Photography Tips for New DSLR Owners-Modes and ISO

Maybe some of you are where I was when I got that first DSLR in 2007, afraid to take it off automatic, for fear you will break something if too many dials are turned or the wrong buttons pushed.  (Can anyone relate to that, or was I simply paranoid?)  The feelings of the brand new DSLR owner–both ecstasy and fear! Today, you’ll learn some photography tips that, hopefully, will make you feel more confident with your new DSLR.

This post was originally published in 2015 and updated in 2024.

Photography tips for new dslr owners

This post contains affiliate links, which means I will earn a small commission if you purchase through them, at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

I’m a bit obsessed with photography.  Although I am a reading tutor by profession, (and I love it), I’ve made a little bit of money from my photography, too . But the day I got my first DSLR was a scary one.

I can assure you, if I was able to learn these concepts, you can too. It’s not as scary or difficult as it sounds.  Not at all.

Today, my tips are about Modes and ISO.


I recommend moving away completely from full automatic as soon as you feel comfortable,  but if you are not wanting to veer too much from automatic just yet, at least switch from full automatic to Program mode (P-mode, which is still an automatic mode, don’t worry.)  Program mode will give you more versatility, while still choosing proper exposure settings automatically.

For instance, program mode will allow you to choose the focus setting so that the focus will be exactly where you want it, whereas full automatic often just focuses on the closest thing. THAT is a big deal.  NOTE, though, I am not  saying you must switch to manual focus. No matter which mode you are in, you can still use autofocus. I do occasionally use manual focus, but not typically.

Photography Tips for new DSLR Users ~ An Artful Mom

Aperture Priority  mode (abbreviated A on Nikon, AV on Canon)  is a good mode for portraits and for other subjects that stay still.

With aperture priority mode, you set the aperture, and the camera automatically sets the shutter speed. A wide aperture (small f-stop number) will give you a more shallow depth of field. That just means that less of the picture will be in focus, and you can get the subject (the part you focus on)  to “pop” out from the background.  (If your camera has a Portrait mode, that basically does the same thing.)  A narrow aperture (bigger f-stop number) allows you to get more of the scene in focus.

Aperture Priority mode works best for subjects that stay still

Shutter Priority  mode (abbreviated S on Nikon, TV on Canon) is a great mode to use when taking pics of children and other moving subjects.

With Shutter Priority, you can freeze motion (fast shutter speed) or blur it (slow shutter speed.) You set the shutter speed, while the camera automatically sets the aperture.  For moving subjects, if you set your shutter speed to 1/200th of a second, or even 1/500th of a second if kids are moving quickly, you will be able to eliminate a lot of the potentially blurry shots. (Or, if your camera has a Sports Mode, that works too.)

Manual  mode (abbreviated M) will give you the most control over your camera.  Don’t be afraid to learn it!  It’s actually very simple. 

With full manual mode, you set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO yourself, and keep an eye on the exposure meter (seen through the viewfinder)  to determine if your photo is exposed correctly. There are many great videos online and instructions on Pinterest that demonstrate manual mode. 

I guarantee, you will be so happy to just take the leap as soon as you can and learn manual mode. There is nothing like the feeling of having complete creative control of your images.

(Again,  I am talking about manual MODE here – not manual FOCUS.  I almost always use autofocus, unless I’m doing macro photography.)

Don’t feel pressure, though, to learn different modes until you are ready. Some of my favorite photos ever were shot on Program Mode. (But, take that camera off of full auto right away!)


Generally, the lower the ISO, the less “grain” in the shot, so I generally shoot around 200 ISO outside, or 100 ISO if it’s really sunny. On a cloudy day, I’ll use 400 ISO.   Inside, without the flash, I can go up to, or even over 3200 ISO, with my Nikon D5100 and D7000, and still get good images, even in pretty low light. When you use a flash, you don’t need higher ISOs. (I use an external flash and bounce it. I’ll talk more about that in a future post.)Update: Here’s the post about bounce flash.

Cameras these days really vary in their ISO abilities. My Nikon D200 (an older DSLR which I love), for example, can be “noisy” (grainy) if I go much over 800 ISO, while my Nikon D5100  gets clean shots at even 3200 ISO. (But, these days, using Lightroom, I can minimize a lot of the noise.)

I also use a Nikon  D7000, which has more features than the D5100, but the D5100 will give you quite the same image quality for much less money, and you probably won’t need all of the features of the D7000. (The two cameras have the same sensor.)  And, a less expensive and basic,  but also very highly rated camera that bloggers love is the Nikon D3500. (There are newer versions of all of these, but one thing I’ve learned about DSLRs is that older versions of cameras can be purchased at phenomenal prices when purchased used.)

You will get beautiful images from all of these cameras. The differences are in the features.

The best way to learn is to pick up the camera and shoot, because, honestly, you could read about this stuff all day, but practicing it (as with all skills), is the quickest way to learn.

For great tutorials and helpful Q & A, one of my favorite places is ClickinMoms. My photography dramatically improved after I joined.

