My typical working space: the bed. Haha!

I get a lot of questions on my photography workflow over on email and askfm when it was still running, and when better to talk about photography than when in collaboration with one of the world’s most trusted photography companies? I’ll be detailing my workflow in a two part series: today I’ll be talking about the actual photo taking process, and in a later post, I’ll describe my post processing steps that lead me to the final pictures you see on here or on instagram.

So! Let’s get started.

I’ve always been a DSLR sort of girl – you just can’t replicate the photo quality you get on a DSLR with something off a compact or point and shoot. Its true to a certain extent: it’s more the photographer than the equipment, but photos snapped on an iPhone and on a DSLR are still worlds apart in terms of quality. I wrote a guide on picking your first DSLR awhile back, but what good is having a DSLR if you dont know how to use it?

So today I’m going to be detailing the very basics of beginner DSLR photography for those of you who’ve just gotten your first entry level DSLR and want to know how to make the most of it. For those of you who’ve had your first DSLRs for awhile but are still shooting on Auto mode, hopefully this will help you move out from it 🙂 I won’t be covering Manual photography in this post because that’s one step up, and better for a later post!

I found it super hard to understand the different modes and functions when I just started using my DSLR despite extensive researching, so to make things easier/ more interesting, I’m going to demonstrate how to use the DSLR with my favourite subject: Athena!


Shot on the Nikon D5500 with the 18-55 Kit Lens
P Mode, ISO 100


Today’s Equipment

DSLR: We will be shooting on the Nikon D5500 today, which is what I have on hand. It’s a stellar entry level DSLR and I 100% recommend it to anyone looking to get started!

Lens: I love the 35mm, but to be fair, I’m going to be talking about and shooting exclusively on the 18-55, which is likely to be the kit lens that your entry level DSLR will come with. This is so you can see the type of pictures you’ll get when you purchase the very basic DSLR package, with no extra add ons and hidden costs!

So, the basic terms explained

The holy grail of DSLR photography are these three terms: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. They make up your Exposure Triangle. In very layman terms, this is what they mean and do:

Aperture: The size of the opening in the lens that allows light in. It also controls your depth of field/ background blur.

Shutter Speed: Refers to how fast your shutter clicks. It affects how sharp your pictures are.

ISO: Think of ISO as a flavour enhancer. Your ISO controls how your camera reacts to the light that your aperture lets in.

This was a very useful infographic for me when I was trying to understand the three terms, and I hope they help you too:

IMG: Daniel Peters

Understanding the basic function and meaning of the Exposure Triangle is important because it affects how you go on to decide which mode to use when taking pictures. Understanding them intimately becomes crucial when you want to go on to Manual photography – but that’s a post for another day. For now, just keep in mind what they do.

Moving on, I’m going to detail which mode you should use and when:

The Different Modes

nikon d5500
The top controls of a Nikon D5500, which is what I’ve been shooting on lately

Have a look at the picture above. Today we’re going to talk about the basic modes you can shoot in, and when, so just focus on the dial ring that’s currently set to Auto. The idea is to move past shooting in Auto, and to know when to use what for optimal pictures, not including M – Manual!

The most important part of the dial ring that you’ll be most frequently acquainted is is the P S A M portion that’s boxed off. As you might have guessed, these stand for:

P – Program Mode
S – Shutter Priority
A – Aperture Priority
M – Manual

Let’s start with P – Program Mode.

Program Mode

Program Mode is the most basic and easiest to use. If you’re just moving out from Auto mode, you may want to start with this.

In P, all you have to do is adjust the ISO. The camera picks the Aperture and Shutter Speed for you based on what ISO you set it to. P mode is pretty safe, but it won’t give you the best pictures you can take for your camera – however, it’s a great mode to sharpen your skills and understanding of ISO on!


Shot on P Mode: ISO 100 for strong daylight.

It’s a good picture, decent lighting and sharp details, but if I could tweak it a bit I would make the background more blurred.


Shot on P Mode: ISO 1000 for indoor nighttime photography.

This is a relatively straightforward picture, so I’d just filter it for effect and brightness in post production or in a phone photo app.

Pros: It really helps you understand what ISO works for what situations, and is great for casual shooting.
Cons: You can’t adjust your aperture or shutter speed for this mode, so if you’re not happy with the sharpness or depth of field.. there’s nothing much you can do about it.

Aperture Priority

In Aperture Priority Mode, what you have to do is adjust the Aperture and ISO, and the camera will intelligently pick out the Shutter Speed for you. This is the mode that most photographers shoot in.

