Podcast 219 : Photography Fundamentals – Next Steps

Podcast 219 : Photography Fundamentals – Next Steps

A few weeks ago I did two episodes, number 216 and 217 relaying some fundamental things for someone just getting starting in photography to bear in mind. During the preparation for those episodes, I had a lot of ideas that were arguably a little more advanced than the basics, so I’m posting these here today, in a sort of “Next Steps” episode. It’s not important to listen to the other two episodes first, but if you really are just getting started, it might be a good idea.

Photography Fundamentals – Next Steps

Having covered a lot of basic ideas in Episodes 216 and 217, if you are now getting used to using your camera, and you want to take it a little further, some of what we’ll cover today might help. It’s not going to be comprehensive of course, as I don’t know where you are in your photography today, and the line between intermediate and advance photography is pretty fuzzy. Here are a few ideas though that might help you to get a little better if you are not thinking about these things currently.

Take Control of the Flash
If your camera has an automatic flash, learn how to turn it off. There are two main reasons that you would want to turn it off. The first is because when you are at a ball game and you see all of those flashes going off around the stadium, they’re a waste of time. Even powerful flash or strobe units have a limit to how far the light can travel, so when your subject is more than twenty or thirty feet away, turn the flash off. The other reason that you may want to turn your flash off, is because in some situation the subject won’t look very good when lit by flash on the camera. If all you are trying to do is photograph family members at a party, and you aren’t worried about making good photographs, leave it on and forget about it.

If you really do need the flash, and want it to look natural, you’ll need to put the camera in Aperture Priority mode, and use very subtle flash that is known as fill light, to pop some light into the shadow areas of your subject. Ideally, you’d want to get the flash off the camera, but this starts to get a bit complicated. I’ve also covered shooting with one or more flashes off the camera in other episodes, which you can listen to if you are at that stage in your photography. For now, just remember to be aware that flash can sometimes hurt images more than it helps them, so learn how to turn it flash off.

Red Tulips

Learn to See and Use Light

As you get better at photography, you will start to become more discerning about the light with which you shoot. Some people take this too far and only shoot in the first and last hours of the day, which are often called the Golden Hours. The light around mid-day is usually very contrasty and non-flattering, but there are various things that modify light in ways that can make it still useful for us photographers. Image 2263 for example, was shot at 2:30 in the afternoon of a clear day, but the light was being filtered through trees, and so only directly hitting a small number of the tulips. Even in the city, light reflecting off a building or down an alley can give great lighting conditions to capitalize on at any time of day. You just need to be aware of light, and experiment.

Of course, for landscape photography, getting out early, and staying late will definitely help your shots in most cases. It takes a lot of dedication, and is not easy, but ensuring that you are at the right place before dawn for example will usually give you much better shots than someone who does not make that effort. Use an online tool or an iPhone app like MagicHour to tell you when the sun and moon will rise and fall, as well as the point on the horizon that they’ll do so. This will help you to prepare and be at the right place at the right time to get not only the sunrise, but the great light just before and after it.

Learn Good Focusing Techniques
A common problem that people run into as they progress from beginner to more advanced photographers is soft images due to poor focusing techniques. At first, everything looks great, because generally beginners tend to photograph with deep depth-of-field (see my Depth-of-Field Explained article if you don’t know what that is). People also tend to be less critical about sharpness at first I’ve found. As you are drawn into photography more and more though, and decide to get some new lenses with wider apertures that result in shallow depth-of-field when used wide open, it can be much easier to see problems in your images resulting from poor focusing techniques.

Learn how to hold your camera steady, keeping the elbows tucked in and space your feet at shoulder width is a good place to start. Sometimes, you might want to put one foot slightly out in front, and one out to the back more, though still with your feet at shoulder width. This helps to reduce the action of rocking backwards and forwards as you breathe.

Using a tripod whenever possible is also recommended, as it will help you to focus your images better and get sharper images. You’ll want to get a good tripod, that gets the camera’s viewfinder up to your eye level without you having to stoop over. You can buy a cheap one, but it will not work, and you’ll have to buy a better one later, but it’s completely up to you. It’s important to get a tripod that you don’t have to stoop to use though, otherwise you won’t enjoy using it and that in turn will result in you not using it. I should also say as well that I do stress that I am only suggesting you use a tripod when you can. When it gets in the way, and makes more sense to hand hold, don’t use it. My general use is use the tripod unless there’s a good reason not too.