I love to play tourist in my own city.  I do tend to complain about St. Louis sometimes – the distance from any ocean, the humidity in the summer, the cold in the winter, etc., etc.

BUT, St. Louis has an incredible zoo, art museum, botanical garden, ballpark (go Cardinals!), restaurants, theaters, children’s museums, and many, many other fun places to explore and photograph.  Here are a few shots from around our city.

We love the art museum.

The herpetarium at the zoo is gorgeous. (This snake was posing for me.)


Thank you for spending time here today. I hope these tips will motivate and encourage you to try new modes with your DSLR.

Linking to:

Create with Joy, Handmade Tuesdays, Friday Favorites, Friendship Friday, The Chain Linky Climb, Motivation Monday, Wonderful Wednesday, Senior Salon Pit Stop, Mostly Blogging, Thursday Favorite Things, My Random Musings

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  1. Great post!! So glad that you stopped by and that lead me to you! Thanks for the info. I have been debating about going with a much better camera for some time now…….
    I appreciate your visit and kind words….I am a bit OCD…..

  2. Hi Pam! Great to see you! Let me begin to say that your pictures are stunning! You are such a skilled and talented photographer. The art museum picture in front of the window is incredible – would love for you to give us tips how to get that exposure without glare (if you are interested :)). Your post and instructions are so clear and informative. You have inspired me to pick up my camera! First I must clear my memory cards – they are all full and I keep not getting around to emptying them… Take care and I'll look forward to your next post!

    1. Thank you for the compliments, Mrs. Smith! That photo at the art museum was partly luck and partly good editing by my daughter. I think I was at the right angle to prevent any glare. Your compliments mean a lot to me, because I admire your photography too!

  3. I shoot in autofocus too, and I've been a professional photographer for years! I do love your obsession and the way you laid it out. The photos are really wonderful. Sharp, well composed, and importantly to me when you're talking professional rather than just fun – properly exposed and focused. That's important! Great moments can be captured with grainy, low light phone photos, but when you're talking professional… it's really important to know your camera.
    Awesome shots!

    1. Tamara, I have noticed some people online being confused about the term "full manual," thinking they had to use manual focus to be in "full manual," so I wanted to clear that up. Every professional photographer I know uses autofocus. Thank you SO MUCH for the nice comments about my photos! Considering that you are one of my absolute favorite photographers ever, that means a lot to me! I hope one day I can express even half of the beauty and emotion that you do in your photography!

  4. Beautiful photos! And such great info for using a dslr! Stopping by from the Pierced Wonderings link-up… looking forward to reading more of your blog!

  5. Great photos and great tips! I've been working hard in the last year to master Manual mode, and I know the more I shoot, the better I get. I do still love AP mode, though. When I'm frustrated or when I need to take photos faster than I can adjust my manual settings, I often switch to AP. This coming weekend when I head to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I'll be switching between AP & SP. I don't want to miss things because I can't get the settings right, fast enough.

    Thank you so much for linking up with me this week! I appreciate it and hope to see you next week as well!

    1. Thanks Jen! Yes, I'm right with you– I don't always feel like shooting in Manual. Thanks so much for hosting the linkup.

    1. Thanks so much Kathy! That baby toes shot was at the request of the parents, and it was my one of my favorites that day.

  6. Hi Pam,
    You are quite knowledgeable about photography! I love your photo with the blur but the flower is so clear. People have unsuccessfully tried to teach me about aperture, etc. Fortunately, I have photo-editing apps with filters that are helping me.
    Stumbling your link.

  7. I love the photos you shared and the easy-to-understand explanations of camera modes. I totally want to visit that candy store in your picture! Thanks so much for sharing this helpful blog post at this week's #HomeMattersParty

  8. What great tips! I'm just starting to learn this basics of my Canon, so this really helped! 🙂 #HomeMattersParty

  9. I'm SOOOO glad you shared this with us. I have a VR camera can't even use even 1/4 of the features on it because I know absolutely NOTHING about photography. However, I got the top of line camera so that I could take my own pictures and have them turn out better for the blog. I love your pictures! This is something I truly need to invest in. I'm going to talk to my husband about the class you mentioned.

  10. Beautiful pictures, Pam! I am slowly improving myself in photography, these tips are helpful. Thank you. 🙂

  11. I purchased my first DSLR several months ago and am still so nervous about how to use it. I am so thankful for this post & plan to check out the site you mentioned. Thanks for sharing at #HomeMattersParty

  12. I have a fancy camera but don't even remember the name right now. You did motivate me to just get out and start shooting pictures. I get so intimidated with all the settings. Thanks Pam! #HomeMattersParty

  13. Great tips and awesome photos! I want a new camera so badly. Saving this post for when I get one. Thanks for sharing and co-hosting at the #HomeMattersParty 🙂

    Life With Lorelai

  14. What an informative post. I too am one of those that lives in constant fear of the dslr. You just took some of the guesswork out of it. Thanks for your great tips.

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