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This brief article tells you what you need to know to get started in photography, and where to find further information, both on this site and elsewhere. I'm assuming, because you are reading this, that you are interested in improving as a photographer.


If you have any suggestions, ideas, or constructive criticism of any of the articles on this site, please send me email by clicking on the feedback link above.


Even using a camera without automatic exposure or auto-focus, the steps required to make technically competent photographs are easy to grasp, and once you understand the basics, all you need to get things right (almost) every time is care and practice.


Lots of practice.


The main challenges are:

  1. To have a camera ready for use;

  2. To choose interesting subjects;

  3. To frame the subjects in a suitable manner;

  4. To get the subjects in focus, as appropriate, and

  5. To get the exposure "right".

  6. Timing

Wherever you go, take a camera. It's very difficult to take pictures without a camera! Have it ready to use, in your hand - not tucked away inside a case.


Be always on the alert for interesting subjects.


When preparing to make a photo, look at the patterns of light and color as well as the subject itself. Look also at the background and other space around the subject. Look especially at the edges of your frame. Check for distracting details that could be avoided by moving to another position. Think about placement of the subject within the image space.


After making your first composition, look for alternatives and improvements:

  • Try different viewpoints: nearer, further, left and right, high and low.

  • Try different formats: vertical/portrait, horizontal/landscape.

  • Imagine the potential for square or panoramic crops, regardless of the format of the camera you are actually using.

  • Try different camera angles: tilted, pointing up and down.

Make many pictures. Don't be afraid to experiment and take chances. Digital images are virtually cost-free until you print them.


Back at home, review your results and select the ones you think are best. How could they have been even better? What about the failures? What went wrong? Go back again, if you can, to the same place, and try to do better. Besides studying your own results, get into the habit of looking carefully at those of others, especially images by acknowledged masters. Check also in newspapers and magazines.


Consider cropping. You can sometimes extract two or more different compositions from a single image. You can crop to a different format from the original image or crop at an angle if you like. This exercise will illustrate framing options that you missed when shooting. Remember, however, that whenever you use less than the whole of the original image, you sacrifice some resolution.


Further thoughts on subject selection and composition will be found in the basic section article on Composition and more details in the Aesthetics section.


Once you have loaded the film, a traditional manual camera has only five controls:

  1. Some sort of viewfinder, which tells you what you have in your image;

  2. A focusing mechanism, which allows you to choose where to set the point of sharpest focus;

  3. An aperture mechanism inside the lens (called the diaphragm), which controls both depth of field and how much light flows through the lens, by changing the size of an adjustable hole, or aperture;

  4. A shutter-speed knob, which you use to determine how long the light will flow through the lens;

  5. A shutter-release, which you press to make the picture.

Setting the focus and exposure are covered in the basic section articles on Focus and Depth of Field and Exposure.


Focus and DOF are adjusted using the focusing and aperture controls (numbers 2 and 3 in the list above).


Setting exposure determines how much light will reach your film (or digital sensor). If you don't allow enough light to pass, your image will be darker than you intended. If you allow too much light through the lens, your image will be too light.


The quantity of light that passes depends on (1) the rate light flows through the lens, that is related to the size of the aperture (governed by item 3 in the list above), and (2) the time the light is allowed to flow, controlled by adjusting the shutter speed (item 4 in the list above).


Automatic cameras attempt to make some or all of these adjustments for you, and they usually do a very good job. They know nothing about your artistic intentions, however, and may often be fooled by unusual lighting or subject matter. For example, an auto-focus camera will usually manage to focus accurately on something, but it might be something different from what you intended. An auto-exposure camera can usually handle 'typical' lighting conditions, but maybe you don't want your image to be 'typical' - perhaps you want it to be lighter or darker than normal. And no camera can reliably guess what depth of field you want.


Of course, the most critical item on the list above is number 6: Timing - or catching the right expression, the best possible arrangement of the (possibly moving) parts - the decisive moment. This calls for yet more care, attention and practice.


If you don't already have a camera, what sort of camera should you buy? This is a very difficult question to answer properly. It depends on your level of experience in photography, the sort of photography you intend to do, and on psychological and physical factors that vary from one individual to another. Some of the questions you should ask yourself when choosing a camera:

  • Buy new or used?

  • Traditional film or digital?

  • Can I justify paying the price?

  • How big and heavy is it?

  • Will it deliver the pictures I want to make?

  • Do I understand the controls?

  • Are the main controls easy to adjust quickly?

  • Do I like it?

As you probably know, used cameras can be found in virtually as-new condition for a fraction of their original cost. This includes discontinued models of digital cameras and just about every traditional film camera there is. Of course, you will usually forego a guarantee, so there is a measure of risk attached to buying used equipment. This risk can be minimized by dealing only with reputable sellers.


