Do you want to learn photography? Do you want to start taking stunning photos, every single time you pick up your camera?
We can help.
In this guide, we give you all the tools you need to start taking gorgeous photos. You’ll discover the techniques that every beginning photographer needs to know. You’ll learn to operate your camera just like the pros. Plus, at the end of this post, you’ll find some ultra-useful tips–designed to get you taking amazing photos as fast as possible.
Let’s get started.
Photography 101: Table of Contents
If you’re interested in skipping ahead to specific sections, simply click one of the links below:
- Who Can Learn Photography?
- The Basics of Photography
- Essential Equipment for Taking Great Photos
- The Fundamental Camera Settings
- Shutter Speed
- Exposure Explained
- Camera Modes
- Learn Photography: How to Take Amazing Images
- Popular Genres of Photography
- 5 Tips for Stunning Photos Right Now
Who Can Learn Photography?
First things first:
Can anyone learn photography?
Absolutely, 100%, yes.
Anyone–and I mean anyone–can learn to take gorgeous photos. In fact, one of the great things about learning photography is that it’s easy to get started. With just a few simple tips, you’ll begin to take stunning photos. And with some practice, you’ll be on your way toward becoming an expert photographer.
It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, artistic or not.
It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw or if you can’t paint.
You can still learn photography. And you can be great at it.
Photography is an art form. But it’s a very logical art form–one that uses the same guidelines, rules, and techniques over and over again.
So if you can learn a few of these techniques, you’ll have no problem taking gorgeous photos.
Which leads me to the start of your photography lessons:
Photography 101: The Basics of Photography
If you want to take amazing photos, there are a few key concepts you need to know.
These are the absolute basics of photography–and they’ll be your bread and butter for as long as you’re taking photos.
What equipment do you need to learn photography?
If you want to start capturing amazing images, there’s only one thing you must have:
Any camera will do. Because photography isn’t about the gear, it’s about the photographer. In other words, a good photographer will capture good photos–no matter their equipment.
That said, there are a few useful pieces of photo equipment. These won’t make or break your photography. But they will make things easier!
- If you have a camera with interchangeable lenses (that is, a DSLR or a mirrorless camera), you’ll want to purchase a high-quality lens or two. More lenses will give you more flexibility while taking photos.
- If you want to capture wide, sweeping vistas, you’ll need a tripod. You’ll also need a tripod if you want to take ultra-close, ultra-detailed shots.
And that’s about it.
Photography isn’t about the equipment.
It’s about the person who uses the equipment: the photographer.
The Fundamental Camera Settings
Now that you know the equipment you need to learn photography, it’s time to talk about how cameras actually work.
And if you can wrap your head around these camera settings, you’ll be 50% of the way there.
In other words, these are key if you want to learn photography.
Shutter speed is fairly intuitive.
It refers to the amount of time the camera’s sensor is exposed to the world.
In other words, when you press the shutter button, for how long does your camera actually take a picture? That’s the shutter speed.
You see, your camera takes pictures by uncovering the sensor. The sensor then takes in light from the outside world, and creates a photo of the scene.
Shutter speed is referred to in fractions of a second: 1/100s, 1/250s, 1/1000s, etc.
Now, the shutter speed affects two main aspects of your photos.
First, the longer the shutter speed, the blurrier your photos will be.
This is because a long shutter speed allows for movement during the shot. Your hands could shake. Or your subject could shift. And that movement creates blur.
Whereas a short shutter speed won’t result in any of that. That’s why bird and wildlife photographers are always using extremely fast shutter speeds. They don’t want to take any chances with fast-moving subjects!
Second, the shutter speed affects the overall brightness of the photo.
The longer the sensor is exposed to the outside world, the more light it takes in.
Therefore (all else being equal):
- Longer shutter speeds result in brighter photos
- Shorter shutter speeds result in darker photos
So shutter speed comes with a tradeoff:
The shorter the shutter speed, the sharper the photo–but the darker the photo, too.
That’s why you have to carefully choose a shutter speed. One that lets in enough light, but is short enough for your purposes.
The aperture is basically a hole in the lens that opens and closes (depending on your camera settings).
The wider the aperture, the more light it lets in, and the brighter the corresponding photo.
The narrower the aperture, the less light it lets in, and the darker the corresponding photo.
Photographers refer to aperture size using f-numbers: f/1.4, f/4, f/8, etc.
