The Basics of DSLR and Photography

Laura and Billy holding hands during their wedding vows.

 So you own a camera… what now?  If you have a DSLR, or a camera with manual control options it can be very difficult to look at your camera without feeling overwhelmed by buttons you don’t understand.  When I was getting into photography I found that the internet was absolutely LOADED with sites that over-complicate things, giving you too much information to sift through.  This post is a reference guide, and less of a blog post.  My intent is more to introduce the tools, tricks and terminology without too much of the science behind it so that you can functionally apply them to your own goals. Remember, I'm a Nikon guy, so many of the functions and features will be in Nikon terms. 



Exposure refers to the overall brightness or darkness of an image. 

As with many elements of art, there is no universal, “right,” exposure, only what the artist intends and sometimes you may want the image darker or lighter for creative purposes.  If however the image captured is brighter than intended we refer to that as an Overexposed Shot.  Vice Versa if the image captured is darker than intended we refer to that as an Underexposed Shot.  The camera will show you its best guess at your exposure through the viewfinder by indicating it on a guide that looks like this:

Here is an underexposed shot:


An underexposed photo of a couple walking through a field towards a tree


Here is an overexposed shot:


An overexposed photo of a couple walking through a field towards a tree


Here is a correctly exposed shot:


A properly exposed photo of a couple walking through a field towards a tree


There can be purposes for underexposing or overexposing however, feel free to read my other blog post HERE for more on that.


The Three Pillars of Exposure (Shutter, Aperture, ISO)

Exposure is determined by how much or how little light is recorded on the sensor, and the three elements that control exposure are Shutter, Aperture, and ISO.

Shutter Speed

This is how long the camera’s sensor (or film) is exposed to the light during your shot.  The longer the shutter is open the more light is let in.  However you need to keep in mind that the longer the shutter is open the more likelihood there is that movement will show up in the photo in the form of motion blur.

Here is a shot with motion blur, notice how nothing looks sharp but him:


A skateboarder jumping a set of stairs with motion blur


Here is one shot with a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the movement, so fast it froze the water drops mid-air:


A member of the Canadian Forces swimming in the Triathlon at Lac Leamy in Quebec


Shutter speeds are measured in seconds or fractions of a second ie: 1/250 where the shutter will only expose the sensor for 1/250 of a second. 

Here's a little diagram to help you understand shutter speed better:


The sun and candle reflect how much light will come through if all other factors are equal (Aperture and ISO).  The bar below showcases a few of the options for shutter speed, but different cameras have different capabilities, don't be surprised if you have other options such as H0.3, L0.3, etc. which also reflect extended ISO ranges.

One important rule for shutter speed is a rule that pertains to shooting handheld: 1/focal length.  If you're not shooting on a tripod, or somehow otherwise stabilizing the camera, your shutter speed should be 1/the focal length of your lens to ensure your best bet of not having any blur from the motion of your own body.  For example if you have a 50mm prime lens (aka. the Nifty Fifty) then your shutter should always be 1/50th of a second or faster.  If you have an 18-55mm lens and it's zoomed to 25mm, then your shutter speed should be a minimum of 1/25th of a second.  Remember also: this only counteracts your own movement, if you're shooting a subject in motion you may need faster than that.


Aperture is the measurement of the opening allowing light into an optical instrument like a lens.  Lenses generally operate with adjustable apertures referred to as, “F/stops,” such as F/2.8 or F/22.  However the width of the opening has an inverse relationship with the measurement. To that end an F/2.8 may seem like a small number, but it represents a wide opening; whereas an aperture of F/22 seems like a large number, however it represents a very small opening.  The larger the opening the more light will get in while your shutter is open.

One thing that you need to keep in mind with aperture is that it determines how much of the image will be sharp.  The range of area in a photo that is sharp is called the, “depth of field,” and it will be discussed later.

Here's a little diagram to help you understand aperture: 


The top circles represent the blades in the lens that open and close to create a larger or smaller hole for light to get through.  Below that are the, "F/Stop," settings listed from widest to smallest which correlate with how wide open the gap in the center of the blades is.  Remember, the term, "Depth of Field," is detailed below.


