A Basic Guide to Photography for Beginners

basic photography lessons

Author: Jessica Palmer - Professional Photographer

We use affiliate links and may receive a small commission on purchases. Read more here.


There are many different types of photography genres, but regardless of your interests, there are some basic concepts that need to be understood that apply to all types of photography.

Wondering where to start? 

It’s hard to know where to begin when taking those first steps away from your camera’s automatic mode.

Fortunately, we’ve created this basic guide to photography for beginners to get you started!

We discuss how to expose your images properly, some key terms to know, suggested cameras for beginners and a basic composition tip for instantly improving your photos.


Key Terms

EXPOSURE

Exposure occurs when the image sensor is exposed to light to capture your image.  The correct exposure is achieved by adjusting the three elements of aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  

Understanding these three elements and getting them working together is the secret to moving from automatic to manual mode.

The best way to ensure you have correct exposure is by using your camera’s exposure indicator.

It usually looks something like this:  

If the marker is in the middle, the exposure is correct!  If it’s to the left, the image will be underexposed and dark.  If it’s to the right, the image will be overexposed and too bright.

APERTURE

The aperture is the hole inside the lens which the light passes through. The easiest way to think of it is like the pupil of an eye.  The wider it’s open, the more light can get in!

The aperture is referred to as the f-stop and is written like this: f/number.  The lower your f-stop number, the wider the hole is open. 

This is one of the coolest things to learn as using a wide aperture is how the beautiful effect of a blurred background is achieved.  

Background blur looks great for portraits and creative photographs!

When your camera’s exposure indicator shows the image is underexposed, increase the aperture (lower f/stop number) to allow more light in. Decrease the aperture (higher f/stop number) to reduce the light if your image is overexposed.

The major downside to adjusting aperture is that it directly affects your depth of field, which is the range in front or behind the point you are focusing on that remains sharp and in focus. 

This means that a wide aperture is terrible for landscapes where you want the majority of the scene in focus, but it’s great for creative images.  

Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense now.  Just go out and experiment!  

The best way to experiment with aperture is to switch your camera from Auto to Mode A or Aperture – Priority Auto.  When the camera is in this mode, the photographer chooses the aperture and the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed. 

Grab a friend or place some small objects on the table and take the same shot adjusting only the aperture. 

Below is an example of an image taken with a wide aperture, in this case f/2.8.  The shallow depth of field keeps the lizard mostly in focus but the background is nicely blurred.

SHUTTER SPEED

The shutter speed is the measurement of time the shutter is open and allowing light onto the camera’s sensor.  It’s shown in seconds and fractions of a second.

1/1600 is a fast shutter speed and 4 (seconds) is a slow shutter speed. Anything below 1/80 usually required a tripod.

Shutter speed is fun to play around with! 

Using a fast shutter speed means you can ‘freeze’ fast moving objects, thus avoiding motion blur. This makes it ideal for sports photography, wildlife or active kids.  

Here is an example of a fast shutter speed that froze the action:

The image above was taken using a shutter speed of 1/1600, effectively freezing the puddle splash. 

On the other hand, a slow shutter speed allows you to capture images in low light conditions or create that whispy look in flowing water. You can delve into astrophotography using a slow shutter speed. 

To practice with shutter speed, set your camera to Mode S or Shutter-Priority Auto.  In this mode, the photographer chooses the shutter speed and the camera automatically adjust the aperture. 

Get out there and try to freeze a fast-moving object!

ISO

The ISO is the measure of the camera’s ability to capture light. The higher the number, the more light is captured.  This is usually only adjusted when the correct exposure is difficult using only the other two elements.

A great example is if you wish to freeze the action in low light conditions, but can’t get the correct exposure using a high shutter speed (which you need to freeze the action). In this case you would increase the ISO.

It’s important to remember that although raising the ISO sensitivity allows you to use faster shutter speeds and/or a smaller aperture, it creates a kind of visual noise that doesn’t look that great. 

Basically, the higher the ISO, the grainier your photograph will appear.  This can be adjusted a bit when editing with software but the grainiest of images cannot be fixed.

GETTING IT RIGHT

The only way to really understand the above is to go out and experiment.  Throw the ball for the dog and attempt to freeze the action with a fast shutter speed.  Try it again with a slow shutter speed. 

Experiment with aperture and selective focus, grab some Lego or jewelry and place them on the table.  Select a wide aperture and experiment focusing on particular items.


Great Cameras for Beginners 

Most entry level DSLR cameras come with a standard zoom lens and this is all you need to start with.  Whilst there are a few different brands to choose from, Canon and Nikon are the most popular with plenty of options for lenses when you want to add to your kit later. Examples of lenses you many want to add down the line include landscape lenses and macro lenses.

These are our two top picks for beginner entry DSLR cameras for both Nikon and Canon:

This 24.1MP camera is marketed toward beginners with options to take full control or keep it easy with scene modes and creative filters.  There is even a built-in guide that teaches you as you shoot.

This 24.2MP camera is a great starting point for beginners, offering fully automatic, semi-automatic and manual modes.  Perfect for transitioning to full manual!

We would also recommend checking out mirrorless cameras, which offer many of the same features as a DSLR, but in a smaller, more lightweight package.


Basic Composition Tip 

Composition is one of the key components of taking great photos and most photographers spend their entire career learning and improving on their composition.

However, there is one basic composition tip that will instantly improve your photographs.

It’s the rule of thirds!

You will find the rule of thirds used not just in photography, but artwork, picture books, advertising and anything else with a visual element.

The basic idea is that you divide what you see into thirds and place your subject or key object on the lines. 

In the example above you can see I have placed the tree in the foreground on one of my imaginary lines, and the horizon also sits roughly on another.


Conclusion 

Now that you have read about the basics, it’s time to get out there with your camera and experiment!

Don’t be afraid to switch to manual, the worst that can happen is you end up deleting some photos that aren’t so great.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jessica Palmer

Photographer and Writer


A photographer and writer who has a somewhat constant urge to escape the mundane, Jessica travels regularly overseas and within Australia.

As a writer, Jessica writes for a variety of sites and magazines and is also the founder of www.familyholidaydestinations.com, a site dedicated to family travel.