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Photography Basics: Techniques and Rules You Must Know

Photography is a skill that can be learned. No one is born a photographer or is better suited to take amazing photos. If you want to pick up a DSLR camera and take magnificent photos there is nothing stopping you from doing so!

To become a better photographer or to simply improve your photography skills, you need two things:

  • firstly you need a little creative flair and imagination
  • secondly, you must understand the photography basics

This comprehensive guide walks you through the photography basics including photography rules and basic camera settings – enjoy!

Section 1: Basic Photography Rules

First and foremost, before you even pick up a camera, you should understand the basic photography “rules”. We place rules in brackets as there are no photography rules as such. What we have are a set of techniques that are often referred to as rules – you won’t get disciplined if you don’t use them! There is no denying however that these rules are integral to learning photography basics and will improve your composition exponentially!

Learn these rules and try using them yourself – just pick up a camera and put these techniques into practice:

1. Rule of Thirds

The subject has been positioned in the bottom left-hand corner along with the intersecting imaginary rule of third lines.

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If you look at the grid we have placed over the photo, the rule of thirds basically implies that you should always place your subject line along one of those intersections as opposed to in the center.

Photography Basics - Rule of thirds
Look how the Mint Tea is positioned on the left-hand intersections

2. Leading Lines

When taking photos, we are often presented with lines. These don’t have to be hard lines, but perceived lines that can guide our vision in a certain direction. These are called leading lines – lines that train the viewer’s eye to a certain point. When taking photos you should look for leading lines and utilize them to create points of interest as seen in this photo below:

Photography Basics - Leading Lines
Look how the lines all point towards the distance

3. Depth of Field

The depth of field (DOF) is an essential part of photography. DOF concerns what is in focus within your photo, or the zone of sharpness that will appear in focus within a photo. If you have a central subject in your photo, the depth of field concerns what will be in focus behind, and in front of that subject. If everything is in focus, the photo is considered to have a deep depth of field. Alternatively, if hardly anything is in focus, the photo is considered to have a shallow depth of field.

You must use depth of field to draw attention to certain parts of a photo i.e. portraits of a person. Moreover, you can use larger depths of field to capture great detail in sweeping landscapes.

Photography basics - Depth of Field
The left-hand monk is in focus, but the surroundings are not

4. Straight Horizons

There is nothing worse than seeing a “wonky” horizon. This rule is simple – whenever you are shooting something with straight lines or horizons, ensure they are horizontally straight! If you took a snap of the below beach at a slight angle with the sea tilting upwards to the right, it would look odd. This example has been cropped and straightened and looks magnificent. Consider using the gridline option on your camera to help with this.

Photography Basics - Straight Horizons
Notice how the beach and sky are horizontally aligned

5. Golden Ratio

The golden ratio is a mathematical ratio that creates the supposed perfect alignment for a photograph’s main point of interest. If you use this ratio and place your subject matter within the preferred spot, your eyes will naturally be drawn to it, and then filter to the rest of the photo afterward. If you want to dig deeper, read our article about the golden ratio in photography.

Section 2: Basic Camera Settings

Once you are sure that you understand the basic photography rules, we can move onto the camera itself. To take the best photos, it is advisable to purchase a DSLR camera. This type of camera produces fantastic resolution images. Furthermore, it has advanced settings that give you greater control over your composition. Popular DSLR camera manufacturers include Canon, Nikon, and Sony.

To help improve your camera knowledge, we have outlined 5 of the main basic camera settings that you can play with. These basic settings combined with your new found knowledge of photography rules will really bump up your shooting skills:

1. Aperture

Aperture works hand in hand with the depth of field. Aperture is an essential camera setting you must use if you want to create a varied and standout photograph. The actual aperture is a hole within your camera lens – this allows light to travel into the camera to the sensor – think of aperture as a pupil within your eye. Aperture directly affects exposure and depth of field and is measured in F-Stops.

Related Post: Understanding the Exposure Triangle

Exposure – A large aperture will create a brighter photograph (because the opening is larger and lets more light in). Alternatively, a small aperture will create a darker photograph (because the opening is smaller and lets less light in).

Depth of Field – A large aperture results in a shallow depth of field i.e. less is in focus. Alternatively, a small aperture results in a deep depth of field i.e. more is in focus.

