Photography Tips for Beginners
April 6, 2018
Hey everyone! My name is Jamie Hiner and I am a photographer and videographer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Capturing beautiful visuals became a passion of mine while taking a vacation to the Rocky Mountains in college. I didn’t know very much about photography back then, but spent subsequent years learning everything I could and perfecting my skills. Now photography is my full-time career!
Early on in my educational adventure, I learned a few principals and skills that really got me on the right track, and I want to share them with you! These include the exposure triangle, how to arrange a composition and how to protect your expensive camera gear. Take the time to understand these things and you’ll definitely be on the right track, whether you just want to take awesome vacation photos or become a professional yourself.
There are 3 variables in getting the correct exposure, or lighting, when using manual mode on your camera: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. This is commonly called the Exposure Triangle because they all work together to create one balanced image. If you adjust one variable, you will have to change the rest to maintain proper exposure.
Shutter speed is the amount of time the camera sensor is exposed to light. The camera has a shutter that remains closed to prevent the sensor from being exposed to light. When you click the shutter release button to take an image, it opens for an amount of time set by you, which exposes the camera sensor to the light. Shutter speeds usually range from 30 seconds to 1/4000th of a second in camera. A fast shutter speed like 1/2000th of a second can freeze action in time. A slow shutter speed like 2 seconds can blur an image. A good rule of thumb is to never shoot under 1/100th of a second handheld, otherwise you will risk capturing a blurry image.
Say the scene you are trying to capture is very bright, you’ll want to use a shorter shutter speed to let in less light. If your shutter speed is too long when it is very bright out, you will end up with an over-exposed or too bright/white image. In contract, if your scene is darker, and you have too fast of a shutter speed, you will end up with an under-exposed or dark/black image. So, if you are in a low-light environment, you will need to use a longer shutter speed so your camera sensor can absorb light for a longer period of time to create a properly exposed image. An example of this would be taking a shot of the milky way.
Shutter speeds can be used strategically to achieve artistic effects. For example, I took this shot while riding the big swing ride at the Minnesota State Fair. My goal was to capture the motion blur of all the fair lights in the background while we were swinging. In order to do that, I needed to use a slow enough shutter speed to create that motion blur of the moving background, but fast enough to keep my feet tack sharp. I ended up using 1/60th of a second shutter speed, but I had to be very careful in keeping my hands steady while shooting to prevent my feet from being blurry as well. In this situation, it was all about finding the right balance of shutter speed to achieve the look I wanted.
Aperture is arguably the most important point of the triangle for achieving the proper exposure. While shutter speed is in the camera body itself, aperture is in the lens. The aperture is the size of the hole that allows light to travel through the lens into the camera body. A larger hole allows more light in and a smaller hole to allow less light in. This is where aperture plays a big role in helping you achieve the exposure you want.
This part can be confusing: the larger the aperture hole, the smaller the f-stop number. (Ex: f/1.4) The smaller the aperture hole, the larger the f-stop number. (Ex: f/16) The “f” at the beginning of the number is the symbol used for what is known as the focal ratio or f-stop.
An effect that aperture allows you to create is the depth of field. The aperture you use dictates how much of your image is in focus. A large aperture (f/1.4) creates a very narrow depth of field, or shorter distance that is in focus. Let’s say you are taking a headshot portrait of someone, send you are using a large aperture and you focus on the tip of the nose, the eyes could be slightly out of focus. A small aperture (f/16) creates a large depth of field or area that is in focus. Refer to the image to see an example comparing a large versus small aperture. Thank you macro lens for showing me how dirty my keyboard is!
Typically, smaller apertures are used for landscapes to ensure as much of the scene is in focus as possible. Larger apertures are very important in low light situation to assure that you allowing in as much light as possible.
The final variable in the exposure triangle is ISO. ISO is the sensitivity of the cameras sensor to light. Without adjusting your shutter speed or aperture, you could adjust your ISO enough to get the right exposure. The negative aspect of adjusting only ISO to get the proper exposure is that higher ISOs can create very grainy images. The higher you go in ISO, the more grain will appear in your image. The best native ISO you can use is 100 because it will present the least amount of grain. Always adjust your shutter speed and aperture to get as close as possible to your desired exposure and look then adjust ISO last to achieve your final look. Here is an example of how grain appears in your image.
Photography Examples Using the Whole Triangle
If you are shooting a landscape, you know that you want a smaller aperture so as much of your scene is in focus as possible. Adjust that first. Next, adjust your shutter speed. Does your scene have motion in it? Say it has a waterfall and you want the water to look smooth and veiled. You’ll want to use a slower shutter speed to allow more time for the camera sensor to stay open to capture the motion of the scene. Lastly, adjust your ISO to get your desired exposure.
If you are photographing sports, wildlife or anything with a fast moving subject, you know that you want a faster shutter speed in order to “freeze the action” without it being blurry. Adjust that first. 1/1000th of a second is the ideal shutter speed for action shots, but depending on the speed of the subject, you can go faster. Next, adjust your aperture. When your shutter speed it that fast it is not exposed to the light for very long, so you almost always want to use your largest aperture to let in the most light as possible. Lastly, adjust your ISO to get your desired exposure.
If you find yourself in a situation where your scene is too dark, make sure you are using the largest aperture. If it is still dark, check your shutter speed. Remember to never lower your shutter speed below 1/100th of a second if you are shooting handheld. In all other situations, make sure you are using a tripod. At that point, adjust your ISO as much as you need even if it brings in a lot of grain, because you would rather have a grainy picture than a blurry one.
