Photography basics: The ultimate beginner’s guide

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Photography isn’t just a hobby now. It had turned into a profession for many. Over time, its gaining popularity and spreading its wings over the globe. So, if you made up your mind to turn photography into your profession or even if you are curious about photography, then you are at the right place. The agenda of this article is to simplify the basics of photography. Let’s get started! 

The basic equipment you need

Photography could be done even with the simplest of cameras, but the principles we cover are for the people who are curious or intend to learn to use a DSLR camera or at least a camera that allows the photographer to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO at a basic level. Now, even some pocket cameras have these functionalities.

So, to begin with, let’s learn about exposure.

Exposure

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Exposure is the most basic element of photography.

When photographers speak about “exposure,” they simply mean about the brightness or darkness of a photo. It seems simple to snap a photo that is correctly exposed, I mean has the proper brightness or darkness, but in reality, it can be tricky.

If you’re reading this article, then it probably means that you currently shoot on the “Green mode” or with the automatic setting of your camera. This simply means – the camera entirely controls the exposure of the picture. When you shoot on automatic mode, your camera selects an aperture setting, an ISO setting, a shutter speed, and many other settings for you. If you are a beginner, automatic can be handy, but it also limits your creative ability to take a beautiful picture.

However, technically speaking, the photos that you take with automatic mode may sound good and the photo captured with manual mode may not. To make the photos look just how you want them to be, switching to manual mode and setting the relevant exposure is the best way to capture a brilliant photograph. Because, in photography, it’s all about how creative you are is what that really matters!

Now, hoping that you got a clear picture on why it is so important to take control over the exposure, let’s move on to the next step where you’ll learn about shutter, aperture and ISO. These are the tools you need to set the right exposure. Keep reading and you’ll clearly understand the basics of how to shoot in manual mode on your camera. Not to worry, shooting in manual mode isn’t a hard task as you might think. It’s easy!

After learning about the importance of exposure on your camera, now it’s time to dig deep and learn the three fundamental tools available to control the exposure. Those three tools are shutter speed, aperture and ISO. These three separate tools are key factors used to control the brightness or darkness of the photo.

Aperture

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The aperture is a tiny set of blades in the lens that controls the light flow that will enter the camera. The blades create an octagonal shape that can be widened, known as “wide open”, or narrowed down to a small hole. If you shoot with the aperture wide open, then more light is allowed into the camera than if the aperture is closed down which will allow a tiny hole of light to enter the camera.

So, suppose you took a picture that is too bright. How to fix it? It’s simple! Choose a smaller aperture. Aperture sizes are measured by f-stops. A high f-stop like f-22 means that the aperture hole is quite small, and a low f-stop like f/3.5 means that the aperture is wide open.

To make it clear for you, if you take a pic and it’s too dark at f/5.6, would you choose a lower f-stop number or a higher one? You’d be right if you choose a lower f-stop number, which opens up the aperture to let in more light. Because the size of the aperture controls more than the brightness or darkness of the picture.

The aperture controls the depth-of-field. So, what is the depth of field? Depth of field is the sharpness you can set for the picture, and how you can turn it blur. If you want to take a picture of a person and have the blurred background, you’d use a shallow depth of field. If you want to take a picture of a sweeping mountain vista, you’d want to use a small aperture size, that’s – high f-stop number so that the entire scene is in sharp focus. 

Shutter Speed

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The shutter is a small “curtain” in the camera that quickly rolls over the image sensor – the digital version of the film and allows light to shine onto the imaging sensor for a fraction of a second. The longer the shutter allows light to shine onto the image sensor, the brighter the picture since more light is gathered. A darker picture is produced when the shutter moves very quickly and only allows light to touch the imaging sensor for a tiny fraction of a second. The duration that the shutter allows light onto the image sensor is called the shutter speed and is measured in fractions of a second. So, a shutter speed of 1/2 of a second will allow more light to touch the image sensor and will produce a brighter picture than a shutter speed of 1/200 of a second. So, if you’re taking a picture and it is too dark, you could use slower shutter speed to allow the camera to gather more light.

Just as the aperture affects the exposure as well as the depth-of-field, the shutter affects more than just the exposure. The shutter speed is also principally responsible for controlling the amount of blur in a picture. If you think about it, it makes sense that the shutter speed controls how much blur is in the picture.