Snow Monkey Profile

Snow Monkey Profile

If your subject has eyes, or even something that looks like eyes, focus on them. An example here might be image #2236, of a snow monkey. Here you can see that I have used a very shallow depth-of-field, but made sure that I focused on the monkey’s left eye. We are naturally drawn to eyes in an image, and if they are not sharp, the image feels very awkward to view, so getting them sharp is very important. As we touched on in episode 217, you’ll most often want compose your image with the persons head off-center, and this means that you will have to either manually focus or use one of the peripheral focus points on your camera. If you are using a very shallow depth-of-field, don’t use the focus and recompose method. I used to do this, but quite often would get focus errors with very shallow depth-of-field shots. This is because your lens focuses along a plane that is parallel to the film or digital sensor, so when you tilt the camera down or across after focusing, the plane of focus moves backwards. I found it really difficult to grasp this until I saw a diagram in an article on the visual-vacations.com Web site, in an article called “Why Focus-Recompose Sucks“. I’ll put a link in the show-notes so if you are having trouble visualizing this, check out that post.

Use LiveView to Tweak Focus
Most cameras these days have LiveView, which is a function that allows you to turn on the camera’s LCD and see what you are about to photograph on the screen. When shooting landscapes or still life images for example, you can use LiveView to get the focus spot on. This works best when using a tripod, as it’s not easy to do handheld. When you have decided on your composition though, move the little square on the LCD to the element in your scene that is to be in sharpest focus. Then hit the zoom button on the back of your camera, and most will zoom in to 5X and 10X magnification. You can then use the manual focus ring on your lens to fine tune the focus while looking at the image in LiveView.

Note that if you take your finger off the shutter button while you do this, unless you switch your lens to manual focus, when you half-press the shutter button again the auto-focus will likely move the focus, undoing your tweaks. If you keep the shutter button half pressed while you tweak focus this won’t be a problem. You can also move the focus mechanism to the back focus button, but that is a slightly more advanced technique, and I have covered it before, so we’ll not get into that today.

Look at Other People’s Work
Few people improve in a vacuum. You learn so much from looking at other peoples’ work, so try to search out other photographers work as much as you can. Study their images, and try to figure out how they made the images. This doesn’t even have to be a genre that you are really interested in yourself. There’s always something to learn from other people’s work. If you find someone that you really like, you can try to emulate their style as a learning process. I don’t suggest that you steal their style, but rather you learn from it, and improve your own photography by figuring out what they did.

Ooarai Torii (Shinto Gate)

Your Own Web Site
You can get a Web hosting account for just a few dollars a month now, many with enough disk space and bandwidth to build a great photography related Web site and more. Building your own photography Gallery in tools like Lightroom is now very easy, and there are lots of gallery tools out there that you can use to put a photography web site together either for free, or for a nominal fee. I really like to have my own gallery, but do keep in mind that the Internet is so vast and so many people are sharing great photography, that it is very difficult to stand out and attract viewers. Even if your work is outstanding, people will rarely just find your site without you doing something to attract them, and pay attention to SEO or Search Engine Optimization. Even if you get Google to trawl your site and list you, people won’t find your images if you are listed on page 10. Without a lot of SEO work though, realistically, you’re better off trying to attract people to your site in other ways, and sometimes Social Networking will help for example.

Social Networking
You’ll find a lot of photographers on Facebook and Twitter, as well as Flickr and other sites. Again, the Forum at Martin Bailey Photography is an incredibly good resource and community. [The forum is no longer available.]

There is a great community of photographers on Facebook and Twitter though as I say though, so do tap into these resources, as well. Not just to make contacts and bring everyone back to your own site of course. I find that it helps to build you as a photographer to immerse yourself in photography related dialog on such sites. As I said in episode 217 though, please don’t get so bogged down in Social Networking or reading up on the technical side of photography that you don’t get out and actually do it. You have to keep shooting. It’s the best way to improve, and should be augmented by this other stuff, not second to it.

Finding your Genre
Finding your genre of photography is something that can take people years. It was probably a desire to photograph a certain type of subject that made you go out and buy a camera in the first place, so start by photographing that. If you get bored of that, just shoot a lot of whatever catches your eye, until you find something that really excites you. My photography really started in the mountains and hills in the Peak District in England. I had some years after coming to Japan when although I was shooting, I didn’t really knowing what I wanted to photograph. Then I went to college, and working in a bar in the evenings to pay for college, I didn’t really have the time or money for photography, but once I was able to really get back into the saddle, I quickly gravitated back to nature, landscapes and wildlife photography.

Sticking to one genre is probably the best way to make a name for yourself, but really, shoot anything and everything that excites you, until you find yourself shooting one thing so much that you don’t have time for the others. Natural selection will help as you’ll find yourself prioritizing your time to shoot on something you like the most. I’m often told that I am wasting chances living here in Japan by not concentrating on the Japanese cultures, temples and shrines etc. but as I mentioned earlier, I love nature and would much prefer to spend my time getting out into the places of natural beauty. I also like photographing people, so I’m making time for portraiture as well these days. Do whatever gets your creative juices flowing.

