A Complete Guide Photography For Beginners: Step By Step (With Pic)

Cameras are complicated. I was frustrated with my first DSLR. I just couldn’t capture what I saw through my viewfinder. It took a ton of trial and error.

When I managed to work it all out, I started taking some pretty spectacular images. In this post, I will share with you everything that I’ve learned from my mistakes.

Infographic

As beginner photographers, we tend to be visual learners. And it’s my job to make beginning photography as easy as possible for you.

So I thought to myself, “What better way to help beginner photographers learn how to use their cameras, than by creating an infographic?” And that’s exactly what I did.

I collaborated with an illustrator friend of mine, and together we made these images. The following are something that will make understanding exposure, and how cameras work, a whole lot easier!

Let’s dive into more depth…

Exposure

For those beginning photography, exposure is key to capturing a great image.

Learning how exposure works will help you to take control of your camera and take better photos. Apertureshutter speedISO are the elements that combine to create an exposure.

As you’ll soon learn, these elements have an effect on more than just the exposure. They also cause alterations in depth of fieldmotion blur, and digital noise.

Once you understand how each one works, you can start diving into manual mode. This is where you take control back from your camera.

The exposure triangle is a great way to remember the three settings. When combined, they control the amount of light captured from any given scene.

This will help you to understand that changing one setting will necessitate a change in the others. That is if you are photographing the same scene with the same exact lighting conditions.

Exposure happens in three steps. We will start with the aperture. This is the hole inside the lens, through which the light passes.

It’s similar to the pupil of your eye: the wider the aperture, the more light is allowed in and vice versa. Simple? Not quite.

As the aperture widens, the f/number gets lower and more light is allowed into the camera. This is great for low light but be aware that it’s going to make the depth of field very shallow – not ideal when taking landscapes.

The aperture is the preferred setting to set first, as it directly influences how much of your scene is in focus. But, if you are looking to create a motion blur, then it is second to the shutter speed.

Basic photography concepts: aperture, shutter speed, ISO speed, exposure

Photography is all about light. To let the camera “see” what you wish, you have tools controlling how much light reaches the camera sensor: the aperture and shutter speed controls. With too little light, your photo will be too dark. With too much light, it will be too bright. In both cases, some details will be lost. You use aperture and shutter speed to achieve the proper exposure while taking into account some important side-effects you should be aware of.

Imagine that you are looking through a small round hole in a fence. How much of the scene behind the fence will you see and comprehend? I would say it depends on two factors:

  1. How large the hole is. The larger it is, the more you will see.
  2. How long you look. The longer you look, the more details you will notice.

The same story happens in a photo camera. I am now probably risking to get a negative evaluation of my physics knowledge, which would, unfortunately, be quite fair… However, although the physical reasons might differ, the conceptual comparison seems to be quite adequate. When shooting with a photo camera, you let the sensor see the scene through a hole in the lens called aperture. The larger this hole is, the more light reaches the sensor.

Normally the sensor is closed by a curtain called shutter. When shooting, the shutter opens, light reaches the sensor through the aperture hole, and then it closes again. The longer the opening lasts, the more light reaches the sensor. This time is called shutter speed.

Thus, it is very important to get the exposure right when shooting. But what is “right”? Does it mean “the photo must look so bright/dark as I want it to be on the final photograph”? No! By “right” I mean that the exposure must be such that the maximum number of the scene details is captured by the sensor. Recording the visual information, as much as possible – that’s what the camera is for! Then you present these data in the way you like, create the final photograph in Photo Sense (see also why software post-processing is necessary). In fact, the best properly exposed photos often look terribly dull before software post-processing.

Fortunately, modern photo cameras often provide accurate automatic exposure evaluation. At least with a natural, more or less even lighting, their evaluation is usually great. In automatic mode, the camera suggests the aperture and shutter speed values to use. They guarantee a good exposure. But are these really the best possible values? Why not enlarge the aperture hole twice and halve the shutter speed? The amount of light reaching the sensor will be the same, thus it does not make any difference, does it? Well, in fact, it does. Although the exposure is still the same (and correct), this change can make a great difference in the resulting photograph. Both aperture and shutter speed affect more aspects than just how much light reaches the sensor, and a photographer must always keep them in mind to get good results. However good your camera is, it is still unable to read your mind, and thus to know what exactly you want. Let’s look at the aperture and shutter speed in more detail, and discuss their important side effects.

Aperture and depth of field

As explained above, aperture defines how large the hole is through which the sensor sees the world. In photography, the aperture is measured in units called F-numbersF-stops or whatever else with this F-. Without going into details about what exactly this F- is (I would need to look it up myself to explain, physics again), all you really need to know is the following. The smaller the F-number is, the larger the aperture hole is, and the light reaches the sensor. From now on by “large aperture” I will mean a large aperture hole (and a small F-number), and vice versa by “small aperture”.