ISO

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The fun fact about ISO is that it is an acronym, but nobody really knows what it stands for. It is always just called ISO even though it really stands for the International Organization for Standardization. Every once in a while, you’ll hear a pro photographer pronounce it “I-so”, but almost everyone pronounces it “I.S.O.” The ISO controls the exposure by using the software in the camera to make it extra sensitive to light.

A high ISO such as ISO 1,600 will produce a brighter picture than a lower ISO such as ISO 100. The drawback to increasing the ISO is that it makes the picture noisier. Digital noise is apparent when a photo looks grainy. Have you ever taken a picture at night with your cell phone or your pocket camera, and noticed that it looks really grainy? That is because the camera tried to compensate for the dark scene by choosing a high ISO, which causes more grain.

What constitutes a “high” ISO is constantly changing. Camera companies are constantly improving the ability of cameras to use high ISOs without as much grain. A few years ago, only the highest-end pro DSLR cameras could achieve 2,000 ISO, and now even entry-level DSLR cameras can shoot at this level. Since each camera is different, you would do well to do a few tests with your camera to see how high of an ISO you can shoot at without making the image overly grainy. Right now, you will commonly find new DSLRs that advertise expandable ISO ranges.

Now, it’s time to learn about how to apply these settings on your camera to take advantage of your new-found nuggets of knowledge. You might think that these settings are not of much importance, but they make a hell of difference to your pics.

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“Icon Modes” on your camera

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A common question every budding photographer ask is – why do I need to learn how to set my camera’s settings manually when my camera already has built-in modes for sports, portraits, landscapes, etc? These modes are referred to as the icon modes by photographers because they have icons of the shooting situation on the mode dial.

Again, an example will help you understand better why these icon modes won’t work.

When you’re about to take the giant group picture with over 30 people in it, what mode do you set the camera to? The little portrait icon, because it’s a portrait! But wait! There is a problem, a really big one. The portrait mode on your camera automatically makes the aperture go really low because it thinks you want shallow depth-of-field in your portrait. But in this instance, it’s such a large group of people that you need full depth-of-field so that the people in the back aren’t out of focus. The camera doesn’t know your intentions with this portrait, so half of the group looks blurry.

And thus we see why these automatic icon modes (the landscape, portrait, sports modes, etc), simply will not work for photographers who want to learn to take professional-quality photos.

What are the Creative Modes?

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The Creative Modes on your camera are Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode. On most cameras, they are marked as “P, A, S, M.” These stand for “Program Mode, Aperture priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode.”

If you use a Canon DSLR, then you’ll see that your camera company likes to feel “special” by changing up those names. Canon cameras will show “P, Av, Tv, M” for the same exact modes. “Av” is Canon’s version of Aperture Priority, and “Tv” is Canon’s version of Shutter Priority.

It may feel a bit intimidating to move to these creative modes on your camera, but not to worry, let’s go step-by-step through each of the creative modes, how to use them, and what they do.

Program Mode (P)

Just try it once – you don’t want to use it – ever. But just in case if you’re curious to know why, program mode usually sets the aperture and the shutter speed for you, and allows the photographer to set the white balance, ISO, and flash. This mode is not a great choice to snap great photographs because you can’t set the shutter speed to make sure the picture isn’t blurry, or the aperture to control the depth-of-field.

Aperture Priority Mode 

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I’d recommend you to use aperture priority for 95% of your shooting for the next several months. It is the mode that most hobbyist photographers and even many many pro photographers shoot in most of the time. When you shoot aperture priority mode, you set the aperture (the f-stop) and also the ISO. The camera will then set a shutter speed for you so that the picture is properly exposed.

Aperture priority mode is powerful because it is amazingly simple to use, and still allows the photographer to be creative by offering many choices. In fact, most competent photographers use aperture priority mode every single day.

Suppose you’re shooting friends and family at a party. The background is really busy with people and things around the house, so you decide you want a blurry background in the photo (shallow depth-of-field). To achieve this, you set the camera to f/3.5 which is a low aperture and which will blur out the background. The first picture you take is of a person sitting on the couch next to a lamp. The lamp is bright, so you want a fast shutter speed to get the correct exposure since your aperture is wide open. Using aperture priority mode, the camera would automatically set that shutter speed for you. Then, you want to take a picture of someone in a darker corner of the room. You wouldn’t have to fiddle with camera settings at all, because the camera will automatically see that it is dark and choose a slower shutter speed. All the while, you’re able to keep the aperture set to use creative depth-of-field.