The trend of choice between film and digital is swinging strongly towards digital, and film has become something of a niche market in much of the world. Digital cameras still cost more to buy, but from there on, your images are virtually free, until you make prints of them. Film cameras provide a lower cost of entry, and may still be the rational choice for those who don't take many pictures. In terms of image quality, there are both film and digital systems that cover the entire possible range, from barely acceptable (or worse) to the finest possible. Digital has one huge advantage, namely that you can check your results immediately, and know if they were what you intended.


Can you justify the investment? Only you can answer that one! If in doubt, consider buying used, because you will probably not lose very much if you decide to sell later - at least if you paid a fair price in the first place. New cameras, like new cars, tend to lose a significant fraction of their value the moment they leave the store.


How big and heavy is it? The sad fact is that the most capable cameras still tend to be rather large and heavy (and expensive). If it's too big and heavy for you to be willing to keep it with you, it's probably not suitable, at least as your first camera.


Will it deliver the pictures you want to make? This is another rather complex issue, leading us to ask some additional questions. If you have special interests, for example, such as scuba diving or macro photography, you will probably want a camera that can at least be adapted to such purposes, even if you don't buy all the accessories right away. On the other hand, if you never make prints larger than 6" x 4" there would be little point in buying an expensive digital camera with more than about 4 to 5 MP (mega-pixels, i.e. millions of dots in the digital image). At this print size, you can't tell the difference.


Do you understand the controls? Are they easy to adjust quickly? Digital cameras can be much more complex than traditional film cameras. They may offer an enormous range of features, some of them deeply hidden in their menu system, which you might never use. You need to study the manual to discover what is available, or you will never find many of your camera's useful resources (and useless gimmicks).


Do you like it? This is a bit irrational, but it's also important. Your camera should be a pleasure to use.


Avoid paying too much attention to salesmen! They will invariably attempt to push the model, just within your budget, that gives them the highest commission. You may be lucky, but it's hard, today, to find reliable disinterested advice. Unfortunately local camera stores, owner-managed by an avid, experienced photographer, are fast disappearing.


In the end, the brand and cost of your camera will not much affect your results as a photographer. It's "the Indian, not the arrow" that counts. A poor choice, on the other hand, can make it harder for you to reach your full potential.


As you begin to use your camera, you should try to develop certain workflow habits that will help you to achieve more consistent results efficiently. Workflow is a procedure or sequence of steps required to perform some action. In photography, we hear a lot of talk about workflow for converting raw digital image files into finished prints, and there will be some of that eventually on this site. Here, on the other hand, I mean the procedure of actually making the images, be they digital or film.


Experienced photographers develop efficient working habits that enable them to make great pictures almost without thinking about the mechanics of adjusting the settings on their cameras. This is mostly a matter of regular, frequent practice, but also a question of building good habits. Exact procedure depends to some degree on the specific camera in use and on the type of photography required. We can therefore only offer fairly general guidelines for what might be called mainstream photography using non-specialized equipment.


For a starting point, I would suggest a simple mnemonic that I first heard from Freeman Patterson: "C-D-E", which stands for Compose, Depth of field, Exposure.


When using this in practice, I tend to add a final careful adjustment of composition at the end, but the basic procedure is fundamentally sound for virtually all forms of what might be called 'deliberate' photography:

  • C - Initial composition defines the picture you plan to make;

  • D - Depth of field is determined by focus and aperture;

  • E - Exposure is defined (now the aperture has already been set) by selecting the shutter speed.

This done, you can make the fine adjustments to your composition. Having made the picture you first saw, try to improve on it: adjust the composition, switch formats between portrait and landscape, and consider alternatives to your original choice of settings for depth of field and exposure. Great ideas deserve lots of attention.


Composition, depth of field and exposure are discussed individually, elsewhere on this site.


For 'deliberate' photography I recommend using a tripod whenever it is practical to do so - it slows you down and gives you more opportunity to think. It will also make for sharper pictures: you will be surprised how often you can tell the difference.


For fast sports photography or photojournalism, we need to modify this C-D-E procedure. Now we are no longer talking 'deliberate' photography. The names of the game are anticipation and preparation: composition now comes last in the workflow sequence. It will be hurried, almost instantaneous, so it must be practiced and instinctive.


For fast-moving events we generally need a fairly high shutter speed and an adequate depth of field. If the light is variable, we might choose aperture-priority or shutter-priority mode (if our camera has them) and leave final exposure determination to the camera. Hopefully you can use the same settings for multiple images. Remember to dial in some exposure compensation if the subject is backlit or if the background is unusually dark or light.


Long telephoto lenses, much used in sports photography, have less depth of field (at any given aperture) than shorter, wider lenses. Long lenses at wide apertures make severe demands on accurate focusing, especially with moving targets. If you have a good auto-focus system, this is the time to use it.


Recall the old-time photojournalists' phrase "f/8 and be there!"? That was from the days before auto-focus. f/8 will give plenty of depth of field, making focus less critical, but will dictate a rather slow shutter speed and/or a high film speed (or ISO setting on a digital camera) when the light begins to fade.