In practice, depending on the lens you have, you usually use F- values from about F4 (large aperture) to approximately F16 (small aperture). Some quality lenses support much larger apertures, for example, my favorite Nikon lenses (85mm and 50mm) get to F1.8 or even F1.4. These are very light-sensitive lenses saving you in dark conditions (more about lenses and low-light photography).

In addition to the amount of light reaching the sensor, aperture affects another very important aspect: the depth of field. Imagine several objects located at different distances from the camera. Say a person 5 meters away, a bear 7 meters away, and a tree 10 meters away. The camera sees them all, but the question is: which objects are in focus? The larger the depth of field is, the more objects are in focus. And the smaller the aperture (the larger the F-number) is, the larger the depth of field is. Thus, to get only the person in focus (with the bear and tree out of focus), focus on the person and set the maximum aperture, such as F1.8. This is great for portraits with nice blurred backgrounds. To capture the whole scene, you also want the bear and tree in focus – use a greater F-number, such as F8 or more.

Shallow depth of field due to the wide aperture F1.4. The lion is in focus, the bear behind is out of focus.
Larger depth of field with smaller aperture F8. The focus is still on the lion, but the bear is also in focus.

Note that aperture is not the only parameter affecting the depth of field. For example, the distance between the photographer and the subjects also plays a very important role. The closer you are to the first subject, the smaller the depth of field becomes.

his is some basic information about the Aperture setting in your camera, and how to use it effectively.

The Aperture Size determines how much light enters your lens. The size is controlled by an iris, like the human eye. Aperture sizes are measured in F-Stops; the higher the F-Stop number, the smaller the opening. Here are some examples of F-Stop settings in a Pentax lens:

F-Stop/Aperture Visual

Most photographers in our club use Aperture Priority mode. That’s where you pick the aperture size, and the camera decides the exposure time (shutter speed). The main reason for using Aperture Priority is to control the Depth of Field, which is usually the most important creative element of an image.

Here are two examples of the same scene shot with two very different Aperture settings, to show the difference that Depth of Field can make. As you can see, a larger Aperture result in a shorter Depth of Field, and vice versa.

In the above situation, the larger aperture (left image) is better because it blurs the background vegetation, which is a distraction from the main subject. Using Aperture Priority allows you to directly control how much of the background is in focus (Depth of Field). You won’t have this type of control if you’re using Shutter Priority or Automatic mode.

examples of using large apertures effectively

Shallow Depth of Field

This image by Bob Steventon, which scored very highly in a Lions Gate competition, uses a relatively large aperture (f5.6) to focus attention on the bird while providing a nicely blurred background that does not distract from the main subject. Note that the aperture is just large enough so that the entire bird is in focus. If Bob had used a larger aperture, some parts of the bird might have been out of focus, and therefore the image would have received a lower score in the competition.

Shallow Depth of Field

This image by Doug Lamb, which was a Photo of the Month winner, uses a large aperture (f2.8) to focus very narrowly on the muzzle of the gun, which makes the image more menacing. Also, the shooter’s mask seems more menacing because it is blurry. If the mask were in focus, you’d probably be able to tell it was a mask, and therefore the image would be less menacing.

Camera Features for Beginners

  • Viewfinder (and grid mode): You can use the viewfinder to help strategize the composition of your photo. Grid mode turns on a helpful planning grid within the screen.
  • Zoom: While it’s generally recommended to stay away from zooming, as this reduces quality in pictures, it’s important to understand the limitations and benefits of your camera’s zoom.
  • Focus: Most cameras come with autofocus, but you should also figure out how to change this setting to manual once you get comfortable with other photography basics. This will help you take more visually interesting photos.
  • Color Balance: Adjust your color balance settings depending on the lighting to help make sure your photos don’t come out in undesired colors.
  • Aperture: Adjust your aperture settings so you’re better able to control the light in your images.
  • Shutter Speed: Too fast shutter speed and your images come out dark, too slow and they’ll come out blurry. Try to find a balance.
  • Flash: While most photographers try to stick to external light sources, you still need to understand the basics behind your camera’s flash.
  • Manual Mode (and additional modes): Modes such as sport, portrait, landscape and more help you automatically adjust for the subject of your photo. Taking your settings off of automatic will give you more control in your photography.
  • Light Balance/Exposure: Adjust this depending on how much light you want in your images before you take them.
  • ISO: Your ISO, or the sensitivity of your camera to light, will affect how much photo grain appears in your images.
  • Histogram: Your histogram is the graphical representation of color values displayed in your camera. Make sure those values are where you want them to be when shooting.
  • RAW vs. JPEG: These file types dictate how much space you’ll have in your memory cards along with how to advance your editing will be posting photoshoot. If shooting in RAW, the larger file type, plan to bring extra memory cards

