Learn Camera Basics – Part 1

This short series of articles is for anyone struggling to understand how to use their digital camera. It is very much about getting started, rather than mastery. The first steps in anything are the most challenging, but you’ll soon be flying once you’ve taken them! The idea for writing the series came with recently helping a couple of people get started with their new digital cameras. So if you have a disused camera or one that never made it out of the box, why not give it another go? To help, I draw some comparisons with the familiar and ubiquitous camera phone.

Three strands of photography

All photography is about these three entwined strands. Everything else is in a supporting role. Keeping the strands in mind will stop you becoming lost in a sea of jargon and technical information.

  • Framing (the photo). What you choose to include within the frame of your camera is what makes your photography interesting or not. You make a selection from infinite possibilities in the 3D world and create a small flat image. Like a painting it should be composed in someway to create visual interest. It is the most important part of photography and has little to do with technology and everything to do with how you see and think. With a camera phone, you just have the screen to view your frame; with a camera you might also have the benefit of a view finder to avoid the distraction of bright light reflecting on an open screen.
  • Exposing (the photo). Photography is literally drawing with light. Exposing is about controlling the light entering the camera so that your image is neither too dark nor too light. However, there is no ‘absolutely’ correct exposure – it depends on what you want to show and your creative choices. With a camera phone this is largely an automatic process but many phones allow overall exposure adjustments by touching and dragging a finger on the screen. Most digital cameras allow fully automatic exposure (like a camera phone) or allow exposure through different combinations of shutter speed (how long the camera is open to light) and aperture (openness of the lens iris to allow light in). The advantage of the manual intervention is creative choice – shutter speed allowing the blurring or freezing of moving objects and aperture altering how much of scene appears in focus in front of and behind the actual point of focus (‘the depth of field’).
  • Focusing (the photo). Unlike our eyes that can flit around a scene, refocusing on different areas as they go, a camera takes everything in at once, with one point of focus. Despite the single point of focus, our eyes perceive that anything within a range around the point is in focus (the ‘depth of field’). This is because they are not sensitive enough to notice areas that are only slightly out of focus. Generally, with camera phone, everything appears to be in focus throughout a scene – down to the technical configuration of small lenses and sensors. Also, there is no adjustable aperture on camera phones to allow changes to the depth of field. In contrast, a digital camera has an adjustable aperture that can be used to alter the depth of field in an image. Allowing greater creative choice.

Getting started

Depending on the design of your camera and your familiarity with it, you may need to refer to the user manual. If you’ve lost it, they can easily be downloaded from the manufacturer’s website.

  • If you have a view finder, find your camera’s ‘diopter adjustment’ and adjust it so the text and number indicators in the view finder are in sharp focus. The diopter makes small corrective optical adjustments so the view finder information (and image) is in focus for your eyesight. Without doing this, you’ll not be able use the view finder or manually focus through it.
  • Find out how to adjust the aperture (often expressed in ‘f’ stop numbers) and the shutter speed of your camera. You’ll probably come across something called aperture priority and shutter speed priority settings. These allow you to change one setting while the camera automatically adjusts the other to obtain an average exposure.
  • Find out how to autofocus and manually focus your camera.

Not all functions are available on less expensive cameras – just explore and work with the ones you have.


Like any tool, the key to using it creatively is practice. You wouldn’t expect to pick up a guitar and play it well without practice and cameras are no different. It is easy to understand the concept of both a camera and a guitar but to make them work well is not so easy. Take your time, be gentle with yourself, and you’ll gradually learn how to use your camera.

Part 2 in the series will take a deeper look at exposure. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and/or facebook page for a heads up on new articles.

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