Photography 101: Know Your DSLR Dial

Camera shoots fashion blogger girl with make up holds colorful bag.

You know all those little symbols on that wheel at the top of your DSLR camera? They can elevate your photos to a more professional level. We've broke the important ones down for you symbol-by-symbol so you can make the most of your camera.

Manual Mode Camera

Auto (‘A’ or camera symbol, sometimes it's colored green)

This mode is for camera newbies since it sets the exposure and shutter speed automatically for you. All you need to do is push the button and snap a photo, which can be helpful when someone who is not experienced is using your camera to take a photo of you. Auto, however, is the easy way out — you can get much better photos by exploring the other options on your wheel.

Macro (flower icon)

When enabled, it unlocks extra focus range to allow the camera to focus on close-up items, perfect for when you are getting a shot of your accessories. The macro mode gives priority to close-up objects over more distant objects, thus reducing the focusing time of close-up items or preventing the camera focusing on a distant object when the intended object is nearby.

Portrait (person icon)

In this mode the camera gives priority to close-up subjects with face detection enabled (if available) and sets the flash (if enabled) to red-eye reduction, which can be useful when highlighting make up tips or beauty products for your face.

Programmed (P icon)

This is also an automatic mode, but also has a few features that can be controlled manually. The ISO and white balance can be adjusted and the flash can be shut off.

Shutter speed priority (S icon, or sometimes Tv icon) 

This mode gives you the ability to specify the shutter speed, but automatically adjusts the aperture and ISO to make it the correct exposure. A low shutter speed captures a blurry motion effect in a photo, a higher shutter speed is more refined, as to “freeze” the action, which can be helpful for those “walking down the street” shots.

Example of a slow shutter speed:

example slow shutter speed photo

Example of a high shutter speed:

example high shutter speed photo

Aperture priority (A or Av on some models)

This function allows you to focus on the aperture speed, and the camera will auto correct the shutter speed and ISO to compensate. Using this mode you can control the depth of field, which you can learn more about using our aperture guide.

Manual (M)

This mode gives the user full control over the shutter and aperture, however if the ISO setting is set to auto, the camera will adjust this to control exposure. This feature for the more experienced photographer, but as they say, practice makes perfect, so experiment!

[Source: Myce]

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About The Author

Ana is a Travel Blogger and Blogging Coach at The City Sidewalks. With her expertise in online marketing, she's able to help other bloggers, creatives, and entrepreneurs grow their businesses so that they can achieve financial freedom to travel the world on their own terms.

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18 Responses

  1. Andrew cresswell

    So many people spend good money on digital cameras only to leave them permanently on ‘p’. It costs you nothing to experiment and discover what these different settings can do for you, there is no excuse, get playing. Great article, simple and to the point.

  2. GlamFabChameleon

    Great article, precise and clear! Straight to the point!

  3. Jay

    I’ve had my Nikon D3000 for about 3 or 4 years now and I’m still learning all the functions! Taking a film photo class really helped too! Ah, the basics!


  4. MyStylishCradle

    This is helpful article for newbies! I totally recommend this!

  5. Jessica Caldwell

    This is so handy. I always feel intimidated by all the settings that are on my camera and I’ve definitely been guilty of leaving it set on Auto. I’m thinking about getting a new camera and I will keep this article handy when I’m trying out all those new settings!



  6. Michelle A.

    Thanks for this article! I just got a DSLR so I’ve been playing around with it & trying out different shots and trying to improve my photos. This was a lot of help!


  7. Ana

    Macro shots are also a lifesaver when it comes to working with in-library-only books while you’re at uni 😀 .

  8. moiminnie

    such a great article!
    I’m seeing more and more people braging about their new dslr cameras but they only shoot on auto! if you’re going to do that, you don’t need the latest canon or nikon!
    CHECK MY BLOG http://www.moiminnie.blogspot.com/ AND FIND OUT WHY YOU’LL LOVE IT!

  9. Chioma

    Thank you so much for this article! Im selling my nikon point and shoot for a dslr for my blog and in so excited to learn all it has to offer 🙂


  10. debi c

    i have promised myself i won’t use anything but manual setting..the point of buying a dslr would be pointless otherwise..

  11. Vanessa Valiente

    What DSLR (at a decent price) that works well for fashion photography? I would love a link to a photo you took with your recommended camera. Thank you a bunch!!!

  12. Katerina

    Thanks for this, I will be happily playing all day instead of looking at it and saying too hard 🙂

  13. Disneyrollergirl

    I have a Panasonic Lumix (not a DSLR) and I have no idea which setting it should be on for catwalk photos. I’ve used it for years and it used to be fine but for the last year the catwalk pics have been terrible, with the model blurry and the audience in focus. So cringy! Somehow I must have changed the settings but I don’t know what any of the settings do on my camera. Any clues?

  14. Campus Sartorialist

    I would definitely not recommend you shoot in Manual all the time, and especially when you’re outside shooting street style or yourself. It would only waste everyone’s time while you figure out the right shutter speed. If you’re not an experienced professional, shooting on A is probably best and will give you the most appealing photos ( think bokeh). Most times your camera will do a better job at setting the correct shutter speed and if you can’t seem to get it right on site shoot in raw and deal with it later.

    I’m a Nikon aficionado, as I’ve found their lens are higher quality, and I’d recommend one of Nikon’s starter DSLRs for anyone looking to get more into photography. Unless you really really want to shoot video, get a DSLR without video capabilities as this setting only adds extra costs to the camera body and will damage the sensor over time if you film with it.

  15. Ally Chacon

    Oh my gosh! My boyfriend is a photographer and he has tried many times to teach me how to use my camera, but it has never worked! This article has really broken a lot of things down for me!
    Thank you!

  16. James Kemp

    We see this a lot in our industry. People expecting AUTO to take great and consistent images with constantly changing subjects. Learn how to work the equipment to set yourself apart from the crowd.