Photography Equipment For Beginners

  • Camera Body (or camera phone): Your camera body needs to be able to handle the size of images you want to take and come with any features you feel are essential. For example, you may not want a point-and-shoot if you want to change your depth of field or exposure.
  • Lenses (and cover): Lens come in all shapes and sizes and these are one of the most long term investments you’ll make as they last longer than camera bodies. Spend time picking the right lens with the focal range and functions you’ll want most.
  • Tripod: Tripod needs to be sturdy, reliable, and as light right as possible. This is an especially important investment for photographers with shaking hands.
  • External Light: External lights help erase harsh shadows on your subject. This makes them a great long term investment, especially for portrait photographers.
  • External Hard Drive: Finding a way to reliably store your photos is essential. Don’t wait until all your hard work is erased to get one.
  • Memory Cards: Always have at least two in your camera bag. That way if your photoshoot runs longer than expected, you won’t have to go back and delete images to make space just to keep photographing.
  • Bag/Carrying Gear: Your bag and carrying gear should be lightweight enough to not hinder you while traveling to and from locations.
  • Cleaning Supplies for lens and camera: Dirty lens decreases photo quality. Worst case scenario, dirt can damage your lens, so always make sure to have proper cleaning materials.
  • Rechargeable Batteries: Extra batteries means you can keep your photoshoot going for much longer, and they’re ideal for long trips.

Photography Tips For Beginners

There’s plenty of tips and tricks in photography that can help elevate your skills and take to you the next level as a photographer. From sticking to the golden hour for portraits to understanding the rule of thirds, check out our favorite photography tips for beginners below:

Basic Photography Tips

Female hands taking picture of breakfast table set up using gridlines from beginners photography tips

  1. Get in close. Zoom decreases your photo quality, but your feet don’t. As long as it’s safe, physically move closer to your subject for a better photo.
  2. Practice every day. Practice makes perfect and photography is no exception. Get out there and start taking photos.
  3. Check for even lighting. Harsh shadows or lack of light will severely impact the look of your photo. Get an external light source or schedule your photoshoot for the right time.
  4. Keep an eye out for composition. Photo composition, or the arrangement of visual elements, is key to telling your whole story.
  5. Keep your batteries charged. Nothing puts a stop to a photoshoot faster than dead batteries.
  6. Plan out your depth of field. How far away is your subject? Is you subject clear and in focus? These questions all have to deal with your depth of focus.
  7. Watch for the golden hour. The Golden hour is the time when natural light is diffused and even. This time occurs in the two hours after sunrise or two hours before sunset.
  8. Stick to the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds will help you compose your photo so that nothing is dead center or framed in a visually boring way. Keep your subject or composition filling two of three grid lines for this trick.
  9. Experiment with filters. Filters can help you take your photo and make it something special. Check out our resource on the best photo filter apps for more information.
  10. Learn how to work with motion. Read our guide on how to take action photos for help with this.
  11. Edit your photos. After your photoshoot make sure to take the time to edit your favorite photos. Often this will be the step that makes them outstanding finished projects. Look to our guide on best photo editing apps for help.
  12. Keep your photos organized. Our digital scrapbooking tips will help make sure nothing is ever lost.

Nature Photography Tips

A beginner photographer looking through his viewfinder towards the mountains.

  1.  Focus on perspective. Sometimes a new angle is all you need to make your photograph instantly better.
  2. Try micro or macro photography. Appreciate the little things in life, and photography. Don’t be afraid to get up close and personal.
  3. Don’t overpack equipment. Nothing weighs you down in your efforts like weight. Seriously ask yourself before setting out if you need that third lens or heavyweight tripod.
  4. Plan ahead. Read more about this and other travel photography tips from our hub.

Portrait Photography Tips

Headshot portrait of people in digital composite montage for beginner photography

  1. Be aware of your background. Nothing ruins a planned portrait photoshoot quicker than someone putting up bunny ears in the background.
  2. Check your exposure. You never want your subject to be either under or over exposed in the photo– or you’ll risk losing key features. Check this ahead of time.
  3. Make sure your subject is relaxed. If you subject is nervous or upset, it’ll show through in the photograph. Try having a normal conversation with them or distracting them between photos to help put them at ease.
  4. Try to include some variation. Whether this means changing up the scenery, their outfit, both, or something else entirely – variation is interesting. And interesting photos will always top plain photos.
  5. For family portraits, stay organized. There’s a lot that ties together when going for a family photo session. Keep everyone on track so you get the best photo outcome.

Photography Classes For Beginners

One of the best ways to learn better photography skills and get plenty of practice is to take a photography class. These classes can range in price (and many are free) and some can be taken online, from the comfort of your home. Types of photography classes and locations to find them may include:

  • Online Courses
  • Community College Courses
  • Private, Instructor led Courses
  • Community or Civic Center Courses
  • Camera Store Programs
  • Local Club Programs

Photography Blogs For Beginners

Like photography classes, photo blogs enable you to hone your skills, but at your own pace. Focus on one area in photography, such as portrait or wildlife, or diversify your learnings and become a jack of all (photography) trades. Additionally, even as you mature as a photographer, there’s usually new postings every month that apply to different skill levels. Check out some of our favorite photography blogs for beginners below:

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