Your aperture is measured in something called f-stops. Two things you must know about aperture:

1. The bigger the number, the smaller the hole. Don’t ask me why, I know it’s confusing, but that’s just the way it is. (Recap: Aperture basically means the size of the hole letting the light in)
2. The smaller the number, the greater the depth of field or background blur.

– If you’re taking someone’s portrait, you’ll want a nice background blur: f1.8-2.8 is a nice number for this.
– If you’re taking scenery and you want everything in focus, you dont want any background blur. The higher the f-stop number the better: a good gauge is f8, and then working up from there depending on your judgement from the situation itself.

*On a kit lens, the lowest you’ll probably be able to go is about f3.5.

Here is a portrait of Athena:


Aperture mode,
f3.5, ISO100


Aperture mode, Indoor, Night
f4, ISO1000

As you can see, her face is in focus while everything else is blurred.

Aperture mode is great because you get to control the depth of field in your pictures, which is what gives your pictures dimension. Nikon cameras have a very handy guide for this: the information page shows you the size of the aperture in relation to the F-stop number. See:


Look at how the aperture size image changes in relation to the F stop number!

This was super helpful in learning how the aperture affects the pictures, because if you’re a visual learner like me, it’s easy to form an association between the f-stop and the picture results really fast!

Shutter Priority

In Shutter Priority Mode, what you have to do is adjust the Shutter Speed and ISO, and the camera will intelligently pick out the Aperture for you. This is the mode that you use when you have a moving object, or possibly if you’re shooting at night. Basically, you use Shutter Priority when you want to control the sharpness of your picture.

In shutter priority, here’s what you need to know:

1. Pick up your DSLR and snap a shot. Hear that click? The speed of that click is your shutter speed.
2. The faster the shutter speed, the less blur you get.
3. The smaller the number, the faster the shutter speed. (i.e. 1/4000 is a fast shutter speed; 30” is a slow shutter speed)
4. The longer your shutter stays open, the more prone it is to blurring, but the more light it captures.

1/30 to 1/60 of a second is a good shutter speed for day to day use.
– If you’re trying to catch a moving object, you want a very fast shutter speed.
– If you’re trying to catch the concept of motion, like in a waterfall shot, you need a slow shutter speed and a tripod because any tiny shaking of the hand will cause your photo to be blur.

*therefore: to freeze the moving object, we use a fast shutter speed; and to create motion, we use a slow shutter speed.


Taken on a full frame camera in Laos
That’s a bit unfair because it’s a full frame camera, but I just wanted to show you guys in what situation you’d want blurring – see how the water’s blur captures motion?

– If you’re trying to do starscape photography, you need basically the slowest shutter speed your camera will give you because you want to take in as much light as possible. However, this leads to a very high possibility of blurring, so you’re definitely going to need a proper tripod. You can read my Beginner’s Guide to Starscape Photography for a more in depth guide on how to capture stars 🙂

So, which mode is the best?

There’s no one answer or one magic mode to use for all situations, or cameras would only come with one button – Auto. Understanding the different uses and advantages of the different modes is really important when making a flash decision on which one to use when shooting in different situations. However, I personally think that starting with Program mode and then moving on to shooting mainly in Aperture Priority is the best way to get really familiar with your DSLR.

Shutter priority is also a great mode, but it tends to produce underexposed shots if you dont keep an eye on the Aperture value and the Exposure Value. In my head, I refer to it as S for Special Occasions Mode, for when you want to take long range exposure shots of stars, waterfalls, or if you want special light effects only achievable by holding your shutter open for a long period of time. I asked around my friends who are serious and hobbyist photographers, and no one really uses Shutter Priority from the day to day – to me, it really is more for special occasions like star/sports/waterfall photography. And besides, Aperture Priority mode works well for me 90% of the time! 🙂

Here’s what motion looks like on Aperture Priority mode:

aperture motionaperture motion1

Taken on Aperture Priority,
f3.5, ISO100

Heh heh.

Wrapping Up

So, I hope that gave you some idea of the difference between the P, S, A modes, and when to use them. I wouldn’t say I’m the best or most professional photographer around, but I hope this helps aspiring hobbyist photographers get started!

Theory is only one thing – the best way to get good pictures is to really familiarise yourself with your camera and what you can do. Every single person will tell you this: photography is best learnt through hands-on experience 🙂

Alright, go on then – pick up your camera, head out, and experiment! All the best x