The ISO represents the sensitivity of your sensor or film to light.  The higher the ISO number the more sensitive it is to light.  There is one very important thing to remember regarding ISO however, the higher you go with it, the noisier the image will be.  Pictures taken with high ISO levels tend to present as grainy, and when inspected closely they often feature extra red, blue, and green pixels.  Here's a little diagram to help you understand ISO:


The ranges shown on the second line may progress differently in your camera depending on its settings.  It should be noted that modern cameras are becoming better and better at operating with low, “noise,” at higher ISO levels, and processing programs such as Adobe’s Lightroom have phenomenal algorithms for resolving the problem after the fact.



Metering is how your camera looks at what you’re pointing it at and figures out how bright or dark it believes it should be.  There are three forms (generally) of metering, and they each have their pros and cons.  Each form of metering has the same goal, however they vary in how much of the area is sampled.

Matrix Metering

Matrix is the 90% answer to most photography needs.  It measures the entire image and tries to resolve the exposure so that the majority of the image will have a nice middle-of-the-road exposure with no lost highlights (areas too bright for the sensor to capture detail) or lost shadows (areas too dark for the sensor to capture detail).  The green overlay in the picture below is an example of what matrix metering samples in determining a proper exposure:


A wedding photo overlaid with the sample area of matrix metering


This is generally the go-to for pretty much all day-to-day photographers.  Nikon’s engineers have designed their modern cameras to put a particular emphasis on the focus point(s) you have selected when it meters a scene, and they also have developed algorithms formulated from an indexed catalogue based on thousands of images.  The results generally speak for themselves, and rarely disappoint– also, I’m told that apparently engineering is a really good career.

Center-Weighted Metering

Center weighted metering puts the emphasis on the center of the photo as opposed to the outer edges.  This is useful when your subject fills the center of the frame and the outer edges of the frame are completely a different exposure.  For instance if you were shooting a photo of a person standing in front of a sunset they would likely be metered as a silhouette if you use matrix mode, however if the person occupies most of the center of the photo then center-weighted would expose to ensure they were visible which would leave the background much brighter.  Here's an example of the metered area of Center-Weighted metering:


A wedding photo overlaid with the sample area of center-weighted metering


Spot metering

Spot metering samples and exposes for whatever the focus point is on.  This can be great in certain situations and horrible in others.  If you have a lot of control in the situation, that is to say that the subject(s) isn’t moving aggressively and is surrounded in even light and close shades, then this functions well for pinpoint exposure.  Here's an example of the metered area in spot metering:


A wedding photo overlaid with the sample area of spot metering


Notice how the spot I selected is on her cheek in even lighting?  That's the best type of spot to pick for a situation like this.

If however you’re shooting a zebra as it darts from a predator, good luck, your exposures will be all over the map.  It’s great for single small objects in a big area, but hard to control for moving objects with varying colours and luminance (brightness).  Why is it difficult in those situations?  Because it’s trying to get whatever it hits to be a perfectly balanced level.  If you’re shooting a groom in a tuxedo moving during a wedding then you’d better be sure you’re hitting the same spot every time if you want even exposures.  If your focal point is over his face then he’ll expose well, but if he moves and it’s suddenly over his white shirt then he’ll be really underexposed.  If he turns and now the focal point is on his black jacket then you’ll find he’s really overexposed.  You get the point.


Some shots are very hard for your camera to meter, particularly shots with large amounts of blacks and/or white like this one:


In instances like this we can rely upon a histogram to give us a bit more of an idea as to what the final shot will actually look like.  A histogram is a graph which shows the saturation of the ranges of light in an image starting from the darkest elements on the left hand side, and the lightest elements on the right side.  Generally you would want a nice hill or rounded areas towards the middle of the graph, indicating that there is enough information and detail in the range as it is exposed.  Here's an example of just such a histogram:

However you should be wary of areas where the range peaks at the absolute top of the graph, that indicates that data has likely been lost.  In this, like so many others, there are exceptions to the rule.  Shots like the above one with the rings and the wedding shoe would peak on the dark extreme, as the shot has strong dark elements:

but though the histogram in this instance would look odd, the creative choice was made and the exposure met the desire of the shooter.



