Your First DSLR - now what?! - Digital Photography School

Your First DSLR – now what?!


Yikes! You’ve got your first DSLR! Now what?

My first dslr 03

One of my friends recently received a DSLR from her husband for her birthday. She was over the moon! One afternoon over coffee, she asked if I had any advice to help her get started with her new camera. I’ll share some of the top tips that I shared with her, with you too:

Nine tips to help you with your first DSLR

#1 – Get off Auto as a soon as possible and start shooting on Manual mode

Cameras these days are very clever when put on Auto. You will certainly get some lovely photos shooting on auto, but it will limit you from taking your images to the next level. Go from creating something that’s good to creating something that’s amazing! Learn how your camera works and its capabilities. Getting off Auto and shooting in Manual mode will open up a world of possibilities such as shooting in low lighting conditions or bright sunshine, shooting fast moving objects, creating a soft blurry background, the list is endless.

#2 – Understand the terms ISO, shutter speed and aperture and how to use them

Use these as your starting point for learning how to control your camera. There are some great articles on dPS to help get you started, as well as a good eBook to start you off right:

My first dslr 04

#3 – Google is your best friend

There are lots of free tutorials, blogs and YouTube videos to help develop your skills and knowledge. Use what’s already out there and easily accessible before buying expensive books and enrolling in expensive courses. dPS was, and still is my ‘go to’ website for inspiration and learning new techniques when I was starting out. If you haven’t found it yet, they have a great ‘tips for beginners’ page too.

#4 – your camera manual is your second best friend

Do you actually read instruction manuals when you get something new or do you just put them back in the box never to see the light of day again? I must confess that I’m probably one of the world’s worst culprits for this! Some of the best advice I received when I was starting out on my photography journey, was to read my camera instruction manual cover to cover, and when I’d finished, to go back and read it all again! I remember going through my manual for the first time; it was like a series of mini light bulbs going off, followed by lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’! If you haven’t already picked up that little white book that came in the box, put it at the top of your to ‘do list’ – you’ll be glad you did! (Note: if you bought your camera used and it didn’t come with a manual, see #3 above! You can usually find a PDF version online somewhere, just search by brand and model number of your camera.)

My first dslr 01

#5 – Take your camera EVERYWHERE

By this I mean, don’t just have it tucked away somewhere; take it out of its bag and hang it round your neck. You’re more likely to use the camera if it’s within reach, than if you have to negotiate getting it out of its bag, taking off the lens cap, turning it on etc. By the time you’ve done all that, the moment’s gone! Get yourself a UV filter to protect the front of your lens, and leave the lens cap off so you’re ready to go whenever an opportunity presents itself.

#6 – Friends make great models but then again so do apples and pears

Friends make great models to practice on, and will usually be flattered when you ask them if you can take a few photos of them. All my early portrait images are of friends; even the most reluctant ones were bribed with chocolate or a bottle of wine to model for me! While having a ‘person’ to photograph is great, don’t let it stop you from practicing portrait photography skills if you don’t have any willing subjects. Fruit also makes for an amazing model; yep you read right–fruit!

Place an apple on a table top or chair in front of a window, and shoot it from every angle. Look at the way light falls on it and what happens when you move it closer or further away from the light. Draw a face on it using a marker pen, and turn it from left to right to see how the light behaves. Once you have exhausted all the options, look at your images and compare them to see what worked well, and what didn’t work so well.

My first dslr 02

#7- Practice, practice, practice

As the saying goes ‘practice makes perfect’! We’re lucky to be living in a digital world. We’re not limited by number of photographs we can take. We can easily upload thousands of images to our computer, or delete them all in one go with the press of a single button. Don’t be afraid to take hundreds of photos. The key is to spend time looking at your images and thinking about what you could have done differently to make them better.

#8 – Mistakes are good – don’t be scared to make them

Yes it can be frustrating when something doesn’t quite go as planned but mistakes help you learn. The more you learn, the fewer mistakes you’ll make, and the better your photography skills will become. Don’t give up because your images aren’t as good as you want them to be. Read, learn more, then go out and shoot again.