Kaede Sumie

Developing a Style
Developing a photographic style that people can recognize you by is a tough one. Being consistent will definitely help though. For my own work, I have been noted as being a “clean” photographer, as in, my images are crisp, clear representations of nature. An example might be image number 2409, in which I photographed some bright orange autumn leaves with a misty background, and very shallow depth-of-field. I don’t do much post processing on my images, but I do take pride on capturing beautiful subjects at just the right moment, and people have started to recognize this. I don’t of course have a monopoly on shallow depth-of-field, but because I use it extensively in much of my work, it is becoming a bit of a signature trait as well. The reason that I’m becoming known for these things is because I’m consistent. I certainly intend to continue this as I improve further, and as more people view my work, I’m hoping that being recognized in this way continues.

I don’t really have an definitive advice here other than to dabble with lots of styles, and find something that you like. Like finding your genre, you should gravitate towards something naturally. If you try to force it, you’ll probably end up emulating someone else, so just keep on shooting, and see what you lean towards and try to focus on that.

As you develop your skills a great way to take your photography to the next level is to attend workshops. These can be anything from a Saturday afternoon with a pro that your local camera store has arranged, to a multi-day on-location photography tour and workshop. The latter can cost quite a bit, depending on the photographer and the location, so do select the photographer whose workshop you attend carefully. I suggest that you look for workshops with photographers that you admire and if possible that shoot in your chosen field or at least in a genre that you are interested in developing your skills in.

Do try to find some testimonials from people that have attended the photographer’s previous workshops. With the economic downturn and money from stock photography sales down, there are more photographers than ever doing workshops. Many are experienced photographers simply shifting their focus, and doing a great job. Some though are not so experienced and simply trying to make some easy money, so do check them out before you sign-up.

Shadow Dancing

Shadow Dancing

Some workshops are more classroom-based where you’ll maybe photograph a model as a group, while receiving advice from the instructor, and then you may also spend some time in a classroom, learning some tricks and techniques around the digital work-flow. Others like I say are location-based, like my Snow Monkey and Hokkaido workshops, where the location itself is a large part of the attraction, but still, while you’re there, you have access to a professional that can help you maximize your time at that location, and teach you all sorts of other stuff at the same time. You can expect to come away from location-based workshops with an experienced photographer with lots of new skills, as well as lots of great pictures.

And that’s about it for today. I hope this gives you some pointers on the sort of things to do or keep in mind as you get more and more hooked on photography.

Podcast show-notes:

See the earlier Fundamentals episodes and transcripts here:

Part #1: https://martinbaileyphotography.com/2009/11/11/podcast-216-photography-fundamentals-for-the-beginner-part-1/

Part#2: https://martinbaileyphotography.com/2009/11/16/podcast-217-photography-fundamentals-for-the-beginner-part-2/

Why Focus-Recompose Sucks: http://visual-vacations.com/Photography/focus-recompose_sucks.htm

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Download the Enhanced Podcast M4A files directly.

Podcast 217 : Photography Fundamentals for the Beginner – Part 2

Podcast 217 : Photography Fundamentals for the Beginner – Part 2

last week we started this two part series to update a 5 year old forum post on the fundamentals of photography, which was revived by Chua Kim You, from Montreal, Canada. Thanks again Chua for reviving that thread, and I hope you are enjoying these Podcasts.

If you are just tuning in, and didn’t catch the first episode, it’s not essential to listen to these in order, but if you are really just starting out, and looking for some basic tips, we will be building on last week, so it might be better to go back to Episode 216 first.

It turns out that once again, as I prepared for this week, I ended up writing about twice as much as I can fit in one week’s episode. We’re going to finish up the basics series with this, but I’ll be releasing a Next Steps episode/post, probably in two weeks time, so stay tuned for that.

The Composition Toolbox
As we know, in art, as with most things, rules are made to be broken. In fact, some of the things that we even call rules, like the “rule of thirds” (that we’ll discuss shortly) aren’t really rules at all. They are guidelines that you can think of as tools to keep in your toolbox, and pull out from time to time while making images. I often find that when I come across a good subject that I want to make a photograph of, I’ll work through a number of compositional possibilities before I move on. Sometimes I know instantly how I want to shoot it, and nail that straight away, but even then, there’s always another angle or another way to frame a subject, so experimenting and working a scene or subject is a great way to improve your photography. So, although this is not a comprehensive list of compositional guidelines, here are few things to keep in mind when shooting, or a few tools for your compositional toolbox.

The Bulls Eye!
OK, so rather than something to do, the first thing I want to tell you is what not to do. Almost always, you’ll want to avoid composing your shot with your subject smack bang in the middle of the frame. Beginners tend to photograph people with their face in the middle of the frame for example, with lots of dead space above their head. This is often the most uninteresting compositional style. Our eye is drawn to the center of the frame and may not escape from there, so we don’t feel involved with the image. Our eyes don’t explore it. The confusing thing is that it will sometimes work, as in I believe it does in image 2366 (below). So don’t totally remove this from your toolbox, but most of the time, avoid the bulls eye composition.


The Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds Example

Rule of Thirds Example

The rule of thirds is always a good place to start when deciding how to compose your shot and avoid the “bulls eye” composition. As in the example to the right, imagine you draw a line one third into the frame from the left and right, and from the top and bottom of the image. If you put your main subject or elements of the image along these lines, or at any of the four intersections, your composition will be worlds better than placing the subject in the center of the frame. You can see here how I aligned the equinox flower head along the left vertical third line, and I aligned the multiple flower heads to the right along the top horizontal third line. Also note how I aligned the center of the tree trunk in the background with the left vertical third line. I did this of course in camera, without the help of the lines as we see them here.

Bear in mind too that is an old and proven concept. Artists for centuries have used the rule of thirds as a compositional guide. According to Wikipedia, the rule of thirds appears as early as 1797 as a rule for proportioning scenic paintings.

How you place the elements in your image will change the story you tell. Generally if a person is facing the left, you’ll put them on the right third line, to give them space to look into. This is a safe and comfortable composition. You can create a sense of drama though, by putting them on the left third, so that they are looking or moving out of the frame with little actual space in the image to look into. This is more dramatic, and makes the viewer wonder what the person is looking at. It could make us feel as though the subject were troubled, or deep in thought. With lots of room behind them, we might wonder what they left behind etc.

In landscape photography, the horizon should almost never be along the center of the image, unless you are trying to create a mirror effect or balance the elements of the image in some other way. Again, it will be much safer to put the horizon along the bottom or top third line. A lone tree might work in the middle of the shot, but putting it on the left or right third will likely be a more pleasing composition in most situations. Also, remember to keep your horizons straight. A wonky horizon line can be very disconcerting, unless it’s obviously intentionally wonky. A spirit level to go in the flash hot-shoe on the top of your camera can help, and many newer DSLRs actually have levels built in, so make use of these to keep your horizons straight.

Break the Rules
In image number 2200 you’ll see that I positioned the mountain very close to the bottom of the frame. You could argue that the tip of the mountain nears the bottom third line, but that’s not really what it’s about. What I did here was took the rule of thirds, and broke it. All of these rules of composition are more like guidelines to help you, rather than rules. Experiment, have fun and break the rules as much as you like to see what you get.

Last Light on Mount Asahi

Mystic Arch

Mystic Arch

Negative Space

You’ll also note in this image that there is a lot of what we call negative space above the mountain. Apart from a tiny bit of dark cloud in the top right, the blue sky is almost featureless, but it adds a lot to this image in my opinion. When I view this image I actually feel my eye coming off of the mountain and drifting upwards into the negative space, giving me an even greater feeling of the scale of things than another shot of this mountain that I made with little space above the mountain.

Another example of negative space might be image number 1177 (right). Here we have a silhouette of an archway which is one of the entrances to the grounds of the Taj Mahal in India. We can’t actually see the archway, because it’s totally black, negative space, but because of the shape it forms, framing the image, we can tell that it’s a stone archway all the same.

River & Mount FujiLeading Lines
Finding lines in your scene or landscape can help to lead the eye into the shot, sometimes even towards a small feature that might not be noticed without the leading lines. In image 1549 (left), the river leads the eye into the image, and although our eye initials stops at the cloud bank, to explore the detail there, that gets us close enough to the top of the image to make us peak over the clouds and find Mount Fuji in the distant background.

Image 2396 (below) looks a lot like the eye of a reptile or even God Zilla, but it is in fact a knot on a burnt tree trunk, in the ashes of a camp fire. Look for things that when framed right will look like something else. This can lead to eye catching images.


Log Eye

Layers of Interest
Image 2392 (below) has two definite layers of interest. The first being the foreground tree, in its yellow and red autumnal colors, and the second is the waterfall in the background. You could also say there’s a third layer in woods behind the falls. Adding too many points of interest to an image can over-complicate and ruin an image, but adding two or three complimentary elements juxtaposed like this can be quite effective.

Tatsuzawa Fudoudaki with Kaede Autumn Leaves

Hibarako KaedeRepeating Patterns
More than two of the same thing is repetition. Repeating elements can be a strong form of composition. I’d say that three is about the minimum you can work with, as with these three sets of leaves in image number 2390 (right), but often with repeating patterns more is actually more.

Poppy in Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila) Contrasting Colors
Look for contrasting colors, such as red and green, or bright colors amongst dull. Most of the things that I’m mentioning today I have podcasted about in the past. I did an episode on contrasting colors way back in Episode #31, when I kicked off with probably still my best example of this, which is image number 56 (left). Here we see a bright orange poppy amongst a patch of baby-blue-eyes flowers. I also discussed the Color Wheel that I placed on my site as a tool to experiment with this, but if you select these two colors in a color wheel, you will see that they sit exactly opposite each other, so there’s a reason why we find this contrast pleasing. Colors separated by one third also work well. Just look for contrasting colors or bright colors against a dark background etc. and you may be on to a winner.

