For all intents and purposes, old school photography is dead. Gone are the days when you had to lug around hefty bags filled with expensive extensions, accoutrement, and rolls and rolls of sensitive film. Digital photography has opened up this exciting world to everyone.
This is not to suggest that modern photographers have fewer options – quite the opposite, actually; digital cameras have merely changed the way photographers operate. For example, a roll of film once limited your options, forcing you to wait for the perfect opportunity which was too often missed. Those limits are gone, thanks not only to internal digital hard drives but ports that allow external thumb drives to be added, as well.
But new technology has gone much further than merely allowing you to take more pictures without having to reload. Many modern cameras are basically portable photography studios with which you can not only take pictures but crop photos, resize them, apply filters to change their properties and appearances, then publish them to a worldwide audience while still in the field.
Even if you are only interested in taking better pictures of your family and friends, or maybe clearer photos for listings on auction sites, everyone who uses a camera can take better pictures just by learning some basic tricks and techniques we will cover in this article.
We will start by covering the broader generalities, then provide you with a list of tips for beginners, introduce you to an easy but effective exercise, then move on to some more advanced discussion and procedures toward the end.
Finally, we have included a number of links within the body of the text as well as a list of even more great resources for amateur photographers at the very bottom. By the time you read this entire article and peruse the external resources, you are going to have a much better grasp of photography as a field, a skill, and as an art form.
By then, you should know what to look for in a great picture, what you need to start taking great photos yourself, and where to find more comprehensive information when you are ready for it.
The Tenets of Photography
Composition, Perspective, and Exposure (or Lighting) are the three cornerstones of fine Art, in general, and this includes photographs. Composition is the arrangement of elements within a picture; Perspective is the angle from which you take it; and Exposure is, as mentioned, the Lighting.
You cannot always control the last two, but the Composition of your photographs is entirely dependent on you and is a skill which, although it comes more naturally to some, can be learned and improved over time.
Every picture you ever take will be judged on these criteria, so you should know them intimately and always have them foremost in your mind when you start snapping pictures. This is not just true of professional critics or competition judges; everyone can tell a good picture from a bad one, even if they cannot explain why one works and the other fails.
There are all sorts of tricks, tips, and techniques to help you learn these three concepts, ensure you remember them, and integrate them into your everyday life so that you begin to “see” the best photographs before you take them. But, for now, it is enough to know what they are, and that they are the fundamentals of all visual Art.
There are a lot of terms used in the field, especially by professional photographers, but we do not have the room to list them all nor discuss them in detail. Instead, we have provided links to some exhaustive glossaries, blogs, and forums at the bottom of this page that cover everything we had to leave out.
Likewise, there are too many factors that go into choosing a camera for us to cover here. Important settings like ISO, exposure, shutter speed, and aperture comprise entire courses, books, and even bookshelves! Functions like iris, white balance, and audio are standard for most digital cameras, and there are dozens of even more advanced features available on higher-end makes and models.
Most of these things are not that important at the amateur level. In fact, when I was taught Photography, the entire class had to buy a Brownie!
We’re going to skip past the Kodak Brownie just a bit, though…
In fact, we’re going to skip over most of the minutiae involved in buying a camera for a number of reasons. One, it is a really subjective process, based on personal taste, style, approach, and much, much more. Second, it has a lot to do with your subject material; you need specific features and functions to catch sharp shots of hummingbirds in flight that are unnecessary for photographing models in a studio, for example. Lastly, it is simply beyond the scope of this article – there are just too many variables.
However, here is a great guide to buying digital cameras to get you started and this page explains how cameras work in greater detail. Don’t forget the list of supplemental resources at the bottom, either!
Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO
Three things you must know about cameras are Aperture (f/stop), Shutter Speed, and ISO. While every term and function is important in its own right, if you know these three terms and their functions, you will be able to take great pictures with any camera or device. That’s because they are the foundation of photography.
The wider the aperture, the lower the f/stop, and the more light is allowed into the lens. You want to use a lower f/stop (wider aperture) for pictures in low-light environments. However, you can also adjust the Aperture to change the field of depth in brighter environments. This can be used to create dramatic or artistic effects, like blurred backgrounds.
Working in conjunction with aperture, the shutter speed controls how much light is allowed into the camera. Sports and wildlife photography use high shutter speeds to avoid motion blur and capture sharper images, while low-light shots like night photography use much slower settings.
