Until recently, the prohibitive cost of digital SLR (dSLR) cameras meant that many amateur photographers settled for budget-friendly point-and-click compacts. This is a shame, since dSLRs offer a great deal of manual control over settings such as aperture, shutter speed and white balance, helping you get the best picture in a wide range of conditions.

Today's dSLRs can be divided into two groups: entry-level cameras, and more advanced pro and semi-pro models. The visual similarities hide a huge disparity in features, which is reflected in their pricing. The entry-level Canon EOS 1000D costs around £400, for example, while the professional EOS-1Ds Mark III costs up to £7,000. But the latter offers far more than merely improved build quality and a higher pixel count.

Entry-level models are far simpler in terms of the controls and features that they offer, making them suitable choices even for fairly inexperienced snappers. But even these can be overwhelming if you've only just taken the jump from point-and-shoot compact to fully featured dSLR.

While all dSLRs will have an automatic mode, settling for this would be a waste. A dSLR's automatic mode will offer greater precision than that of a compact, but you won't be using your new camera to its full potential.

An important difference between the two types of camera is that dSLRs use a separate lens. Companies such as Pentax, Nikon and Canon provide a large stock of compatible lenses, for which the focal length is measured in millimetres.

A typical focal range is 35-55mm. This means the lens can produce an image the same size as a pinhole 35 to 55mm away from the camera sensor. The higher the focal length, the closer a lens can zoom into a subject. Pros will often spend more on lenses than the camera body itself, but an 18-55mm lens will be sufficient for most images.

Follow our step-by-step guide to the modes and manual settings that will help you take the perfect image.

The basics

Step 1: DSLR cameras include a series of complex manual controls, but it's also possible to use them in auto mode. Select AF or full auto mode (the square icon) for automatic settings. Now you can simply point your camera at the subject, press the shutter button and review the image in the viewfinder.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 1

Step 2: As well as the fully automatic mode, most cameras have a series of pre-defined auto settings for use in different conditions. For example, if you want to take a picture at night or as a close-up, turn the mode dial to the icon for Night Portrait or Close-up, then click the shutter to capture your shot.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 2

Step 3: The LCD viewfinder on your camera is where you review images but also where you access options such as image quality. On the Canon 450D we're using, this is accessed by pressing the menu button and using the cross keys to navigate. Menu options will vary according to the mode you're using.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 3

Step 4: To alter the size of images, select the Quality option. As well as giving options for low, medium, high and best quality, many cameras let you choose the final image size. This governs the amount of compression that's used. When shooting in manual mode, you can capture images in RAW (uncompressed) format.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 4

Step 5: Other options on the main menu typically include settings for modifying your photos and general image management, such as protecting them from being erased or cleaning the sensor of your camera. You can also decide whether images should have time and date stamps.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 5

Step 6: If your camera comes with an image-stabilisation (IS) feature, use it. Find the stabiliser switch on your camera and set it to On. With your camera pointed at a subject, press the shutter button halfway to focus - this will also kick in the IS. When the picture looks steady, complete the shot.

Image note: The left half demonstrates a shot without IS; the right, with IS.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 6

>> NEXT PAGE: Advanced manual modes

Advanced manual modes

Step 7: You should adjust the ISO setting on your camera depending on the amount of ambient light. This function dictates how much light penetrates the lens - for low-light shots you'll want a very high ISO value. Choose ISO 100 in bright daylight, up to ISO 1,600 and beyond for night-time shots.

Image note: Left half demonstrates a low ISO setting; the right, a high ISO setting.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 7

Step 8: To change the aperture of the diaphragm in the lens, set the mode of your camera to AV and use the dial at the front of the camera to set a higher or lower f-number. Higher values make the aperture smaller, producing a longer depth of field so that distant objects remain in focus as well as those closer to the camera.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 8

Step 9: If it turns out you haven't caught the perfect shot, a photo-editing program can come to your aid. However, many digital SLRs allow you to modify the appearance of an image from within the camera itself. For example, by using Canon's Picture Effects mode you can adjust various aspects of a shot, including the contrast.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 9

Step 10:More advanced pro and semi-pro cameras include custom features, such as higher ISO functions, presets for image formats and fine-tuning for exposures. Typically, you access these from the main menu, make the changes you require, then most likely use those settings for all your pictures.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 10

Step 11: A reference point for colour capture on your camera is the way it handles white areas. Normally this is dealt with automatically, but adjusting the white balance can dramatically improve your pictures. To experiment, take a photo of a white object under the light conditions you'll be using for your subject.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 11

Step 12: With your photo on display, the simplest way to change the white balance on a camera such as the Canon EOS 450D is to press the WB button and scroll between standard settings. More advanced white colour correction is available under the WB option in the main menu.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 12

Step 13: Most dSLRs feature a built-in flash that can be used automatically or switched off altogether (this is useful in settings where you wish to preserve natural light, for example). More advanced models will also have a ‘hot shoe' where an external flash can be mounted or connected to the camera.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 13

Step 14: Choose RAW mode when selecting image quality to preserve as much information as possible. RAW files require special software to view, however. Plug-ins for your camera model may need to be downloaded from the camera maker's site if the photo editor you've chosen doesn't offer native support for it.

Mastering dSLR photography: Step 14