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The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Photography

Updated on November 16, 2016

You will learn...

  • To choose a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
  • The three rules of exposure.
  • The rule of thirds.
  • How to find the best viewpoint.

Welcome to The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Photography, here you will find the most essential tips on taking a great photograph, like anything practice makes perfect, so don't expect any miracles on your first photo shoot.

So, you love taking photographs (selfies not included). You love being outdoors and photographing wildlife, scenery and people. You love finding that perfect angle or moment and capturing it, and until now you’ve been satisfied just using your iPhone camera. Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone boasts a great camera and it’s always with you, however it lacks that professionalism you’re looking for. So, your first step in finally embracing photography as your new hobby is finding the right camera for you.

The Camera

A DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) camera certainly used to stand as the first choice for professional photographers, but this is now no longer the case. Many are switching to a mirrorless camera for more reasons than one. The first major difference you’ll notice about a DSLR is that it’s comparatively larger (and heavier) than a mirrorless, this is because a DSLR needs to pack both a mirror and a prism inside; the mirror inside reflects the light coming in through the lens to a prism, for you to preview your shot through the viewfinder. However, a mirrorless has, you guessed it, no mirror! Instead, light passes through the lens and directly onto the image sensor, which you can preview on the rear display screen.

Don’t be mistaken, a smaller camera doesn’t always mean poorer images. Many mirrorless cameras now have immensely improved focus, pixel count and image stabilization, and often better shooting speed (no mirror allows more photos per second), meaning you can still capture high quality images without the bulkiness of a DLSR. The greatest advantage that a DSLR has over a mirrorless is the vast range of interchangeable lenses available. However, as a beginner, you won’t need such a collection, with this in mind, you’re better off opting for a mirrorless camera. Some mirrorless camera brands still have a good range of lenses, with others catching on, so with time and experience you’ll be able to expand on your lens collection.

YI M1 Mirrorless Camera
YI M1 Mirrorless Camera | Source

Assuming you’ve made your choice on which camera to buy, you’ll now want to think about what it is you want to photograph. Perhaps it’s the mesmerizing movement of wildlife that charms you, or possibly the hustle and bustle of city life, or maybe you prefer the serenity and tranquility of the countryside. Whatever it is that inspires you, you want to capture the best photograph for the environment that you’re in.

The Essential Three

Here's a handy infogram on exposure.
Here's a handy infogram on exposure. | Source

Sorry to state the obvious, but it’s important that you know how your camera works for you to really capture the best images. There are three essential factors you’ll need to adopt when taking a photograph, these are:

  • ISO
  • Shutter Speed
  • Aperture

The ISO controls the sensor that captures light; a lower ISO is better as it will create a clearer image with less digital noise, however it’s not always possible, particularly in surroundings with low light, where you’ll want an increased sensitivity, and therefore a high ISO.

Shutter speed is important, especially when you’re capturing motion, the shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. Perhaps you’ll want to show the motion, in which case you’ll want a longer exposure time, but this can sometime result in a blurred image. A low exposure time will let in less light and freeze the motion.

Finally is the aperture, the aperture marks the depth of field (DoF); a shallow DoF will give you a blurred background, which comes in useful if, for example, you want to focus on a bumblebee collecting pollen in a field of tulips. A deep DoF will create an entirely sharp image, which is ideal for scenic landscape photos.

So you’ve got your camera, and you’ve learnt the fundamentals of taking a picture. Now, it’s time to learn the rule of thumb in photography, also known as, the rule of thirds.

The Rule of Thirds

Do you remember when you first opened the camera on your iPhone and it had an annoying grid that you immediately disabled? Well, that grid can come in very useful when you want to capture an image. You don’t always want your subject to be centered; instead the most meaningful compositional features should be placed along those horizontal and vertical lines. For example, if you’re capturing an image of a bird flying across the horizon, you want the horizon to sit along the lower horizontal line, and in the foreground the bird should be on one of the vertical lines. The picture below demonstrates this rule perfectly. Of course, you don’t always need to have this grid on your display; you’ll find that within time it will become a force of habit when taking a picture.

A deer standing on the horizon accurately portrays the rule of thirds in action. Photo by Todd Klassy.
A deer standing on the horizon accurately portrays the rule of thirds in action. Photo by Todd Klassy. | Source

You’re almost ready to embark on your journey of capturing the world in its entire splendor, but there’s one last tip. The rule of thirds is important when you’re taking wide landscape photos, particularly if you have more than one subject you’re trying to capture, but how do you take a great close-up shot of an object, person or animal? Well, in most cases the rule of thirds still applies, but it’s also important to take into consideration your viewpoint.

Big Buddha, Leshan, Sichuan Province. Notice the low level viewpoint so to capture the enormity of the buddha.
Big Buddha, Leshan, Sichuan Province. Notice the low level viewpoint so to capture the enormity of the buddha.

The Viewpoint

It’s common sense that everything we see is at eye-level, so it would also seem common sense to take a photograph at eye-level, but this often results in dreary and unfulfilling pictures that we’re all too accustomed to.

Try changing your viewpoint, for example, capture your baby’s first steps by lying on the floor and taking the picture from below, you’ll immediately notice that your image becomes a lot more enchanting. If you’re taking a group photo, try capturing it from a higher vantage point, with your subjects looking up at the camera. You’ll quickly realise just how much more charismatic your photographs can become when you experiment with different elevation and viewpoints.

Now you’ve learned the most essential tips you’re ready to start capturing the world through a lens. Over time you’ll learn new things about your camera, so don’t be afraid to experiment with the different settings your camera has to offer. There's hundreds of books and articles on photography for you to read, you can also learn new things by asking friends and professional photographers, after all, knowledge is power! Happy snapping!


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    • George FInlayson profile image

      George 13 months ago from Shanghai

      Thanks Paxash, I'm glad to be of help :D

    • George FInlayson profile image

      George 13 months ago from Shanghai

      Hi motorcyclefan, thanks for the comment! Yes, I also used the YI M1 and it's a great camera, especially if you're a beginner. Once you've got the hang of basic composition skills and used the tips I have suggested you'll see a real difference in your photographs, I think it's unnecessary to spend a lot of money on your first camera as you can still take great shots on, as you say, entry-level professional cameras like the YI M1. Good luck!

    • motorcyclefan profile image

      Darnell Austria 13 months ago from Shanghai, China

      Great content! I own this camera and I was wondering if this is the camera you use as well. I am a beginner and don't want to sped that much money for now, and this is something I think I can afford and learn the fundamentals of photography. So is this something I can say, an entry-level professional camera?

    • Paxash profile image

      Darcie Nadel 15 months ago from Louisiana

      Very informative. I've always wanted to get into photography, but never really knew where to begin.

    • Sheeja Joseph profile image

      Sheez J 16 months ago

      good information..