Your choice of lens changes the way the scene looks in your photograph. If you use a wide angle lens, say between 10 and 24mm, and get in close to your subject, you’ll get a very different perspective than you would say shooting the same subject from further away with a 100mm or 200mm lens. This can be difficult to grasp at first, but is easy to see what I mean with a little experiment. If you have a standard zoom lens, say an 18-55mm or a 24-70mm lens, shoot the same subject, first at the widest focal length, 18 or 24 using the same examples, then zoom out to 55 or 70mm, and move away from your subject until the subject roughly the same size in the frame as it was with your wide setting. If you have an even longer lens, say up to 200mm, try that too, again moving away from your subject to keep it the same size in the frame. Doing this will help you to see how the focal length of the lens changes your perspective.

Also note that wide lenses tend to make elements in your scene look further away from each other. If you photograph a person for example standing in front of a building, the building will look much further away from them with a wide angle lens that it would with a long telephoto lens. The longer the lens, the more you’ll get a stacking effect, like the mountains in image number 827 (below). You can see how all the mountains in the foreground all seem to be stacked up on top of each other in layers. That is because I shot this image with a focal length of 135mm.

Drama Through a Letterbox

Drama Through a Letterbox

You can also use perspective to effect as I have in image number 2353 (below). If you use a wide angle lens and point it up at tall buildings, the building will appear to be falling in on you, and this can give quite a dramatic effect.

Three People SilhouetteLook Up, Look Down, Get High and Low
Don’t shoot everything standing up and at your eye level. When shooting small children or pets, kneel or lie down on the ground to get to get to their eye level or even look up at them. Try shooting trees or building from a low perspective. Try shooting down into a valley from a mountain, or across the city from a tall building. Shooting from above or below your scene is fun and helps to get great images. As with the last image we looked at, be sure to look up and down as well while out and about. You only notice scenes like the one in image 2308 (right) for example by looking up into the tree canopy. Without looking up and down into the undergrowth for that matter, you might miss a lot of great photographic opportunities.

Watch Your Backgrounds and Edges
It’s very easy when you find a great subject to concentrate so much on that subject that you forget to look at the other elements in the frame. Do keep your eyes out for things like lampposts or trees in the distance that can appear to be sticking out of people’s head. Also, even when you are using a shallow depth-of-field to make the foreground and background out of focus, you still need to look out for what’s in that blurry bokeh. If you have patches of color, bright or dark spots in the blur, you need to make sure that these not only don’t distract from your main subject, but as you learn to use them, they can actually be used to enhance your main subject.

You also want to keep your eyes on the edges of your frame. Especially with beginner or mid-range cameras that typically don’t allow you to see the outer 5% or the photograph through the viewfinder, be aware of what’s creeping into the edges. If you are using a zoom lens, zoom out a little to check before zooming back in again, or if you are shooting hand-held, just wiggle the camera around a little so that you can see if there’s anything unwanted that’s too close for comfort.

Use a Tripod
Whenever possible, use a tripod. I know that when you first start out the thought of shooting from a tripod can be a bit daunting, but this will improve your images more than anything else you can do. This is not just because it holds the camera steady, but because when you use a tripod, you think about the composition more. You take your time and think about the whole process more in fact. Using a tripod is not always practical. Some fast paced shooting, like for some sports and some wildlife photography, as well as fast paced portraiture work will be much easier without a tripod. It’s your call, but my rule of thumb and guidance to you is to use a tripod unless there’s a reason not to.

Get It Right In-Camera
There’s a tendency these days to be sloppy in the field, because you can fix any errors in exposure or composition in Photoshop, by adjusting the exposure or cropping, rotating, and you can always clone stuff out later. Granted, you can do a lot in Photoshop, but it all takes time, and you will never develop good photography skills if you are sloppy in the field. Remember that when you have to save highlights or shadows in post processing, you are never going to get quite as good an image as you would if you nail it in the field, and it just feels better! I have nothing against Photoshop, and do save the odd photo myself too, but it’s always a last resort. I’d much rather hold my head high and say that I feel I’m a good photographer, than that I’m good with Photoshop.

In Closing
So, although I’ll do a follow up with some next steps advice in a few weeks, I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts from these two back-to-basics episodes.

Photography is both technical and artistic. Remember that you need to at once be both left brained and right brained. This comes easy to some people and not so easy to others. Whichever you are, please don’t lose sight of the fact that photography is supposed to be fun. By all means spend time on the Internet, in forums, reading books and magazines and view lots of other peoples’ images. It will all help. But the single most important thing for improving your photography is photography. Shoot as much as you can, and look at your resulting images. If you like what you see, think about how you achieved that result, and repeat it. If you don’t like what you see, check the shooting data, and recall what you did in the field, and try to learn from it, so as not to repeat it.

