Complete Beginner’s Guide to Photography Basics for 2020

Since I’m a hobbyist and really just used my mobile camera for most of my shots and video, I hadn’t delved deep into this until it piqued my interest. I mean, there are so many ways to use those beautiful shots – but what if those shots were even more – perfect?  Why not try to learn more?

Why not invest a bit of money into an actual camera?  So it went on my wish list and I began diving into research on taking my photos to the next level. I’m sharing with you what I’ve discovered.

For one thing – let’s get back to basics. Every camera, from the mini-cams in our laptops, to the insta-cams my cousin’s kid uses, to those expensive professional outfits that “real photographers” use for National Geographic operates off of the same scientific principle. 

You’re not taking pictures of those ducks meandering in the pond, of those activists crying out in protest, of that sweet little baby’s first yawn, or of that glorious mountain rising up before you. You’re actually recording the light that is reflected off of those things. Science can really be philosophical in some ways, can’t it? All of those pictures and videos have a greater meaning to us, but all in all, it’s just light. 

Okay, back to science. Cameras of all kinds, funnel light through a lens onto a photosensitive material that soaks it up and turns it into an image. That light-absorbing material can be film or an electronic sensor. In either case, initiating the light capture is done by opening a shutter in front of the photosensitive material’s surface.

By adjusting how long the shutter stays open (shutter speed), the sensitivity of the digital sensor (ISO), and how much light passes through the lens (aperture), a photographer controls the appearance of the image or video. 

Photography can be very give and take when it comes to balancing and adjusting what you have to get the right shot. For instance, since light is the only information your camera collects, well-lit scenes are sharper while dark scenes tend to be difficult for our eyes to read. As The Verge states, “- more light just gives you more information to work with.

When shooting in the dark, the camera must work either harder (with higher ISO) or longer (with a slower shutter speed) to properly recreate the image in front of it.” And that’s why photographers use flash or have to wait on the lighting to be “just right”. Unfortunately, that can be also problematic, thanks to red-eye and if you are photographing a person, they will squint because of lighting and so your image can be distorted for a whole other reason! 

There’s also a balance of what you want versus what you can afford and what you can carry when it comes to photography. There are so many tools that help you make the perfect shot possible, but that means more expenditure and more stuff to lug around. 

One thing for sure, you have to understand that some things, you may not be able to handle with the equipment you have. You may find yourself lacking in something and want to figure that part out so you can correct it. Even as a hobbyist, sometimes you just have to throw your hands up in the air and admit, “I can’t get a good shot this time. I need different equipment, and I just can’t see putting that much money into it.” 

Sometimes, I’ve gotten lucky and recognized that what I needed to do for a good shot was just make adjustments I could make… or change time of day… or maybe purchase something that was cheap enough for me to justify. However, before I could do that, I needed to know what I needed and what I was talking about. To that end, I did some research on some basic terms and thought I should share them. 

The Exposure Triangle in Photography

How can you improve the quality of your photographs manually? By controlling the exposure of your film or digital sensor to light. Your exposure has everything to do with light, and for some photographers, using a light meter is how they tell which adjustments to make. Keep in mind, most cameras come with a built-in light meter.

You just need to look at your user’s manual for information on that. For a visual reference, look for the meter on your digital menu that looks like a number light with a 0 in the middle and negative numbers on one side and positive numbers on the other. For a perfectly exposed photo, you want the indicator to be sitting at 0. 

If you need to adjust something to get the exposure right where you want it, there are three things that you can manually adjust to affect exposure. They form the Exposure Triangle: 

  • ISO  – the amount of light your photo-sensitive material (sensor or film) absorbs 
  • Aperture – how much light goes through the lens to said photo-sensitive material
  • Shutter Speed – the length of time light is exposed to the photo-sensitive material

Remember, “photo-sensitive material” can mean film or your digital sensor, depending on the type of camera you happen to be using. 