Focus is critical to photography.  More than just what is sharp, what is not sharp can be equally critical in establishing what the viewer needs to see.  There are two methods of focusing: manual and automatic. 

Manual Focus

Manual is exactly what it sounds like, you turn the focus ring until what you see through your viewfinder or on your screen appears in focus. 

When would you use manual focus?  When the subject you need in focus is not aligning perfectly onto one of the auto-focus points.  Or when the subject is moving too fast for the auto-focus and you can predict where it will be in advance so you can focus there ahead of time.  Or in controlled situations for specific types of technical photography or when shooting macro (extreme close-up shots).

Auto Focus Modes

AF-C (Auto Focus Continuous)

This is a tracking form of auto focus.  If you are shooting something that is moving then so long as you're holding down the shutter halfway (or back-button focusing) it will continue to adjust focus with the movement.  Just be sure that your focus point(s) remain on the subject and it will continuously work to ensure you're getting what you're looking for.

AF-S (Auto Focus Single)

This is the way to go for still subjects.  If you're shooting wedding rings, a cake, flowers, a sunset, or anything else that either doesn't move, or moves incredibly slowly, then AF-S is a sure-fire way.  Simply focus once and it will never change unless you do it.

Auto Focus Area Modes


Full auto.  It works fine if you’ve got a deep depth of field, or a single subject with a non-complicated background. However if your depth of field is shallow, or there are complex elements near the subject in range of your focus points, beware.


The “S” stands for single, and that’s exactly what you’ll get.  You select one point, and it focuses on that one point exclusively.  It ignores all surrounding points in assessing movement or tracking and simply tracks the single point you’ve selected.

D9, D21 and D51

These are dynamic (D) focus point groupings.  These systems allow you to select the central focus point manually, then should the subject move after the autofocus is set the camera will focus using what it can best determine as your subject in the surrounding points.  It’s particularly useful if you’re focusing on something with lower contrast, or moving subjects which you may have difficulty tracking and predicting.


In 3D mode, unlike the D9, D21, and D51 modes, the focus point will change as the camera actively detects the subject moving.  This feature has become better and better with successive models, and really works well with subject matter where quick adjustments and tracking are key like sports.


Depth of Field

As mentioned above, the depth of field refers to the range of acceptably sharp area in a photo. It can be a range from very shallow, to very deep, and it's all controlled by the aperture and the distance between the camera and the subject.  You've probably noticed shallow depth of field thousands of times but never known the term for it, but summed up it's when a part of the photo is super sharp and detailed and other parts behind and/or in front of it are completely blurred out.  Like this:


When you see an image like that it's a measure of a shallow depth of field.  You can achieve a shallow depth of field by shooting with a really wide aperture, the smaller the number the more pronounced the effect.  If you're capable of going to F/2.8, then try it out!  If you can go to F/1.4, F/1.2, or wider you'd be amazed at the results you can get!  ...but those types of lenses tend to get pricey, so play responsibly.

However, when you see an image when EVERYTHING appears sharp and detailed, you're seeing a deep depth of field.  Like this:


See how the foreground and background both have detail and sharpness?  The depth of field is an adjustable range where shallow can be a measure of millimeters, and deep can be miles.


Camera Modes

Manual - "M"

(The Ball's In Your Court)

In this mode it's all up to you.  You know the three pillars of exposure, and you have full control of each of them to adjust however you want.  To be very clear, this is the most advanced mode.  I'd recommend this mode as the default at every opportunity where there is no extreme pressure.  The quicker you can get used to reading your meter and controlling your exposure the quicker you'll be able to achieve anything you want.

Aperture Priority - "A"

(Depth of Field Critical)

In this mode you determine the depth of field you require, set the ISO, and the camera adjusts the shutter speed in order to get whatever it meters as a perfect exposure.  The tricky thing is because it adjusts the shutter speed you really need to be aware of it selecting shutter speeds that are too slow for what you're intending.  I'd recommend it if you're uncomfortable with shooting in manual mode, and if it's well lit or the subject doesn't move.

