Learn Photography: A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide
By Phil Ebiner for Udemy
Looking for more than a beginner’s guide? Take Phil’s Photography Masterclass Course!
Note: This post is part of our “Getting Started” series of free text tutorials on some of our most popular course topics.
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Nowadays, most people have an amazing phone in their pocket at all times. People snap pictures left and right. Computer hard drives get filled with mostly unseen photographs. Basically, everyone is a photographer. This is great because just over a century ago, photography was a luxury. Photography is an amazing art form that can be done personally as a hobby or professionally as a side hustle or even a full-time job. In this tutorial, you’ll learn the basics of many aspects of photography. And you’ll be able to use these skills to take better photos and impress your friends on Instagram and beyond!
Understanding the Camera
The first thing to know about photography is how it works. There are hundreds of different cameras out there that work in different ways. The main thing to remember is that the camera is just a tool. Whatever version of this tool you use, you can still take amazing photos with the right knowledge and an artistic eye.
Types of Cameras
Cameras are broken up into two main categories: film and digital. A film camera uses actual film to take photos. Within film are a few popular types of cameras including SLR (Single-Lens Reflex), Toy (Holga, Lomo), and Disposable. Each of these cameras uses a roll of film with a limited number of exposures (or photos). A typical roll of film contains 24 photos. To develop these photos, one must take the film to a professional lab where they turn your film roll into beautiful photos with a combination of chemicals and light.
Today, few people use film cameras because of the expense and availability of digital cameras. Digital cameras don’t need film to take photos. They capture images digitally and save them to a type of storage device called a memory card. Within digital cameras are four major types of cameras: DSLR (digital single-lens reflex), point-and-hoot, smartphone, and EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lenses). Let’s go through each type of camera and cover the pros and cons.
The DSLR camera is popular among professional photographers because of the ability to change lenses. Changing lenses can dramatically affect the look and aesthetic quality of a photo. DSLR cameras are great because one has complete manual control, superior image quality, low-light performance, durability, and ability to shoot video. The cons of a DSLR are the size – they are big and bulky, sometimes costly, and having a steep learning curve.
The point-and-shoot camera has slowly been replaced by people’s smartphones. But for two decades between 1990 and 2010, the point-and-shoot digital camera was very popular among photo hobbyists and anyone looking to snap quick shots. Point-and-shoot cameras are great because of their ease of use, size, price, and zoom capabilities. Some of the cons include a lack of manual controls, image quality being worse than a DSLR, and lack of a viewfinder. While there are still point-and-shoot cameras on the market, they are quickly becoming obsolete due to the smartphone.
The smartphone camera is great because you almost always have it on you. You can capture any given moment with a quick snap. Smartphones are great for sharing your day-to-day moments and don’t cost much (because they come with your phone!). The cons of the smartphone include poor image quality (which is rapidly getting better and better each year), lack of features, poor low-light quality, and the fact that it depends on your phone’s battery.
The EVIL camera is one of the newest and most exciting types. EVIL cameras are seen as a cross between the DSLR and the point-and-shoot. They are smaller than DSLRs and can have interchangeable lenses. They’re great because of their image quality, portability, and easy learning curve. Some of the cons are that it’s still too big to fit in your pocket, lack of lens selection, and price.
How does a camera work?
To understand how a camera works, we have to look at both types of cameras: film and digital.
Both cameras have a shutter that opens and closes to let light into the camera. With a film camera, pressing the shutter release button allows light to pass into the camera through the shutter and hit a portion of the film, exposing it and ‘imprinting’ an image on it. The film then has to be processed with chemicals to give you a negative. The film negative is used to make prints. This is done by shining light through the negative on chemically treated paper. The basic concept to remember is that light passes through the shutter and is ‘saved’ to the film.
A digital camera technically works similarly. You press the shutter release button to open the shutter. Light passes through the camera lens, through the shutter, and is recorded by the camera’s sensor. These light detectors are called a charged-coupled device (CCD) or complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS). These detectors measure the light’s color and brightness. The image is then saved as a file to the camera’s memory card.
One concept to note is that digital cameras have different sensor sizes. These include full frame, APS, and four thirds. The size effects the quality of the image. DSLR cameras typically have a bigger and better sensor than a point-and-shoot. Don’t confuse this with pixels. A cell phone camera and a DSLR camera might shoot 8mp photos, but the quality of the pixels from a DSLR camera will be much better. Larger sensors also do better in low light, and can capture images even when it is dark outside.
A typical digital camera can save images in two formats: RAW and JPEG.
RAW images are uncompressed images waiting to be processed by a computer. They have a lower contrast (i.e., flatter colors) and higher dynamic range (more information in the highlights and shadows of an image) than a JPEG. So the benefit of shooting in RAW mode is having the ability to edit your images better.
JPEG images are compressed and ready to print, post, and share. They are smaller file sizes with higher contrast and lower dynamic range. This makes them less editable. The best time to shoot in JPEG mode is when you are limited by memory card size (i.e., don’t have enough room on your memory card to shoot in RAW) or if you’re not planning to edit your photos.
Most cameras can change between RAW and JPEG mode via the camera menu. Some cameras can even take both a RAW and JPEG photo at the same time, so you have one that is ready to share online and one that can be edited.
Taking a Photo
How to take a photo depends on the type of camera you have. Typically, the shutter release button is on the top right side of the camera, and can be pressed with your right index finger. On a smartphone, typically a button appears in the camera app that you can press to take the photo. If you’re using an iPhone, you can even press the volume up or down button to take a photo while using the camera app.