The ISO is the final step between the image you are trying to photograph and the image the camera actually captures. The higher you set the ISO, the higher the exposure and less motion blur the camera captures, but it comes at the expense of image quality. The final image will have more noise or grain (but this can usually be offset in post).
Camera Purchasing Tips
As with music, do not spend a lot of money on fancy equipment when you are just starting out. Cameras come installed on almost every technological device available these days; use what you have at hand until you know what you are doing, and what you need from any equipment you decide to buy.
Professional cameras cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars – and that’s before you factor in accessories like lenses and tripods, storage and carrying bags, and maintenance and cleaning supplies. Photography is a major financial investment for many hobbyists.
Eventually, though, most of them decide to purchase a dedicated DSLR camera.
Your First Camera
Most professional-grade cameras have a lot of buttons, knobs, gears, ports, plugs, controls, and doo-dads – especially digital models. As long as you can find the settings for the Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO, you will probably be okay. However, you should always read the manual thoroughly, even if you do not understand all of the information.
A lot of your camera choice depends on your subject matter. As we discussed above, taking pictures of landscapes and taking crisp pictures of basketball players in the midst of a fast-paced game demand very different types of gear. Some may say that, “It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools,” but you don’t use a wrench to loosen a screw.
Another important factor is the feel of your camera. How you hold your camera is the difference between award-winning photos and blurry, unusable ones. The camera needs to be comfortable in your hands when gripped firmly, with the shutter and zoom buttons readily accessible. It also needs to fit your job: A lighter, more compact, camera is best for situations where you need to be able to move or tripods can’t be used.
Most modern cameras automatically snap pictures once the auto-focus adjusts to the subject in the viewfinder but, if you are going to go beyond everyday picture snapping into serious photography, you need the control and flexibility all those buttons and gadgets provide.
Even digital cameras demand a lot of accessories to get the most from them. There are thousands of lenses, expansion cards for more storage, tripods and stands, straps, bags, cleaning supplies, and countless other accoutrement.
Your camera should have the necessary fittings, ports, and slots needed for these expansions and accessories. It should also come with a carrying strap and storage case or bag. Depending on how much it costs or how much business you do with the seller, you might also get some cleaning supplies or even something nicer.
If it does not include at least a shoulder strap and storage case, reconsider your purchasing options.
Quick Tips for Beginners
Do not let your tools, or lack thereof, hold you back! Your phone has a camera and so does your computer, and there are literally hundreds of free photo editing software packages online – some of which rival the high-priced alternatives. Every computer operating system also has a standard photo-editing program, plenty of storage, and file sharing functionality.
It goes without saying that your pictures are going to look better if they are taken with a better camera, but framing, composition, subject choice, perspective, expertise, and more do not come in a box — nor can they be bought off the shelf. These are the skills you, the photographer, bring to your pictures and they can only be learned over time through practice and patience.
Here then is a list of tips all beginners should know.
- Hold your breath. Exhale completely, then inhale slowly and hold your breath before clicking your picture to better steady your hand. Holding your camera in a stable position when taking a photo is critical.
- Center your subject. Until you are capable and confident, you can always improve your composition by cropping and resizing afterward.
- Know your subject. A good picture says something about the subject, captures a quirk or trait or moment in time, and has a sense of motion even if it is a still life; a great one does all of these things. You are not going to get a good shot of a nocturnal creature during the daytime… unless, maybe, it is rabid. If you know your best friend’s “best side,” you can perfectly capture his crooked smile. Knowing the best time of day to photograph your house might help it sell.
- Use the camera’s default settings until you know what you are doing. Do not apply filters beforehand, change the speed, widen the aperture, or make any other changes until you fully know what you are doing and how to do it. Otherwise, you could ruin an otherwise good photo or even damage your new camera! You can apply filters, strip the color, and even add special effects later on. (Ignore all of this if you are practicing or learning how to use your camera’s settings.)
- Research, but also practice. Read, research, and study everything you can at first so that you understand the lingo, know the terms, and have a firm grasp of the basic concepts at the heart of photography. Read up on the subject(s) you plan to photograph, too. But also be sure to put that knowledge into practice because that is the only way you are actually going to learn what you are doing and what works for you.
