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Beginners guide – How to use a camera and take photos

March 7, 2022

Welcome to the AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB – This series is designed to take you from the beginnings of photography, introduce different shooting skills and styles, and teach you how to grow as a photographer, so you can enjoy producing amazing photography (and video), to take you to the next level, whether that’s making money or simply mastering your art form.

Improve your photography from AP and MPB

Each week you’ll find a new article so make sure to come back to continue your journey. The start may seem basic to some photographers, but it’s an important step in making sure you’re comfortable with your equipment and the basics of photography, as it’s part of the foundations that help build into great photographs, and once you know these, you’ll be able to play with them, and understand further articles in this series.

Beginners guide on how to use a camera, and start taking better photos

If you’re new to photography, and have recently invested in a new camera, then don’t worry, everyone starts somewhere, and there are a number of quick hints and tips that we can share that will help you get better, sharper, blur-free photos, as well as guide you on some of the important first things you need to know about cameras.

We are talking about digital cameras here, and there are four essential components that you need for a digital camera to work, these are:

  • The camera
  • The lens
  • The battery
  • The memory card

Without these, you’ll have great difficulty taking any photos, and you need to make sure that your battery is charged, and that your memory card isn’t full. Once you have these parts ready, it’s time to get to know the main components and parts on a camera.

If you haven’t read the earlier articles, then it’s worth familiarising yourself with the main camera types, as well as the different lens types available.

Let’s start with the main parts from the top of the camera:

Main camera controls, from the top

Main camera controls, from the top

Lens – See our guide to lens types to learn more about lenses, but without this, you won’t be able to take any photos.

On/Off switch – use this to switch the camera on and off. A useful tip: make sure you switch it off when not in use to save your battery life.

Shutter release button – This is what you use to take photos, and it has two stages or steps. If you learn the two-step process, it’ll help you make sure you get correctly focused photos. Half press this and it activates Auto Focus (AF), and by looking at the screen or viewfinder you’ll be able to confirm that focus is correct. Once this is done you then fully depress/press the button to tell the camera you want it to “release” the shutter and take the photo.

Command dials – These are used to adjust settings, such as exposure compensation, or the aperture and shutter speed, depending what mode you are in.

Mode dial – Most cameras feature a mode dial, but if it doesn’t have one then it may have a mode button, or a way of switching to different shooting modes. For the purposes of this article we’ll be quickly going over the main modes on the dial, but will go into more depth in the next article.

To get you started, the P or Program is a good place to start, or the iA/Auto dial. These are the modes where the camera chooses the shutter/aperture and ISO settings for you, letting you just focus on taking the photo.

There are some of the other main modes you’ll find on most cameras:

  • Auto (or intelligent Auto)
  • P = Program (Program Auto)
  • A = Aperture priority (Av on Canon/Pentax cameras)
  • S = Shutter priority (Tv on Canon/Pentax cameras)
  • M = Manual shutter/aperture control

Aperture and shutter priority modes let you set the aperture or priority and the camera will work out the rest for a correctly exposed photo.

The camera from the back:

Main parts of interest on the back of a camera

Main parts of interest on the back of a camera

Viewfinder (if it has one) – With a Digital SLR, this is an optical viewfinder that lets you see through the lens. With a mirrorless camera, this will be an electronic viewfinder, showing you exactly what the camera’s sensor sees.

Rear screen – On many cameras this will include some form of tilt system, so you can tilt the screen up or down, or move it so it can be positioned to face forwards. It’s used to compose shots and change settings, and if there is no viewfinder, then is the main view you use to take photos. Whether you prefer to use the screen or the viewfinder will be down to your own personal preference, but the viewfinder can be helpful when outdoors in bright light. Many modern cameras feature a touchscreen, letting you use the screen to set the focus point or change settings.

Controls / Dials (Rear) – You’ll often find a scroll wheel or a 4-way controller, that can be used to change settings, such as the focus point, or to choose different options and settings in the menus. It’s worth familiarising yourself with the controls so you can find and change settings when needed.

Playback – The playback button is what you need to press to access and view the photos you’ve already taken. It’s a good idea to learn where this is, so you can find it even in dark conditions, for example shooting in low-light.

