Photography Guide for Beginners

Last Updated on April 8, 2021

I remember when I started in photography feeling a bit overwhelmed with the complexity of my camera and learning how to take great shots with it. If you feel the same don’t fear, it is completely natural and with the right info and practice you will be well on your way to getting those awesome pictures.

Your Camera and the Basics

Metering Modes Demistified

camera meter

I get a lot of questions from photography beginners about metering modes, but it’s not as confusing as it may sound. While there is a lot that goes into the exposure of your shots such as shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, it is important to understand metering mode’s role in this whole process.

Basically, metering modes allow you to tell your camera how you want to look at your shot.

The mode you choose plays a large role in whether your exposure is right or underexposed or overexposed. Once you understand how to set your meter mode for your shooting conditions you will be well on your way to taking your photography skills to the next level. For more on this read my guide on meter modes.

What are Histograms

camera histogram

A historygram is an important step in ensuring your image is properly exposed. After your photo is shot a histogram will allow you to see mathematically if your image is over or underexposed.

Due to the lighting variation around you, viewing the image on the viewfinder is not adequate for ensuring proper exposure. And because of this a histogram is an immensely important tool to learn how to use right from the start of your photography journey.

Shooting Mode Basics

There are a number of shooting modes available on modern cameras. Those include manual mode, aperture priority mode, shutter speed priority mode, and full auto mode. When you are new to photography it is challenging to know which mode your shot calls for.

I’ve heard a lot of misinformation on the subject which doesn’t make the subject any easier for a beginner to get a handle on shooting modes. For a deeper dive into when to use each shooting mode check out my guide.

Understanding Depth of Field

depth of field chart

As you will learn, if you are shooting in low light conditions, you will want to shoot with a wider aperture. This allows more light to reach your image sensor. The problem with widening your aperture is that it also creates a more shallow depth of field.

This is not so good in all shooting styles.

But desirable in others.

Confused yet?

Don’t sweat it, and let me explain. Depth of field refers to how much of your image is in focus. When you are shooting landscapes or real estate photography, for example, you will want a deeper depth of field. But there will be times when you will make an artistic decision to have a more shallow depth of field, and portions of your image not in focus.

Depth of field and manipulating it is one of the fun aspects of photography that can be used to help your images make a bold statement. For more info on choosing the right aperture, and therefore adjusting your depth of field, read my guide. It is important to understand depth of field so take your time and make sure you understand it inside and out.

So What is White Balance?

white balance chart

There is a lot of benefit to learning about white balance right from the beginning. Trust me on this and pay attention. Your future self will thank you.

White balance effects the color cast of your images and it is directly responsible for your photos warmth.

What does this mean?

Simply put, your white balance will decide if your images look blue or orange. AKA cold or warm.

You probably have an auto white balance mode on your camera but not all perform all that great. And definitely not under all lighting conditions. For this reason, it is very important to get the hang of setting your white balance manually.

How does focal length work?

focal length chart

Okay, quiz time.

Do you know what the little “mm” on your lens does?

Not sure?

How about why photographers adjust their focal length and what are the reasons behind it?

When I got started in photography I had no idea what focal length was so you are in good company. For a full understanding, check out my focal length guide and you will be confused no more. Very important because focal length impacts more than zoom, it has a huge impact on your perspective as well.

Crop Frame and Full Frame Sensors

digital camera sensor sizes

If you are just starting out in photography you are most likely shooting with a camera with a crop frame sensor. The image sensor is the part of your camera that captures the light from your shot.

A crop frame sensor is smaller than the more expensive full frame camera. And because of this, crop sensors let in less light than a full frame sensor will allow in.

Full frame cameras are more expensive than your crop frame models. There is no rule that you have to shoot with a crop frame camera when you start but due to the investment level of a full frame most beginner photographers opt to go with a crop sensor.

Using a crop sensor does effect your image quality as it provides a narrower viewing angle. This limits the lenses available to you. Professional photographers almost universally shoot with full frame cameras. Depending on your photography style, you may want to start with a full frame. For my guide on photography styles read the article.

What are polarizing filters for?

Polarizing filters are awesome tools in certain shooting styles. They allow you to dictate what direction light is allowed to enter your lens from. This can help you eliminate glare and light reflections that are obscuring your image quality.

This will provide your images with less anomalies and allow for more natural colors in your images.

Landscape, real estate and sports photography can benefit from proper use of polarizing filters.

Most Popular Beginners Lens

The 50mm f/1.8 prime lens is one of the first lenses every beginner photographer should invest in. Many DSLR cameras come with a beginner lens and while this is great for getting the hang of your camera, you should get this great lens right away.

It is a relatively cheap lens that is awesome for learning about aperture and fine tuning your chops.

This is a great beginner upgraded lens. Get one, trust me!

Understanding Exposure

exposure triangle

Exposure is often considered the Grand Daddy of getting professional quality images. If you are a beginner, then understanding the role of Exposure is very important.

Understanding exposure will allow you to feel in complete control of your camera and therefore increase your shooting skill.