Remember that it’s called an exposure triangle, because when one variable is adjusted, another must be adjusted to maintain the proper exposure.
There are many composition techniques that can help improve your photography. The rule of thirds, leading lines and creating depth are three techniques that I would recommend learning first. After you get the exposure triangle down, start thinking about how you want to compose and guide the viewers eye through your image.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is one of the most well-known rules of composition and is a great way to create balance. Imagine the image is separated into thirds top to bottom and side to side. Your focal point should land on one of these intersections. Most editing programs should have the gridlines visible when you crop, which makes it easier to line everything up. However, always try to frame up your shot as close as you can in camera.
In this shot I used a 500mm lens to zoom in on the trees with fog rolling through while hiking around Grand Portage, Minnesota. I snapped a few shots and found that this one had a tree that popped through the fog nicely and lines up with the right third very well.
Another technique is to center the focal point rather than putting it on a third. I love using center alignment on paths, like this shot of the Pipiwai Trail. Roads, bridges, paths, rivers, trees, etc. are all great subjects to try centering up into your composition rather than placing on a third.
Using leading lines is another creative technique to incorporate into your composition. Leading lines help direct the viewers eyes throughout the image. In this example, I placed myself directly in the center of the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis so the railings and lights on the bridge were as symmetrical as possible. These leading lines guide the viewers eyes down the path and toward the skyline and help create balance overall.
I love using leading lines to create symmetry, but they can be very affective in asymmetrical abstract shots, as well. This shot in the IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis shows very busy, chaotic lines. I created asymmetrical balance by evenly dividing the white support beams and the darker tinted windows. The other, sporadic leading lines hold onto that chaotic feel while the separation of black and white balances it out. As your photographic eye develops, you will soon begin to look at everything as potential leading lines!
A final tip is creating depth into your composition. It is a good technique to try and incorporate a foreground, middle ground, and background. This technique is focused more toward landscape photography.
Let’s say there is a beautiful mountain range off in the distance and you want that to be the main focal point of your photo. A novice would probably just point the camera over at the mountain range and take a picture of it. Instead of doing that, look around you. Is there a patch of flowers, an interesting rock formation, or something or the sort? Incorporate that into the foreground of your composition! This may mean getting down into weird positions on the ground to get the camera angle just right. What can really help make a good photographer a great one is capturing these interesting angles that the average viewer is not used to seeing!
This is an example of the beautiful Lake Superior icy shoreline on a calm winter day. The layer of ice along the shoreline was very thin, but the wind was very light, so the water did not break the ice apart. Instead, it provided a clean window for the rocks below. I wanted to capture those rocks, so I found an island in the distance that would provide an interesting subject for the background. Next, I made sure my focus point was on the rocks while closing down the aperture so my depth of field was wide enough for island to also be in focus. Then I applied the rule of thirds to the island and positioned it on the top third guideline while centering it to create balance.
Bonus composition tip: Always make sure your horizons are perfectly level! This is something that can, and always should, be fixed in post-production. It makes your images look much more professional and appealing to the eye.
Protecting your gear
Everyone who has taken up the hobby or profession of photography knows that it’s expensive! I cannot stress enough that you should protect your gear.
The simplest way is to use a neck strap. We all have those moments when our coordination decides to take a little break, and we don’t want our nice camera to be in our hands when that happens! It allows you to use your hands for hiking, holding onto your little ones, etc. Using a neck strap also allows your camera to be easily accessible, versus carrying it in a bag, so you don’t miss out on that amazing moment.
Aside from a neck strap, I recommend investing in a nice travel case or bag. There are a number of these designed for camera gear to make sure your equipment stays safe when transporting. If you fly somewhere with your equipment, make sure to never check any fragile items. Personally, I carry on all of my camera gear in an airline approved bag when flying. I once checked a nice video tripod that I could not bring on with me. After the very first flight, I noticed a large gouge in the tripod head. So be sure to protect and pad all of your equipment, even the seemingly heavy-duty items.
Lens Cleaning Kit
Purchase a lens cleaning kit. They typically come with cleaning solution, an air blower for dust, safe cleaning cloths and other tools to help keep your lens glass clean. Lenses are the most important part to your photography, so do yourself a favor and take good care of your investment. Learn from my mistake: I had a nice 35mm prime lens and was taking a time-lapse of the northern lights. The lens was gathering dew on it, and I did not have a micro-fiber cloth on me. In order to not stop the time lapse, I lightly wiped off the moisture from the lens with my sweatshirt sleeve. That lens now has a slight haze to it in bright conditions because it rubbed off the special coating that helps reducing chromatic aberration. In summary, never touch the glass on your lens without a tool that is safe to clean it with.
Get a Warranty
My last tip is to protect you gear with warranties. You can do everything in your power to protect your gear, but accidents still happen. It’s a whole lot easier to purchase a warranty when you get a new camera than to have to fork out the money to buy a whole new one when it breaks. I have found Upsie to be extremely reliable and easy to work with. They offer warranties for cameras, video cameras and lenses. The purchase process was so easy, and I can see all of my plan information in one place. Even my receipt is uploaded, so I don’t have to find anything when I make a claim, I just have to make it. Not to mention, Upsie is up to 67% more affordable than other options!
It takes time to learn the language of photography. Remember your exposure triangle and rule of thirds. When you master that, move on to working with leading lines and creating depth. The best thing you can do is get out, practice and have fun!