Understanding the Basics of SLR Photography

Your SLR is not as complicated as it would seem. Imagine that your camera is a box that lets in light. On top of that box is a sequence of controls. These controls allow you to let light into the camera sensor so you can take a picture. The amount of light coming in determines how your shot will look.

learning dslr photography

“Discover” captured by Thomas Hawk

Let’s start with the automatic setting. Automatic mode allows the camera to make the decisions for you. This lets you just focus on taking the photo instead of worrying about the technical settings.

The automatic setting is simple, but it’s not what professional photographers use. You don’t have to use manual mode, but if you don’t you won’t have control over the images you create. Ideally, you have as much control over the camera and the lighting as possible. This is the key to creating beautiful portraits and stunning photos in general.

The basics of digital SLR photography are easy to learn when you appreciate how the camera controls lighting. Cameras have control over the light in two main ways: aperture and shutter speed. Your aperture is the opening that allows light in. Your shutter speed is how you control the length of time the light is coming in. You need both to manipulate the light.

Confused? Okay, try this. Think of the camera as the same as our human eye. Your aperture is the iris that opens up and closes down. The shutter speed is like the eyelid. It can blink quickly or slowly or even stay open for a while.

green eye

“Beauty” captured by Carrie Weeks


Your aperture is commonly known as F-stop. F-stop is a number that tells you how much the iris is open. If the aperture is fairly wide then we say that it is a big aperture. A big aperture is a small number. For example, f/2.8 is a very large aperture. It means the aperture is open very wide. It’s comparable to how the iris operates in low light. The iris will open more to let additional light in so that we can see in the dark. Your camera is the same.

Aperture not only has control over the size of the iris. It also plays an important role in depth of field. Depth of field simply means what part of the photo is in focus. If every single item in the photo is in focus, then we call that a deep depth of field. If there is only a small part of the photo that is in focus we call this a shallow depth of field.

shallow depth of field photography

“Pink Flower” captured by Ji Yeon So

When you have a large aperture, f/2.8 for example, your depth of field can be small. If you have a small aperture, such as f/22, everything in the image is in focus. (Lighting permitting, of course.) I will explain this in a different tutorial.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is very much linked to the timing of motion and movement. Shutter speed is calculated in fractions of a second, seconds, and then minutes.

Some digital cameras have a setting called “Bulb.” This means the shutter stays wide open for as long as you keep it open. You can connect a cable to the camera and press it just the once. The shutter will open. It will close up only when you press the cable button again. This means you could have the shutter open for an hour if your camera allowed it.

Let’s take, for instance, the evening sky. There isn’t much light that the human eye can detect. In this case, we may want to leave the shutter open for 10 seconds or more. However, if we want to take a shot of movement that is fast-paced and “freeze” the speed of motion, then we want to have a very fast shutter speed. This is where we get into fractions of a second. I have a Canon 5D Mark II, and the shutter speed can go as high as 1/8000 of a second. This is super fast! Use a quick shutter speed when you want to create the effect of water suspended or frozen in midair, for example. (This is a very fun way to learn shutter speed–throw things in the air and photograph them fast.)

freeze action photography

“Water With Lemon, Please!!” captured by Juan Guevara

Shooting Modes

You will see various shooting modes on your digital camera dial. Not only do you have the automatic mode but you have aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, and possibly more. Aperture priority means that you choose what f-stop to use and the camera selects the shutter speed. Shutter priority works the opposite. You pick the shutter speed and the camera does the rest. These two shooting modes are okay, but you still won’t get the loveliest result. The best setting to use is manual.

When you employ the manual setting you have the most control over your camera. You can position the shutter speed and the aperture simultaneously. Once you become familiar with how manual works then you can begin to have more influence over lighting. Once you have most control over the lighting, your pictures begin to look lovely.

light in photography

“Abudhabi Mosque at Dusk” captured by Supriya Mukherjee

Learning how to use your SLR is not an extreme or hard course. It’s actually pretty simple when you get the hang of it. The basics of digital SLR photography purely depend on your camera’s capability to interpret light. This, of course, means that you have to read light, too! Once you understand how light works through your camera you can select the shutter speed and aperture that produces the pictures that you desire.

Once you learn the basics of digital photography you can move on to shooting with tools to enhance your light. These methods have influence over the appearance of light in your pictures. Using the flash is one such example. But I will leave this to an additional article.

Your internal light gauge is a vital part of knowing light. Your light meter is a small indicator that you observe when you look through the digital camera. When you adjust your exposure dial on manual, the indicator moves to the left or the right.

When the indicator is sitting in the center of the scale it means the camera believes there is just the right amount of light, and you may safely take the photo. To master light effectively, simply begin shooting in automatic mode and write down the aperture and shutter speed that the camera has recommended. Then change your dial to manual and pick those same aperture and shutter speed settings. You will observe that those settings may not be the best ones. At times, those settings will make the photo underexposed. This is why it is significant to shoot using manual.

Learning how to use your SLR takes a bit of preparation. And you can always delete the photos you don’t like. Don’t be fearful of making errors. Errors are opportunities for discovering new things. Once you ascertain how your camera interprets light you will be free to become the photographer you’ve always wanted to be.

About the Author
Amy Renfrey writes for DigitalPhotographySuccess.com. She’s photographed many things from famous musicians (drummers for Prince and Anastasia) to weddings and portraits of babies. Amy also teaches photography online.

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