are your best allies in mastering photography!

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