To start out, use the camera’s automatic mode. This adjusts the settings so that the exposure (brightness/darkness), white balance (color temperature – something we’ll cover later), and focus are all set automatically. Using the auto mode (sometimes referred to as Program Mode) will help you get used to taking photos with your camera.
Reviewing your Photo
It’s important to review photos on your camera so that you know if you need to take another one or if you got the shot. To review photos on a typical camera, press the button that looks like a rectangle with triangle inside. Scroll through your photos with the joystick or dial on the right back side of your camera. Get back to photo mode by pressing the review button again or lightly pressing the shutter release button.
On a smartphone, reviewing photos depends on the app you are using to take photos. On an iPhone, just click on the gallery in the bottom corner to see all images that you’ve taken. On some android phones, just swipe to the left to bring up your photos.
While in review mode, you will have the option to delete individual photos. Be careful when doing this, however, as your photos will be gone forever if you choose to delete them.
Formatting Memory a Card
Formatting your memory card means wiping it clean. Formatting erases all images and files currently on the memory card, and gets it ready for saving new images from the camera. Typically, you’ll find the formatting option in the menu under media or memory card options.
A good practice is to download all photos to your computer after each shoot, and to format your memory card before each shoot.
Learn to Shoot in Manual Mode
Learning how to shoot in the manual mode of your camera is the best thing you can learn to take your photography to the next level. By understanding how to set exposure properly using aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you’ll be able to creatively light and compose images that are look better.
Most DSLR and even some point-and-shoot cameras have a variety of modes that range from manual to fully automatic. These modes help you control aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance in different ways. Let’s go through some of the common modes that your camera might have.
Full Automatic Mode. On a Canon, this is indicated by a green rectangular outline. In this mode, the camera is fully automatic, making all exposure decisions.
Creative Auto Mode, indicated by the letters ‘CA.’ In this mode, you can set picture style, exposure compensation (which increases or decreases the photo exposure), and drive mode between single-shot, multi-shot, and timer.
Program Mode, indicated by the letter ‘P.’ In this mode, aperture and shutter speed are set automatically to expose properly, but you can adjust the aperture to open or close depending on the style you want (read more on why you would do that in the aperture setting).
TV Shutter-Priority Mode, indicated by the letters ‘TV.’ In this mode, you can manually set the shutter speed while the camera automatically sets the aperture to compensate.
AV Aperture-Priority Mode, indicated by the letters ‘AE.’ This lets you set the aperture while the camera compensates automatically by changing the shutter speed.
Manual Exposure Mode, indicated by the letter ‘M.’ In this mode, you have complete control over shutter speed and aperture independently.
Bulb Mode, indicated by the letter ‘B.’ In this mode, the shutter will stay open as long as the shutter button is pressed. This is great for long exposures at night, such as fireworks.
Some cameras have camera user settings modes, indicated by C1, C2, and C3, that allow you to save individual settings such as white balance, or any other type of setting. This could be a good idea if you shoot a lot of photography in similar locations.
What is exposure? Exposure is basically how bright or dark your photo is. There are two key factors to exposure. The first is: How much light is hitting what is in your frame? How much light is shining on the main subject? Are there spots in your frame that are a lot brighter? Are there spots that are a lot darker? The second is: How much light is entering your lens, hitting the sensor?
We can control the light hitting our subject by moving the subject, using flags and bounces to control where the light is hitting, and adding our own continuous or flashes. We can control how much light is hitting our sensor by changing the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Two key words to remember are underexposed and overexposed. An underexposed image is too dark, while an overexposed image is too bright.
Light enters through the lens first, so we’ll tackle what aperture is first. Aperture, also known as the iris or f-stop, is the opening in your camera lens that allows light to enter. The iris literally opens and closes like the pupil of your eye to let more or less light in. The f-stop scale is a reference for how wide or closed the aperture is.
The f-stop scale goes as follows:
.7, 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22…
A smaller f-stop number means a wider opening. This means more light entering the camera. So, an f/1.4 aperture will let in more light than an f/16 aperture. When shooting in manual mode, one way to make your image brighter is to allow more light in (e.g., open up the aperture).
Aperture doesn’t just affect the amount of light entering the camera. It also affects the depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much of your frame is in focus. A shallow depth of field means that a very small plane of your frame is in focus. A deep depth of field means a lot of your frame is in focus. Look at the examples to see the difference between shallow vs. deep depth of field.
A lower f-stop has a shallower depth of field, while a higher f-stop has a deeper depth of field. While a shallow depth of field is pretty, you shouldn’t always shoot wide open (another way to say at the lowest aperture) because shooting that way makes it difficult to keep subjects in focus.
The key concept to remember is that the aperture is the opening in your camera lens that allows light in. A lower aperture number means more light entering, and therefore a brighter image.
Remember how we talked about the camera shutter opening up to allow light to pass into your camera and hit the camera sensor? The shutter speed is how quickly the camera sensor opens and closes. A longer shutter speed will allow more light in, while a shorter shutter speed will allow less light in. To explain further, a shorter shutter speed will result in a darker image than a longer shutter speed.
Shutter speed is typically represented by a number on your camera that goes from something like 1/4000 of a second to 1/30 of a second and beyond. Most cameras can do a long exposure where the shutter stays open for seconds or even minutes!
