Digital Photography Basics

With that in mind, I’d strongly advise you to read through the whole article, even if you’re an average amateur, just to freshen up on the mental aspect of photography. I’ve never written an article on my way of thinking when taking pictures, but I think it’s cool because it’s not like your everyday photography tip article.

So read on for a few secrets, along with a few photos, of course.

Photography Tips & Tricks

Basic Lighting Settings:
An important part of upping your photography skills is learning how to master lighting. Flash photography can be useful in certain settings, such as when you’re indoors in low light or when you want your image to have a high-contrast look. On the other hand, natural lighting produces more subtle results.

Whether or not you can shoot with just natural light is highly dependent on the time of day, whether you are indoors or outdoors, and where the light source is situated in comparison with the subject. Is the sun behind you or is it the very subject you are shooting? These are important things to think about before you turn on your camera or position your subjects.

Basic Environment Settings:
Where you are will greatly affect how your photo turns out. If you are inside a low-lit home or outdoors midday, you will have to adjust your manual settings accordingly. If you are using an analog SLR, you will also have to think about the ISO of the film that you are using. 400 ISO is typically the standard film available at most shops, and will work in most settings that aren’t too brightly or dimly lit. 200 ISO is better for brighter conditions and an ISO of 400 or above is better for darker conditions. This is an important thing to think about when purchasing your film.

Lenses and tripods
Using a SLR doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Depending on the brand, many entry-level digital SLR packages come with an 18-55mm kit lens, which is great to start out with. When it comes to analog SLRs, depending on what make and model you buy, check out which lens is being offered with it. If you have an analog SLR, the lens that comes with it is likely to be a 50mm. For example, a Minolta X-700 camera fitted with a 50mm/f1.7 lens offers incredible depth-of-field and allows you to take photographs in lower lighting. The low f-stop means you can have a higher depth-of-field with a sharp image at the center and a blurred background, creating a dramatic effect.

The difference between these two lenses is that the 18-55mm is a zoom lens, while the 50mm is a prime lens. A zoom lens allows you to zoom in, capturing multiple focal lengths without changing lenses. A prime lens is fixed, meaning that you can’t zoom in with it, and will only be able to capture one focal length. To get a closer shot, you would have to change the lens.

If you’d like to move past the kit lens, you will have to decide on whether you would like another zoom lens or to try a prime lens. Both have positive and negative aspects for photographers. Keep in mind that you can’t necessarily use one lens on both an analog and digital SLR. There are some ways to retrofit old lenses onto new cameras, but they might need to be the same brand, and you may lose some important technical tools, like the light meter.

Another piece of equipment you’ll want to consider using is a tripod, especially if your camera doesn’t compensate for slight movements. Using a tripod will ensure a crisper and cleaner image.

Analog equipment
For analog photographers, the type of film and brand you choose will affect your photographs. 35mm film typically comes in black and white or color negative. The most common brands to choose from are Kodak, Fuji, and Ilford, but there are others.

The most common 35mm film is measured in ISO, or speed, ranging from 100 to 3200. Each speed will create a different effect. Higher ISOs are best used in lower light, while lower ISOs are better for brightly lit interiors or full sun outdoors. A standard speed to start off with would be ISO 400, which can be used indoors and outdoors with adjustments to your settings. Once you’ve mastered one film ISO, you will want to experiment with others.

The aperture consists of small blades in the lens that create an adjustable, octagonal shape. It tells you how big the hole is in your lens. The smaller the hole is, the less light passes through it. The wider the hole is, the more light will enter your lens. It’s best to think of the aperture as a pupil that can be controlled by you. The aperture is measured by your f-stop. The higher the f-stop (f22), the smaller the hole and the darker your image will be.

The f-stop also measures the depth of field. A lower f-stop (f2.8) will give you more depth to your image. For example, if you are taking a photo of a person and would like the background to be a bit blurry, you would choose a low f-stop. If you are taking a picture of beautiful scenery, you would want a higher f-stop to make sure everything is in focus.

Shutter speed
The shutter speed tells you the amount of time the camera will be exposed to light. The duration of time is shown in a fraction of seconds, for example it could be ½-second or 1/200 second. A speed of 1/200-second is faster than ½-second. Using a faster speed means the image will be darker. If you would like to lighten the image, use a slower shutter speed. However, a faster shutter speed will catch a frame of movement. For example, if you want to capture a still of someone running, you will want a faster shutter speed.

The ISO is a control within the camera that will affect the exposure. A high ISO will yield a brighter image, but it could also create a grainier, or noisy, image. For example, setting your camera to ISO 1600 will lighten the image and make it noisier. If you are using ISO 400, the images will be sharper and darker. If you are using an analog SLR, consider matching the ISO on your camera to the ISO of your film. It will help when you are light metering your image.

