The Quick Start Beginners Photography Tutorial

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I GOT A CAMERA, WHAT NOW?

Help! I just got a camera and everything is in alien language.

I understand the pain, and on top of that, there are too many “photography bibles” out there. Way too much boring technical stuff to read. Which is why I wrote this quick start beginners photography tutorial, where I have compressed everything you need to know to get started fast.

Less boring stuff, more fun.

That is what I think photography needs to be. But a small awareness that you need to know – Photography is easy to get started with, but difficult to master. Photographers spend years to study photography, so don’t beat yourself if you don’t get things right on the first try.

There is no need to rush in any case, just pick up the bits and pieces over time and you will master it someday.

I have designed this guide to give you as many things that you can use immediately as possible. It will also cover some basics that are boring, but necessary. You just need to have a little bit of patience to walk through this guide to the end, and have some fun!

1) START TO SHOOT IN AUTO

Photography has come a long way, and if you have just gotten a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you will probably be lost in a sea of buttons and knobs. So what is the first thing that beginners need to know?

Switch the camera into full auto mode.

The mode dial (source : Wikipedia)

All modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras should have this shoot mode dial. If your camera does not have the shoot mode dial, you are either using a “dumb camera”, or an “ancient camera”. Some parts of this guide may not apply to you, but should still be pretty useful.

In either case, I can hear some folks going – I bought an expensive camera to shoot in manual, not auto. Shooting in auto is for the weak.

You are still free to practice to shoot in full manual. But you also need to understand that even professionals shoot in auto sometimes. I am just recommending to start from the easier auto mode, then move on to manual later.

 💡 Technology is invented to help people. No shame in using it. It is better to start with some fun, than the frustration of not getting the settings right.

2) THE SECRETS TO MAKING PHOTOS LOOK PRETTY

So what makes photos stand out?

What gives it the “wow factor”?

Why is it that photographers are able to produce good photos even with less-than-decent gear? The secret is – composition. Before moving on, I need to dish out 2 terms.

  • Snap shot : Where you just pull out a camera and shoot.
  • Composed shot : Where you think about how to make things look good, maybe move things around, then take the shot.

So yes, photographers think and design their photos, while the average Joe just goes trigger happy. If you want good photos, you have to learn the ground works of composition. Not that difficult, really. Just a bunch of rules that you have to keep in mind.

 💡 Expensive gear do not make good photographers. Good photographers make great photos.

3) FRONT, MIDDLE AND BACK. PHOTOS ARE NOT (REALLY) FLAT.

Now that you are on the photography composition train, it’s time for some of the basic stuff and how to abuse use them.

Captain obvious fact is that photos are 2 dimensional. If you randomly snap a photo, they are probably going to look flat and boring. We can make photos look “not-so-flat” and interesting, by creating some depth in the photo.

But first, you need to start thinking of photos in terms of 3 planes – foreground, middle and background.

Hot & Cold
Rocks for foreground, pavilion in the middle, sunset background.

You need to give viewers a lot more than just “a piece of flat paper”. Look around and think, what is interesting? What can I use?

For my landscape photos, rocks and leaves are my usual foreground interests. For the middle and background – skies, water, rivers, buildings, structure and even people. If you get the formula right, your photo will become a lot more “deeper” and “richer”.

 💡 Can’t find anything interesting for the foreground? Then create one yourself. For example, you can stand in front of the camera against a sunset background. That will give you a pretty good silhouette.

4) THRILL WITH COLORS

Colorful
Photo by Magic Theme

Nobody likes a dry, dull and boring photo. Trick number 2 that photographers use is – play with colors. Try to catch the striking colors that stand out – such as red, yellow and orange. They stand out even more when they are against a dull background of grey or brown.

Keep your eyes peeled for exciting colors, and use it to your advantage.

 💡 Dull colors are not always bad. It can be striking if you are trying to portrait for example, a moody day.

5) LEAD WITH LINES

Trick number 3 – Design your photos with lines, and lead your viewers.

What lines!?

This is pretty abstract, and many people have not noticed this. Lines are everywhere. Took a photo of the sunset horizon? You have a horizontal line. A photo of a tree? You have a vertical line.

Now that you have noticed, but what is the use of these lines? In design, lines will generally create different “feels”.