One thing to note about slow shutter speeds is that the slower the shutter, the more at risk you are to a blurry image. Think about it: if a camera shutter is allowing light in for 1 full second, any motion during that second will be captured. This motion could be from the subject or whatever is moving in your frame (i.e., a speeding car), or from the movement of your hands. One rule of thumb is to keep your shutter speed quicker than 1/50. This will typically capture crisp motion.
Some situations call for using a slower shutter speed. If you are doing night photography, you might want to use a shutter speed of 1-30 seconds. To make sure that your camera is steady, use a tripod for these types of shots. You may have seen images of a freeway with the cars’ headlights and brake lights streaking across the frame. This is achieved with a long shutter.
The key concept is to remember that a quicker shutter means less light entering your frame. So if you are in manual mode and the photos you are taking are overexposed, try decreasing the shutter speed.
ISO is the last way your camera can affect exposure. ISO is basically how sensitive your camera sensor is. The higher the ISO, the brighter your image will be. The range of ISOs goes from 100 into the five and six figures depending on the type of camera you have.
Before the digital camera, ISO (aka ASA) indicated how sensitive to light the film was. It referred to the size of crystals used in the film. A 100 ISO meant that the crystals were extremely small and required more light to expose. A 1600 ISO meant that the crystals were larger and more sensitive, requiring less light to expose. But the result was grainier images because you could literally see the crystals in the prints.
In digital cameras, there aren’t crystals anymore. But you can get digital noise with a higher ISO. A lot has to do with the quality of your camera. Some cameras can go up to an ISO of 1600+ without getting noisy. Others can only go up to 800 before you can see the noise.
The key concept to remember is a higher ISO means a brighter image. If you have set your aperture and shutter speed to your liking, and the resulting photo is still too dark, try increasing the ISO.
Now that you know what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are, how do you put it all to use? There are many factors that determine whether you should change one versus the other. Typically, it is recommended to set aperture first to whatever depth of field (DOF) you desire. So if you want a shallow depth of field, use a lower aperture. Then set the shutter according to how fast the subject is moving. If you have a fast subject like a running kid or pet, use a higher shutter speed like 1/200. Finally, set your ISO to whatever results in a well-exposed image. But be careful not to go too high because it will result in digital noise in your image.
Of course, it’s not always as easy as that. Sometimes you’ll need to increase your aperture because there’s just too much light entering your camera. Other times you’ll need to lower your shutter speed to below 1/50 because you’re shooting in a low-lit room.
The exposure triangle is a technical dance between these three settings that takes years of practice to perfect.
Camera Light Meter
While it’s great to know how to change the exposure of your camera, you need to know how to read if your photo is going to be exposed properly or not. Thankfully, most cameras have a light meter that assists you in getting proper exposure.
The light meter generally appears at the bottom of your viewfinder or on the back panel of your camera. It might only appear when pressing the shutter release button halfway down. And typically it is a scale that goes from -3 to +3 with perfect exposure in the middle at 0.
When setting exposure, look at your light meter when changing aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You’ll see a line bouncing around the scale. Try to get it between -1 and +1. This means your photo will be properly exposed.
A key thing to note is that while this light meter is a great tool to use for general exposure, there are times when you might want your image to be underexposed. For example, if you want to take a silhouette photo, the light meter will be telling you that your image is underexposed, but you’ll want it to be so. So when using the light meter, it’s okay to break the rules when it comes to creativity.
This is basically a graph that visually represents the exposure of each pixel in your image. On the left side of the graph, the blacks and shadows are represented. On the right side, the highlights and brighter areas are represented. The middle section includes mid-tones. A higher peak in each section means more pixels at that exposure.
The graph goes from 0-255 (0 being black and 255 being white). And each tone is one pixel wide on the graph. Check out the visualization below. You can see that there are lots of brights in this image (without even seeing what the image is!).
Here’s an example of a well exposed photo with no over- or underexposure.
So how do you use a histogram? We can tell if the image is well exposed. If the graph has pixels going from 0 to 255 (from black to white) without any crazy spikes, then you have a well-exposed image.
Spikes on the right or left side of the histogram mean that the data captured at that exposure will be unrecoverable. So when editing these photographs, you won’t be able to darken or brighten these areas of the photo. It’s okay if the histogram touches the sides, just not spikes up at the sides.
An example of a photo with underexposed parts.
As always, remember when you should throw out these rules. Some pictures that you want to take will have completely underexposed parts of the frame that will result in a spike. For example, night photography – pictures of the sky will often have pure blacks. Sunsets will sometimes have pure whites (coming from where the sun is). Just because you know what the histogram is telling you to do, doesn’t mean you should follow it. The histogram is yet another tool. You’re the artist.
Manual and Auto Focus
Focus refers to what is sharp in your image. Remember how you learned about depth of field being a specific plane in your frame that is in focus? Well, focus is what falls within that plane.
Most cameras and lenses have auto and manual focus. If you are using a DSLR camera, lenses typically have a switch on the side that says MF and AF. MF is manual focus. AF is auto focus. To change focus, turn the focus dial on your lens. You will notice that things fall in and out of focus while turning that dial. On a smartphone, you can sometimes change the focus of your camera by tapping on the screen at a particular subject.
Auto focus is great because your camera is able to read whatever is in your viewfinder and adjust the lens so that that subject is in focus. Manual focus is beneficial if you want to creatively focus on specific elements in your frame that autofocus is having trouble focusing on. Sometimes the camera is wrong and doesn’t know how to focus in the right place. This is when manual focus is better.