Really though, you have to enjoy yourself. If you get so caught up in trying to figure out all of the details before you get started, you’ll be getting in your own way, and that’s not good.

Podcast show-notes:

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Download the Enhanced Podcast M4A files directly.


Podcast 216 : Photography Fundamentals for the Beginner – Part 1

Podcast 216 : Photography Fundamentals for the Beginner – Part 1

Last week, a new user on the forums, Chua Kim You, user name redpandafire from Montreal, Canada, revived an old thread from June 2004. I’d posted and article called “Fundamental Advice for Photographer’s Getting Started”. I had to admit, that looking back at this post from over five years ago, there were a lot of things that I would have written differently.

The article itself is a little presumptuous and I would have worded much of it differently now than I did back then, but I as a photographer have also changed a lot over the last five years, and so I decided to sit down and think about how I would write this today, and that is the topic of today’s post and podcast. In fact, this is just part 1. I’m going to release part 2 next week, so stay tuned.

I’m going start afresh today, and just go through what I would probably tell a beginner today. I should say that this is not an article on how to start out as a professional photographer and set up a business etc. It’s more targeted for the total beginner that has just bought a camera, or maybe just made the jump from a compact digital to a digital SLR camera, and wants a kick-start to get them up to speed on the fundamentals. I should also say that it is of course not comprehensive. To cover everything you need to know about photography would require multiple very fat books, not a single Podcast episode. This should be a good primer though, so here with go with my…

Photography Fundamentals for the Beginner (2009)
So, you’ve stumbled across photography, and started to make pictures with either a high-end compact digital or a digital single lens reflex camera, or DSLR. Photography is great fun, and to really put yourself in a position to get started quickly, and learn the craft well, I suggest you take the following points into consideration as you experiment with your new camera.

Left Brain/Right Brain
Firstly, realize that although some people can come at photography from one side or the other, in general, to be a good photographer you’ll need to work at being both an artist and a technician, quite often at the same time. People will tell you that it’s not about the gear, and that’s true to an extent, but don’t interpret this to mean that you don’t need to learn how to use your gear or learn some fundamental technical rules and theories. Some of the technical stuff won’t make sense at first, and that’s OK, but the sooner you plant the seeds, the easier it will be to all fall into place later.

Read the Manual
Some people joke about never reading their manual. Some people boast about this, thinking that they are so cool or intelligent that they don’t need to. Both of these activities won’t help you to learn how to use your camera to its fullest potential. No matter how many times I upgrade my camera bodies, the first thing I do is to sit for an evening and read the manual, with my new camera at my side. When upgrading, there are some paragraphs and chapters that are pretty much a straight copy and paste from the previous manual. In this case, skip over it quickly, but don’t ignore it. As this is a guide for beginners though, I assume this is your first camera, so do read the entire manual for your camera, and for any lenses that you have also bought, if you have a DSLR. When you are done reading the manual, you’ll have a good knowledge of what the various settings are for, and how to change them.

Have Fun!
If you are already getting out, experimenting and having fun, that’s great! If not, by all means continue to read/listen to the rest of this, but take your time and don’t get bogged down in details. There is a huge amount of information out there now. Just looking through our Photography Podcasts will certainly help, but the Internet is literally teeming with information on photography these days. So much so, it really is easy to concentrate so much on studying about it all, and trying to learn every detail that you forget to just get out and shoot. Ideally you’ll be able to strike a balance, where you study some of the time, then get out and shoot and experiment to your heart’s content as well.

Exposure Basics
There are three elements that will influence your camera’s exposure, and these are the aperture, the shutter speed and the ISO. In the film days ISO was set by the film you bought, and so once you had a roll of film in the camera you were pretty much stuck at that ISO, but now with digital cameras you can change it freely, and so it really can be counted as a per/frame exposure setting.

Night JettyAperture – This is the hole inside the lens that controls how much light gets through during the exposure. Apertures are somewhat confusingly rated by small numbers for wide apertures, and large numbers for small apertures. So F2.8 is pretty wide, whereas F32 is pretty small. The aperture size is represented by an f-number and often referred to as an f-stop. Common f-numbers or full f-stops are F1.4, F2, F2.8, F4, F5.6, F8, F11, F16, F22 and F32. With each of the f-number increments, the amount of light that enters the camera to make the image is reduced by half. The weird numbering for f-numbers comes from the fact that they are a ratio of the focal length and the aperture. For example, if you have a 100mm lens with a widest aperture of F2.8, the widest aperture is about 36mm. If we divide 100 by 4, the next full f-stop down, we get a 25mm aperture, which is half the area. Let’s not get too hung up on these calculations for now though. Just note that the larger the number, the smaller the aperture and the less light that gets into the camera.