On SLR cameras, there are creative modes that give you slight control over a few of the settings. The two common ones that photographers use are shutter priority and aperture priority. Shutter priority means you have control over the shutter speed and ISO whereas aperture priority gives you control over aperture and ISO. The camera will adjust the aperture and shutter speed, respectively, for the best exposure.

Light meter
The light meter is a tool used to gauge your manual settings. If the light meter reads “0”, it means that there is enough light to capture your image. It also indicates that your image should be well-balanced. If your light meter reads negative, it means the image will be underexposed, or too dark. A light meter that reads positive will mean the image will be overexposed, or too light. You can adjust the different settings on your camera to pull the meter to zero.

When you are ready to shoot in manual mode, here is one way to go through your settings. Choose the ISO that would best work for your lighting conditions. If you are in a darker space or indoors, choose a higher ISO. Second, decide if depth of field or motion is more important. If you choose depth of field, you will need to adjust your aperture before you compensate with the appropriate shutter speed; vice versa for motion. Make slight adjustments based on the results.

There are a couple of tricks to use when trying to find the right balance for an image. For a medium level of ISO sensitivity, the shutter speed and aperture can be in the middle also. However, if you use a high ISO sensitivity, a faster shutter speed means you should make your aperture larger (low f-stop) and a slow shutter speed means you should make your aperture smaller (high f-stop).

Learn To See Creatively

The best way to learn to see creatively is to take more photos. The reason being is because the more pictures you take and the more time you spend on your photography, the more you will begin to see things you would normally never see. The eyes of a true photographer, or artist, sees shapes, patterns, light and color when walking down an ally or across a street. For example, let’s imagine I took a photo of a railroad track at night in a big city:

I saw a good photo because of the 1) light reflecting off the metal 2) the contrasts in color between the wood and metal 3) the strong diagonal lines of the track leading from edge-to-edge. Before I learned how to see creatively, I’ve probably walked over that railroad track a million times and not once have I seen it the way I do now. All these things added together create a great picture for the eye. That’s good and all, but, the photo is missing a strong message. It doesn’t emit a strong enough feeling/emotion when one views the photo. To get that, you gotta:

Feel The Moment

If the following makes any sense what-so-ever, it’s that I believe everyone has the ability to see creatively in their own personal way. To see creatively is, in my opinion, to set your mind free and get in-tune with your feelings. These feelings are what drive powerful photographs. And if you can get your brain, eyes and camera to link with your feelings then you’ve just opened up a door that has the potential for you to become a great photographer.

You want people to feel your photos; To get a strong emotional reaction because it’s all about the feeling, the impact and the structural composition of a photo. There are just a few key steps to improve the feel and impact of your photos, making them into memorable masterpieces. It’s certainly not as easy as you’d think and definitely not something you can learn in a few hours or a few days. It may take weeks, months and sometimes years. It’s all up to you and how much time and devotion you spend taking photos and learning photography. When you are out shooting and see something you want to take a picture of, stop and ask yourself these three questions:

Why do I want to take this photo?
What is the main message of the photo?
How am I going to take the picture effectively?
Keep asking yourself these three questions before you press the shutter and, I promise you, there will be an improvement in your photos. Let me explain the questions in more detail:
The question “why do I want to take this photo” forces you to explain your feelings. You did after all stop to take the photo because you “felt” it could be a good photo. But why? Was it because the light was good? Was there something extraordinary happening? The more you ask yourself why and the more you answer why, the more you’ll start to feel the moment and start seeing creatively. Remember, it’s all about feeling and communicating that feeling to the viewer.

So now that you know why you want to take the photo, you have to ask yourself, “what is the main message of the photo?” This question will better refine the first question, helping you define the actual subject whether it be exquisite shapes and colors or a person whose face tells a story of a life-long struggling journey. Whatever it is, it prepares you for the next question:

“How am I going to take the picture effectively?” Well, you can start by thinking of the first two questions and what their answers were. Imagine this as an example:

Say you’re sitting in a car at a red light and see a man starting to cross the street. You feel it can make a good photo, so you ask yourself “why” and answer “because the sky is blazing red and the timing just right.” So you quickly ask yourself the next question, “what is the main message of the photo” and answer “to get the feeling and mood of an urban sunset.” Next you swiftly take out the camera (shame on you not having it out already) and ask yourself the final question; “How am I going to take the picture effectively?” You struggle at first, then you realize that timing is everything. So you quickly compose the shot, frantically making sure the buildings are lined up roughly using the rule of thirds and wait until the man crossing the street is right in the middle of the blinding sun, creating an awesome editorial like silhouette.