Most cameras have different autofocus modes. These modes change where the camera focuses. The two basic options are all AF points active and single point active. With all AF points activated, your camera uses multiple points in the frame to detect a subject. It then chooses that subject automatically and focuses on it. With single AF point, you can move your camera around so that the single point is where your subject is. Then press the shutter release button halfway to set focus. You can then snap a photo or move your camera to set your original frame (while holding the shutter release button to keep that focus) and then full-press the shutter release button to take the photo.
In most instances, using auto focus will result in a sharper image. In particular, if you are doing event photography or general everyday photography, the autofocus is my first choice. If you’re doing landscape, low light, or macro, your camera can sometimes have a hard time figuring out what to focus on, so using manual is better.
Another setting in most DSLR cameras is picture styles. On Nikon cameras, these are referred to as picture control. Both Canon and Nikon have the following styles/modes: standard, neutral, monochrome, portrait, and landscape. Canon has an additional faithful mode. Nikon has flat and vivid modes.
These styles affect how the camera processes your photos during exposure. For example, the standard mode makes images crisp and vivid with a higher saturation, contrast, and sharpening. Portrait mode beautifies skin color tones by reducing edge sharpening for a resulting smoother skin. Monochrome makes your image black and white. Neutral has lower contrast and saturation – great for if you are editing your photos yourself. Landscape boosts the greens and blues to make skies and green nature look better. Faithful is for shooting outdoor photos with sunlight. Vivid takes standard mode a step further with bolder colors and sharpness. Flat takes neutral a step further and results in a low-saturated image perfect for editing.
If you’re editing photos, use the neutral or flat mode because the photos contain more information that can be edited later on. If just shooting on a normal day, shoot in the standard mode unless one of the other ones makes more sense.
You can even create your own picture style or install picture styles created by other individuals and companies to get a style you like.
White Balance and Color Temperature
White balance is the way your camera reads light temperature. Your camera can automatically detect and adjust according to the light. Or you can use preset or manual modes to change white balance.
All light has a temperature that falls on the Kelvin scale. The Kelvin scale goes from 1,000-10,000 Kelvin (K) with the lower end being warmer light like candlelight (1,000-2,000 K) or tungsten light (2,500-3,500 K). Tungsten light is what your traditional incandescent light bulb looks like. On the higher end of the scale, you have bluer or cooler light. The sun is 5600 K while an overcast sky can be between 6,500 and 8,500 K.
Thankfully most cameras have nice little icons that help us know what to set the white balance to. These include Kelvin (the letter K in a box), tungsten (a lightbulb), fluorescent (a wide rectangular light bulb), daylight (a sun), flash (electric arrow pointing down), cloudy (a cloud), and shade (a house with lines coming off the side). When going out to shoot, either set your white balance to AWB (auto white balance) or to the mode that matches your setting best.
Of course, you can use different white balances to get creative with your shots, as well. If you are shooting outdoors on a sunny day, set your white balance to shade mode to make your image warmer with a more orange/yellow tint. Or make it cooler by setting it to tungsten mode. Typically you want your white balance to be perfect, but you’re the artist!
Composing Beautiful Photos
Knowing how to use your camera is only half of the equation to taking beautiful photos. The other aspect is looking at what is in your frame and composing a beautiful photo. What is your subject? Where are they in the frame? What colors are in your frame? Where is the light coming from? What is your background? These are all questions to ask yourself before taking each photo. In this section, we’ll cover some basic rules and suggestions for getting better, more beautiful photos.
Rule of Thirds
If there’s one thing to take away from this tutorial, it is the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is a
way of composing our image that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Take a photo, and then add two horizontal and two vertical lines that divide the frame into nine equal boxes. See the example. The rule states to place your subject at one of the intersections of those lines. Studies have shown that a viewer’s eye tends to go towards these intersections automatically, rather than the center of the image. This means a photo taken using the rule of thirds will have a better impact on the viewer.
Basically, it means that you should place the subject to the side of your frame, not directly in the middle and not too close to the edge. Sometimes your subject is a person that you can move around. Other times, your subject is a stationary object like a tree, car, or mountain top. If you can’t move your subject around the frame, you’ll have to move the camera around to get your subject on those intersecting lines.
One tip is that when you are shooting landscapes, place the horizon on one of the horizontal ‘thirds’ lines.
As always, photography rules are meant to be broken. Centering objects or putting them even further on the side, top, or bottom of the frame can create a striking image. But in general, instead of taking photos with your subject directly in the middle, put them off to the side.
Perspective and Angle
Getting creative shots also means changing your angle. Instead of just standing and taking a photo, get down low to the ground or get up high and look down. Notice what happens to your subject when you change your angle. When looking down at a subject, it feels much smaller and less domineering. When looking up at a subject, it will look grander and more intimidating.
Use negative space to make your subject feel small, open, and free. Negative space is when you have a single subject with lots of blank space in the rest of the frame. This blank space could literally be a blank sky. Or it could be a background that doesn’t compete with the subject.
Changing perspective also means going from wide to close-up. Either move your body to get these different shots, or use a different lens. A wide shot is great for establishing a scene. You can see everything going on, including the subject and its surroundings. Medium shots, shots that are closer to the subject, are great for showing action. Medium shots show the subject interacting within the setting. If photographing humans, a medium shot is one that goes from the subject’s waist to just above the top of the head. A close-up is great for showing detail. Close-up photos could be a tight shot of a subject’s hand or face. Close-up shots show more emotion and can be very creative.
The key concept to remember is that you’ll get more creative shots by moving your camera around, changing lenses, and purposefully choosing what is in your frame and what is out.