Shutter Speed – This tells the camera how long you want it to allow light into the camera. The longer the shutter speed, the more light enters the camera and the brighter your resulting photograph will become. Also, as the world around us is moving, the length of your shutter speed can drastically change how your image looks. If you photograph a lake with a fast shutter speed of say 1/250th of a second, you will freeze any movement in the water, and be able to see all of the waves on the surface of the lake pretty much as you do just watching it with the naked eye. If however, you do a very long exposure, like in my example image, number 2320 (above right), all of the movement blurs into a smooth flat surface that we can’t actually see with the naked eye. Shutter speeds are also counted in stops, by halving or doubling the amount of time. One stop faster than 1/250 of a second is 1/500 of a second, and one stop slower is 1/125 of a second and so on.

ISO – The ISO rating is the sensitivity of the film or digital sensor to light. Standard ISO are 100 or 200. It used to be that 100 to 400 ISO was the safe range, before you started to get too much noise or grain in your images, but cameras these days are happily shooting very clean images at much higher ISO, so experiment with your camera to see what you can shoot at, and use the entire range as necessary. As with aperture and shutter speed, ISO is also counted in stops, and doubles and halves as you increase or decrease the ISO.

Note too that most cameras these days allow you to select apertures, shutter speeds and ISO ratings in one third increments, so as you change these values you will have two other numbers in between the full values that we looked at here.

Any of the above values will change the exposure. You can also raise one and lower the others to achieve the same exposure. For example, say we start off with the camera set to ISO 100, with an aperture of F5.6 and the shutter speed set to 1/125 of a second. If you change your aperture from F5.6 to F8, you will reduce the amount of light getting in to your camera and therefore reduce the exposure by one stop. To make up for that with the other settings, you could increase the ISO from 100 to 200, or you could increase the shutter speed from 1/125 of a second to 1/60.

Likewise, if you want to have a faster shutter speed to freeze some action, you could increase it by say two stops from 1/125 to 1/500 of a second, and change the ISO and aperture accordingly. You could change both by one stop, moving the ISO to 200 and the aperture to F4, or you could change just the aperture down to F2.8, assuming that your lens goes that wide. This is a little bit complicated, but hopefully will be making some sense. Don’t worry if it isn’t. We may be just sowing seeds here and it will all fall into place at some point, I assure you.

Depth-of-field is the area of the image that is in focus. Let’s look at example image #2289 (below), where we can see the second statue from the right is in sharp focus, but the one to the right in the foreground and the other statues in the background are all blurred. This is because the second statue from the right is inside the depth-of-field, and the others aren’t. This image was shot with a wide aperture of F2.8 and a long focal length of 175mm, using my 70-200mm F2.8 zoom lens.



The depth-of-field is directly affected by the aperture, the distance to subject and the focal length of the lens. We discussed the way a smaller aperture lets in less light above, but also, as we make the aperture smaller, we increase the depth-of-field. If we move further away from the object or focus on something deep in the scene, we also increase the depth-of-field, even without changing the aperture.

The closer the subject gets, the shallower the depth-of-field, and this is why close-up, or macro photography requires smaller apertures to achieve enough depth-of-field to get even very small subjects, like the mushroom in image number 2395 in focus (below). In fact, even with an aperture of F11, with a 100mm macro lens, the mushroom which was probably around 1cm in depth is not all in focus. The front and back edges of the head of the mushroom is slightly out of the depth-of-field.

Mushroom and Moss

Mushroom and Moss

Also, to illustrate how wide angle lenses have deeper depth-of-field, let’s look at image number 2283 (below) which was shot with an ultra wide angle lens, at 14mm. Here I used F8, a wider aperture than the mushroom shot at F11, and yet everything from the tree that we are looking up into in the close foreground, to the distant trees along the bottom of the frame, is in focus.

Inside the Lacy Leaf Maple

Inside the Lacy Leaf Maple

I personally like to shoot with wide apertures and create lots of creamy bokeh, which is the out of focus areas of an image, whenever possible. As a general rule though, when I shoot landscapes, as with most people, I try to get the entire scene in sharp focus, so I work to get a small aperture. It’s a fine balance though, because if you go too small, past F16 for example, the image starts to become less sharp, even though the depth-of-field increases, so you don’t want to just shoot everything at F32.

If I’m doing flower shots, or portrait work, I generally try to get as little of the image in focus as possible. It takes experience to know how much depth-of-field field any focal length, aperture and focus distance combination will give you, but luckily there are tools to play with too. If you have an iPhone, search for one of the great Depth-of-Field tools like DoF Calc. There is also a great tool that works on Windows called Barnack, that you can play with to see how the focal length, distance to subject and aperture create varying depth-of-field.