The higher the f-number, the narrower the aperture.
But here’s the thing about aperture:
It doesn’t just affect the amount of light let into the camera.
It also affects something called the depth of field.
Depth of field is the amount of the photo that’s in focus.
This is what I mean:
Every time you take a photo, only part of the photo is actually sharp. Look at the photo below:
See how the background is blurry? That’s because the plane of focus is shallow. It’s narrow. There’s not much of the photo that’s in focus.
In other words, the photo has a limited depth of field.
Whereas this photo is sharp throughout:
It has a deep depth of field.
So how does aperture affect the depth of field? It’s a simple relationship:
- The wider the aperture, the more shallow the depth of field
- The narrower the aperture, the deeper the depth of field
Now, there’s no one best depth of field. Instead, depth of field is a creative choice.
If you want photos that are sharp throughout, you’ll need to choose a deep depth of field–something in the f/11 to f/22 range.
But if you want your photos to have a softer look, you’ll need to choose a shallow depth of field–something in the f/1.2 to f/8 range.
Photographers who often use a deep depth of field include:
- Architecture photographers
- Landscape photographers
- Macro photographers
- Night photographers
- Product photographers
Photographers who often use a shallow depth of field include:
- Portrait photographers
- Wildlife/Bird photographers
- Street photographers
- Fashion photographers
- Pet photographers
You know about shutter speed. You know about aperture.
Both of these camera settings affect your photos in important ways.
But there’s one more camera setting that matters in beginner’s photography:
ISO is the sensitivity of your camera to light.
It all has to do with the brightness of your photos. When light hits the sensor of your camera, a camera with a high ISO setting is very sensitive to that light.
Therefore, the photo will turn out brighter.
Whereas a camera with a low ISO setting will produce a darker photo. The light just won’t be as impactful!
ISO is offered in round numbers: 50, 100, 200, 400, etc.
So (all else being equal):
- A high ISO creates a brighter photo
- A low ISO creates a darker photo
But there’s one more thing you should learn about ISO.
Just like shutter speed and aperture, there’s an important tradeoff to be aware of.
The higher the ISO, the brighter your photo will be (and the easier it is to take photos in low light). But a high ISO also causes more noise (also known as grain).
Noise is basically discolored pixels in a photo. It tends to look bad–and too much noise can easily ruin a photo.
That’s why you have to be careful. You should only boost the ISO if you have to!
Now you know about the three fundamental camera settings:
- Shutter speed
Each of these affects the brightness of your photos. Brightness is also known as exposure.
In photography, the goal is to capture photos that aren’t too bright and aren’t too dark. You want photos that are just right. That is, you want photos that are perfectly exposed.
That’s why these three settings are so important.
If you’re not completely confident with these settings, I’d suggest watching this excellent video:
Each setting affects the image brightness. And together, they balance one another out–to determine the overall exposure of the photo.
By carefully choosing your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, you can capture a photo that’s perfect and full of detail. Or you can capture a photo that’s far too dark (underexposed) or far too light (overexposed).
But how do you decide which shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to choose?
Part of it is based on the effects of these settings that I mentioned above. If you’re shooting birds, you need a fast shutter speed to freeze motion.
If you’re shooting landscapes, you need a narrow aperture to ensure a deep depth of field.
But part of it is based on the levels of brightness a certain shutter speed, aperture, and ISO will produce.
This seems tricky. But fortunately, cameras are built to analyze the light–and help you pick the best settings for your needs! You do this with four main camera modes.
These days, cameras offer four main camera modes. These help you decide on the best aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for your needs.
Automatic mode is the default on most cameras. Here, you don’t touch the settings. Instead, the camera chooses the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for you.
When your camera picks its settings, it tries to create an even, well-exposed photo. One with lots of detail. And it does this by taking readings off the current lighting, and chooses settings that correspond.
However, most photographers don’t like Automatic mode, and here’s why:
Your camera doesn’t know the type of photo you want. It doesn’t know if you’re shooting a moving subject or a frozen still life. It doesn’t know whether you want a deep depth of field or a shallow depth of field.
So if you let your camera choose all the settings, things generally won’t turn out the way you’d like.
Aperture Priority mode is a favorite of photographers.
You dial in your desired aperture, based on your preferred depth of field.
That is, you choose the f-number and the ISO, and your camera will select the shutter speed for you.