The three things work together and in most digital cameras you can control them. I mean, I used the auto-settings for the most part and everything came out just fine. But, what if I want things a little bit… different? If I pop it into manual, and I know how to use these three things, I can figure out how best to control them for a given situation.

My photographs are going to be better for it. Why do I feel like I’m talking about a sports car? I don’t know, but maybe that parallel applies? 

At first, I had trouble wrapping my mind around them, so I like the diagram. Eventually,you’ll “get it” – it’ll sink in and you’ll be able to just adjust your manual settings with barely any thought to what you’re doing. But it’ll take practice. And it’s definitely worth your time.

What you are adjusting – 

  • If your pictures are too light – they are OVEREXPOSED 
  • If your pictures are too dark – they are UNDEREXPOSED 

ISO

ISO used to be known as your “film speed”. In digital cameras, raising your ISO amplifies the information collected during the exposure. 

So, if you think of ISO as the brightness setting on most standard televisions, you make it much simpler to understand and manipulate. This comparison definitely helped me. If you want things brighter, you increase your ISO. If you want things darker, you decrease the ISO. 

Adjusting the ISO can be a process that makes for a lot of errors or artistry, depending upon how you look at it. Think of over-exposing via ISO adjustment in a low-light situation. My example is taking a picture at sunset and turning my ISO up a bit high. It can leave your photos with a grainy, low-quality effect. It’s actually referred to as “noise”.

Most of the time you want to reduce the noise. However, some photographers use this as their particular “style”. In some of my photographs, I do this on purpose for that style. I like it on some images, but not all. 

Most photographers will go with a default ISO of 200. I use between 200 – 400 at normal light. As the light gets less, I will raise it to 1000 most of the time. Keep in mind, the ranges go up into the thousands! So if I find myself needing a standard, good quality photo and I’ve already raised the ISO to 1200, I realize that I may need more light. It’s time to adjust the aperture. 

Aperture

Aperture is a function of the lens – it is literally the measure of the diameter of the opening of your lens (which incidentally is known as the diaphragm). The more the diaphragm opens, the more light you get. The less the diaphragm opens, the less light you get.

BUT, keep in mind that the lower the aperture measurement is – the more the diaphragm lets in light. Which, for me is kind of confusing, so I thought of it this way: 

Low aperture = more light through the lens

High aperture = less light through the lens

Taking away all of the components that are actually going on? That helped me. Maybe if you have a head for numbers and science, you understand all of those details more. I’ve never been that kind of nerd. Yes, I’m a nerd, but not that kind of nerd. 

Just like with ISO, adjusting the aperture in certain ways can give you a “style” that you may want for specific pictures. If you are focused on a specific object and open up your lens to a very low aperture (letting in a lot of light), you get a shallow depth of field. In other words, your focused subject is detailed, but everything around and behind it is softly blurred.

FYI – this is known as the bokeh effect. Some photographers are known specifically for using this effect in most of their work. Now, keep in mind that how much of any effect is achieved by adjusting your aperture is directly influenced by your sensor size on digital cameras. In other words, there are limits.    

Aperture numbers are presented in f-numbers. So you’ll get aperture settings from f/3.5 (which gives you a wider diaphragm and more light to the lens) to say f/36 (which gives you a more narrow diaphragm with less light to the lens). An extreme bokeh effect usually happens around f/2.8 and if you want to eliminate that, you might want to adjust your aperture to f/8 or higher. 

Now if you want to adjust how long the camera is able to absorb light, you need to focus on shutter speed instead of aperture or ISO. 

Shutter Speed

The best and easiest way to control exposure on a camera is by adjusting your shutter speed. In simplistic terms (terms I like), the shutter speed controls how long the camera spends collecting light. This is measured in fractions of seconds. Since I used this method of explanation in the previous entries, let me do so here: 

Higher (quick) shutter speeds = shorter period of time that light hits your photo-sensitive material

Lower (longer) shutter speeds = longer period of time that light hits your photo-sensitive material

So if you’re taking a photo with a lot of action in it, say a flowing stream, the waves at a beach, or athletes during a sporting event, you want to use higher shutter speeds so that your result is not blurry. If you don’t have to worry about action or you want a blurry effect, you can use a lower shutter speed to give your sensor or film more time in the light. Like always, this is up to the photographer’s style, the circumstance of the moment, and all that jazz. 