My first dslr 06

I remember the first wedding I shot. I was second shooting for a friend; she always liked to work with a back up photographer for weddings. Her usual second shooter was on holiday and as a result she asked if I’d like to do it. I jumped at the chance! I did my homework prior to the big day and carried out a Reiki of the church and planned what lens and camera settings I’d be using. After the ceremony, I followed the bride and groom from the inside of the church to the bright sunshine outside. I kept on clicking away getting swept up in all the excitement. It wasn’t until about the 10th frame that I looked at the back of my camera and saw that all of my images were over exposed! I hadn’t adjusted my ISO when I went outside. It was too high and there was nothing I could do with those images, they were beyond repair. Luckily I was only second shooting and the main photographer had lots of her own perfectly exposed photos. It was still a steep learning curve for me though and I can assure you that I’ve never made that mistake again.

#9 – Master using the gear you have now before you upgrade

Becoming a master of the camera gear you currently own will give you an advantage for the really cool stuff you’ll purchase later. You need to know how both your camera and lens behave, and how to control them; how light affects an image; and how you can work with your environment to create the perfect shot. Once you can do this, you’ll find that when you upgrade your camera or purchase a new lens, you’ll be able to get the best out of it and use it to its full potential.

Feeling inspired? Pick up your camera, get outside and start shooting!


Daniela Beddall from Ferri Photography is a Northamptonshire photographer who specialises in working with natural light. She shoots weddings and portraits and loves all things vintage! You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter on Pinterest or drop her line – she’d love to hear from you!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Daniela Beddall from Ferri Photography is a Northamptonshire photographer who specializes in working with natural light. She shoots weddings and portraits and loves all things vintage!

  • Rick Scheibner

    #10 (actually should be at the top of the list): Learn how light works and how it affects your subject. This is true whether you’re going to shoot portraits, street, landscapes, or just your own kids while they’re eating their morning cereal.

  • Thinkeye

    #1 Should be split. Start with aperture priority mode. Don’t throw away the help of metering too early, before you really understand what you are doing!

  • Fr. Alexis Duncan

    I have always used manual mode with success. But now I am beginning to think that I should not be dogmatic in that approach and am not entirely sure the mantra to get off manual is always true.

    Also, I grew up with film and I am terrified to shoot too many frames. I can’t shake that attitude even though I need to.

  • ClayTeague

    Having one begin in manual mode is a sure way to confuse and bewilder a new user.

    That’s like jumping into the ocean before learning to float or swim.

    I would recommend that #1 be moved to #10.

    You really need to understand #2 before you can gain anything from #1. And by extension, you need to learn #4 to know how to adjust the camera in manual.

    Do get off of AUTO, but start with Aperture Priority and use it exclusively for a couple of weeks. Then do the same with Shutter Priority.

    Using those two settings first keeps the new user from being overwhelmed with choices and helps learn what happens with both settings and when to use them.

    A new user facing the many options/settings on today’s dSLR cameras needs to break the learning down to small bite-sized portions. Using and understanding 1 feature BEFORE moving to another feature is how most people learn.

  • Steve S

    So you’re the guy who keeps telling newbies to use manual as soon as they get the camera out of the box!!!

    When people come to me with there new 2k – 3k dollars cameras I steer them directly to auto (P)… But… I explain how to make adjustments buy controlling over all exposure and controlling the output of their flash independently…

    Now a days we are buying cameras with really good metering and powerful computers in them… PUT THEM TO WORK! Use them, understand how they work, what tricks them etc.. !
    The camera as a whole in auto has one goal, to get a good properly exposed in focus, with proper color balance, quickly!
    But don’t believe they can’t be fooled,,.

    My goal when I teach someone about photography, using their new (often expensive) camera is to get good shots (the first time) without having to think too much…

    After a few decades of shooing photos “I” know how to use manual, that’s all I had when I started shooting!!
    If they want to start using manual they will in time…


  • Arjun

    I found Nikon D3200 as the best option for 1st takes crisp shots at a considerably large range and is also damn easy on the pockets! Visit for photos clicked by the camera..

