DSLR cameras are fantastic for unleashing artistic creativity, but only if you know how to use all their features. As a beginner, the first step is to stop relying on automatic settings and take control manually. It’s not as intimidating as it might sound and there are a few tricks that can help you along the way.

To get you started, let’s look at some basic skills that can help you make the most of your DSLR camera and create more artistic, engaging photos.

The 3 basics of DLSR photography

There are three main settings that control how your photo turns out: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

1. Aperture

Aperture controls the amount of light allowed through the hole in the lens; it is also referred to as an f-stop. Aperture is what gives you the most control over depth of field, which can be shallow or deep and has to do with how in focus or blurry the background and foreground images appear.

Manually control this setting when: shooting portraits, details or still lifes.

A low f-stop, like F1.4, means the aperture is more open, allowing more light to enter the lens. The more open the aperture, the shallower your depth of field will be. Shallow depth of field makes the subject appear crisp and clear in the foreground, while the background appears blurry.

A higher f-stop, like F11, means the aperture is less open, allowing less light to enter the lens. Less light entering the camera creates a deeper depth of field, meaning that whatever is in front of or behind the most in focus part of the photo is also mostly sharp and in focus. The higher the f-stop, the more consistently crisp and clear all parts of the photo will appear.

2. Shutter speed

Shutter speed controls the amount of time the shutter is open and, therefore, how long the photo is exposed to light. Shutter speed is measured in seconds (1/500 of a second, 1/1000 of a second, etc). The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the image will be. If the shutter will be open for a long time, like 1/60 of a second, use a tripod to keep the photos from coming out blurry

Manually control this setting when: photographing movement and action.

3. ISO

ISO has to do with the sensitivity of a camera’s light sensor, which meters or reads the available light. The range for ISO starts around 100, going as high as 6400 on some consumer cameras, like the Canon 6D, while still performing well. Many cameras have an auto ISO function, but there are good reasons for setting it manually, including time of day. When choosing ISO manually, a good rule of thumb is to start at a low ISO during the brightest time of the day, increasing it to higher numbers as you lose light.

Using a very high ISO in the evenings, or in low light situations like candlelight, comes with a price, though: it produces more noise. Digital noise is composed of tiny dots that appear on photos, making them appear less crisp. Another situation when you’d want to manually set the IOS: you shoot a photo, then change the angle or perspective for the next shot and the sensor reads the light differently even if it hasn’t actually changed.

Manually control this setting when: you want to ensure that the lighting in your photos is consistent from one shot to the next, even as other elements like perspective, angle and lighting change.

Baby steps: 2 easy ways to practice your DSLR camera skills

While all this information may seem a little intimidating, most cameras have two very important functions that allow newbies to baby step their way toward manual mode: Aperture Priority (often symbolized as AV) and Shutter Priority (often symbolized as TV or S).

These two functions allow you to control only one setting at a time — either aperture or shutter speed — and let the camera decide the rest. Using these settings makes it easier to get comfortable with manual mode. When you use either setting, pay attention to how the camera handles the other setting. As you get to know your camera, you can begin to learn what combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO produces the best results in any given scenario.

Aperture Priority mode is best for situations when you would normally prioritize aperture size: shooting portraits, details or still lifes. Imagine you want to photograph a beautiful flower and have it stand out against a blurry background. You can only achieve this using a low f-stop. By putting your camera on AV mode, you can control your f-stop and trust your camera to correctly choose the appropriate shutter speed.

Shutter Priority mode is preferable at times when you’d typically  prioritize shutter speed: photographing movement and action. If you find yourself at a fast-paced soccer game in the late afternoon, you’ll want to ensure your photos aren’t blurry. By choosing Shutter Priority mode, you can freeze the movement and achieve crisp, beautiful pictures. Your camera will determine the best aperture. Set your shutter to a fast speed like 1/1000 to get a less blurry photo.

Switching entirely to manual

Once you understand how aperture and shutter speed work together and have taken baby steps using priority setting, the final step is to start experimenting entirely on manual. If you’re still getting comfortable with manual settings, try starting on auto, checking the settings your camera chooses, then switching to manual and tinkering with it.

For example, if your camera takes a photo that turns out too dark, note the settings, switch to manual, input those same settings and then try one of the following:

• Open up the aperture by taking the f-stop to a smaller number

• Decrease your shutter speed

• Increase your ISO

Keep practicing like this and it won’t be long before you are quickly adjusting camera settings all by yourself and confidently capturing a beautiful sunset or snapping a portrait of your adorable toddler. You’ll love how your photos turn out and, even when you don’t, you’ll learn from it and become an even better photographer.