Get Out of Program Mode
To control the aperture and depth-of-field, as you become more comfortable using your camera, try to move out of the P or Program mode. The Program mode allows for very little control over the Aperture and Shutter Speed. If you don’t understand how to change the camera’s shooting mode, again, look in your manual.

Most of the time, you’ll want to shoot in either Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes. Aperture Priority mode allows you to set the camera’s aperture, and the camera will then set the shutter speed accordingly, by looking at the scene and evaluating with the camera’s meter how much light you need to make an optimal exposure. If the scene is very dark, you’ll have a long shutter speed, if it’s very light you’ll have a short shutter speed. You’ll use aperture priority when you want to control the Depth-of-Field (see above).

If you need to tell the camera how fast you want the shutter speed, and don’t care about the depth-of-field, then you could try Shutter Priority instead. You might use this for example when you are shooting sports or racing cars, when you need to stay above a certain shutter speed to ensure that you freeze the action. Many people find though that selecting the aperture in Aperture Priority, and selecting a high enough ISO to maintain a fast shutter speed give the most control. There is also Manual Mode, in which you pretty much take full control, but that’s a little bit more advanced and probably outside of the scope of this post.

Exposure Compensation
The light meters and computers in our cameras today are incredibly intelligent. They have scenes in their memory that they compare what you have framed, and try to adjust the exposure they select accordingly. But at the end of the day, they are still machines and they make mistakes. To over-ride this, your camera has a feature called Exposure Compensation. This is usually adjusted by the big dial on the back of your camera; but again, refer to your manual to make sure you know where this is.

You will need to use exposure compensation when the scene you are photographing is extremely light, or extremely dark. For example, to shoot an image like number 2183, which is basically a pale grey tree in a field of snow with a white sky (below), I would have to use around plus one or plus one and a third of a stop exposure compensation. This is because the camera tries to make everything look like an 18% or mid-tone grey. To compensate for this and make the snow look white, I increase the exposure.

Lone Tree on a Hill

Lone Tree on a Hill

If the scene was very dark, like say a brown bear in a dark cave, I would, from a great distance, probably have to decrease the exposure by around one stop, so that the camera didn’t make the scene too bright, which would ruin the mood of the shot. Unfortunately I don’t yet have an example image to show you here.

Check the Histogram
The last thing to note on exposure before we move on is that these days with the digital revolution, we’ve now got the almighty histogram to rely on. So, reading histograms is a little bit complicated and I don’t want to get into too much detail here, but basically a histogram is a graph that you can display on the back of your camera, and I do suggest that you set your camera so that this is viewed when the image that you just shot is displayed in preview mode on the LCD.

Basically the histogram’s graph maps the darkest tones in your image to the left and the lightest tones of your image to the right. The more tones you have on the dark side the higher the graph gets on the left, and the more tones you have on the highlight side, the higher the right side gets and the closer to the right side it gets. Basically what you want to look out for is that the right side of the histogram doesn’t touch the right side or the right shoulder of the histogram, unless you know why it’s there. Say you have the sun in the shot, and you are going to let that overexpose slightly, so you don’t have to make the rest of the shot too dark. Otherwise you basically want to stop the histogram from hitting the right shoulder.

You also want to turn on the flashing highlight warning if your camera supports that, and again, check the manual to see if this is supported and how to turn it on. You’ll have the histogram and the image both displayed on the LCD, and if there are areas that are blown out, they will be flashing. If you don’t care about these areas that we call specular highlights, then don’t worry about it, but if you think that the area that is flashing should be within the dynamic range of the image and not over-exposed, then you’ll want to use the exposure compensation to reduce the exposure slightly until the flashing highlights stop flashing and until the right side of the histogram stops hitting the right shoulder.

See more information on shooting for highlights in my Dynamic Range post.

One last thing that I want to mention before we finish for this first part, is that I suggest you get used to shooting in RAW mode very early. If you want, do your practicing and experimenting in JPEG mode, but RAW is actually more forgiving if you get the exposure off a little, and the image quality is better, because the camera doesn’t compress the image, losing some of the detail, especially in heavily textured areas. Using RAW does bring a little overhead in post processing, but tools like Lightroom for Windows and the Mac and Aperture for the Mac only make it so easy to work with RAW files, there really is no excuse, especially as hard disk space is also now so cheap. Do yourself a favour, and just get used to shooting in RAW.

Next week we’ll get into some fundamental composition techniques, and a few other areas, so please do stay tuned if you are finding this useful.

Thanks to Chua for reviving that old thread and prompting today’s and next week’s Podcast. It’s been fun to do this, and hopefully many others will find it useful too.

Podcast show-notes:

Depth-of-Field Explained in detail: https://martinbaileyphotography.com/2009/09/09/podcast-132-depth-of-field-explained/

DoF Calc: http://www.apptism.com/apps/dof-calculator

Barnack: http://www.stegmann.dk/mikkel/barnack/

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Download the Enhanced Podcast M4A files directly.