(A note about choosing ISO: When in doubt, choose ISO 100. It’ll keep the noise levels to a minimum.)
Aperture Priority is good for dealing with still subjects. You know that the precise shutter speed isn’t important. So you set the perfect aperture, and let the camera do its thing.
But what if you need to shoot a moving subject, such as a flying bird?
I’d suggest you use a different camera mode:
Shutter Priority mode is just like Aperture Priority, except that you don’t dial in the aperture–you dial in the shutter speed.
This is good for moving subjects, because you’re able to choose the shutter speed while the camera takes care of the aperture.
Finally, you have one more option:
Manual mode is the most complex of all the camera modes, because the camera does nothing for you.
You choose the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO.
This gives you great flexibility. But it’s also the most difficult mode to work with.
Now, the camera does give you something to go off of:
A small bar in the camera viewfinder indicates whether the image will be too dark, too light, or just right. So you can change your settings to compensate for any issues.
However, I recommend you stay away from Manual mode unless you require great amounts of flexibility.
Instead, try to use Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority mode whenever you can. These will get you familiar with camera modes. But they won’t be overwhelming.
And they’ll help you capture stunning photos!
Now that you know all about your camera settings, it’s time to talk about the basics of photography.
And here’s the thing:
All photography relies on three fundamental building blocks. They are:
If you’re deliberate in your photographic choices, and you make sure to include all of these elements, you’ll capture some really gorgeous photos.
But if you forget about any of these elements, your photos are bound to suffer.
In this section, you’ll discover how to ensure that your lighting, composition, and post-processing are spot-on.
First things first:
Lighting refers to both the quality and the direction of the light in a photo.
Studio photographers work with studio lighting: flashes, strobes, etc.
Outdoor photographers tend to work with natural light: sunny light, cloudy light, golden light, and shade.
The quality of light primarily differs in terms of how hard it is.
You see, when the sun is high in the sky, it’s very, very harsh. It beams down, and creates a very contrasty scene.
But when the sun is low in the sky, the light becomes warm and golden. And this gives your photos a completely different look.
On the other hand, cloudy light is another option. Cloudy light is soft, but not golden. And it makes colors more saturated.
All these types of lighting can work. But it’s important to choose the quality of light carefully. Because different light will give you different photos.
Here’s a brief guide to choosing the type of light:
- Choose harsh light if you want photos with heavy contrast: black and white photos or street photos
- Choose golden light if you want photos that are warm and beautiful: landscape photos, portrait photos, or bird/wildlife photos
- Choose cloudy light if you want photos that are saturated and colorful: macro photos or still life photos
Now, the direction of light refers to the placement of the light source in the scene.
If the light comes from behind your subject, we say the photo is backlit.
If the light comes from in front of your subject, we say the photo is frontlit.
If the light comes from beside your subject, then the photo is sidelit.
Different lighting directions will give you completely different looks. Backlighting often creates more dramatic shots. Sidelighting adds texture. Frontlighting shows detail.
But which direction of light should you choose?
It all depends on the look you want to achieve. The key is to understand the different types of lighting:
- Use backlight to create more dramatic photos. This is common in portrait photography, street photography, and landscape photography.
- Use sidelight to emphasize texture and add a bit of drama. This is common in some portrait photography and some still life photography.
- Use frontlight to bring out details. This is the most popular type of lighting among photographers (and you should use it as your go-to form of light). It’s perfect for sports photography, bird/wildlife photography, some portrait photography, and more.
Composition refers to the arrangement of the elements in the frame.
When you’re taking a photo, where do you position your subject? Where do you position the background? Where do you position any additional elements?
If you position the elements of your photo haphazardly, the image just won’t look good.
But if you position the elements of your photo carefully, you’ll be able to really stun the viewer.
Fortunately, there are a few simple composition rules that you can follow–which will immediately improve your composition skills.
Rule 1: Keep It Simple
The best photos tend to be as simple as possible.
They have a single subject–a single focal point.
And they have a clean background.
Basically, they don’t have anything distracting. And they don’t have any unnecessary elements.
Rule 2: Include Negative Space
Negative space is the empty areas of the frame.
(It’s also referred to as empty space.)
And it’s important to include some negative space in your photos.
Negative space gives your subject room to breathe.
It also draws attention to the main subject.
The bottom line:
You should include space around your main subject whenever possible.
