Photo Tip :: DSLR Glossary of Terms

I struggled with my first topic for photography tips mostly because I was trying to write posts that dove in too quickly. You see, I have been taking photos for as long as I can remember. I started out with film point and shoot cameras and was the first kid to get a digital point and shoot in my school back in 2000. In high school, I learned my photography basics on a film SLR, and later in 2007, upgraded to my first digital SLR, a Canon Rebel XTi. At some point in time, these terms have become second nature for me to use. But, it's definitely a good place to start. Plus, it will ideally help you to be able to shoot photos with full manual mode - which is the best way to get to know and understand your camera.

Shutter Speed :: Higher number = faster opening and closing of the shutter = less blur.
This is how long the shutter is open for the photo. Your camera makes the very satisfying 'click' sound while the shutter literally opens and closes for a certain amount of time. The faster the click, the higher the shutter speed. With really slow shutter speeds, you will experience a lot of blur hand holding the camera, or it becomes impossible to capture movement without blur. This is adjusted by a dial on your camera, usually in front of the shutter release (or take the photo) button.

Camera lens and aperture

Aperture :: The hole through which light travels in your camera. 
It acts a lot like the pupil in your eye. The wider that this hole is open, the more light is let through. So in dark situations, you want a large aperture to let more light through. Aperture is measured on your camera by the f-stop.

F-Stop :: Controls depth of field. The lower the number, the more blurry your background gets.
This term is directly related to aperture, and I have heard it used interchangeably though technically speaking they are not exactly the same thing. The f-stop is a measurement based on your lenses focal length to the subject. Really, what this means is that the lower the f-stop (or f-number I've also heard it called), the shorter the focal length. This is how you create depth of field and either get all that blurry goodness or really crisp images all throughout. I tend to shoot on a low f-stop. This is adjusted by a dial on your camera, for instance, mine is towards the back of the camera around the other menu controls. Or, it is adjusted by pressing and holding a button and using the same dial that you use for shutter speed, almost like how pressing function on your keyboard works.

Exposure Compensation :: Make the F-Stop & Shutter Speed Meet in the Middle
The little light meter that appears in the viewfinder and the on screen menu on the camera is like the needle and thread of the camera world is how you gauge your exposure. In fact, my first SLR actually used a thin bar and a bar with a circular hole like a needle, and I had to meet them up. You want to aim to have the little arrow below the 0 in the middle for the most part. In certain situations, like in shooting dark objects like black dogs, you may need to over or under expose the shot a bit, but meeting in the center usually means that photo's exposure is correct. Your camera will automatically try to make the components hit the center mark on auto modes. I generally set my f-stop first, then adjust my shutter speed at each shot until I get it correctly exposed.

ISO :: How sensitive your camera is to light. Lower numbers for sunny days, higher numbers indoors, try not to get much above 1200.
This is a term brought in from the speed of film. The system is the same for digital cameras in terms of numbers, even if how it works isn't necessarily the exact same. What you need to know, is that you want to aim to use the lowest ISO possible. I try not to go above 500, and rarely above 1,200. Once you get past 1,000 you will start to notice significant grain in your photos. 100 is perfect for sunny days, where as 500 is pretty useful indoors. There are a variety of ISO speeds available on different brands of DSLRs, mine runs from 100 to 6,400. I try shooting on 100 first, and if my camera cannot get to a fast enough shutter speed to capture what I need without blurring, I move up my ISO until I can capture the image without blurring it. My camera has a dedicated ISO button to change it easily, but on my old camera, I had to change it on my on screen menu through some commands.


Focal Length :: How much your lens can get in the frame
You will notice people talking about lenses - 50mm, 16-28mm, whatever mm. Those numbers are the focal length. The number is based on a formula that has to do with how light passes through the actual glass lens part of, well, your lens. Essentially what this boils down to is how 'zoomed in' the lens is. Typically anything under 30mm is wide angle, 30-80mm is standard normal view, 80mm+ starts getting into a bit of telephoto. I rarely use a focal length above 50mm - which is actually a little different since my camera isn't full frame. My camera (and most others) has a smaller sensor that makes the lenses slightly more 'zoomed in' than if I had a really nice Canon 5D full frame camera. It doesn't really affect my photos much, but I gotta mention it. I suggest getting a wide angle zoom or all-purpose zoom (I use a wide angle zoom, 16-28mm, but the normal 18-55mm lenses your camera comes with aren't so bad) and a 50mm. The 50mm is an amazing lens.

