Learning The Basics of SLR Photography

slr photography basics

Learning slr photography basics isn’t as hard as you think. Learning to shoot in manual is one of the best things you can do for your photography.

Learning how to use your SLR is not as hard as it seems. Think of the camera as a box that lets in light. On that box is a series of controls. These controls allow you to let a lot or a little bit of light in. The amount of light coming in will determine how you take your photo.

Let’s start with the automatic setting. The automatic setting enables the camera to make the decisions for you. This allows you to just concentrate on taking the photo instead of stressing about the settings. The automatic setting is easy, however, is not ideal.

The basics of digital SLR photography are easy to learn when you understand how the camera controls light. Camera controls light two main ways; Aperture and shutter speed. Your aperture is the opening in which you let your light in. Your shutter speed is how you control the speed at which the light is coming in. You need both to be able to control the light.

Think of the camera as a human eye. Your aperture is the iris that opens and closes. The shutter speed is like the eyelid. Your aperture is also known as F stop. F-stop is a number that tells you how much the iris is open. If the aperture is quite wide and then we say that it is a big aperture. A big aperture is a small number. For example F2 .8 is a very wide aperture. It means the aperture is open quite large. It is similar to how the iris behaves in dim light. The iris will open more to let more light in so that we can see in the dark. Your camera is the same.

Large Aperture- small f stop number of 2.8 lets a lot of light in

Large Aperture- Small f stop number of 2.8 lets a lot of light in the lens.

Aperture not only controls how wide the iris is but it has an important role to play in depth of field. Depth of field simply means what part of the photo is in focus. If every single thing in the photo is in focus then we call that a long depth of field. If there is only a small part of the photo that is in focus we call this a short depth of field.

When you have a wide aperture, F2 .8 for example, your depth of field can be short. If you have a small aperture such as F 22, then everything in image is in focus. (Light permitting of course.) I will teach you this in another tutorial.


Short depth of field

Short depth of field- Where the only a small section of the subject is on focus.

Long depth of field

Long depth of field- Where most, or all, of the image is in focus.


Shutter speed is closely linked to time. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second, seconds and then minutes. Some cameras have a setting called “Bulb”. This means the shutter stays open for as long as you keep it open. You can attach a special cable to the camera and press it once. The shutter will open. It will close only when you press the cable button. This means you could have the shutter open for an hour if your camera allowed it.

Let’s take for example the night sky. There is not much light that the human eye can detect. In this case we may want to leave the shutter open for 10 seconds or longer. On the other hand if we want to take a photo of something that is fast moving and “freeze” the action we need to have a very fast shutter speed. This is where we get into fractions of a second. I have a Canon 5D Mark two and a shutter speed can go to 1/8000 of a second. This is super fast! I always use a fast shutter speed when I want to create the effect of water being suspended in midair for example.

A long shutter speed created this photo- shutter as open for 13 seconds.

A long shutter speed created this photo- shutter as open for 13 seconds so that the camera could “collect” as much light and stay in focus at the same time.

A fast shutter speed can make fast moving things look like they are suspended in midair.

A fast shutter speed can make fast moving things look like they are suspended in midair.


You will see various settings on your camera dial. Not only do you have the automatic setting but you have aperture priority, shutter priority, manual and possibly more. Aperture priority means you choose what f-stop to use and your camera chooses the shutter speed. Shutter priority works the other way round. This means that you choose the shutter speed and the camera does the rest. These two settings are okay but you still won’t get the ideal result. The best setting to use is manual.

When you used the manual setting you have the most control over your camera. You can set the shutter speed and the aperture simultaneously. Once you become familiar with how manual works then you can start to have more control over lighting. Once you have maximum control over the lighting that is when your pictures begin to look beautiful.

Learning how to use your SLR is not heavy or difficult process. It actually a lot of fun and quite simple when you get the hang of it. The basics of digital SLR photography simply depend on your camera’s ability to read light. This of course means that you have to read light to! Once you understand how light works with your camera you can then select the shutter speed and aperture that creates the images that you desire.

Once you master the basics of digital SLR photography you can then move on to using tools to enhance your light. These tools can enhance and manipulate the appearance of light in your images. Using the flash is one such example of this. But I will leave this to another tutorial.

Your internal light meter is a very important part of understanding light. Your internal light meter is a small indicator that you see when you look through the camera. When you place your dial on manual indicator will be more to the left or the right.

Depending on what camera model you have the indicator means there is too little or too much light. When the indicator is right in the middle it means the camera believes there is just the right amount of light and you may safely take the photo. To be able to master light successfully simply start shooting in auto and write down the aperture and shutter speed that the camera has suggested. Then switch your dial to manual and select those same aperture and shutter speed settings. You will see that those settings may not be the ideal light that you once thought. Sometimes at those settings the photo is under exposed. This is why it is important to shoot in manual.

Learning how to use your SLR takes a little practice. The great thing about digital photography as you can always delete the photos you don’t want. Do not be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are catalysts for learning. Once you learn how your camera interprets light then you will be free to become a photographer you’ve always imagined.

About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (33)

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  1. Jphn says:

    I have been unsure as to how to use my new slr, but you cleared a few things up for me, thank so much!