Rule 3: Use the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a basic rule of composition.
It helps you position your main subject.
The rule of thirds states:
The best photos place their essential elements a third of the way into the frame.
That is, you should place the main elements of your photos along these gridlines:
That way, your compositions will be strong and powerful.
Here’s the third and final piece to producing gorgeous photos:
Post-processing refers to any type of editing that you do to your photos: adjusting the exposure, cropping the photo, changing the colors, etc.
Now, you don’t have to do a lot of post-processing. But post-processing will help you put the finishing touches on your photos. It’ll make a good photo into a masterpiece.
Note: You cannot save a bad photo with post-processing. Post-processing is no substitute for carefully chosen lighting and a deliberate composition.
But post-processing can help to get that professional look.
Here are a few tips:
- Most photos benefit from a boost in contrast
- Make sure there’s some detail in the darker parts of your photos
- Add a bit of color into your photos by boosting the vibrance
Above all, experiment! You’ll soon get the hang of post-processing.
And you’ll produce some amazing photos.
Popular Genres of Photography
The photography basics apply to every genre of photography.
And when you’re learning photography, you don’t need to specialize in a genre.
But it’s worth discussing a few common types of photography. That way, you can get a sense of the genres you might be interested in exploring further.
Portraiture is one of the most popular photography genres out there.
It includes a number of different subgenres:
- Photography of children
- Senior portrait photography
- Family portrait photography
- Conceptual portrait photography
Portrait photographers tend to work in a fairly fast-paced environment. They also have to be adaptable: Conditions change rapidly, but a portrait client expects you to get the job done, no matter the situation.
Portrait photographers tend to work during the golden hours, when the sun is low in the sky.
They also favor simple photos: Images with only the subject, and nothing that will distract the viewer.
One of the benefits of portrait photography is that you always have subjects to practice on. You can use your spouse, your friends, or your children.
And so you can get started immediately.
Landscape photography is probably the most admired genre out there.
There are several landscape subgenres:
- Seascape photography
- Intimate landscape photography
- Mountain photography
- Forest photography
Unfortunately, landscape photography is one of the tougher genres of photography (especially for beginners). This is because stunning vistas are few and far between. Plus, the lifestyle of a landscape photographer is a difficult one: lots of travel with little sleep.
However, landscape photography can be extremely rewarding. You can capture stunning sunsets, gorgeous sunrises, and everything in between.
Landscape photographers tend to work with wide-angle lenses. This is required to give viewers a sense of being in the scene.
Additionally, landscape photographers shoot almost exclusively in the early morning and the late afternoon. They prefer the golden light of sunrise and sunset. They also tend to require a few clouds in the sky to add interest.
If you pursue landscape photography, be prepared for lots of ups-and-downs. The light might be there one minute and gone the next.
Macro photography involves taking photos of small subjects. Flowers and insects are common macro subjects.
In order to take macro photos, you should ideally use a dedicated macro lens (one that allows you to focus extremely close to your subject).
That said, you can get into macro photography fairly easily. Flowers and insects can be found in nearly every location, and so there are always subjects to shoot.
Plus, macro photography allows for a lot of flexibility. Macro photographers work with several types of light: cloudy light, golden light, and sometimes shade.
Macro photography is a bit more seasonal than other genres of photography. Flowers and insects are difficult to find in the winter. That said, it’s always possible to work with other subjects: ice, rocks, and the husks of plants, to name a few.
Street photography involves taking candid photos of people on the streets.
While you can do street photography anywhere, most street photographers work in urban environments. They look for scenes with:
Street photographers shoot in all kinds of light. However, they commonly work on sunny days–the high sun creates heavy contrast. Street photographers also gravitate toward backlit subjects (especially silhouettes).
What is the ultimate goal of the street photographer?
Generally, street photographers desire to tell stories. They focus on the interactions in the world around them. And they portray their subjects in a gritty, high-contrast style.
Street photography can be exhilarating. But it can also be stressful; many people don’t respond well to having their pictures taken in public. You have to be prepared to push away any fear or anxiety so you can snap a winning shot.
Learn Photography: 5 Tips for Stunning Photos Right Now
In the final part of this tutorial, I’m going to give you five simple tips for photography.
(Tips that’ll really jumpstart your photos!)
So if you want some additional secrets for taking photos like the pros, then read on!