- Practice. As noted above, using your equipment, framing your subjects, editing your work, and choosing the best snaps from a series is the only way to truly learn the craft. Take pictures of everything – your dog, your friends, your school or place of employment. It does not matter how they turn out; just delete the bad pictures and take new ones – it’s not like you’re wasting film!
- Substance over style. While this has already been mentioned several times, it is important enough to repeat. These days, it is all too easy to rely on lazy techniques like color filters and photo-editing tricks, but a bad photo is a bad photo and there is no reason you should be taking bad pictures. With digital cameras, you can take dozens or even hundreds of pictures without ever running out of film, and that is what professional photographers do: They take entire series of pictures, then select the best five or ten from the bunch. Only then are filters, cropping, or other editing decisions made.
- Take multiple pictures of the same object. Never settle for a single snap! Taking multiple shots of the same subject is a great exercise but it is also good practice. You will choose the best one (or more) later.
Your First Time-Lapse Photography Project
There are lots of exercises you can do to improve but many of them are a variation on this basic study. You are familiar with time-lapse photography even if you don’t realize it: Children’s “flipbooks” are based on the time-lapse technique. So are cartoons and claymation – all forms of animation, actually, including major motion picture CGI and special effects.
The subject here will be either fresh fruit or vegetables, preferably varieties that tend to spoil quickly and/or change colors when they rot. Bananas, citrus, grapes, and squash are good for our purposes. Most varieties of apples, particularly the red ones, do not age quickly but they are often used in this exercise to provide contrast (in both color and age). Don’t go crazy; you can easily get everything you need for less than $5.00 and still have enough fruit left over for a snack.
Find a place where your subject will not be disturbed – where no pets can reach it, no one will eat the fruit, and the display will not be moved before your time-lapse exercise is complete. Place the fresh fruits on a plate or in a bowl, as they are meant to let spoil, then place the display on a table or surface where it is easy to photograph.
Be sure the fruit is clearly visible on, or inside of, the container; it is the subject, and not the bowl or the tablecloth.
Ideally, this study is done with a tripod but a laptop on a desk is just as good. If you have no way of stabilizing your camera or leaving it in the same place for a couple of weeks, just do your best. Chalk or masking tape can be used to mark your placement and you can lean on a piece of furniture for stability (the back of a chair, over a desk, whatever works).
Take 10 or 20 pictures on the first day – as many as you like. Do not edit them, do not crop or resize them; do absolutely nothing to them but move them to a folder marked “Day One.” Continue this process each time, moving the photos to a folder named for the day the pictures were taken. If you choose to do so (and have the time), you can hold a session every day but most photographers wait at least two or three days between sessions to give the subject time to decompose.
Every session should be a series taken from the same place, from the same angle, with the same lighting; the only thing that should change between sessions is the subject itself. After a week or two, the fruit will probably be little more than withered, dried, blackened husks. When it is entirely decomposed or you feel you have learned what you need to know from the exercise, throw away the fruit, clean the bowl and surface, and choose the best photos from each session to create your time-lapse series.
As you pore through your collection of pictures, notice the changes – not only in the colors and shapes of the fruit but in the shadows that form as it decomposes. Look at how their collapse rearranges the original composition and how it affects the lighting on the surrounding fruit bowl. You will be able to detect changes in patterns across the entire photoscape. In fact, the last few sessions are less studies in the fruit as a subject and the negative space surrounding it.
These are the components to great photography, and this skill is sometimes referred to as “seeing around the subject” or “seeing through the subject.” Lighting, staging, arrangement, framing, and composition are the core components to taking a great picture, and working through time-lapse exercises is the best way to learn them.
Once you are done, you have created your first time-lapse still life series! If you ever take a photography class – even an advanced one – this is likely to be the assignment.
Whether or not you are pursuing a career in the field, eventually you will want a portfolio. You might even need one to get into a school, competition, or land a job.
While your portfolio will build naturally over time, it requires active curation to develop. Loosely speaking, your portfolio might be represented in scrapbooks, photo albums, or a USB collection. However, a professional photography portfolio has a set list of characteristics critics and possible employers prefer to see.
Over time, your personal portfolio will become a time-lapse series in its own right, documenting your progress from budding amateur to professional level auteur. But judges do not want to see that unless, perhaps, you are trying to get into a class or school. Your professional portfolio should contain only your very best work to-date.
You should only include samples of your best work in still life, landscape, portrait (sometimes called headshots), staged, wildlife, and at least one spontaneous or non-staged shot(s). If you choose to not include one or more of these samples in your portfolio, it makes a statement, and you should be aware of what that statement says.
For example, excluding wildlife and/or landscapes does not just denote that you specialize in photographing humans and human activity, it specifically states that you do not “do” landscapes, wildlife, or nature photography. As long as there are no specific instructions to the contrary, this is probably acceptable – especially if you are submitting your portfolio for a job at a commercial studio chain which sells family pictures, for example. If you are not sure, just ask.
Yes, your portrait(s) can be a selfie – just be sure you refer to it as a “self-portrait” or “self-study,” instead.
You should also try to include variations in sizes, techniques, and representations. There are certain types of filters, exposures, and presentations that have been popularized throughout the years but do not include your personal take on any of these unless you really knocked it out of the park. In fact, it is probably best to avoid these treatments altogether unless there is a specific reason to include them.
Your portfolio should contain no more than 15 to 20 pages, although it can contain as many photos as you can fit into that. Be careful, though. You do not want it to look like a scrapbook or a teenager’s Trapper Keeper – unless you do! Presentation counts, and your portfolio should be representative of your style, personality, and approach. If you take too many liberties though, it will stand-out for all the wrong reasons.
Curating Your Portfolio
It sounds like you will just rotate out older pictures to include newer ones, but this is not always the case – a great photo is just that and even rank amateurs manage to capture them once in a while.
Choose the pieces that show off your skills, which might not always include your most accessible or commercial work. A beautiful model or interesting cloud formation looks better on a wall than in your portfolio. Putting together a professional portfolio is difficult work; you are basically “editing” your career for presentation.
You can learn this skill along the way by collecting your work into a professional portfolio from the start. This will teach you to better appreciate and evaluate your work and your progress. You will learn to see your photos the way others do, which allows you to assess your strengths and weaknesses.
Getting Started in Photography
Thanks to digital cameras, photography has become more accessible than ever before. Before them, you had to buy expensive cameras, lenses, rolls of sensitive film, and tote it all around with you everywhere you go.
After that, you had to pay even more to have your pictures developed then wait days or even weeks to see the finished product. The only other option was to find a darkroom and develop them yourself using expensive (and dangerous) chemicals. If the film or negatives were exposed to light, they were destroyed.
Now, anyone can take as many pictures as they please using nothing more than their cell phone, then edit them like a professional, and share them with everyone in the world just by pressing a button!
Below, you will find even more great photography tips and advice for beginners. Jump in and start learning more about digital photography today!
Tip for Beginners
- Digital Photo Mentor is a one-stop shop for all things digital photography.
Here, you will find courses, tricks, tips, buying guides, terms, and much more.
- A Glossary of Terms used in Photography.
- This 5-part course to the Basics of Photography from Lifehacker is self-paced, so there is no need to rush. Even advanced photographers can benefit from refresher courses like this one occasionally.
- The Art of Photography is a collegiate-level course divided into four parts.
- Media College is one of the Web’s most replete reference sites dedicated to digital film and media – and it’s free!
Camera Buying Guides
- How to compare digital cameras.
Wiki-How’s instructions on comparing digital camera features when making a purchase and what to look for.
- CNET’s guide to buying cameras.
CNET is one of the foremost authorities on technology.
- Digital Photography Review‘s digital lens buying guide.
One of the longest standing arguments in some circles asks which is more important to a great photo: The camera or the lens. DP Review has a lot of great resources for every facet of the field.
- How to mat a picture.
You may never have noticed it before but if you look at most framed pictures, you will see a border, or mat, between the frame and photo. Matting pictures adds depth and provides another chance for creativity and editing.
- How to make a photo frame.
Commercial photo frames can be expensive and custom frames are even more costly, assuming you can find a craftsman. Not only is this a handy skill to learn, it also gives you complete creative control over the finished product and increases its value.
- 100 Creative Photography Exercises.
Practice makes perfect! These exercises help you build both your expertise and your portfolio.
- How to network for business – Never discount the money you can make from your work, even if it is only your side-hustle. You can sell to greeting card companies, newspapers, professional brochures and newsletters, private collectors, and more.
- Over 20 of the Best Facebook Groups for Photographers.
- The PhotoForum – One of the oldest photography forums online, the PhotoForum is like a Facebook for photographers of all skill level.