If I could only teach you one thing in this photography basics series, it would be to set your camera in aperture priority for the next six months. When you want full depth-of-field, choose a high f-stop (aperture). When you want a shallow depth of field, choose a lower f-stop. Your pictures will DRAMATICALLY improve when you learn to control the depth-of-field.

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Shutter Priority Mode 

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Shutter priority mode sounds very useful, but the truth is that I have never found a professional photographer who uses it. It is a bit difficult to explain why that is.

At first blush, it sounds convenient to have a mode where you could choose the shutter speed and ISO and let the camera choose the aperture for you. For example, when shooting a school basketball game, you might think you’d want shutter priority mode because you could set the shutter speed fast enough for the quick-moving sports situation.

However, you might be surprised to learn that nearly all professional sports photographers I’ve worked with a shoot in aperture priority mode. Why? Because the depth-of-field is key. We want to control depth-of-field in our sports pictures and we just keep an eye on the shutter speed to make sure the camera isn’t picking one that is too low. If it does, then we boost the ISO so that the camera will choose a faster shutter speed.

Manual Mode (“M”)

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The point is that, eventually, you’ll find yourself wanting to shoot in manual mode for situations where you aren’t rushed to get the shot. If you’re shooting sports, outdoor portraits, or other things, then aperture priority is simpler and faster than shooting in manual mode.

But since you’re still learning, the best option for the next few months is to get comfortable shooting in aperture priority mode all the time.

Next thing is about composition. There are a few basic rules of composition that you’ll easily understand from this article, but you’ll soon see as you get out and practice photography that finding a strong composition is a process of trial-and-error which you’ll only learn with time and practice.

“In simple terms, composition means meticulously selecting what elements will appear in the picture, and then carefully placing those elements in the frame to create a creative, balanced, and interesting organization”.

Composition Example

Ever had a driver’s license photo taken? Or a mug shot? Hopefully, not the mug shot, but we all know how horrendous those photos look. You can look your absolute best when you get to the driver’s license place, but the photo always makes you look terrible. Why? Because they position you in the middle of the frame and then make you square off your shoulders to the camera.

From the photo below, you can see an example of how photographers often envision a picture, and where can you go wrong. But unless you start paying attention to your composition, your pictures will always look like mugshots.

The Rule of Thirds

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Imagine a tic-tac-toe board placed on your picture. The rule of thirds says that you should place whatever is most interesting or eye-catching in the photo on the intersection of the lines on the photo. That’s really all there is to it!

If you’re shooting a portrait, decide which eye of the model is the focal point of the image. Usually, it’s the eye closest to the camera. Then, adjust the framing of the picture until the eye is on the intersection of the imaginary tic-tac-toe board. Bingo! You followed the rule of thirds.

The same is true when shooting a landscape. In many or most landscapes, we like to include some of the foreground up close to the camera so as to give the sweeping landscape a sense of depth. So if there is an interesting rock or plant in the foreground, I’ll place it on the bottom-right or bottom-left intersection of the frame. The same is true without a foreground element. You can place the horizon on the top or bottom third-line so that the horizon doesn’t cut the picture in half.

The REAL Rule of Composition

Ask most amateur photographers in the world what composition is, and 90% of them would answer something like “The rule of thirds and leading lines.” Those are certainly important principles to follow, but I have found that these basic principles are far too simplistic.

When I go out and shoot, I usually find that trial-and-error is the only way to get strong compositions. I loosely follow the rule of thirds and other compositional principles, but mostly it’s about getting down low and shooting up, or finding something to stand on to shoot down, or moving my tripod an inch here an inch there, and really playing around until everything in the picture looks balanced and solid. Don’t over-analyze the rules.

It is not uncommon for photographers to think that something must be wrong with their equipment if the photos don’t come out sharp, but most of the time I find that the reason is simply a product of mistakes the photographer makes when shooting. You can avoid those issues by understanding how to properly focus your camera.

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The common focusing mistake beginner’s do

The common mistake I see from beginning photographers in terms of getting clear pictures is that they aren’t being precise with their focus. I often ask students where they are focusing, and I get answers like, “On the model’s face.” The fact of the matter is that “the face” is far too large of an area to focus on for intimate portraits. Allow me to explain why…

Suppose you’re taking a portrait of someone. Now that you’ve learned how to use shallow depth-of-field from the second article in this series, you want to use it all the time in your portraits to get a creamy background behind the subject. This means you’re usually shooting your portraits at f/2.8 or a similar low aperture. Suppose, also, that you’re using a 100mm lens and standing 7 feet (2.1 meters) from the subject. Did you know that, with these settings, that only 1.4 inches (3.5 centimeters) of the photo sharp? That means that, if you focus on the person’s cheek, their eyes and nose will be partially blurry.