This also works with time of day and your amount of light in a particular area. If you have plenty of light you would probably have the shutter speed set to a medium-high setting.  As the day closes or you have less light to work with, you might want lower shutter speeds so that what light is available can expose for a longer amount of time.

Do not be impatient and move your camera while you are taking a picture with a slower shutter speed. Remember – the shutter stays open for longer and so you need to wait until it’s finished. 

The Proper Tools for the Job

Autofocus

If you use autofocus all of the time, you really don’t need to know or remember much from these basics. You’ve got a camera that does this for you and, you can just let the camera do the work. Keep in mind that autofocus can cost you some shots due to not being able to keep up with action. It also takes away from the ability to have those stylized pictures that can only be achieved by using manual adjustments.

I have noticed that some digital cameras and mobile cameras are coming along in the world and allotting for some of these things, the bokeh effect, for instance. Just be smart about purchasing a camera or using one – know what style you’re going for beforehand and be sure it has the capability. If not, just reread this article and you’ll be ready to use the basics to handle it! 

Sensor Size vs. MegaPixels

These things apply to digital cameras, so if you have a film camera that you’re still using, you can skip this portion. These are also things to take into consideration when you’re choosing which camera to use for a job or shopping for one. 

Megapixels are simply a unit of measure to show the number of data points recorded by a camera. One megapixel = 1 million pixels and the density of pixels are known as pixels per inch or ppi. What does all of this tell you? Well, it tells you how large you can make your image without having to degrade it by digitally enlarging it. For example – 

  • A 3 megapixel photo can be printed on a standard 6×4 size at 300ppi without losing quality.
  • A 9 megapixel photo can be printed up to a 9×10 size at 300ppi without losing quality.
  • A 12 megapixel photo at 200ppi can be used for all manner of things and not lose quality. 
  • Anything above 12 megapixels may just be a waste unless you need something this specialized. 

So you need all those megapixels? Not really. I mean, unless you plan on shooting images for murals or billboards! Most of us can get by with less megapixels just fine. Just remember that the higher the megapixels, the more capable the camera is when it comes to details and reproductions. Megapixels work hand-in-hand with your sensor to help with the quality of the finished image. So, let’s move on to sensors. 

 Understand that the larger your photosensitive material is, the more light can be taken in and therefore the better photos you’ll get. The bigger the sensor, the better quality you’ll be able to get on your photos. Unfortunately, the bigger the sensor, the more it costs. 

The highest level of quality comes from what is called a “medium format” sensor. Unless you are a commercial photographer, a fine arts photographer, and just have the money to burn on these things, you may want to steer clear. Medium format cameras have dropped in price over the last few years and are less bulky, but they still average in the THOUSANDS of dollars. Yikes! 

If you want to match the quality of a 35mm film camera – you are looking to get a “full frame” camera. The sensor included and the 24mm lens gives you that quality that a 35mm film camera gives. These cameras and the ones with the medium format sensors tend to be larger and heavier due to the large sensor and usually these cameras use detachable lenses to avoid too much noise. These cameras are still going to be in the thousands, but they are in the lower thousands. And some of them can be picked up on sale or refurbished or used for less than $1000. 

The cameras that are more affordable, but still give you good quality have the APS-H and APS-C sized sensors. The H = higher-end and more expensive, anywhere from $550 refurbished/used to $2000. They provide a higher quality photograph for a lower price and can be used professionally.

But so can cameras sporting an APS-C sensor (not quite half the size of a full-frame sensor) and these are much more budget-friendly. These cameras come anywhere between $300 and $800. 

The sizes of sensors move downward from this. With each move downward in size comes less image for your phone to grab at good quality. So you wind up with more “crop factor”. You also wind up adjusting for more “noise” depending upon how far you are from your subject matter and what angle you are shooting from.