  • Guest

    My best way? I took a course. It need not be expensive. 3 months with an assignment of 1000 photos. This forces you to USE you camera because you have a goal to achieve.Sure I thought I took a lot of photos when I got my camera, but I really didn`t. I learned more about my camera in two classes than I did in the 6 months prior of having it. I learned easily about ISO, white balance, and f-stops where books just confused me. I learned how to read a histogram. We were instructed to shoot in RAW and on Shutter or Aperture priority Bonus side? I know the basics of Lightroom,enrolled in a photography program and my pictures have improved in less than than three months.

  • Kareem

    Informative and inspiring. I enjoyed the tips. Thanks.

  • Timothy J. Mummert

    I agree, you should be telling them aperture priority, not manual.

  • Ferri photography

    There’s nothing wrong with shooting in aperture priority mode. In fact that’s the setting I mostly use when shooting a session. However, I think it’s important to know how your camera works, how to control it and how to make adjustments confidently and quickly. Once you know that, than AP mode it is! However I think you have to earn it. Don’t shoot me down – it’s just my humble opinion 😉

  • Ferri photography

    Thanks Kareem – glad you found it helpful. 🙂

  • Ferri photography

    I agree – setting yourself (or being set) challanges or assignments is a great way to get you out there shooting. It can give you a purpose and help direct your shooting.

  • Mohamed Elamir

    Thanks a lot , this is not for beginners only but for all photographers.

  • SuddenlySusan

    Very timely article! My DSLR is in the mail and I should have it by the weekend. I love your encouragement to go to Manual right away. Okay! Gonna do it!! Thanks for this article!!!

  • Apple and pears that is what I need to pay attention to! As I normally stay away from human beings!

  • Ferri photography

    It’s certainly a great place to start Mridula and will help build you confidence
    to moving onto human beings 😉

  • Ferri photography

    Thanks Mohamed. Sometimes it’s good to go to basics too.

  • Miodrag Bozovic

    I purchased few months ago used Pentax K-x as my first DSLR, with 18-55 and 70-300. There was a small Fuji S5800 before it. Now, is there a place where I can discuss about my photos, take some advices fro people… or something…. Regards from Serbia

  • JvW

    Hi Miodrag,
    At the top of every page on this site there is a link to the Digital Photography School “Forum”.
    There are many friendly people there who meet to discuss all aspects of photography, and help each other with critiques and advice. Take a look, it’s worth it.

  • James Donahue

    I recently sold all my DSLR related equipment and bought a Fuji X100s, now I’m back to making photos with one camera with a fixed lens and a small flash and loving it.And it sure is a light load.

  • Michael Owens

    I disagree. If you are serious about photography, then manual is the way to go – learning from the off is better. Better to start hard, and makes things easier in the long run, than simply stick with AUTO and get confused down the line.

    If you are buying a DSLR just to get ‘fantastic’ looking shots, and have no aspirations of being a photographer, then stick with auto.

    EDIT: The author is female, and not ‘that guy who tells everyone’.

  • Russell Rusty Smith

    I agree with the author…Get off manual AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. That means mastering techniques #2–#9 . 9 is the best advice, Don’t upgrade your gear before you are comfortable with what you have.

    Photography is all about capturing light so the number one thing is to learn how to capture light with the gear you have. So the exposure triangle seems extremely important. Here, Google is your best friend…Practice should be your favorite. While shooting in Auto, take a gander of your camera’s auto settings and make a note of them.

  • ccting

    Lets the computer controls your mind.. 😉

  • ccting

    Excellent article, but i am totally disagree on the author as he bias to google.. ;( . How about other search engine like bing, yahoo?

  • Tiyo W Prasetyo Hadiusodo

    I believe people should enjoy TAKING photographs then when they enjoy and learn more they would start MAKING photographs with more control (using manual mode).

  • ccting

    Go for manual? Then get a manual non-CPU lens for manual focus, manual ISO then that will be a real manual


  • Ruthie

    I am a newbie, and you are right about getting those training wheels off as soon as possible! You didn’t say, “as soon as you take it out of the box.” THAT would be confusing, but for someone who has a natural gift and passion about photography, it can be SO easy to get STUCK there for so long and lean on auto as a crutch. Now I avoid auto like the plague, but I’m STUCK in speed mode! LOL. Ah, well… maybe more learning is in order. 🙂

  • Robert

    Thank you. I have taken the dive and have purchased my very first camera….perod! A beautiful Canon T5i. I will be OFF Auto immediately and I will explore. It is digital is it not? There is plenty of room in the SD card, is there not? No one is watching but me, right? So, I intend to click away, review what I have done, make a mental note, adjust, and clck away some more. I dont care if the pix are world class pix or 1st grader quality. OFF Auto is like taking the training wheels off just because you are a big boy now. Click, Click and click away.