Choosing a Background
Backgrounds add a lot to the story of a photograph. So the main thing to think about when taking photos is, ‘Does this background help tell the story of my subject?’ For example, one of my favorite photos is at a white-sand beach in Boracay, Philippines. The background says a lot! It shows where we are, and adds to the beauty of the photo. This photo would be completely different if the subjects were standing in the middle of a jungle. Better yet, if the photographer had moved to the other side of us and the background was the street full of vendors, it would have been a different story.
In particular, when taking photos of people, the background is important. It is also important to make sure that the background isn’t too busy. Of course, this depends on your style. But in general, it’s good to have negative space around your subjects. Make sure there aren’t any telephone poles or tree branches that look as if they are protruding from your subjects’ heads.
Pay attention to lighting. How bright is your background? Is it overexposed? Is it underexposed? Move your subject around to make sure you have a properly lit background. Sometimes this can be hard if you are shooting in the middle of the day with a bright sun.
The key concept to remember is that your background is a major player in your photograph. Does it add to or contrast with your subject? Either way, being conscious of what it does helps you to take better photos.
Positioning a Subject
When you do have control of your subject, it’s great to know how to properly position them in your photos. Using the techniques in the past few sections, move your subject so you are using the rule of thirds and so they fit right in with the background. See where the light is coming from. There’s no right or wrong method. Try shooting with the light hitting the side of your subject’s face. Try shooting with the light coming from behind your subject.
Sometimes you don’t have control of your subject. It could be an inanimate object, or you could be shooting an event like a concert or wedding. In these cases, it is up to you to change your perspective and angle to make sure the subject is positioned properly. Especially with events, snap multiple photos of each moment. Change your position, and snap a few more. It’s good to have different options at the end of the day.
Creative Depth of Field
Depth of field can dramatically change the feeling of your photos and how the viewer interacts with your photos. A shallow depth of field can focus our attention on a specific part of the frame. Since our eyes are always trying to focus, when looking at a photograph, we automatically look at what is in focus. Pay attention to what is out of focus, as well. Lights in the background that are blurry (aka bokeh) can add a beautiful effect to your photos. Blurry colors and textures can also change the story of your photo.
Also, having everything in focus can be a creative decision. Wide landscapes are great to shoot with everything in focus. Sometimes you’ll want the viewer to see everything in the photo, crisp and clear.
To get a shallow depth of field, there are two ways to achieve this. First, you can open up your aperture to a lower f-stop. Second, you can use a telephoto or zoom lens. Zooming in on a subject at a longer focal length crushes the background and makes it more blurry.
Thinking about Colors
The last concept for creatively composing your photos is to think about the colors in your frame. Colors create different moods and emotions. Darker grays and blues can give a sad feeling, while bright yellows and greens can feel happy. Contrasting the colors of your subject with the background can make them pop and draw the viewer’s attention even more. Choosing to take out all colors and shoot in monochrome (black and white) can add emotion to the photo. Black-and-white photography forces the viewer to focus more on the composition and lighting. In particular, black-and-white portraits of people’s faces can be very striking.
As you can tell throughout this section, we talked a lot about storytelling and how your photos tell a story. Just remember that the colors in your frame tell a story too.
Better Situational Photography
In this section, I’ll be going over some basic tips for shooting better photos in various situations including landscape, nature, portrait, and kid photography.
Tips for Better Landscape Photos
Light is magic. Shooting at dawn or dusk will make your landscape photos look gorgeous. Try shooting your landscape photos around sunset or sunrise.
Use a polarizing filter. Polarizing filters can boost sky saturation and make it look more contrasted. This can especially make clouds pop.
Use a deep depth of field with a big f-stop. Make sure that everything is in focus. Also, use a wide angle lens.
Use a tripod. This will help you stabilize your shot and get it sharp. This will also allow you to increase the f-stop (decrease the amount of light entering the lens) and use a longer shutter speed.
Think about lines. Where is the horizon line? Does the landscape itself have lines? Place these lines using the rule of thirds.
Tips for Better Nature Photos
Go macro. Even without a macro lens, get really close up. Use a zoom or telephoto lens. Or use a wide lens and get really close to the subject. Use a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field.
Clean composition. Change your angle so that your subject, be it a flower or a bug, doesn’t have a distracting background. Single out your subject this way.
Use auto-focus for animals. It’s hard to get focus when you’re trying to track an animal. Keep your camera on auto-focus to help you.
Block lens flares. If you’re shooting towards the sun or a light source, you might get lens flares across your frame. Sometimes this is a creative choice to include those lens flares. But for clean nature photos, cut them out with a lens hood, hat, or your hand.
Be patient and get comfortable. Nature photography will be more fun if you are comfortable photographing. It will take time to get great photos of animals. You’ll have to wait for the right shot. So it’s important to know this going into a nature photo shoot.
Tips for Better Portraits
Remember your composition rules. Use the rule of thirds, and put your subject on the side of the frame. Or throw out the rules and center them. It’s up to you! Try both.
Get a blurry background. Portraits are meant to show off your subject. Avoid having a competing background by getting a shallow depth of field with a small f-stop or telephoto lens.
Use a creative background. Place your subject in a position that tells a story about your subject.
Get serious. Try a serious pose. You don’t have to have them smile. A lot of beautiful portraits are serious photos.
Elongate the subject’s neck. Have your subject stick their neck out a bit, and tilt their neck up. This will help separate their face from their body, and this is more flattering.
Tips for Better Kid Photography
Shoot at eye level. Crouch down so that you are shooting at the same level as them.