Shutter Priority - "S"

(Motion Critical)

In this mode the priority is in controlling movement.  Again you set the ISO and determine what speed you need for your intended final image, and the camera adjusts the aperture to achieve whatever it meters as a perfect exposure.  Because aperture can really affect the final image it's important that the photographer understand the limits of the lens they're using, and the body's ability to mitigate noise.

Programmed Auto - "P"

(Cruise Control)

This mode is hands-down the easiest mode for beginners.  You only need to set the ISO and manage the metering through the EV controls.  You're in the hands of the engineers, sometimes the jury is out as to whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's pretty much the safest bet if you're not in a situation where you can move beyond your comfort zone.


White Balance

The White Balance refers to the where how light is interpreted by the sensor on along the colour spectrum.  If the colour balance is perfect then whites look like whites, not like yellows, blues, reds, or greens.  You generally don't notice white balance if it's done well, but you'd definitely notice if photos of your children come out looking like they're Simpsons characters, or if a bride's skin looks super cold and her wedding dress is very blue.

The colour spectrum is measured in Kelvin (K) and there are a number of programmed white balance options that through their titles make it very easy to get right.  That being said, automatic white balance is getting better and better with each generation of modern digital cameras.  It's generally a safe bet to set it to automatic, but unfortunately it gets complicated when you're in a situation with mixed lighting.  For instance shooting in a room with both flourescent and tungsten lights.

Fortunately shooting in RAW (Explained later in this post) allows for a lot of adjustment in white balance in post processing, so if this is an option I would absolutely recommend it. 

For your reference here are some of the modes you'll likely see in your white balance presets:

Auto, Incandescent, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Shade, Direct sunlight



Rule of Thirds

Instead of placing subjects of interest in the dead center, this rule of composition involves imagining a the image seen through your viewfinder or on your screen as if it is split into thirds both horizontally and vertically like this:


Place anything you want to draw the viewer’s eye to at any of the intersections or along any of the lines and voila!  Works (almost) every time.

Subject Relations

Another thing to be conscious of is the relation of subjects to everything else in the photo.  If you want a person to look tall don’t stand them next to someone taller.  If you want to focus on something in the foreground of the photo then try not to have too distracting of a background.  If you want to keep the viewers eyes on the photo keep the subjects' bodies directed generally towards the center of the image.  Negative space is the space around the subject of an image, it should either serve to support the image, be it to offer context or suggestion, or it should be minimal.  Look at how this image exploits the negative space to isolate the subject and establish perspective:


A photo of a Japanese soldier in the Gobi desert


The trick is to actively be aware of what is going on around your subject and if it will serve your purpose to keep it in the frame.  A picture is so much more than just the subject, so be aware of what else you may actually be showing the viewers and how they may perceive it as either neutral to your vision, supporting it, or distracting from it.

Leading Lines

Humans like to be led, at least when they aren’t aware of it.  If you see something that leads the eye in a line towards the subject try to exploit it in framing your shot.  Take a look at this one:


An example of leading lines pointing towards the subject


It doesn’t even have to be a solid line, it can be inferred as seen in this photo where the flags draw the viewer's eye along the row to the largest one at the top:


An example of implied lines as you follow the flags on Parliament



If you’re looking to compliment the subject and isolate it simultaneously, try framing.  Framing is when the subject is bordered by something else in the photo.  A photo where a bride is getting her makeup ready for her wedding day could feature her reflection framed in her mirror, or a photo of a person at the end of a hallway, corridor or archway as seen here:



This one relates directly to subject relations in that you should be conscious of the message you’re sending when you decide how you’re going to shoot.  Wide shots, shots that show an expanded area, are great for implying a certain grandness, or for showcasing a dramatic contrast or presence.

Here’s a wide shot:


Narrow shots are very close-up and personal, they highlight details and are fantastic for isolation.

Here’s a narrow shot:


Generally you wouldn’t want to shoot a portrait super wide, just like you wouldn’t want to shoot landscape photography super narrow.  Be sure you’re choosing the right lens and distance when you’re planning a shot.  …also remember sometimes it really pays off to break the rules.