  2. Leanne says:

    Great article Amy. I have always been scared to use my slr propely, I keep shooting in auto. How can I break this habit?

    • Leanne, it’s scary when we start out. Just try a few shots in manual, and play around. We sometimes forget it’s ok to play around and learn and make mistakes. Digital photography allows us this freedom, have fun with it!

  3. Jacob says:

    Love this website and your ezines Amy, what a treasure. I appreciate how you explain everything so simply. Thank you.

  4. Suni says:

    That’s a nice article. Keep up the great work amy.have a nice day! Suni

  5. Sam says:

    A great help, Thank you very much.

  6. Raye says:

    Very interesting, thanks for posting.

  7. Rosie says:

    I’m very glad to see such magnificent information being shared freely.

  8. Mary says:

    Excellent info, thanks Amy!

  9. Delva says:

    I have just bought a new camera so this article is right what I need. I love your ezines Amy, they have made me a better photographer. Delva. :)

  10. Wendi says:

    I also need to buy a camera of high quality. Love your info Amy.

  11. Sam says:

    I am not sure I can go from auto to manual like you say, but this has given me the confidence to try.

  12. Kerri B says:

    Wow, awesome stuff Ames!

  13. Davi says:

    Where did you learn to do this? Do I need a good camera?

  14. Launette says:

    Very helpful stuff on slr photography. I found this fantastic! Launette

  15. Kassie says:

    Your website helps me with my photography, many thanks, K.

  16. JC says:

    information like this is a great find. It’s like finding a treasure. I appreciate how you express your many points and share in your views. Thank you.

  17. Katie says:

    Thanks a lot for great info Amy!

  18. Vivianne says:

    I love the way you wrote this article. This is wonderful. I do hope you intend to write more of these types of articles. Thank you for this interesting content!

  19. SP says:

    So.. if the aperture is small (like f22) then objects in the background (and foreground ) will appear sharper. However, since more light was required to make the exposure on the left ( 1/4 Second ) the subjects became blurred from MOTION. At 1/250th of a second, the shutter is fast enough to freeze motion.

    • You have to find the balance between the light and the effect you want. Yes F22 does mean things are in focus in the distance but it doesn’t mean that it the right F stop for the light you want.

  20. Laura says:

    Hi Amy,
    I think you are a GREAT at explaining your lessons. I find the tuts easy to understand in plain simple eNGlish thaT CLAirifies the confusion aND MAkes sense. pLEAse excuse the typos my computer is aCTING FUNNY And I caNT SEEM to corrECT IT.

    • Hi Laura,

      Thanks for your kind words. I try to make the lessons easy for people who are just learning. I was once a learner too and can understand how confusing it can be. I want to take that confusion away for you. I am here anytime if you need help. :)
      Have a beautiful day,

  21. Murugesan says:


    Thanks for sharing the vital informations….u wrote in a simple manner, specially iris and eye lid comparison, so good.Its really very helpful for the beginners like me…
    Thanks for the article………..


  22. Laura says:

    Hi Amy,
    I have gotton my keyboard straightened out, since we last spoke, but what I want to know now is after reading this article again, it says that you don’t need an expensive camera to take good images, but I am confused, what happens if you have an ok camera and a good eye, doesn’t the camera have something to do with the quality and the way the photos turn out?? Don’t you have to have something decent to capture light with?? And do the amount of pixels matter??

    I also love your creative writing and the way you lay out your thoughts. Its as if you are right there teaching class and I can almost hear your voice.

    • Hi Laura,

      Yes your camera is important but your ability to work with light and your lens are more important. It is good to use a good camera but always remember that the lens provides the clarity moreso than the camera does. Your ability to work with light is the biggest thing too. Pixels are important as far as printing your photos and resizing. If you want to create a good sized print then your pixels matter.

      Thanks for your compliments. I am happy to help :)


  23. Laura says:

    Hi Amy,
    I have one more question to ask. After the basics of digital photography,what part either theory or practicle comes next?? Where do you go from basics? I know to keep practicing but what reading should follow? Would it be different subjects to jump into or exposure,lighting, more composition?? I am a bit lost and confused? I am just trying to put some cohesive format to my studies so I know when I am ready to advance. Do you have any pointers? It would be most helpful and it would be appreaciated. Please and thank you. :D

    Ok, sorry, it was a couple of questions.:D

    • Hi Laura,

      I can understand how you feel; where to next? I think that’s a very personal and subjective thing, as not all people want to learn the same thing. For me, wanting to learn everything I could get my hands on meant perfecting the techniques. I would apply the techniques over many different types of photography to challenge myself and get better photos in general. For example, once I learned about slowing shutter speed to create a blurring affect I would then try this with other motion as well, like water, Ferris wheel lights at night, people walking, trains, planes, cars, etc.

      A big tip I can share is once you refine and perfect these techniques, focus on developing your own style. Be original and unique. And, always, always, always use manual mode. When you become more camera-confident, use manual for everything. Also use f stop for depth of field, and remember to use f stop according to how close to your subject that you are. Goodness, I can go on with more tips!

      The biggest thing to remember is to work with light and that light is the most important thing.

      Have a great day!

  24. Irene says:

    I always find that the aperture and depth of field are closely related. Thanks AMy.

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