Shoot candid. It’s great to have smiling-face photos. But some of the best photos are candid ones that aren’t posed.
Let them be silly. It’s tough to get your kid to smile. Let them be silly first, then ask for the smile.
Use ambient light, not the flash. Flash photos make a washed-out flat image. Get creative and use the natural light to brighten your photo.
Get up close. Stand a foot or two away and shoot with a wide lens. This can make the viewer feel like they’re right there with your kid. It’s a great way to take kid photographs.
Essential Camera Equipment
Building your camera kit is a process that might take some time, and will definitely take some money. Aside from your camera, there are lots of accessories that can help you take better photos. In this section, we’ll cover the basic pieces of equipment that make up a typical photographer’s camera kit.
Before we dive right in, recognize that building a camera kit takes time. Choosing a brand is important before you start to build a kit because most camera accessories like lenses, batteries, chargers, etc., only work with the same brand of camera.
You can purchase cameras and equipment online from photography stores like BH Photo Video, Adorama, or Amazon. But it is highly recommended to go into your local camera store to see the cameras in person. The way a camera feels in your hands can have a huge effect on what brand you’ll go with. Many people ask what the best camera brand is. While Canon and Nikon are the go-to brands, Fuji, Sony, and many others make high-quality cameras that are just as good. There is no right or wrong choice. Just remember that depending on what brand of camera body you purchase, you’ll be locked into using lenses that work with your brand. Of course, you can often get converters that allow you to put Nikon lenses on a Canon body, for instance. But this just adds another expense that you might not want at the beginning of your photography journey.
Let’s go through the major components of a camera kit.
If using a DSLR camera, you’ll need to purchase the camera body apart from the lenses. Sometimes they come together in a kit. Other times, you can purchase the body and lenses separately. Using Canon as an example, camera bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes with a range of quality and features. Of course, there is a range of prices as well.
The Canon Rebel series is a great introductory camera body for your entry-level photographer. Don’t get me wrong – this camera can take amazing photos. It just doesn’t have as good of sensor as the more expensive camera bodies.
The Canon 5D and 7D are the more professional bodies that have bigger sensors and more features. The original Canon 7D made shooting video with a DSLR camera the next best thing since sliced bread, while the Canon 5D has remained one of the most popular models among professionals.
On the high end, the Canon 1D X is the flagship model in the Canon line. It’s a full-frame camera that can shoot beautiful photos in the dark with a high ISO range.
In between these models are a variety of other bodies, each with their own pros and cons. Some may be better at focusing. Others may be quicker at processing. And of course, this is just the Canon brand. Nikon has a similar range of DSLR cameras with similar features. The main thing to remember is to try to go to a store and get a feeling for the camera body. Think about if you’d like to carry this camera around all day around your neck. Will it be too heavy? Does it feel comfortable? Does it fit your hands? These are all things to consider when purchasing a camera body.
Camera lenses come in two types: zooms and primes. A prime lens is fixed at one focal length, while a zoom lens has a range of focal lengths.
The focal length is the distance in millimeters from the optical center of the lens to the camera sensor. The larger the focal length, the further zoomed in the lens will be. For example, a 24mm lens is a lot wider than a 200mm lens.
The other thing to note about lenses is the aperture. Lenses can only ‘open up’ to a certain aperture. Some open up to f/2.8. Others can only open up to f/4. Others, referred to as fast lenses, can open up to f/1.4. Remember, the aperture is how much light the lens allows to pass through into the camera. As lenses get more expensive, the aperture gets lower. The lower aperture allows you to take pictures in lower light situations. Also remember that aperture affects the depth of field. So faster lenses will also have that beautiful bokeh (blurry background) that comes with a low aperture.
A good starter lens kit will include a wide, a medium, and a telephoto lens. A telephoto lens has a longer focal length. This covers your bases so that when out shooting, you’re able to get wide, medium, and close-up shots. Whether you get primes or zooms is up to you. Primes typically have better glass and a lower aperture, while zooms allow you to zoom in and out from a subject from wherever you are standing.
Personally, I’d suggest getting a zoom in the 24-70 range, the 70-200 range, and a wide prime in the 12-24 range.
Batteries and Chargers
Don’t forget to charge your batteries! Before heading out for any shoot, it’s important to charge your battery(ies). Having extra batteries allows you to stay out all day without worrying about your camera dying. While you can purchase knock-off batteries for your camera that might work, it is suggested to only use batteries of the same brand. So if you have a Nikon, use Nikon batteries.
There are a few tools that are great for stabilizing photos. If you’re taking portraits, doing night photography, or just need a little help staying steady, tripods and monopods are great tools that every photographer should have.
A tripod has three legs, meaning it can stand on its own. Tripods are great for long exposures, studio setups, and portraits. Combining the use of a tripod with a shutter release remote is great because it gets rid of any camera shake that might be caused by your hands. The best real-world scenario for this is night photography when you are using a long exposure.
A monopod has one leg and is a great support for your camera. The more points of contact with your camera you have, the most stable it will be. So using a monopod will increase the points of contact by one. The monopod is great for on-the-go photography. It is smaller than a tripod, and great for event photography. It’s also great if you are using your camera to shoot video.
There are other types of stabilization, but the main point to remember is that having steady hands is important to capture sharp, non-blurry photos. If you don’t have a tripod or monopod, use anything in your environment (a railing, wall, the ground) to help keep your camera steady.
Flash and Lighting
An external flash unit is a wonderful tool for photographers who take a lot of indoor photos in low light. Many wedding and event photographers use external flashes because it is simply too dark to take beautiful photos.
