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The Basics of Digital Photography: How to Take Better Pictures

Updated on September 18, 2014

In Pursuit of Better Digital Pictures - Learn the Basics of Digital Photography

Imagine YOUR photographs on display next to those of photography greats like Ansel Adams, Moose Peterson, or Joe McNally! Maybe it's not so far fetched. You can learn to take better pictures and have them on display in some public showing or photo gallery.

I absolutely love learning great photography techniques and tips. A digital camera is one of the marvels of modern technology. Oh, sure, "point and shoot" works fine if you just want to take a picture. But if you want to post that eye-stopping photo on Facebook,or print a wow-factor image for your wall, it's going to take a little more than pointing and shooting. You will need to learn about the camera's operational settings, as well as, what makes a good picture.

There are literally millions of books and tutorials written about how to use a camera to take a good picture. I have recommended some books below, but you can find many places to learn either in your local community or in the online community. To name a few, I have joined my local Photographic Society - there may be one in your area.

I also subscribe to Lynda.com, a phenomenal resource of the most knowledgeable and talented trainers anywhere. And they don't just deal with photography; they have training for almost any major software title on the market. I also am a member of two photo online communities which have helped me tremendously in developing as a photographer. They are Betterphoto.com and FredMiranda.com. You can see some of my photography at my web sites: www.thewayeyeseeit.net and WayneRasku.com.

OK, so what about a camera? You need one to get started. I have some recommendations as you read further in this article.

Learn Everything Digital At Lynda.com

I also subscribe to Lynda.com, a phenomenal resource of the most knowledgeable and talented trainers anywhere. And they don't just deal with photography; they have training for almost any major software title on the market. I also am a member of two photo online communities which have helped me tremendously in developing as a photographer. They are Betterphoto.com and FredMiranda.com. You can see some of my photography at my web sites: www.thewayeyeseeit.net and WayneRasku.com.

OK, so what about a camera? You need one to get started. I have some recommendations as you read further in this article.

Fantastic Point and Shoot Camera - "The Canon PowerShot G15 Makes Beginners Look Like Pros"

Canon PowerShot G15 12MP Digital Camera with 3-Inch LCD (Black) (OLD MODEL)
Canon PowerShot G15 12MP Digital Camera with 3-Inch LCD (Black) (OLD MODEL)

If you want a jump start on taking better pictures, choosing this camera will give it to you.

It's the point and shoot camera many pros use as a back-up. You can take great pictures while you learn about the rules of photography.

 

I started taking pictures with a basic digital camera, an Olympus P&S (point and shoot) with about 3 megapixels. I loved this camera, and it taught me so much. Even that little camera had settings that could be changed to make my pictures better. When I found the macro button, I was hooked! It's hard to find a 3 mp camera these days unless it's on your cell phone. In fact, you can get a very good basic digital camera without taking a second mortgage on your house.

The next step up from a basic digital camera is the Prosumer camera. This type of camera will have more features that allow the photographer more control over the end result after pushing the shutter button. This was my second camera. I purchased a Minolta Prosumer from e-bay after watching a few tutorials by Taz Tally. I learned a lot from this camera. There were more selections to make, and I ended up taking thousands of totally bad pictures. But the beauty of digital is that it does not cost a penny to see the pictures as it does with film, which is the reason I never took many pictures with my film camera. Notice that both these cameras are black? Black is the pros' choice every time.

The third type of camera is the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). I purchased my second DSLR camera last year, a Canon 30D. It is a big decision, because now you have to purchase the lenses as well. Instead of carrying a camera in your pocket, you will have a camera bag or backpack with all your camera goodies. So definitely do your research. My choice was to buy a camera body without the lens and buy an upgraded lens for better quality. My lens choice was the Tamron 28-75 (more about these numbers later), which had very good reviews, while the kit lens did not. I have never been uphappy about that choice. I am on my second dslr camera, and I still use the Tamron lens as my main lens.

If you want to see a more detailed description of the best cameras money can buy, along with some tips and techniques for taking pictures and editing them, go to www.digital-photographic-resources.com.

Got my digital camera, now what?

No surprise, you now need some type of editing software.

I mention this here because if you take pictures with your digital camera, it is important that you process your pictures. This is a subject that deserves its own platform, so I suggest you evaluate your needs carefully. Some photographers spend more time editing their images than they do behind the camera. Others do not care for the post-processing part of photography at all. Personally, I take many pictures that I know can be good or even great with a little help. There is no shame in that. In my research, I was surprised to discover that even Ansel Adams, the world renown nature photographer spent many hours in the photo lab getting the "right look" for his images.