Camera RAW :: The ultimate in file format for DSLR
I should also mention that your digital SLR can shoot directly into JPG or into a RAW file. RAW files are like digital negatives and allow you to do better post processing. It doesn't compress the photo, has a wider range of colors, and saves a lot more information. Downside - larger files. There are some free programs that allow you to edit camera RAW files, but I use Photoshop.

-81 : buh bye dear rebel

Overall, there are lots of little things in your camera to learn, but the basics are definitely where to start. Next, I'm going to talk about camera modes and what modes I shoot in and what exactly they do. This is a good precursor to all of my ideas for camera tips, and I will refer back to these terms a lot I am sure. If anything does not make sense or you want something else defined - ask in the comments and I will be sure to respond.


  1. I can't wait to read through this post again when I have my camera with me! This is really great Katherine, because I recently got a Canon Rebel but I can barely use it! I decided over Christmas when I have a little more time that's one of my goals, and I'll definitely be using this post! Thanks for putting it up, hope you're having a really great day!

    perfectly priya

  2. This is probably the easiest to understand camera basics I have ever read, and I've read many!

    Great job, Katherine! I look forward to future posts about photography!

  3. I love this tutorial! I always find it so hard to teach someone how to use a camera since there are so many basics that some people chose to just ignore. If you're going to have a DSLR, might as well learn how to take advantage of all it has to offer, right? It's so frustrating to see people buying it and just using it on Auto and treating it like a point-and-shoot. Great job with this! :)

  4. Best camera tutorial ever Katherine. I have a Canon SLR camera (though I am anxiously awaiting the day I can get a real big girl DSLR!!!) and I have been avidly (have you seen my recent Pins? I am serious) trying to educate myself on how to use it better for blog photos. I love this. Thank you so much for sharing your secrets. Your photos are always amazing!

  5. I need to reread this a few more time and then take some photos. Great tutorial.


  6. I will definitely be coming back here when I get my DSLR. This was really helpful and will be super useful for me! In fact, I'm going to bookmark this post! :) I sort of know the terms, but sometimes it gets a little confusing to keep them straight...especially when you're trying to understand how to make them all work together! haha. I can't wait for more of your photo tips!

  7. Thanks so much for this. I loved taking pictures for as long as I can remember and had a point and shoot and graduated to my first digital slr in 2009. i never took formal classes and really read a lot of things online and watched youtube tutorials. loved how you explain some things here! super helpful for someone who is bumbling her way though everything (even taking RAW images)! :)

  8. I remember I was so lost when I first got my dslr, posts like these on the internet definitely helped me out a lot :)
    xx mili

  9. You are obviously so talented at I'm glad you're starting this tips and tricks post! I could use some education :P

    <3 Cambria

    Check out my ... Jose Eber GIVEAWAY!!!!!!!!

  10. This is so great. Lots of good information here and you break it down nicely. Thanks, looking forward to the next post in this series :)

    xo Jenny

  11. Awesome Job! It straight forward and well explained! It can be hard to explain things that have become second nature!

  12. I'll definitely need to read this a couple more times. This is so helpful since I hardly knew any of this.


  13. Oh dude, I am bookmarking this for sure! Thank you!

  14. This is very helpful. I have a really nice camera but haven't taken the time to really understand all the functions. Thanks for typing all this out. I just need to practice now. :)

  15. This is SO helpful - definitely bookmarking this!!!

  16. This is really useful! There are bits on here that I knew what they did, but not why. Reading how it actually all works is great for getting the logic in my heead and actually understanding the camera. Thanks for this.

  17. Great post. I will totaly be referencing it!

  18. I just went ahead and put this in my bookmarks so I can look back on it!

  19. Hi,
    Just so you know, and I thought you might like to, that your tutorials are so handy, I'm printing them off as my own little user guide and will keep them to help with taking my photos. I had a dslr for christmas and I have been struggling to take good pictures, your tips are amazing, thank you very much :)




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