Main areas of interest from the front of the camera:

Main parts of interest on the front of the camera

Main parts of interest on the front of the camera

Image sensor – The image sensor is the part of the camera that absorbs the light from the scene, after it travels through the lens. This can vary in size, but the most important thing to remember about it is that any dust or dirt that gets onto the image sensor can cause image quality problems, such as specs of dust on images, so it’s best to leave the body cap or lens on the lens at all times. It’s much easier to keep a sensor clean, than it is to clean a dirty sensor.

Lens mount – The lens mount is what the lens attaches to, and you can line up the red/white dot on the camera body to the red/white dot on the lens, and then simply twist the lens till it clicks into position.

Lens release button – You will need to press this when you want to release a lens from the camera body, in order to change lenses. You only need to press this when taking a lens off the camera, not when putting one on.

The main parts of a camera – from the bottom:

Olympus OM-1 camera, and battery compartment

Olympus OM-1 camera, battery, battery compartment, and tripod socket visible

Battery compartment – On most cameras, the battery compartment will be underneath the camera.

Tripod socket – You’ll also find the tripod socket underneath the camera, and this will be a metal, circular socket, with a metal thread (on most cameras).

Memory card slot – The memory card slot will normally be next to the battery, underneath the camera, but could also be on the side of the camera, so check your manual, or have a look around the camera to find where your memory card slot is.

Setting up your camera…

Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the main parts on your camera, and you’ve got your memory card and battery in the camera, as well as a lens attached, you can now switch it on and start taking photos.

If you have the camera’s manual, we’d also recommend going over it to see if there are any specific things you want to know about your camera. If you don’t have the manual, you should be able to find the manual on the manufacturer’s website.

Once you’ve switched your camera on, you’ll want to check through a few settings to make sure you’re getting the best image quality possible, so here are some quick and simple things to check:

  • Image size – check you’re shooting at the highest resolution available
  • Image quality – check you’re shooting at the highest quality possible, such as Fine or Extra/Super Fine, and if you want to edit photos later, then you can shoot JPEG+RAW
  • White balance settings – Check your white balance settings, for the most part leaving this on Auto will give you great results, but if you’ve accidentally changed it or left it set to the wrong setting, then this can result in colours looking wrong or odd
  • Exposure compensation – this is normally shown with a +/- bar and/or number, and if your photos are looking over-exposed (too bright), or under-exposed (too dark), then this is worth checking
  • Focus settings and switches – make sure your lens and camera are set to auto-focus (AF) instead of manual-focus (MF), as these can sometimes be knocked when taking cameras out of bags
  • Memory card space – this will be displayed on screen and show you how many photos you can take. If this isn’t displayed, then you can toggle through the display with the DISP/display button, or you might need to check your memory card. If you want to learn more about memory cards, have a look at our complete guide to memory cards.
  • Battery life – again, this will be displayed on screen, and is worth checking, as the worst thing to do is arrive somewhere and find your battery is completely flat

How to hold your camera…

You want to hold the camera with two hands, where possible, as this will give you a better grip of the camera, as well as keeping it more steady in your hand. This is useful to help get sharp shots, as any camera movement could result in blurred (or shaky) shots.

Holding a camera with two hands, positioned on grip and the lens

Holding a camera with two hands, positioned on grip and the lens

By holding the camera with two hands in this way, there is a firm grip on the cameras main grip, with the index finger positioned ready to take a photo. The left hand is supporting the lens, and can be used to adjust the lens zoom or focus if needed.

Using this method gives you two points of contact with the camera, and gives a relatively steady grip, which is great if you are using the screen on the back of the camera to compose your images.

The next step is to use the viewfinder… (if the camera has one)

Holding a camera with two hands, and holding it up to your eye

Holding a camera with two hands, and holding it up to your eye

Holding the camera up to your eye gives you a great view of the scene you are photographing, especially if your camera has a large viewfinder. However, it also gives you the added benefit of having a third contact point with the camera, and is a great way of keeping the camera really steady and stable when taking photos.

Now that you’ve got this nailed, you can get out there and start taking photos, and learning more about your camera. The more familiar you are with your camera, the easier you’ll find it to change settings when needed, and have the right settings for taking your next brilliant photo!


Tune in next week, for the next article in the series of the AP Improve Your Photography Series – in partnership with MPB.

Find the latest Improve Your Photography articles here.

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