External flashes have adjustable intensities and can swivel. Swiveling the flash around helps create a better-looking photograph because you generally don’t want a giant flash to directly hit your subject’s face. This will create a washed-out photo that looks amateurish. A better idea is to swivel the external flash so that it is bouncing of the ceiling or a wall to the side or back. This will create a softer, diffused look – great for portrait photography.
Another way to make your flash better is to use a diffuser like the Gary Fong Lightsphere or Puffer. It softens light from an external shoe-mounted flash or from the camera’s pop-up flash.
One way to use the flash creatively is to do so during the day. Position your subject so that the sun is behind them, and use your flash as your key light (i.e., main light). This creates a strong effect as the sun acts as a back light, creating a beautiful rim of light around your subject’s head, while the flash illuminates the subject’s face so that the sun in the background doesn’t create a silhouette.
Cases and Bags
You’ll need something to carry all of your camera equipment in, so it is a good idea to invest in a solid camera case or bag. Pelican makes heavy-duty cases that are weatherproof and can protect your equipment from accidental falls. There are many camera backpacks that have customizable pockets and slots perfect for your multiple lenses, flashes, batteries, and other gear. The key concept is to get something that will protect your equipment. Cameras and lenses are really expensive, and you won’t want them to get damaged by not using a proper storage device.
Since most of you will be taking photos with your smartphone, let’s go over some tips for how to take better photos with your phones. It all starts with the right app, and culminates in sharing the photos with your friends.
How to Take Better Pictures with your Smartphone
Here are some basic tips for taking better photos with your smartphone camera:
Crop, don’t zoom. Since your camera doesn’t actually have multiple focal lengths, all it is doing when you zoom in is digitally blowing up the image. If you actually take a photo with your camera at its widest setting, then crop afterwards, your photo will be sharper and not as distorted as it would be with digital zoom.
Edit but don’t filter. It’s okay to make small tweaks of exposure, contrast, and saturation, but using filters typically make photos worse.
Ditch the flash. Try not to use the flash on your phone because like all flashes, it will create a washed-out, flat look.
Get closer. Since you can’t zoom in, a better photo will be produced if you just step forward and get closer with your camera. Surprisingly, the iPhone and other smartphones can do decent macro photography by getting just inches away from a subject and manually changing the focus by tapping on the screen where your subject is.
Remember your composition and background rules. Use the rule of thirds and simplify your background for a better shot.
Best iPhone App for Photographers
To take full control of your smartphone camera, use manual. Manual gives you independent control of the shutter, ISO, white balance, focus, and exposure compensation. You can even use a rule of thirds grid that helps you take better composed images. It’s a great tool for people who like shooting with a DSLR camera.
If you are using the standard photo app on your phone, try shooting in HDR mode. HDR (high-dynamic-range) gives you more information to edit with. The way it works is that your camera actually takes three photos: one exposed properly, one underexposed, and one overexposed. When editing the photos, it gives your more room to play with. Great situations in which to shoot in HDR mode are landscapes, low-light situations, and portraits in sunlight. Know, however, that HDR images will take longer and use up more space.
Tips for Better Instagram Photos
Here are some tips for composing better square photos for Instagram.
Place subjects in the center. Since the photo is a square, using the rule of thirds doesn’t necessarily work. Centering your subject tends to look better in a symmetrical square image.
Take detail shots. Since most people will only see your photos on Instagram, it’s a good idea to get up close and personal with whatever you are shooting. Shooting detail shots, rather than wide scenery shots, will result in better photos on an Instagram feed.
Play around with negative space. If you can, try singling out your subject with negative space. This could be a time to place your subject on the rule of thirds lines, or even further off to the side or bottom of your frame.
Take a screenshot. If you do want to show the full wide image you took and post it to Instagram, first view your photo in gallery mode. Then take a screenshot of your phone. Then post that screenshot to Instagram. The result will be a wide photo with a white or black photo (depending on the type of phone you use.
While it would be amazing to get the perfect photo straight from the camera, oftentimes you’ll want to do a little bit of editing. Editing can improve the exposure, colors, and composition (along with countless other possibilities).
Favorite Photo Editing Applications
There are dozens of applications both for Mac and PC users that do a great job at editing photos. The industry standards are Photoshop and Lightroom. Both are Adobe products that do a powerful job making a regular photograph into a ‘wow’ photograph.
Lightroom is the preferred photo editor for people doing batch editing. This means when you are editing lots of photos at once. You can easily copy and paste edited properties from one photo to the next (or to a group). Photoshop is great for powerful editing and manipulation (removing blemishes, objects, fixing things) when working on one photo at a time.
There are also free alternatives to Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. GIMP is a great alternative to Photoshop, while the built-in Photo or iPhoto app on all Mac computers is a decent Lightroom substitute. If you’ve purchased a camera, they usually come with their own editing software.
Basic Photo Editing in Lightroom
For most edits, it won’t matter what the tool is. The process will be similar across each application. In this section of the photography tutorial, we’ll be using Lightroom as an example, but realize that most alternative applications have the same options.
In Lightroom, you’ll see seven different tabs (or workstations) in the top right. They include: library, develop, map, book, slideshow, print, and web. We’ll be using the library and develop tabs. To import photos, make sure that you are in the library tab. Then click on the import button in the lower left. Find your photos in the file catalog on the left. You can select all photos in a folder or just the specific ones you’d like to edit. After selecting all of the photos that you’d like to edit, click import in the lower right corner.