Aperture priority mode is one of the best modes to use as beginner as it can give you great control with relative ease. You can simply alter the aperture and exposure to create some varied effects. As mentioned, the aperture is measured in F-Stops.

The key to remember is that the larger the F-Stop number, the SMALLER the aperture.

Conversely, the smaller the F-Stop number, the LARGER the aperture. For example, f/2.0 is larger than f/9.0.

Photography Basics - Aperture
f/4.0 only focuses on the bottle, whereas f/9.0 focuses on the whole landscape

2. Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is another important aspect of photography basics. Your camera has a shutter – this shutter opens to allow light to pass onto the camera sensor – this is what forms your image. The speed at which this shutter opens and closes is known as shutter speed. Shutter speed can affect both exposure and motion blur. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second or seconds depending on the length. 1/4 for example, means a shutter speed of a quarter of a second.

Below is an explanation of the two main effects of shutter speed:

  • Exposure – Think about this logically – if your shutter speed is open for long periods of time and light is flooding onto the sensor, what do you think will happen? That’s right, the photo will be over-exposed. Long shutter speed will increase the exposure/brightness of your photo. Alternatively, the shorter shutter speed will result in a darker photo.
  • Motion Blur – The time between a shutter opening and closing, is the time period you can capture motion. Fast shutter speed will capture motion in fine detail and there will be little to no motion blur – this is fantastic for taking wildlife shots for example. On the other hand, the long shutter speed will allow a great deal of movement and will make any moving object appeared blurred – this is preferable for making smooth water effects for example or traffic lights as seen below:
Photography Basics - Shutter Speed
This long exposure shot has given motion blur to the traffic headlights

3. ISO

ISO, Aperture and shutter speed are a trio that all interlink in photography. The ISO controls the brightness of your photo. The higher the ISO selected, the brighter your photo will be. The standard ISO range is 100 but we often use an ISO of 1600+ in low-light situations. The higher the ISO selected, the more “noise” a photo will show. Noise is simply grain – those annoying little dots you see on some photos.

You should always try and use a low ISO setting to avoid background noise and brighten your photo using exposure, aperture and shutter speed.

As a base rule, try and keep your ISO no higher than 200 unless absolutely necessary.

It should also be noted that some cameras can perform much better than others at higher ISO settings. If you want to take a low ISO photo in a low light situation to avoid noise, it is essential that you use a tripod to reduce motion blur as the shutter speed will have to be longer.

4. Exposure

We have already touched on exposure briefly. Exposure in photography terms is how much light hits your camera’s sensor. This directly affects how bright or dark a photo will appear.

  • If your photo is over-exposed, it means that too much light has hit the sensor and it will appear bright.
  • Alternatively, if your photo is under-exposed, it means that not enough light has hit the sensor and it will appear too dark.

DSLR cameras allow you to change the exposure manually. In the below example we can see three different exposures of the same photo:

Photography Basics - Exposure
Three different exposures of the same photo

5. White Balance

White balance is not as important as the above rules and settings, but it can make a huge difference to your photos. White balance affects the colors of your photo. Have you ever noticed that when you have taken a photo on your smartphone the colors may appear strange? This is due to the white balance! The source of light your photo draws from can affect the white balance.

For example, a photo taken indoors with a light on may look overly orange or yellow. Whereas if you turn that light off, the white balance will become more natural. You can alter the white balance manually, or change it in post-processing software afterward. In the example below we can see two different white balance settings:

Photography Basics - White Balance
The left example has an auto white balance, but the right example has a “warmer” white balance and thus looks more orange in color

Section 3: Photography and Lighting

So you have mastered two of the photography basics – rules and camera settings. It is now time to look at another extremely important aspect – lighting. As you will see below, lighting is hugely important in photography and can make the difference between a good or bad photo.

Why is lighting important in photography?

Photography without lighting would be bland and boring. Light creates contrast. Light adds shadow, depth, and interest. Natural light also helps composition and means you do not have to rely on a camera flash.

As a photographer, you must use light to your advantage. Always try and use natural light where possible.