Exposure comes from the combination of your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. But just to be clear, these settings effect more than just exposure. They also effect motion blur, digital noise, and depth of field (as noted above).

Getting a handle on each of these settings will allow you to shoot in full manual mode, which is when the fun really begins.

These three settings are referred to as the exposure triangle and having a deep understanding of them will allow you to shoot in any setting under any conditions.

It is important to note that anytime you change one of these settings you will have to adjust the other two as well. Understanding how to tune these settings for the given lighting conditions is an immensely important skill.

Aperture Setting

aperture sizes

Exposure is greatly effected by your aperture setting. This is because aperture refers to the amount of light that passes through your lens. Your aperture can be narrowed for less light or widened for more light.

Aperture settings are noted with an f/ number. The lower the f/ number, the wider your aperture is. This means more light is passed through the lens. A wide aperture is ideal for shooting in low light settings, such as at night or when shooting landscapes.

Setting your aperture should be done first in most situations. From there you will move on the the other two settings. One time you will not set aperture first is when you want to achieve motion blur, where shutter speed will be set first.

All beginners should memorize the f/stop scale and here it is










Shutter Speed Settings

So the aperture setting dictates how much light passes through your lens, right?


So what does the shutter speed do?

Shutter speed then dictates how much light passes to your camera. Shutter speed is measure in fractions of a second. And most of the time you want a fast shutter speed. A slow shutter speed is use for capturing motion blur. So unless that is what you are going for you will likely set your shutter speed for somewhere around 1/250 of a second.

Your exact shutter speed will be decided by what style of photography you are shooting. For example those shooting night sky photography will want a very slow shutter speed while professional sports photographers will go with a very fast shutter speed.

ISO Settings

So now that the light has passed through the shutter it will arrive at the sensor in your camera. This is when ISO comes into play.

The key to remember with your ISO setting is that as you turn it up the exposure increase while your image quality decreases. High ISO will lead to image grain and noise.

Setting your ISO will feel like a juggling act but as you gain more experience it will begin to truly click in your mind. In time you will know how to balance exposure with grain.

Final Thoughts on Exposure

At first you will be spending time understanding each of these settings in isolation but as you gain experience you will begin to feel how they work together.

This is a process all beginner photographers have to go through so don’t get frustrated. Understanding how these settings come together to produce your exposure is a very important skill so take your time to understand it well the first time.

In order to move on to more advanced topics like composition and framing, you have to have a solid foundation in these settings. If you stick to it and practice you will learn how to set your aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Basics of Composition

Moving on from exposure now, it is very important to gain an understanding of basic composition. Until you have this down you will struggle getting quality shots on a consistent basis.

While the rules of basic composition are not meant to be rigid rules, they are intended to be guides to help you better understand how to get to that great looking shot.

The Rule of Thirds

There is a decent chance you have already heard of the rule of thirds. It is a foundation to which many great shots are built. It is easy to understand and implementing it will help you improve your shots quickly.

The rule of thirds means that you divide the frame of your shot into thirds. You then position important parts of your shot at these lines. Doing this will consistently improve the quality of your composition.

The rule of thirds does not need to be used with every shot but for beginners it is important to understand and utilize as it will help you as you develop your eye.

What does visual weight mean?

Visual weight is a term we use to denote the portion of an image that we are drawn to when we look at it.

Sound a little abstract? It is.

This rule is all about understanding your image at a deeper level and knowing what draws peoples gaze. With practice you will gain an understanding of what people are drawn to and how to position elements in your image.

What are triangles?

You will find that shapes are important and referred to frequently in photography. And triangles can be found in just about everything you look at. Understanding how to identify and utilize them is an important part of becoming a great photographer.

Triangles are an important tool to become familiar with. Understanding how to use them is one of the first skills each beginner should work on in composition.

Once you understand how to identify and manipulate triangles you will be able to combine it with other compositional elements to improve the quality of your images.

Using Eye Lines

Eye lines is the term we use for describing the direction the eyes are pointing of your subjects. (Remember that lead room refers to the negative space right in front of the face of your subject).

Understanding eye lines is important for any photographer who shoots pictures of people. The eye lines of a photo are a powerful composition element as they can build tension or bring a particular part of an image into the viewers attention. Eye lines can be used for building triangles too!

Composition Balance

The balance of an image is a very important aspect! It refers to the feeling the viewer of a picture gets. A poorly balanced image will make the viewer feel “off” and uncomfortable while a well balanced image will offer a pleasing feeling to the viewer.

Both a balanced and an unbalanced photo can be desirable. It depends on the feeling you want to invoke in the viewer. The key is to be intentional in choosing the balance of your photos.

Photography Beginner Guide Wrap Up

There you have it! You now know where to begin with your photography journey. By understanding and practicing the skills you just read you will build an exceptional foundation from which you can grow as a photographer.

Take each of these aspects and understand them deeply before moving on. Whenever learning a new skill our enthusiasm can tempt us into moving on before we fully have a skill down. Resist this urge and get a deep understanding of each of these points before moving on. For that deeper understanding of each of these skills check out their respective guides and happy shooting!