Adjusting exposure is one of the first things you’ll want to do to make your photo better. To edit photos, you’ll need to switch over to the develop tab. In the develop mode, you’ll notice editing tools on the right and a tray of photos from your last import on the bottom. Select the photo you’d like to edit by clicking it from the bottom tray.
There are many ways to edit exposure. There is a basic exposure slider that controls the exposure (brightness) of the entire photo. There is a contrast slider that will make your photo more contrasted (darker darks, brighter brights) or flatter. There are individual slider controls for highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks. These sliders only control specific portions of your image, depending on their original brightness. For example, the blacks slider will only affect the darkest parts of the photo.
Below the basic editing options is the tone curve. The tone curve allows you to edit the exposure of your entire photo, as well. You can click the line in the tone curve and drag up or down to change the exposure of the highlights, lights, darks, or shadows. You can also adjust the curve using the slider controls below the curve.
As always, there’s no set rule for how you should adjust your exposure. Typically, you’ll want to add a little bit of contrast to your photo to make it pop more. Do this by increasing the contrast slider, highlights, and whites in the basic tools and decreasing the shadows and blacks.
You can also do this by creating an ‘S-shaped’ tone curve. Again, you do this by dragging down the darks and shadows, and dragging up the highlights and lights.
If you are shooting in the RAW camera mode (instead of JPEG), your photos will have a great deal of of room to edit. You can bring up the darks and blacks a lot so that nothing in your photo is underexposed. You can also bring down the highlights and whites so that nothing is overexposed.
The next type of editing you’ll likely want to do is cropping. Cropping is done to either zoom in on something or to straighten out a photo so that the lines within the photo look better. It’s hard to get a perfectly composed shot when running around with a camera. Thankfully, most cameras take photos at such a high resolution (the size) that you can crop and still have a sharp image.
To crop in Lightroom, click the crop icon on the top left of the tool bar. This will bring up new options in the tool window and place a crop grid over your photo. You can adjust the crop by dragging in the corners or sides of the crop grid, then hitting the return key on your keyboard to complete the edit.
You can even change the aspect ratio of your photo easily by clicking in the blank space to the right of ‘Aspect:’ and selecting the aspect ratio you’d like. Aspect ratio is the width-to-height ratio.
Saturation and Vibrance
The saturation and vibrance sliders change how intense the colors are in your photo. Boosting or decreasing the saturation slider will brighten and deepen colors or remove the color. Dragging all the way to the left will result in a black-and-white monochrome photograph. Depending on the feeling you want your photo to evoke, try increasing or decreasing the saturation.
Unlike saturation, vibrance intelligently increases or decreases saturation. It only affects the least saturated colors of your photos so that colors that are already bright and deep don’t become unrealistic. This may happen if just adjusting the saturation slider because the saturation slider changes the entire photo.
Most photos only need to use the vibrance slider because the saturation slider can produce unrealistic colors.
Another basic edit that will improve your photos is sharpening. Sharpening brings out more details. It won’t be able to make a photo that is completely out of focus, in focus. But it will make photos that are a little too soft, better.
To edit the sharpening of your photo, open the detail drop-down in the tool window. Increase the amount of sharpening using the slide. Start at 50 and go up or down, depending on the image. The more sharpening you add, the more noise (digital grain) you’ll add to the image.
You’ll notice other options, including radius, detail, and masking.
Radius is how Lightroom adds sharpening around edges. Lightroom can sense the edges of objects in photos. The default value of 1.0 means it applies sharpening to 1 pixel around the edges. A bigger radius means darker and thicker edges. Stay around .5 – 1.5.
Detail controls how much sharpening it will add to the edges. The more you increase the detail, the more edges Lightroom will try to sharpen.
Masking is great if your photo has one object that has lots of details and a lot of negative space without many details. It tries to intelligently decrease the noise created by the amount and detail sliders in the areas around your main subject.
You can use the window at the top of the details drop-down to see a close-up of what your sharpening is doing.
A great way to direct the attention of the viewer to a subject in the middle of your photo is to add a vignette. In Lightroom, you can add a vignette by opening the effects drop-down in the tools window. The amount slider will add a dark or light vignette to the photo while the midpoint, roundness, and feather sliders adjust the type of vignette.
Increasing or decreasing the midpoint slider grows or shrinks the vignette.
Increasing or decreasing the roundness slider makes your vignette more square or circular.
Increasing or decreasing the feather slider will adjust how the vignette falls off or fades.
The highlights slider allows highlights in your photo to show through the vignette.
After you’ve finished making all edits, it’s time to export your photos. Exporting from Lightroom is relatively simple. First, select the photos you’d like to export by clicking them in the tray at the bottom of Lightroom. Select multiple by command/control-clicking the ones you’d like to export. Or select a range by clicking on one photo and then shift-clicking the last photo in the tray of the range you’d like to export. Go up to the file menu and then click Export (or use the keyboard shortcut shift – command/ctrl – E). A window will pop up with different options for your export.
Choose where you would like to save your photos in the Export Location drop-down. Choose the type of File Naming below. You can have all the photos renamed in any type of sequence. Under File Settings, choose the right type of file. For online sharing, I typically use the JPEG Image Format with quality set to 80. You can limit the size of each photo export in this drop-down, as well. In the Image Resizing drop-down, you can resize the photos if you want a specific width or height. Add a watermark with the Watermark drop-down.
Once you have adjusted all of your export settings, click Export. Lightroom will export all of your selected photos and you can find them in the folder you directed them to.
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