Camera pointing towards you

Introduction to a DSLR Camera

The Front

Your DSLR is a wonderful but intimidating array of buttons, dials, screens and wheels. What do they all do?

A view of the Nikon D300 from the front
Close-up of shutter release button on Nikon D300S1. Shutter release
Press this to take your photo. A half press will activate the autofocus and show you the results in your viewfinder. The switch surrounding this button is how you turn the camera on and off
Nikon flash hot shoe position on D3002. Flash hot-shoe
Attach an external flash gun to the top of a DSLR for more power and flexibility than the pop-up flash
Pop-up flash unit on a Nikon DSLR3. Pop-up flash
Strong flash which can be activated manually or can appear automatically according to your settings
D300s secondary command dial for scrolling4. Finger wheel
Used to scroll through settings like aperture and shutter speed. Changes may be reflected on-screen or in the viewfinder’s LED display
DoF Preview Button on Nikons5. Depth of field preview 
Pressing this button allows you to see how much of the scene will be kept in focus with the aperture size you’ve chosen
Where lenses are mounted on a camera6. Lens mount
DSLRs let you swap lenses depending on what you’re photographing. The lens will need to be compatible with your make of DSLR


The Back

We all know what the LCD screen is for, but what do all those little buttons do?

The back view of a Nikon D300 DSLR
The view finder of a Nikon DSLR1. Viewfinder 
Unlike compact digital cameras, you have to look into the viewfinder to line up your shot. But DSLRs do show you exactly what the camera will shoot
Nikon auto-focus and auto-exposure lock button2. Autofocus and auto-exposure locks 
Being able to lock autofocus and auto-exposure settings let you keep settings when you change focal point or if the lighting changes
3. Thumbwheel 
Like the finger wheel on the front of a DSLR, the thumbwheel lets you change settings like aperture or shutter speed without accessing a menu
Four-way selection pad on a Nikon DSLR4. Four-way selection pad 
Used to navigate the menus displayed on the LCD screen and scroll through images on playback. Can also offer shortcuts to camera settings
Nikon DSLR function buttons5. Function keys 
This row of keys gives access to the main menu, settings shortcuts, image playback, image zoom and system help features
Nikon D300s LCD display6. LCD screen 
The screen lets you review your images and to access the camera’s main settings menu. 2.5-inch screens are standard
memory card slot on Nikon D3007. Memory card slot 
Flip the door open to insert or remove your memory card. Higher-spec models have weatherproof seals to keep out rain and moisture


The Top

The top panel of your DSLR is its control centre, where you choose your mode and check settings and memory space

Top view of a Nikon D300 DSLR
Attaching a filter onto the filter thread1. Filter thread 
Attach filters to your lens here. The required diameter measurement is usually printed on the lens itself
Nikon lens zoom and focus rings 2. Zoom and focus rings 
The pattern on the lens makes it easier to grip to zoom in on a subject and to manually adjust the focus
focal length3. Focal lengths 
The numbers refer to the adjustable focal length of your lens in millimetres. The higher the focal length, the greater the zoom
button to release a lens on Nikon D3004. Lens release button 
Press this button while turning the lens to detatch it from the body of the camera. When attaching another lens, hold it down
Nikon's scrolling finger wheel5. Top-left controls: advance mode dial + WB, QUAL, and ISO
This dial sets the frame advance rate (single frame, continuous low or continuous high), engages Live View, the self timer or flips the mirror up. The shortcut buttons above allow you to change file format/compression (QUAL), White Balance and ISO
Nikon D300 Dioptre6. Dioptre 
Slightly long- or short-sighted users can adjust the viewfinder to match the difference in their eyes and use the camera without glasses or contact lenses
The top LCD screen on a Nikon D3007. Top-plate LCD 
Displays information on settings, battery life and free memory card capacity
Exposure Mode and Exposure Compensation buttons on a Nikon D300 DSLR8. Top-right controls: exposure mode button and exposure compensation button
Switched between shooting modes: Program (P) for auto exposure, Shutter Priority (S), Aperture Priority (A) and Manual (M) exposure modes. The +/- button makes the picture brighter (+) or darker (-)

Unfortunately, all of these buttons and dials appear in slightly different places on different camera models! More professional DSLRs have even more functions, controls and displays. However, if you get to grips with the basics explained above, it will enable you to operate all kinds of DSLRs to a reasonable level. As we used the arguably more intuitive Nikon model above as an example, let’s take a look at the different symbols found on Canon cameras…

Canon DSLR camera icons explained

A handy visual primer that gives definitions to all the cryptic icons on Canon DSLRs and their software interface

Canon DSLR mode dial icons and acronyms

Automatic Depth-of-field mode
Manual exposure mode
Aperture priority mode (Aperture Value)
Shutter priority/Action shot mode (Time Value)
Program AE mode – shutterspeed (exposure) and aperture set automatically
Full Automatic mode
Portait mode
Landscape mode
Close-up mode
Sports mode
Night portrait mode
Flash off


Canon DSLR – Camera Setting Display

White Balance icons
Automatic White Balance
Tungsten light
White fluorescent light


Image size and compression quality
Large image/fine compression quality
Large image/normal compression quality
Medium image/fine compression quality
Medium image/normal compression quality
Small image/fine compression quality
Small image/normal compression quality
RAW with Large image/fine compression quality
RAW image


Metering mode
Evaluative metering
Partial metering
Center-weighted metering
Spot metering