Tip 1: When in Doubt, Shoot During the Golden Hours
We’ve already talked about light, and about the best light for photographers.
But in case you’re still uncertain about which light is best, here’s a quick rule to follow:
Unless you have a clear reason to shoot at a different time, then make sure you’re only taking photos during the golden hours.
(The golden hours are the hour or two after sunrise, and the hour or two before sunset.)
It’s hard to go wrong with golden-hour light. It’s warm, it’s soft, and it produces some wonderfully dramatic photos.
Plus, you can do a lot with golden-hour light. You can shoot backlit, sidelit, or frontlit.
Note: In general, frontlight is the way to go. It’ll give you some beautiful detail, and you won’t have to worry much about messing up the exposure.
Here’s the bottom line:
You can’t go wrong with golden-hour light. You’re going to love the photos that you capture.
Tip 2: Use Lines to Create Interest
When it comes to composition, it’s important to engage the viewer as much as possible.
You want to draw the viewer into the frame. And you want to make sure the viewer’s eyes move around the photo.
One of the best ways to engage the viewer is to use lines.
Here’s what you do:
Once you’ve found a scene you like, look around for lines. If you’re shooting a landscape, this might be a river or a stretch of sand. If you’re shooting a macro photo, this might be a flower stem.
Then incorporate that line into the composition. If you can, position the line so it points toward your subject.
The idea is to move the viewer around the frame. But you also want to draw attention to your subject. Showing off the subject should be your end goal.
Because that’s what’ll really stun your viewers.
Tip 3: Experiment With Different Angles
If you want to capture unique photos, then experimenting with different angles is a must.
Different angles will allow you to capture lots of original perspectives.
What sort of angles should you try?
- Get down low and shoot upward for a more powerful view of your subject
- Shoot down from above to give your photos a more 2D feel
- Shoot from off to the left or the right to give your images a sense of movement
All of these angles will give you new, original, and fresh photos.
Feel free to use all those angles! And then experiment. Find more angles.
Above all, keep shooting!
Tip 4: Use Backlight for Stunning Silhouettes
Silhouettes are great for creating drama. For instance, here’s a dramatic silhouette of a bird:
But how do you create such striking silhouettes?
Fortunately, it’s quite easy.
Start by finding a subject that’s heavily backlit. This works best when the sun is setting–and you position your subject directly in front of the sun.
Get down low, so that your subject is framed by the sky.
Then, choose an exposure based on the sky’s bright parts.
(To do this, you can switch to Automatic mode. Point your camera at the sky, and make a mental note of the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Then switch to Manual mode, and dial those numbers in!)
Take your shot. And note how your subject comes out nice and dark–dramatic and mysterious.
Exactly what you want!
Tip 5: Stabilize Your Camera for Sharp Images
Are your photos sharp?
It’s something that most photographers struggle with. After all, a bit of blur can ruin an otherwise great photo.
So how do you ensure that your photos are always sharp?
In general, blurry photos come from one problem: camera shake.
If your camera moves when you take your photos–even a tiny bit–you can get blur.
Fortunately, this problem is very easy to deal with. All you have to do is stabilize your camera–using a few simple tricks.
Here’s what you should do:
First, make sure you’re holding your camera in a stable way. You should grip the camera with your right hand. Allow your index finger to gently rest on the shutter button. Place your left hand under the camera lens, supporting it gently.
Second, make sure your body is stable. Hold your camera close to your chest/face. Tuck in your elbows and bend your knees slightly.
Third, if you’re still struggling to get sharp photos, stabilize your body against something hard. You can use a wall or a tree. You can even get down on the ground.
If you use these techniques, you should be able to get sharp photos fairly consistently. If you’re still unable to get sharp photos, you should check your shutter speed–it’s probably too low.
I should also note: If you’re looking to photograph landscapes, or if you’re looking to capture other scenes that require a very deep depth of field, you should invest in a good tripod. This way, you’ll be able to get sharp photos even at very slow shutter speeds–which you’ll need in order to use a narrow aperture.
Learn Photography and Take Stunning Photos: The Next Steps
Now you know everything you need to start capturing amazing images.
You’ve learned the essential camera settings.
You’ve learned about composition.
You’ve learned all about light.
You’ve learned about post-processing.
Just remember these photography basics…
…and start shooting!
All photos and text by Jaymes Dempsey, photographer at Jaymes Dempsey Photography.