So if you want your photos to come out crystal clear and sharp, you need to focus PRECISELY and make sure you have enough depth-of-field to make the subject come out sharp. When shooting portraits, you will almost always focus on the person’s eye, since that is where the viewer of the photo will look first.

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How to focus on one spot?

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When you were shooting in automatic mode on your camera, the camera would automatically find the subject and focus for you. Now that you’re shooting manually, it’s time to take control of your focus as well.

Your camera ALWAYS focuses on one specific spot in the scene. It is physically impossible for a lens to focus on two spots at once. When you look through your viewfinder, you see a bunch of dots (Canon) or small boxes (Nikon). Those markings show you where in the frame the camera is focusing. This spot generally blinks red when the camera sets focus.

Sometimes, the spot in the picture where you want to focus will not have a focal point available. This is especially true on entry-level Canon Rebel or Nikon D3200 DSLRs, which do not have many focus points. 

Focus Selections

I hope I didn’t confuse you earlier when I said that the camera can ONLY focus on one specific spot in the photo. There are ways that you can activate multiple focus points at once, but in doing so, the camera is just choosing the best of both worlds and compromising between the focus selections to set the focus in the middle somewhere.

Most of the times when I’m out shooting I use spot focus, which allows me to move around the focus point in the viewfinder. My thumb has become adept at constantly moving around the focus point using the four-way selector on the back of the camera as I compose a shot through the viewfinder. Spot focus is great because you have exact control over where the focus is placed.

However, there are other focus selection options on most DSLR cameras. Other than spot focus, you can choose a small group of between 3 and 5 focus points and tell the camera to choose the best of those points, or you could set your camera to determine which focus point to use all on its own. I never let the camera take control of focus–it’s a recipe for blurry pictures. When I’m shooting sports or fast-moving wildlife, I’ll sometimes set the camera to use any of the center area focus points and choose the best one, because the action happens faster than I can move the focus point.

Although there are certain situations to use other focus selections, I would encourage you to use spot focus and get used to constantly moving around the focus point around the frame as you shoot for the next few months.

Focus Modes

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Aside from selecting which focus point(s) the camera is using, you also need to set which type of autofocus the camera will use. For most users, you’ll want to leave your camera on “AF-S” (Nikon) or “One Shot” (Canon). This means that the camera will acquire focus when you press half-way down on the shutter button, and then take the picture when you finish pressing all the way down on the shutter button.

The other main option is the continuous focus (displayed on the camera as “AF-C” for Nikon cameras and “AI Servo” for Canon cameras). This mode is used when the subject is moving. Suppose you’re shooting a soccer player running toward you. If you use one shot, then the camera focuses when you press half-way down on the shutter, and by the time you finish pressing all the way down, the camera takes the picture. In that split second, the athlete will have moved, so the picture will not turn out sharp. Continuous focus (AF-C or AI SERVO) means that the camera continues to find focus all the way up to the instant that you snap the picture.

So why wouldn’t you want to use continuous focus all the time? Because it’s slightly less precise than one shot. So here’s the rule… use one-shot (“AF-S” on Nikon, and “One Shot” on Canon) for all shots where the subject is reasonably still like landscapes or most portraits. Use the continuous focus (“AF-C” on Nikon, and “AI Servo” on Canon) for all fast-moving shots.

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Note: Canon users will also see the option for “AI Focus” when choosing a focus mode. There is a specific use for this, but honestly, it’s just outdated technology. I have tried it extensively even in the best case scenarios for this focus mode and have always achieved better results with AI Servo.

This article provides info on basic terms such as exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO. These basic terms help a lot to take stunning pics. You can change all these settings using the manual mode and so, use the manual mode. Say for example in the sunset photography, capturing in the manual mode with adjusting the aperture and exposure settings will help you capture the true colors.

However, a prime aspect of photography is the composition of the image. The best tip is, go with trial and error method to get the best out of it. Once the composition is done, setting the right focus also adds up to capture a brilliant pic. Hope you got all the necessary tips and tricks of the photography. So, what are you waiting for! Step out and snap a few awesome pics. Cheers!