Speaking of relations it helps to reinforce the relationship of two or more people in a photo correctly.  If it’s a posed shot (family photos, engagement shoot, wedding shots) don’t be hesitant to involve contact between the subjects.  The visible physical connection in the photo will help to reinforce the emotional connections the viewer perceives, which is particularly helpful in wedding photos:


Body Language

Body language is a science, and it takes time, practice, work, and often a measure of luck.  That being said to keep this section short I’m going to give you three quick rules: 1. Check each subject individually: be sure they understand (and more importantly are COMFORTABLE with) what they’re supposed to do, and that they’re posed effectively to convey the message, 2. Check your subjects together: back to subject relations, see if they relate to one another in a way that isn’t jarring (unless that’s your intent), and 3. Check the wandering parts (parts away from the core), it’s little things like stray hair, a rogue tie, or a groom who has no idea where his hands should be.

Unfortunately there is entirely too much to posing and playing on body language for me to effectively sum up in this quick reference post, but if you're looking for somewhere to start I'd suggest checking out these photographers who have fantastic tutorials and workshops on the subject.

Jasmine Star, whose blog can be found here:

And the guys from SLR Lounge, Lin and Jirsa, whose web page can be found here:

Minimizing Distractions

The title pretty much sums it up.  If it’s distracting and it’s easily resolved, get rid of it/crop it/cover it/etc.  Sometimes that’s going to involve getting creative and clever, but sometimes the challenge makes it fun.



Focal Length

You may notice that the front of your camera’s lenses vary in size from lens to lens, but your camera’s sensor remains inside the body and is always the same size regardless of lens.  This allows for wider and narrower perspectives to be captured depending on the design of your lens. It all functions because inside of your camera lens are a series of glass lenses that bend and redirect light into the needed size for your sensor.  At a certain point during that bending process the light crosses over and effectively flips sides, that point is called the point of convergence.  Your focal length refers to the distance in millimeters between that point and your sensor.  The longer the distance is the narrower the shot will be; and vice versa the shorter the distance is the wider the shot will be.

Since there are thousands of lenses it helps for photographers to narrow them down into categories.  Those categories are generally as follows:

Ultra-Wide < 24mm

Wide 24mm – 35mm

Standard 35mm – 85mm

Short Telephoto 85mm – 135mm

Medium Telephoto 135mm – 300mm

Super Telephoto >300mm

Keep in mind there are a lot of specialty lenses with unique features or traits that fall into those categories, but are generally referred to by their specialty as they are routinely used exclusively to achieve that purpose.  Examples of these would include fisheye lenses which are capable of displaying up to 180 degrees or more in a single frame, and macro lenses which have a much smaller minimum focusing distance than other lenses of the same length, and are capable of reproducing images at ratios at or above 1:1.

Maximum Aperture

This refers to the widest aperture the lens is capable of.  It's important in that it allows you to determine how much light can enter the camera during an exposure, and it also controls how shallow the depth of field can be.  The wider the aperture (sometimes referred to as, "F stop") the lower the number, where anything beyond F/4 is considered a, "fast lens," as it lets in light faster than other lenses.  So because the wider the aperture the lower the number, an F/2.8 is referred to as a fast lens, and F/1.2 is referred to as a really fast lens.

Minimum Focus Distance

Simply put, this is how physically close you can get to a subject with a lens and still achieve effective focus.  This is one area where macro lenses shine, in that they feature particularly low minimum focus distances.

As long as this guide is, believe it or not it's my third full edit in efforts to shorten it down.  There are SO many more details that need to be explained, but I need to draw the line somewhere!  The two most notable absences in here (in my opinion) are the topics of Flash, and an explanation of the old RAW vs. JPEG debate, well I suppose we know what my next two blog posts are going to be about...

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Each of the photos in this post were shot by Andrew Wesley, owner and lead photographer of Bend the Sun.  Some of them are copyrighted by the Department of National Defence (DND) as indicated below the image. Each of the DND photos have been released publicly through the DND Flickr and Facebook sites, and are not being herein used for profit, nor printed.