  • Sam

    Hi…where did you take the course? local college or was the course offered by a local photography shop?

  • dorkstar

    Bing? You have got to be kidding me…

  • tedtedsen

    use manual focused lenses too, if everything has to bea manual then everything is manual and bye Hasselblad the best there is

  • Mihir Pabalkar

    Hi ,
    My name is Mihir and i live in Pune ( India )
    I just Brought my first DSLR, a Canon 60D.
    Thank you sharing you valuable thoughts.
    Reading this article has already helped me and now i will apply it in my photography and i am very sure it will be of great help to me.
    Thanks again.

  • Stoffers

    Why are people buying a Mark III or 6D if they don’t even know the basics of exposure?

  • Steve

    Why? Because you don’t have to.. You make your exposure adjustments based on the LCD on the back of your camera… So as someone who’s been shooting since we didn’t have a real choice between auto & maunal I’m in favor of using auto functions (intelligently)…

    Next they’re going to tell me I’m not a real retoucher because I use Photoshop!!! Give me a friggin break and go take a picture!

    On of my favorite quotes regarding the man vs auto!


    I Shoot in Pro (Program) mode

    Some people have this funny idea that pros shoot in Manual exposure mode.

    The only people who shoot everything in manual mode are students working under mean, old frustrated photo teachers who force them to shoot in Manual so the kids can learn how tough things were back in the 1950s and before.

    Today, pros shoot in Pro mode. That’s why it’s called Pro mode: because pros use it most of the time.

    I shoot in auto everything!

    I use Pro (a.k.a. Program) automatic exposure mode.

    I use Auto ISO. Auto lowest shutter speed in Auto ISO.

    I use Auto white balance, and so forth.

    I only pull it off AUTO if something isn’t setting itself correctly in the AUTO modes.

    The key is that by taking a lot of time to program all the Auto everythings to set the camera as I would have set it myself, I can shoot much faster. This way the camera sets all the easy stuff itself so I can concentrate on finding the picture.

    I often will change something from Auto, and the important point is knowing what to change when.

    If I want a lighter or darker photo, I use the exposure compensation button — while in Pro mode.

    If I want a larger aperture or different aperture, I turn the dial while in Pro mode. It’s much faster than changing to aperture or shutter-priority mode, and a zillion times faster than manual.

    The only time I use Manual mode is if I’m in my studio working with controlled lighting, or if for some reason I need the camera’s exposure not to wander from frame to frame.

    Maybe I confuse people by listing my exposure times and apertures for photos, but I only do that because you asked. 9 times out of 10 the camera was in Pro mode and picked that particular combination by itself while I was busy looking for the picture.

  • I needed this article. I am a newbie photographer with my first ever DSLR. I am out of Auto mode but still find myself in those other modes, such as, portrait, landscape and so on. I am working and learning as fast as I can to go full Manual mode because I want this to be more than just a hobby for me. These are great tips!

  • Morris Stewart

    Thank you for a good article to read I am a beginner and have been out trying my hand a manual mode a little and if I am having a hard time getting the picture that I am looking for I will go to program mode and see what it sets my camera at then I go into manual again and tweak it a little to see what the photo looks like. I like what the article say go make mistakes

  • Jamie

    Ok so you’re in manual mode shooting a bride knelt down on the floor with some beautiful window light coming through, you’re killing the shots, they are going to be beautiful. You hear the door of the hotel room open, in walks her father, proud as punch the emotion is heavy on his face, he starts to well up and is going to cry.

    You miss the shot, you completely and utterly miss the shot! Why cause you’re in Manual and the father is by the door well away from the window, the light is like 4 stops difference. You’re so busy twist the dial that the shot is lost!

    Professional cameras have semi automatic modes for a reason.

  • David Robertson

    Um… I don’t see a #10 was it deleted in the ensuing years?

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed