Photography Basics For Beginners

This guide covers the basics of photography and should be useful for any beginner photographers wishing to gain a basic understanding of photography.

Part 1: Camera Modes

This mode is the easiest to use, everything is set automatically so all you need to do is point and shoot.

The most difficult mode to use, which allows you to set everything yourself such as ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

This mode sets the shutter speed and aperture for you, but allows you to set the ISO.

Shutter Priority
Shutter priority allows you to set the shutter speed and ISO manually while the camera will set the aperture accordingly.

Aperture Priority
Aperture priority allows you to set the aperture and ISO manually while the camera sets the shutter speed.

Scene Modes
Most cameras have scene modes, which like auto mode set everything for you, but with more suitable settings for different scenes, such as landscape, portrait and night modes.

Part 2: Camera Settings

There are three important settings on an SLR camera that everyone should learn. They are aperture, ISO and shutter speed, and changing any one of these will affect the exposure of your photo.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the amount of time light is allowed into your camera and exposed to the image sensor. The shutter speed all depends on how much light there is in your surrounding, such as on a very sunny day you can use a much faster shutter speed, since this is all that is needed to get the correct exposure. If the weather was cloudy, or towards the evening when it’s darker, you may need a much slower shutter speed to get the same exposure as on a much sunnier day.

There is also a minimum shutter speed you should use when taking photos hand held to avoid your photos blurring caused by camera shake from your hands. The minimum shutter speed as a rough guide should be equal to or slightly more than your focal length, so if your focal length is 50mm you will need a minimum shutter speed of at least 1/60 to avoid blur.


Aperture is the amount of light that’s let into the camera, controlled by the size of the opening inside the lens. It is measured using f stops, so the higher the f number the less light is let into the camera e.g. f/16, and the lower the number the more light e.g. f/1.4. Aperture’s main use is for changing the depth of field, which dictates how much of the scene is detailed and in focus.

Different apertures are useful for different subjects, such as if you want to focus on one subject in the foreground like a model, and have the background blurred, you would use a wider aperture, such as f/1.4, but for landscapes where you want all of the scene in focus, you would need a narrower aperture such as f/11 to f/16. Although it seems counter intuitive, narrower apertures are higher f numbers, and wider apertures lower f numbers.

Aperture also affects the shutter speed, so the larger the f number, the less light is let in, and so you would need a longer shutter speed than a smaller f number, which would allow a lot more light in.


ISO is the film speed of the camera and the sensitivity to light. Before digital cameras, film cameras used films that had a rating on them of say 100, 200, 400 etc. which were useful for different situations, such as 100 for taking photos outdoors and 800 for indoors. The same rules still apply to digital cameras, but without the film. Higher ISO numbers will increase the cameras sensitivity to light and therefore give you a lighter photo and allow you to use faster shutter speeds.

A higher ISO is useful for taking photos in darker conditions, such as at night where if you tried to use an ISO of 100 and hand hold the camera, the photo would almost certainly come out blurred. But if you use a much higher ISO of say 1600, you would be able to use a much faster shutter speed and therefore capture a sharp photo.

The downside to higher ISO is the quality of the photo suffers, and it will come out more grainy or noisy, so usually you will want to use the lowest ISO possible to capture the photo.

Exposure Compensation

This setting is useful for situations in which the camera doesn’t get the exposure quite right, and you want a easy way of changing it. Scenes that have very contrasting colours, such as dark blacks and bright whites are commonly exposed wrong, a common example of this is snow which is usually underexposed. To rectify this simply change the exposure compensation to +1 or +2 or until the snow exposes correctly.

Flash Modes

Flash is useful both indoors and out, and is usually used when you need to light up areas in the foreground. Indoors in can be useful for lighting up a room, where it’s often too dark to get a good exposure, or outside it can be used to fill in shadowy areas in the foreground.

No flash
Flash will not fire.

Forced flash
Flash will fire every time, in any conditions.

Auto flash
The flash will fire whenever the camera decides it’s necessary because there isn’t enough light.

Auto flash with red eye reduction
The same as auto, except two flashes occur in order to minimize the chance of red eye.

Slow sync
This mode uses a slower shutter speed so the background of the photo where the flash doesn’t reach is exposed properly, because this is often underexposed when using flash.

White Balance

If you’ve ever taken a picture and it looks either too blue or orange, this is what white balance is. Different types of lighting give different colour temperatures, which are measured on a temperature scale in kelvin. An example of this is candle light, which will give you a very warm, orange colour cast to your photo, whereas a cloudy sky during the day will give you a much colder, blue colour cast.

Some of the optional white balance settings are-

The easiest option and will give good results in most situations, but you may get different results between shots.

This is useful for most indoor lighting and adds more cool colours.

Adds more warm colour to the photo.

The midday sun gives a very neutral light, so this mode leaves the colours looking neutral.

Slightly warms up the photo, because cloud gives a more cool colour cast.

Shade gives a cool colour cast, so this mode adds some warmth.

Flash has quite a cool light, so this adds some warmth.


The histogram is a useful tool which shows you the tonal range of your photos from the black tones to white tones. The graph displays the amount of each tone in the photo, with the darkest tones on the left and the lightest on the right. So if the graph has large peaks to the left of it, this means the photo has a lot of dark areas, which could mean the photo is underexposed, whereas large peaks to the right means there are lots of lighter tones, which could mean the photo is overexposed. But peaks in the middle of the graph indicate the photo has a lot of midtones present.

Every photo displays a different histogram, and there is no perfect one. What many people think is an ideal histogram would have peaks in the middle of the graph, with some at either end, but this all depends on what you’re trying to capture, such as a high contrast black and white photo would show peaks at either end, with little in the middle.

One more thing to look out for is for tones that are touching either edge of the histogram, which means those tones are being clipped and therefore details will be lost.

Part 3: Composition

The Rule Of Thirds

The most commonly known and probably the first composition technique that every photographer learns is the rule of thirds. This rule involves splitting the scene into thirds with two horizontal and two vertical lines, and then placing points of interest at one of the four intersecting points or along the lines.

For example in a landscape shot you may want to place the horizon along one of the two horizontal lines, or for a portrait, place the person at one of the four intersecting points. The subject doesn’t have to be exactly on a point or line either, but close by to them is acceptable for the rule to still apply. This is more of a guide than a rule though, and you will find many of your photos deviate from this with decent results.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are useful for drawing the viewers eye into your photo, and for adding an element of depth. Most lines usually start at or near the bottom of the photo, such as a photo taken standing in the middle of a footpath or road is very common.


A balanced photo is an important part of photography, and every photographer tries to achieve this whether consciously or not. Not every photo needs to be balanced, and sometimes an unbalanced photo can work as well as a balanced one. If you split your image down the middle vertically, as a general rule you want to have equal parts of a scene on the left and right, although this isn’t necessary for the top and bottom parts of an image.

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