  • Horizontal lines seem stable and restful. Which is why those sunset horizons and mountain range look so peaceful.
  • Vertical lines tend to separate the frame, or give a sense of height and might. The photo of the tree? Does it not seem tall?
  • Diagonal lines give a sense of depth. If you scroll up to my example in section 3, notice how I used a diagonal lines to give an impression of depth?
  • Curved lines will also give a sense of depth, and people have a tendency to follow along these lines. Use this wisely to lead your viewers into an interesting subject. E.g. mountains, sunset, etc…

6) APPLY THE RULES

Last trick – apply the composition rules. These are thankfully, what our ancestors have studied and proved to make your photos to look good.

  • Rule of thirds : Divide your frame into 9 equal boxes with 4 lines. Try to put your subject on (or close to) any of the intersecting line.
  • Golden spiral : Keep that spiral frame guide thing in your head, and note how it spiral inwards. The photo should become more “important” and “interesting” as it hits the center of the spiral. Yep, if you use this rule, put your “hero” in the “eye of the storm”.
  • Rule of odds : Place objects (or subjects) together in odd numbers – 3, 5, or 7. I don’t quite agree with this rule. Since even number of objects can also create an equally nice photo. (Catch the pun?)
  • Symmetry : When your frame is a perfect (or near) mirror image. Symmetric buildings, reflections on water, and shooting into a mirror are a few common examples of symmetry.
  • Patterns : I call this the OCD rule. When patterns repeat themselves, they look visually pleasing. Try to spot this with everyday objects – fruit stores, bricks on walls, fences, etc…
  • Negative space : In photography, “positive space” is the “useful” space in the frame for your chosen subject. Negative space deliberately uses a lot of empty space, while your chosen subject is only a small spot. Does not always work, but this gives an alternate perspective.
  • Lead lines : As above in section 5.
  • Framing : Ever tried putting a frame in a frame? Frame-ception. Try framing a window looking outside, at the exit of a tunnel, or natural rock formations.

7) RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN

There are so many rules, which one do I use!?

 💡 You don’t have to apply all the rules at once. Learn to use them one at a time. Photography is all about creativity, and these rules are not iron enforced. Break the rules if you must.

Yep, you will not get into trouble with the law for breaking the rules of composition. 😀

8) EXPOSURE

Now to dive into some technical stuff, in a not-so-technical manner.

The most important technical word that you need to know is “exposure”. You have probably heard of this many times already. But what the heck is exposure that photographers talk about? Well, it simply means – when we take a photo, we expose the camera’s sensor to light.

That easy.

The next thing you need to know –

  • If the camera does not get enough light, the photo will end up too dark. We call this under-exposed.
  • The other way round, if the camera gets too much light, the photo will end up too bright. We call this over-exposed.

 💡 While most of us will think, “just right” exposure is the only correct way, there are uses for under and over exposed photos. They are quite advanced and I shall not cover in this guide. Just know that it is not wrong to under or over expose your photo deliberately.

9) THE EXPOSURE TRIANGLE

Warning. Rocket science alert. Not really.

Now that you know exposure, you need to know 3 things that control exposure.

  • Aperture
  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO Film Speed

Changing any of these settings will result in a change of exposure, that will either produce a boring or funky photo. Since we are always trying to balance between these three settings, we thus call it, the exposure triangle.

I know, all of these do not make any sense now, but read on. We shall now crack the exposure triangle one by one.

10) APERTURE

A very technical sounding word, but actually something very simple.

If you take a look at your lens, you will notice some metal blades. We call it the “aperture blades”.

What the aperture blades does, is to open and close to certain sizes. That will effectively limit the amount of light going into the camera’s sensor, and thus controlling the exposure.

While most people will love to measure the opening in cm or inch, geeks have a more complex calculation called aperture and it is measured in f-stops. E.g. f/1.8, f/3.5, f/11, f/22. How this “f-stops” work is that :

  • The smaller the f-stop number, the bigger the opening; More light gets in.
  • The bigger the f-stop number, the small the opening; Less light gets in.

For example, f/1.8 will have more light going into the camera than f/11. On top of that, aperture has an interesting effect on photography.

