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:
To have a camera ready for use;
To choose interesting subjects;
To frame the subjects in a suitable manner;
To get the subjects in focus, as appropriate, and
To get the exposure "right".
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,
Imagine the potential for square or panoramic crops,
regardless of the format of the camera you are actually
Try different camera angles: tilted, pointing up and
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
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
Once you have loaded the film, a traditional manual
camera has only five controls:
Some sort of viewfinder, which tells you what you have in your image;
A focusing mechanism, which allows you to choose where to set the point of sharpest focus;
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;
shutter-speed knob, which you use to
determine how long the light will flow through the lens;
shutter-release, which you press to make the
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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.