Digital photography basics for beginners

Did you just buy your first DSLR camera? Or did you get that as a gift from a loved one? Well, now that it’s in your hand, are you wondering how to use this thing? Looks complicated?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to sell it on eBay, yet. With all those buttons and separate parts, it may look intimidating. But I will help you to get started and take you through the digital photography basics for beginners. I will talk about DSLRs and not delve into compact cameras in this post.

Different parts of a DSLR

1. Camera body

This is the outer case of the camera, mainly metallic or plastic. It houses all the essentials. All the control buttons are placed on the outer surface. Price of a camera increases as more features are added to the body, and that increases the size of the body as well. If you have small hands, a large camera body may feel uncomfortable.

2. Battery

All electronic devices run on power, this is no exception. I would recommend keeping the battery out of your camera when not in use.

3. Lens

The lens is the eye. Light enters the camera through this doorway. It primarily contains glass, focusing motors, and stabilizing mechanism. They come in two types, zoom (set of different focal lengths) lens and prime (single focal length) lens. On zoom lenses, there is a zoom ring on the lens surface.

Zoom ring

Image source –

With your kit lens zoomed out completely, you get the minimum focal length of your lens, which gives a wider angle of view. As you zoom in, focal length increases and you get a narrow-angle of view.

4. Sensor

Light passes through the lens and is made to fall on the sensor, heart of the camera. The image formed on the sensor is passed on to the camera processor. Sensors are of different sizes based on the camera model you have. Care should be taken to keep it safe from all external elements (dust, water etc.)

keep it clean

5. Memory card

The image is stored on a flash card after being processed in camera. They are priced according to their storage capacity and data read/write speeds.

6. Neck strap

Safety harness for your camera. I have seen many people getting this wrong, initially. See this video ( by Photography concentrate) and secure it safely. You don’t want your camera to slip off while you are holding it by the strap. Also, if your camera has got weight, better not to carry it around your neck, puts undue pressure on your spine. Carry it on your shoulders, instead.

Skim through your camera manual to familiarize yourself with the menus and how to change various settings. As they vary based on the camera brand.

Secure camera strap

Exposure triangle

There are three entities that decide whether the output photo will be lighter or darker. Adjusting any one of them will affect the exposure as a whole.

1. Aperture

Aperture is a hole within the lens, consider this as a window. The more it opens up, more light will enter. The more we close it down, less light will enter. Smaller the aperture number, wider it opens. Higher the aperture number, narrower the opening.

Aperture impacts depth of field (effective focus range). A wide aperture gives shallow depth of field. The amount of scene in focus (near to far) will increase as we close down the aperture (or increase the aperture number). Typical kit lens aperture values range from f/3.5 to f/22.

Aperture - depth of field - light relation

Aperture – depth of field – light relation

 2. Shutter

Placed in front of the sensor, the shutter is like our eyelids. They open up to allow light in and then close down to complete the exposure. The faster they move, lesser the light will enter and vice versa. They also control motion within the frame. Faster shutter speeds will freeze motion. Slower shutter speed will add motion blur to the image. Typical range varies from 30 sec to 1/8000 sec.

Shutter speed – light – speed relation

3. ISO

ISO is a measure of sensor sensitivity to light. Higher the value, more light will be added to your image (usually used in low light environments). But this comes with a price. High ISO introduces noise (or grain) in the photo. The image loses its smoothness.

ISO – light and noise relationship

It is recommended to play with other settings or add flash (if possible) to increase the amount of light reaching your sensor, rather than raising the ISO. The base range starts from 100 and may go up to 50000, depending on the camera.


Focusing determines which part of the image is sharp. Obviously, we want our subject in the photo to be sharp, and not the background. The shutter button at the top has two functions. Autofocusing and taking the photograph.

Check that your camera is in autofocus mode. As you half-press the shutter button, your camera starts to autofocus. You will see an array of points (known as focus points) in your viewfinder. Your aim is to lock one of the points on your subject. You will hear a beep, and the active points will get highlighted. Once locked, without losing pressure (from the half press), press the shutter button all the way down. Picture taken!

Focus points

White balance

This is one setting that is highly neglected by beginners. But, trust me, it makes a world of difference if you care about colors. Different light sources cast different colors on the same object. A red rose will not look red to the camera when looked under various light sources.

The human eye is smart enough to make these adjustments internally. But our camera is not so smart. So if you want that pretty white dress to look white under tungsten light, you have to tell your camera to do that.

Always check the light source in which you are shooting, and change the white balance on your camera to match. The auto white balance will not give you the best results every time.

Shooting Modes

The mode dial on the top lets you decide, how much of the settings you want to take control of, and how much you want the camera to decide. There is a light meter in your camera that measures the amount of light reaching your sensor.

All the semi-automatic modes aim to create a balanced exposure after assessing the available light in your scene. So that the output photo is neither too bright nor too dark.

1. Automatic mode (A)

As the name suggests. You have to just point and shoot. All the settings are taken care of.

2. Program mode (P)

This mode allows you to change or control ISO. Shutter speed and aperture are controlled by the camera.

3. Aperture priority (Av or A)

You can change the aperture and ISO in this mode. Shutter speed is left for the camera to decide.

4. Shutter priority (Tv or S)

In this mode, you have control over shutter speed and ISO. Aperture is decided by the camera.

5. Manual mode (M)

Finally, you are in full control. Now, any change in your settings will affect the light meter reading on your display. Try different combinations (shutter speed, aperture, ISO) to bring that pointer to the zero mark (as a starting point).

Light meter

6. Scene Modes

There is a variety of scene modes available. You can choose based on the situation you are shooting. Sports mode for action shots. Macro mode for close up photos, and more. They are just different presets of all the settings which we discussed above.

Mode dial


Most DSLRs come with a built-in tiny flash, like a pop up on the top (folded when not in use). If you are in the Auto mode, and the camera detects insufficient light in your scene, it pops up and fires. The on-camera flash helps illuminate your subject only up to a small distance ( 15 to 20 feet maybe). No use of firing it when you are out shooting a football game. In all the semi-automatic modes you can switch the flash off if you don’t want it.

Shoot em up

Give it a shot

Get familiar with the menu screens and buttons. Try out different modes, don’t just stick to Auto. For action shots, switch to shutter priority. Try aperture priority for portraits and landscapes. Keep the ISO as low as possible to avoid grain in your picture. Carry a basic lens cleaning kit in your camera bag. Shoot anything and everything in the first couple months, get the hang of it.

Once you cross the initial hurdle, it’s an exciting journey ahead. Trust me!

Do let me know if you have questions. Feel free to share your tips for beginners. Please leave your comments and thoughts below.

4 thoughts on “Digital photography basics for beginners

  1. Wow, you really know you camera. Very well written and detailed post about camera. I didn’t know there are so many different things in a camera. I have certainly learned a lot from your post. Thank you for sharing. Keep up with the good work.

  2. Thanks for this back-to-basics post. I took photography classes in high school, but that was so long ago I needed a refresher! I don’t think I ever knew what all those modes were anyway! I just set to manual and go.
    I would like to get back into photography, so thanks for the refreshers. Can’t wait to see more tips!

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