Ever wondered how to learn to photograph? This ultimate guide has you covered with tips that will get you on your way, and hopefully answer some of your photography questions.
I’m by no means a pro, but I have worked on my artistic photography on both DSLR & compacts for over 4-5 years. You also can learn photography without a degree, since there is a wealth of information on the internet.
The barrier to photography is pretty chill and low now, due to the great advancements in phone cameras and the fact that you can pick up a used DSLR for very cheap.
You’ll soon find out that photography is magic!
Step 1: Get yourself a camera!
Purchase an affordable DSLR, mirrorless camera, or compact where you can access manual mode. For DSLRs and other interchangeable lens cameras, what really matters is the glass, less so the body.
If you can, get an app for your phone that gives you access to manual mode. Camera phones have gotten very good recently, and you can learn a lot with just your phone! You can learn photography without a DSLR!
For me personally, I have the Canon T3i & the cute Sony RX100 (the first version), both are great cameras and now more affordable because they are older models. Hunting on eBay and Amazon for used cameras is a great way to save money.
Of course, you can start with a $2k camera, but that’s pretty overkill, especially when you’re starting out and maybe on a budget.
My camera buying recommendations are here, but here’s a few to get you started:
Nikon has done a great job stepping up their entry level DSLR game.
If you decided to get a DSLR/compact, you also need to get an SD card to store the images. I use class 10 because it’s fast enough for video and has good enough transfer speeds.
They’re pretty cheap, so I don’t recommend going slower than class 10, if you can help it. Also do not get a sketchy brand, so probably look up reviews. I use SanDisk, and it’s worked out great for me. No memory loss so far, knock on wood!
Step 2: Turn off Auto mode and use manual mode
I actually shoot in Aperture priority mode most of the time, but it really is imperative you learn what the settings do and how to expose a photograph properly. There’s a lot to learn, and it can seem pretty scary at first, but once you master a few fundamentals, it’s not too bad!
First of all, I recommend you experiment yourself before reading anything else further. Just start changing a few settings and see what happens. A little experimentation does go a long way when it comes to learning.
Just tweak some stuff and experiment, and use live view to help yourself see the changes in real time.
Did you experiment with your settings? Great! Here’s a bit more guidance!
What does what on your camera:
Exposure depends on 3 essential things: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, the sensor’s sensitivity to exposure.
Displayed by a fraction(so it will look like: 1/80, ¼, 1/2000, etc) determines how fast your camera closes the shutter, or basically, the time out of a second (fraction!) the sensor is exposed to the light. Think of it as how fast you want your camera to blink.
- Slower blink = more motion blur (looks artistic if done properly) and often increases the chance for blurry shots due to camera shake.
- Great for light trails and blurring waterfalls
- Faster blink = frozen motion, often a sharper photo
- Great for getting pictures of your cat doing ninja moves
In order to prevent camera shake, a useful rule of thumb is to take your focal length of the lens (For example, you put your lens at 30mm) take the number 30 and add ten to it and set your shutter speed around 1/40 or above.
Or you might not need this tip if you have sniper photography skills and develop your breathing techniques.
Measured in f-stops, determines how wide open your lens hole is. Yes, the blades actually will open up, and you can take a look.
- Lower f-stop number (like f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8) = your lens is open wider, letting in more beautiful light.
- Yields a more shallow depth of field, meaning only a thin plane of the image is sharp, while rest of the frame is blurred out, and then you get the lovely and sought after bokeh effect.
- Keep in mind, you may not always want your lens wide open, as that makes the edges of the frame a bit blurry. For example, Sometimes you might want to shoot at around f/4 so most of the frame is razor sharp, and you will still get bokeh, depending on the lens.
- Higher f-stop number (f/8, f/11, f/22 ) = your lens is opened less wide, letting in less light. Yields a larger/wider depth of field, which means more of your background will be in focus.
- Advanced note: If you are using a macro lens, you will want a high enough f number that at least some of of the subject is focused. Macro lenses have a really, really razor thin depth of field. You can also focus stack, but that’s a bit above the basics.
Changing this adults our sensor’s sensitivity to light. Higher numbers means more sensitivity to light, meaning you can use faster shutter speeds while staying at a correct exposure. The trade off is that higher numbers (ie, ISO 1600 & up) often results in more noise, or grainy color artifacts/luminance. Doesn’t look very good.
You can also set ISO or have the camera automatically calculate it. iIf you are overwhelmed with 100% manual mode, I recommend experimenting with setting ISO to auto to learn the effects of adjusting shutter speed or aperture by themselves.
The tricky part – how to expose a photograph
All three of these variables work together, which is actually sort of complicated.
If you use aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode, you can adjust either aperture or shutter speed, and then the camera will automatically set the other variable in order to create the correct exposure, which is great! Very convenient for general photography, where you do not want to be fiddling with settings every second and then missing a nice shot.
Specifically, for general shooting, I like aperture priority mode because pure manual mode makes it harder to quickly react to rapidly changing light conditions and action. However, for some shots where I am looking for a particular effect, I will definitely go manual! (Macro shots, waterfall shots, exposure/focus stacking, and anything with tricky lighting.)
A practical example of what goes on in my head for indoor shot of something, which is sort of low light.
- I want to take a picture of this small statue, and I want a blurry background (shallow depth of field). That means I want a low f/# so more light can come in and hit my sensor, which is great because then I do not need to push my ISO too too far. ISO 800 will do. It won’t be too noisy at this level, but if I go too much lower, I will be forced to use a super slow shutter speed to expose the picture correctly, which will most likely result in a blurry image due to camera shake. The focal length of my lens is at 50, so now I am going to put my shutter at 1/60. If I am not steady enough, I will push it a bit faster, maybe 1/80.
What is metering? It is the method in which exposure is determined and calculated by the camera. For example, there is spot metering (where the camera measures a very small area), center weighted average, or multiple zone (matrix/evaluative/etc) metering.
- Experiment with these and how they interact with different lighting conditions.
- Spot metering is useful for high contrast scenes.
- Average metering is great for landscapes because it takes into account both the sky and the landscape.
- You might want to shoot at different exposures and combine them in post processing if the lighting is super contrasty. You will end up with an HDR image, but be sure not to overdo it in post processing, otherwise it will look garish and unnatural.
Random photography tips
Remember that light is what photography is all about.You do not always need the fanciest lens or body or whatever. What makes a good photograph is your skill and ability to compose and frame.
Try to get good, natural light. Or if there is none, invest in a external light source like a separate flash. The on camera flash is actually pretty bad, but serviceable in a pinch. Tissue paper to diffuse the harshness can help.
Keep editing to a minimum, especially when starting out. It’s easy to over process your images and end up with kind of unnatural, bad looking results.
I personally go for minimal edits during my post process workflow, and I think it looks pretty good. If I make major changes, it’s usually to colors.
I also wrote a post explaining RAW vs JPG, if you’re interested in learning about that!
A photographer reached out to me with her article and is another good starting point for learning the fundamentals of photography.
A Few Book Recommendations
I love this book! The layout is so nice and elegant, with a lot of useful demos. A good balance between theory, tips, and demos.
There is a lot of other terminology to cover, but for now, I think this is a good start for the absolute fundamentals.
I hope this guide to photography for beginners helped! Please consider sharing with your friends if you enjoyed this article!!