If you add some lenses or your camera comes with a zoom lens, that can help with the quality of the smaller sensor. More megapixels also help with the quality when you have a smaller sensor. 

There are many other sensor sizes between, but these are the most common sizes:

  • Micro Four-Thirds – it is ¼ the size of a full-frame sensor. They are often found in mirrorless or compact cameras. Usually, lenses of various brands will fit these cameras interchangeably. 
  • 2/3 inch – 1/1.7 inch – the larger of the sensors found in the compact/point and shoot cameras, you know the ones that give you better quality photos.
  • 1/2.3 inch – most camera phones fit into this category or somewhere between this and the 1/1.7 inch. I get some good shots with my camera phone, but I don’t have a lot of wiggle room on distance and I do get a lot of “noise” in some images depending upon the light. My phone happens to have a 12MP camera with a 1/2.5 inch sensor. Also included here could be some of the lower-end compact cameras, including many mirrorless cameras.

White Balance

“Something overlooked by a lot of camera enthusiasts of the hobbyist variety  is a camera’s white balance. If you leave this on auto – you may end up with a camera that adjusts the colorations in a room automatically, when you didn’t need it to. That’s how you end up with yellow-tinged indoor shots. So be sure to change this setting to manual when it’s needed or feed your camera a sample image by setting the WB. 

Each camera is different, so you should look up how to do it in your instruction manual if you haven’t thrown it away – I hope you don’t throw it away! Anyway, you’ll need to take a photo of a white object or piece of paper or a gray card in the area you plan to shoot in. Once you have that picture taken you go to it in a digital camera and in most cases, you pull up your menu. You’ll set a CUSTOM WB. 

Through the magic of the inner workings of your camera, something I don’t need to go into here, this will tell the camera what white should look like in these conditions. And then, everything will be adjusted accordingly. Just remember that the camera will keep this custom setting from this point on, unless you change it. So… change it back as-needed.  

You can also adjust the white balance in your photo editing suite on the computer. That’s convenient, but – considering how often we post our photos immediately to social media, sometimes it’s better to handle this while taking the shots. 

Zoom

Another thing that can be handled easily in post-processing photo editing – when it comes to digital cameras – is zoom. Zoom is how close you can get to whatever you’re shooting without physically having to move closer. In the field, this is handled by using a zoom function on your lense. It can be as simple as a pinch maneuver for the cell phone camera and as clunky as bringing along interchangeable lenses so that you can manually zoom in on your subject. Just remember that your quality may drop a bit as you increase your zoom. What helps with this in your traditional DSLRs is a built-in image stabilization. 

Image Stabilization

Again, I’m bringing up something that is kind of a pre-purchase thing to know and choose to have. But it’s important to include on this listing of photography basics. No matter what your lense manufacturer or camera brand calls it, image stabilization steadies the image via internal elements within either the lens itself or the camera. It helps keep those small movements you make with your hand from becoming a blurry picture. For instance, this kind of technology is indispensable when you are using long telephoto zoom lenses. 

Conclusion 

My best advice is, know what you want to use your camera before you choose your equipment. If you need a run-down on the kinds of cameras that are available to you, check out my article on Basic Cameras. Also, be sure to look at our article on the beginner’s guide to lenses available and if you are adventurous then be sure to check out the article on Action Cameras

But, all that aside, you can improve your image quality and your photography in general, even with the simplest of cameras, by knowing and understanding the basics. Understanding the basic concepts of photography and the basic knowledge of your camera’s tools can set you ahead by far. I hope you will use this information and create better quality pictures or use a new style that you can share with everyone!

Rachel Adams

I have used a wide variety of cameras over the years and wanted to share my experiences and knowledge with my readers. I don't have a degree in photography and I don't do this professionally. So, if you were looking for a photography expert - sorry. But if you prefer a practical person who admits she’s been a noob to photography and has learned from good people and through trial and error? I’m here for ya!

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