These three questions will become second-nature to you and soon you will find yourself asking and answering these questions sub-consciously. Just remember once again, that communicating your feelings through your photographs by using your creative eye and brain, all linked together will make for amazing, memorable photos.

Study Amazing Photos And Books

Granted, I’m not an amazing photographer by any sorts, just an average amateur, but I believe that if you want to take good photos, you can, and you can do so without going to school. I am self taught in pretty much everything I do, photography being my main passion. A big influence for me are amazing photos. You can learn a lot by studying them and figuring out what makes it an awesome photo just by asking yourself the same three “why”, “what” and “how” questions mentioned above. I sometimes spend hours just analyzing photos, both to enjoy and also to figure out the ingredients of making it a memorable photo. Go to sites like Flickr,, 500px and 1X because not only do they have photos, they have amazing photos. Especially 1X. Look at the photos that interest you and ask yourself why they interest you. Just start studying them, and read the peoples reactions to the photos. Learn everything there is to know.

If you like to learn through books and want something good to read, I’d suggest picking up at least 3 out of the 5 books mentioned here because all 5 of these books have made a significant impact on my photography:

The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos by Michael Freeman
Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera by Bryan Peterson
Scott Kelby’s 7-Point System for Adobe Photoshop CS3 by Scott Kelby
The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes by Joe McNally
The Camera (Ansel Adams Photography, Book 1) by Ansel Adams and Robert Baker
Did you notice that I picked 5 books on 5 completely different subjects? That’s because with these 5 books you can learn everything from off-camera lighting and composition, to Photoshop and exposure. These books combined together are just awesome to read and study, and because they’re written by very well known photographers, you know there’s good info to gather inside.

Get Constructive Criticism

Improving your photography and taking good photos means you have to get advice from the pros, because they’ve been where you’re at and know the good and bad, and the right and wrong in photography. I personally have never talked to a real “professional” photographer face-to-face. I’ve only chatted with pros through the use of web forums and email. I’d suggest, if you can, to meet a few pros and join them in a few gigs or whatnot, which is actually something on my to-do list because working with an actual pro will give you hands-on experience and get real feedback, real constructive criticism, unlike the kind your family and friends give you.

I’d suggest you sign up to one or all of these critique websites because they, too, can give you honest but sometimes blunt, constructive criticism. Google the following to find the sites:

And last but not least my favorite and by far the best of them all, 1X. You have to sign up to see and use their critique system, but it’s totally worth it, and free.
What you do is you sign up to one or all of the critique websites, and post a photo that you want to receive some feedback one. Most of the time these sites require you to give feedback on at least one photo before posting your own. This makes the community balanced, so everyone doesn’t just keep posting pictures for critique and never give out any critiques themselves.
In addition to critique websites, there are a few photography blogs that I love, also. The first being the well-known blog authored by David Hobby called Strobist. His blog is mainly about off-camera lighting, or hence the name, strobes. I have to mention him just for the sake of mentioning him, Ken Rockwell. He’s pretty much a Nikon fanatic that talks jokes a lot about a wealth of different subjects. He also has a lot of great information on Nikon camera gear. Joshua Hoffine is probably one of my favorite photographers because he sets up his shots as if they’re movies. He also has a great blog so I would recommend that you follow him just so you can see his latest amazing work and how he creates them.

And now for the no brainer…

Keep Pressing That Shutter!

Practice makes perfect and taking photos is no exception. If you want to become the next best photographer in town, or in the world (hey it’s possible!) you have to get out and start shooting more. And for those who log in 60 plus hours of work a week and still strive to be a great photographer, you have to find time to get out and shoot. It’s tough, I know. I only work around 50 hours a week at my retail job here in Berkley, Michgan and know first-hand how hard it is finding time to take photos.

If you want to get better, you have to dedicate time to shoot pictures. When I first got into photography I didn’t spend more than a few hours a month with my camera. And it showed; My photos looked the same as they did when I first started. Something needed to be done so I got into the habit of spending a few hours every week working on my technique. That eventually developed into a few hours every other day learning how to take photos. Soon I’d find myself spending hours upon hours every single day taking photos and learning, that I think my head literally got a few centimeters bigger from all the information I had gathered!

Final Words

If there’s one thing that I’ve found out over the last year while trying to become a better photographer, it’s that attitude has everything to do with photos. Most of this article has nothing to do with an actual photography “technique” if you will, because I feel that if you’re told to take photos a certain way you’re constricted within a set silly rules, and you will never be able to explore photography with your own feelings. Anyways, I hope I brought up some good points, ones that you will take into action soon because if you do, I know you’ll soon discover that there is a great photographer within you. You just gotta have the motivation to continue and have the right attitude.

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