The Basics of Photography

Upon finding out that I am a photographer, I’ve had several people who enjoy photography as a hobby ask me for assistance. They have unanswered questions or need a few pointers. I am always quick to help out. I find that training hobbyist to become amateur photographers will maintain the art of the craft. Too often I see folks who acquire a digital SLR and automatically think they can start charging clients for their services. Granted, there is no law that states you have to have a certain amount of education to be a photographer… but because of that, the market becomes over-saturated with eager, yet untrained shooters and it suddenly becomes difficult on the consumer to weed through everyone.

In this blog, I want to define a few basics that every photographer – no matter their skill set – can follow to ensure you’re producing the best quality shots.

The first mistake that any photographer can make is simply not shooting enough. How much is enough? In my opinion, you can never shoot too much. It is crucial to exercise your skills, just as an athlete trains for a competition. Let’s face it… there are a lot of self-proclaimed photographers out there. Being a consistently good photographer doesn’t happen over night, so being a great photographer requires years of finding your niche, honing your techniques, and continuously educating yourself.

Without a doubt, the single-most important factor in becoming a great photographer is composition. It is all about putting objects together in your frame to emphasize the parts you want and making them stand out in the right way. These objects include anything in the foreground, the background, and anywhere in between.

Have you ever seen a landscape photo with so many objects in it that you’ve honestly had no idea what the subject actually was?  Well, that is the perfect example of poor composition. Successful photo compositions are quite simple. Regardless of the number of objects in the frame, there is never a doubt as to what the subject actually is. Some people have the knack for capturing great composition, while others have to shoot and shoot to hone their  skills. The important thing to remember is that wherever you start, you will only get better with practice.

Lighting and viewpoint play large parts in composition as well. Before you dabble in flash photography, pay attention to direction, intensity, and color of natural lighting. Move around the subject. Look at it from different angles, heights, and focal lengths. All of these things will have an impact on capturing the right composition.

So remember, no matter how expensive your camera equipment is, without a knowledge of composition, you’ll never be able to capture  the essence of a great shot. It is completely possible that someone with a cheaper set-up, who knows about composition, will consistently produce a better photograph. Decide what your subject is, which viewpoint looks best, where to place it in the frame, and monitor the natural lighting before pressing the shutter button!

Aperture is nothing more than the unit of measurement that defines the size of the opening in the lens. This can be adjusted to control the amount of light reaching the image sensor. The size of the aperture is measured in F-stop. What is slightly confusing with F-stop is that with each increase in number (for example f/5.6 to f/11) the amount of light passing through the lens decreases. Therefore, the higher the F-stop number, the smaller amount of light that will reach your image sensor.

F-stop plays a huge role in determining depth of field, or the zone of acceptable sharpness in a photograph. When you shoot with a DSLR, you have the ability to control which subjects in certain distances are sharply focused and which are not. Since the human eyes cannot distinguish small degrees of unsharpeness, some subjects either in front of or behind the object in focus can still appear sharp. Increasing the depth of field increases the sharpness of an image. Using smaller apertures (higher numbered F-stop) will increase the depth of field.

Shutter Speed:
This term is used to discuss exposure time – meaning, the length of time a camera’s shutter is open. This length of time determines the amount of light that reaches the image sensor. In addition to its effect on exposure, shutter speed changes the way movement appears in a photo. Very short shutter speeds can “freeze” fast moving subjects, where very long shutter speeds on the same subject create a blur. Some common shutter speeds are 1/60, 1/125, and 1/250. A good rule of thumb for hand-held cameras to reduce noticeable noise and blur caused by camera shaking is to select the shutter speed numerically closest to the lens focal length. For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, the closest speed is 1/60. Any shutter speed below this may require a flash or a tripod to reduce your risk of blur.

ISO is actually a common short name for the International Organization for Standardization. ISO settings date back to film cameras. Remember those? When you would purchase film, the box usually said 200, 400, or even 800 on it. That number indicated the film’s sensitivity to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive the film was to light. In other words, the film with the lower number had to be exposed to light for a longer period of time than a film with a high sensitivity in order to properly expose the image. However, the lower ISO produced a better quality image. Film rated at 100 or 200 worked beautifully outdoors, but take it inside and photos – without a flash – would be quite dark.

Jump ahead to digital cameras. Instead of being locked to a certain ISO for 36 frames, you can now change the ISO setting for each shot you take. However, I wouldn’t recommend this… especially for a hobbyist. It could get too confusing. So why would ISO even matter now that there is no film? ISO still plays a key part, when combined with aperture and shutter speed, to get a great shot. As I stated earlier, the lower the number (100-200) the better quality your photo will be. In film days, you may remember a sort of grainy effect on some images. Digital images can have their own grain too. It is referred to as noise, and can be seen as a flat block-y area, typically in very light or dark shadowy areas. If you see this in your photos, check your ISO. Always shoot at the lowest ISO possible, using your aperture and shutter speed to get the right exposure, and then move up to the next ISO setting if your previous settings didn’t work.

Ultimately, the best way to better yourself as a photographer is to begin shooting outside with the automatic settings on your digital SLR camera. Play with all aspects of composition until you understand what to look for, and how to do it quickly. As you shoot, and composition becomes more comfortable to you, start taking notes of what settings your camera uses based on your location It isn’t a bad idea to take a notepad with you, or keep track of your favorite photos’ settings in your smartphone. Use these settings as a basis for you to advance over to the manual mode, remembering the tips I mentioned above.  Above all, SHOOT!! Take every opportunity to photograph in random environments. It will allow you to get more comfortable with your camera, to develop better compositions, and make faster decisions.