Experiment with your photos during different periods of the day, and don’t be afraid to shoot at night or early in the morning. The below are two important time period that produces extremely different photos:

Golden Hour

The Golden Hour is a period of time either after sunrise or before sunset. During this time period, the daylight is a beautiful shade of red and provides softer colors than when the sun is at its peak. Taking photos during the golden hour can produce some magnificent end results. You can capture a landscape or city and make it appear magical. The below shows a coastal scene during the golden hour:

Photography Basics - Golden Hour lighting
A beautiful Sunset at Whitby during the Golden Hour

Blue Hour

The Blue Hour creates a completely contrasting look to the golden hour but the end result is just as majestic and beautiful. This period of time is a twilight period when the sun is significantly below the horizon. The result is a slight tinge of warm colors, but a predominantly blue shade to the sky.

Related Post: Best Time of the Day to Take Pictures

Section 4: Improve your Knowledge of Photography with Photography Basics Books

Whilst the information and tips we have provided here will surely boost your photography basics knowledge, there is no harm in doing a little further reading too. You can find a plethora of different books and guides on Amazon and we have selected three standout titles that can really develop your photography knowledge:

BetterPhoto Basics: The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Taking Photos Like a Pro
  • Miotke, Jim (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 240 Pages - 04/27/2010 (Publication Date) - Amphoto Books (Publisher)

BetterPhoto Basics: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Taking Photos Like a Pro – Created by Jim Miotke, this book has everything you could ever need to jump into the world of photography.

Digital Photography Complete Course: Learn Everything You Need to Know in 20 Weeks
  • Digital Photography Complete Course
  • Hardcover Book
  • David Taylor (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 360 Pages - 08/18/2015 (Publication Date) - DK (Publisher)

Digital Photography Complete Course – This truly is a complete course and takes you through everything – from basic camera settings to composition and even how to hold the camera.

Stunning Digital Photography
  • Tony Northrup s Dslr Book
  • Tony Northrup (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 226 Pages - 12/01/2019 (Publication Date) - Mason Press (Publisher)

How to Create Stunning Digital Photography – Containing awesome tips and links to a host of videos, this manual has it all. This book is actually rated as the No.1 photography book and boasts of 250k readers.

Section 5: Learn Photography Online for Free

If you prefer using online material, you can find a huge array of online courses and guides for photography basics. We have a host of useful tips and information in our Free Photography Course Section and the following are some other cool free online resources:

👉 Life Hacker: Basics of photography the complete guide

This is a superb online resource and really does cover photography basics from every possible angle. You can learn about your camera’s function and settings, basic composition processes, and also basic image editing.

👉 MIT: Introduction to Photography and Related Media

This class is freely available through MIT’s online learning facility. If you want to learn photography basics and progress to other techniques such as studio lighting and darkroom printing this course is pure gold.

👉 Open Study: The Art of Photography

This online repository for learning has some fantastic course and The Art of Photography by Dr. Shane Hulbert has so much to offer. With 4 different modules, you can watch videos, take quizzes and even complete assessments too.

Related Post: Best Online Photography Courses

Section 6: Choosing the Right Camera as a Beginner

So what camera do you actually pick as a beginner? This largely comes down to personal preference, and how much cash you have to play with. We can, however, provide some words of advice. Firstly, do NOT worry too much about megapixels – there are far more important factors available. The following are some of the main points of consideration you should make when choosing a camera:

  • Sensor Size: Larger sensors allow for higher quality photos
  • Megapixels: A higher amount of megapixels means higher resolution photos
  • ISO Range: A larger ISO range will mean your camera can take better low-light photos
  • Focus: How many focus points? What is the auto-focus function like?
  • Lenses: What lenses are available for this camera?
  • Speed: What burst rate can your camera shoot? What’s the maximum shutter speed?

We would recommend taking the above into consideration, and actually physically holding each camera – take time to look at the settings and button configuration.

We hope you have found this photography basics guide useful. As you can see, there is a great deal to learn, but once you have mastered these basic techniques and rules, you should see a huge improvement in the quality of your photos. Continue to learn, imbibe yourself with knowledge, and you will become a professional in no time – good luck!


  • Paul loves traveling and photography. He is also a Lightroom and Photoshop expert and likes to test new photo software, apps, and gear. Paul frequently shares his travel photography tips on his travel blog and writes for known photography publications.

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