  • Large aperture (small f-stop number) : Thin depth of field, blurred background, sharp foreground (or sharp background, blurred foreground).
  • Small aperture (big f-stop number) : Deep depth of field, photo is in focus from front to back.

 💡 Try out the semi-auto aperture mode on the camera – “A” on Nikon / Sony, “Av” on Canon. Play around with the different aperture settings and see for yourself.

11) SHUTTER SPEED

We now know that we can control the amount of light getting into the camera with aperture. But there is something else that can control the exposure – the amount of time you expose the sensor to light.

This is what we call “shutter speed”, and it has interesting effects on photography again.

  • The longer you expose the sensor to light, the camera is able to collect more light and data. We call this slow shutter speed.
  • The shorter you expose the sensor to light, the less light and data is captured. We call this fast shutter speed.
  • Your camera is more prone to camera shakes in slow shutter speeds, but you can also try to follow moving subjects, and see the background blur.
  • Your camera is less prone to camera shakes in fast shutter speeds, and it will make things “freeze” in mid-air.

 💡 Try out the shutter speed semi-auto mode on your camera – “S” on Nikon / Sony, “Tv” on Canon.

12) ISO FILM SPEED

The last factor that can affect exposure – is adjusting the sensitivity of the camera’s light sensor. We measure the sensitivity in ISO Film Speed. This one is pretty straightforward.

  • The higher the ISO speed number (e.g. ISO 6400), the more sensitive but noisier image.
  • The lower the ISO speed number (e.g. ISO 100), the less sensitive but cleaner image.

What do we mean by “noise”? It simply means that electronic sensor tend to generate some unwanted “grains” when you push the ISO too high.

For those who are curious – Yes, ISO is the International Organization for Standardization. As to why it is “film speed” even though we are already using digital sensors – there is a simple history behind it.

A long time ago, ISO grades the light sensitivity of film rolls with standardized ISO Film Speed numbers. But for some reason, humans are too familiar with that “ISO Film Speed”, and the name remained as it is even though we have switched to using electronic sensors.

13) RECOMMENDATION – SOME AFFORDABLE TOYS

If you are somewhat comfortable with the exposure triangle at this point – congratulations. You are on your way to the next level, which is beyond this beginners guide.

But before moving on, I have a small recommendation to make – get some decent gear, you will need it. I know, I said “good gear does not mean good photographers”. But without any proper gear, it will be like shooting with a broken arm and leg.

Sadly, everyone has a different interest in photography – street, landscape, macro, food, etc… It will be kind of difficult for me to recommend “everything”, so what I can recommend are things that almost every photographer must have for a start.

Warning : affiliate links below. Read my boring disclosure message if you want to… and to get it or not – I leave it up to you.

Tripod : The photographer’s best friend. I used to think “the bigger the better”, but now, I figured a study portable tripod makes more sense… and get a ball head tripod. They are much more convenient.  [Selens] offer pretty affordable ones for about $50 to $100, or go for a good old reliable [Manfrotto].

Remote Trigger : When you want to take a shot without touching the camera, remote triggers came in handy. [Nikon] [Canon] [Sony]

[Bubble spirit level] : I know there is “virtual horizon” in cameras, but nothing beats having a physical level… and no need to fumble around the controls.

Flash : Don’t use that small pop-up flash on your camera… it sucks. Anything is way better, including a $10 CY-20 Universal Flash and foldable flash diffuser for just $2. Shipping included. If you have a bit more to spare, get a decent YongNuo – Nikon, Canon, Sony. Just stay away from the tiny popup.

WHAT NEXT?

This is only the beginning.

There are so many techniques, so many other toys to play with. Tripods, rails, timers, flash, and whatever. For beginners, I will say, continue to shoot until you throw the cheat sheets away.

When you are at that stage, it is time to go into your favorite subject and move on with the more serious stuff. There are so many things in photography for you to dive into.

  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Macro
  • Food
  • Product
  • Street
  • Wild Life
  • Light Painting
  • So much more…

But this is where the beginner’s guide end. I know, it is overwhelming. But hopefully, this has given you a handful of useful things to begin with. If there are parts that are unclear, feel free to comment below, and I will try to update and help you guys.

Time to give yourself a pat on the back. Well done on finishing this long tutorial.

Go shoot, experiment and have fun!


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