How to Use a DSLR Camera – Buttons and Settings Explained

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back of dslr camera showing settings

A DSLR camera is a great tool if you want to seriously pursue photography as a hobby or as a career. But if you’re used to using other types of cameras, your DSLR might seem overwhelming at first.

Even if you are comfortable using your camera in the most basic way, there are likely features you’re missing out on or ways you aren’t making the most of your camera. Learning how to use a DSLR camera takes time and practice, but you’ll be glad you made the effort as your photos continue to improve.

Explaining the terminology associated with DSLR photography and what
the buttons and settings on the camera do can help you get the most out of your
camera.

It doesn’t matter how much experience you have – both a novice and someone experienced can benefit from a review of how to use a DSLR camera.

The information below is explained so an owner of a brand new DSLR camera can understand it but more experienced photographers can also use it to brush up on their skills and camera proficiency.

No matter what type of digital camera you have, they all work in the same basic way. They collect light; it gets focused by the lens, and then it’s captured by a digital sensor. The sensor saves light information and gives an image file that you can view and edit.

DSLR cameras work in this way, but they have a mirror and prism system that sends light to the viewfinder. The mirror flips up in the camera so that light passes into the sensor which records the image you’re trying to capture. This is one of the few ways DSLR cameras differ from other digital cameras.

Controls on Your DSLR Camera

shooting with a dslr

DSLR cameras have a lot of dials and buttons and they can overwhelm new camera owners. A lot of DSLR owners give up and go back to their automatic cameras or just use the basic function of their DSLR.

The good news is that auto mode works great on a DSL camera most of the time, but you’re missing out on so much of what the camera can do if you only use the auto settings.

It’s also important to realize that it will take some time to learn things your camera can do. You don’t need to be an expert right away, and it’s alright to make some mistakes along the way. Getting to know your camera little by little is a great strategy is if learning everything all in one go is too much.

Also, keep in mind that, while all DSLR cameras are different, most of them have the same basic features. Besides knowing these basics, it’s also a good idea to read through your camera’s owner’s manual.

Now that you know where to begin, let’s look at the buttons and settings:

Mode Dial

closeup of camera setting dial

Begin by locating the mode dial. This tells your camera how much
control you want over the settings. It’s a rotating dial that switches between
manual and automatic. In between those modes, you can also switch between P
mode and A or AV mode.

P mode is short for Program Automatic mode. It’s an alternative auto
mode and gives you control over exposure compensation, white balance, and ISO.

A or AV mode is Aperture Priority mode. This mode is halfway between automatic and manual. You can set the aperture to control the depth of field but the camera still sets the shutter speed and judges the light.

You’ll gain control over ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation. This mode works great for landscape photographers.

The last option between automatic and manual is S, T, or Tv mode. It’s also called Shutter Priority mode and is like A or AV mode, but you get to set the shutter speed while the camera sets the aperture based on the light. It allows you to control movement in the shot.

Selecting the shooting mode to get the correct exposure for the scene an important foundation for getting great shots.

Exposure Compensation

photographer with telephoto lens

Most cameras have exposure compensation. This allows you to quickly make an image darker or brighter by increasing or decreasing exposure compensation.

You can access it via a dial or button or the camera’s menu, depending on the specific camera you’re working with. It’s a quick method for adjusting the overall brightness of an image without having gone into full manual mode.

Control Wheel for Shutter and Aperture

Those shooting in aperture or shutter priority use the control wheel to adjust the aperture or shutter speed.

In aperture priority mode, the wheel increases and decreases aperture setting.

In shutter priority mode, it increases and decreases shutter speed. In full manual mode, you need to adjust both. Each camera’s wheel or wheels are different, so review your manual to determine specifically how yours operates.

Focus Mode

adjusting focus of camera on tripod

Focus allows you to increase the sharpness or blurriness of your image. There is a range of focus modes on most DSLR cameras, and the one you choose is based on what you’re photographing.

Focus Ring

The focus ring is on your camera’s lens. If you’re in manual focus mode, you use this to help you achieve focus. It’s also possible to override autofocus with your focus ring if you want to do so.

Focal Length Ring

Also on the lens is the camera’s zoom feature. Changing the focal length zooms into or pulls back from an image.

ISO Button

This button allows you to make the camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. It makes the image brighter or darker and can also make it grainier. It’s the last setting you increase.

In most cases, stay at a range between ISO 100 and ISO 400, but if this results in too dark an image, you can increase or decrease ISO.

Metering Mode

Metering is the way your camera measures light in the scene. You alter it via the metering mode to make sure the subject of your image has the correct exposure. Evaluative or matrix metering, which is the default mode, usually works fine.

Now that you understand all the settings your DSLR may offer, it’s time to go out and create some great shots.

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