Photo editing software, just like your camera choice, can be very simple like free editing applications such as GIMP, Picnik, or Picasa from Google. Or you can go right to the top and get one of the Adobe Photoshop software programs (see links below), it is the best software on the market. Educate yourself about software and your needs. Start with something simple and move up if you must. I learned how to combine two pictures in Photoshop to create the picture of the beach and ocean you see here. Another software application I use quite a bit is Photoshop Lightroom, which is extremely easy to use. If you don't have the time, patience, or finances, check out Lightroom. There are many photo editing software applications available. You will often get a copy of some editing software with the purchase of your camera. I pretty much use Adobe products. Check the links below and download a free 30 day free trial before you make the final purchase. But be forewarned, if you use it, you will probably have to buy it.

Learning about YOUR Digital Camera

I highly suggest that you read your digital camera manual! It is amazing what controls manufacturers have added to even the most basic of cameras. But chances are, if you are reading this, your camera is a step or more above basic. Here is the menu of a Canon Rebel xsi (which, by the way, gets my highest recommendation as a starting level DSLR). Notice how many choices you have.

Did I mention that you should read the camera manual?

Here are some suggestions that will help you decide which settings to use when getting started.

Image Quality/Size:

What are you going to do with your photos? If you are going to use them in emails, on Facebook, or somewhere else on the Internet, you can choose a smaller size. The smaller sizes will obviously give you more pictures on your storage card. If, however, you plan to print your photos, you will want to choose one of the larger sizes. If your camera offers TIFF or RAW, consider using it. If you use RAW you will need computer software capable of reading the files from your camera. Notice the picture has RAW+L. This is the best of both worlds. It will create two files to download to your computer, a jpg and a RAW file.

Shooting Mode:

  • P - Program Mode lets the camera make some very valuable decisions for you, namely the Shutter speed and Aperture. The camera will evaluate the available light so that you get the best picture.
  • A(Av)-Aperture Priority Mode You set the Aperture and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed. Aperture controls how much light gets into the camera when the shutter opens. The smaller the number, the wider the shutter opens, thus letting in more light. For instance, an aperture of f 2.8 will allow more light to enter than an aperture of f 11. When the aperture is higher, the shutter speed must be slower to compensate for the lack of light being allowed into the shutter.
  • S(Tv)-Shutter Priority Mode You set the shutter speed, the camera sets the aperture. Shutter speed is a number that determines how long the shutter will remain open when you press the button. Typically, for hand-held photos, you will want to keep the shutter speed above 1/60 seconds so that your pictures are not blurry. For something like sports action, you will want to set your shutter speed higher, at say 1/500 second to freeze the motion.
  • M-Manual Exposure Mode You set both Aperture and Shutter Speed. This setting is not for the faint of heart. In fact many amateur photographers are afraid of this setting. You may want to use this setting if the lighting is very contrasted, such as a dark subject with a bright background like at an indoor music event.
  • ISO Speed One of the great things about owning a digital camera is that you no longer have to worry about what speed film to buy. ISO stands for International Standards Organization (this will probably only come up on the Jeopardy final round). What it does is more important than what it stands for. ISO is the measure of light sensitivity. The lower number ISO, for example ISO 100, is less light sensitive than a higher number, for example ISO 400. In low light situations, you can set your ISO at a higher number and not have to use a flash or a tripod because the shutter speed will still be fast enough to prevent blur. The major drawback from higher ISO settings is that there is much more digital noise, or graininess. Newer digital cameras are much better at managing noise at higher ISO settings, but it is still something to be aware of.

You should work with your camera settings enough to be comfortable with your choices. Take many practice photos so that you are ready when it's important. Maybe work on a different setting each time. For instance, work on Aperture Priority Mode one day and Shutter Priority Mode on another day. When you load your pictures on your computer, you may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Basic Digital Photography Techniques 1

Depth of Field

Think about pictures that cause you to stop and stare. What is it about the picture that arouses your attention? The picture above was taken behind my house. I like it because the bird's head and eye are in total focus, drawing attention to that area. But the background is totally out of focus. The bird is very clearly looking at the berries as if they are her next meal. This focusing technique is called Depth of Field.

1. Focal Length

Focal Length is the "reach" of your camera. The lens with a small number, such as 28mm or 35mm, is considered a wide angle lens. A telephoto lens will have a larger number, such as 100mm or 200mm. The smaller numbers will give more detail or Depth of Field. The higher numbers will give less Depth of Field. I took the picture of the goldfinch above with a 70-200mm lens set at 200mm.

2. Aperture Size

As discussed above, aperture size is how much the shutter opens. The wider the shutter opens, the less detail will be recorded by your camera, thus you will have less Depth of Field. My Canon 70-200mm lens has a wide open aperture of f 4.0. That was the setting I used for my bird photo. If I had set my aperture at a higher number, say f 9.0, I would have gotten much more detail in the background, and the photo would have a cluttered look.

3. Your distance from the subject

Assuming you keep your aperture the same, as you move farther away from your subject, you increase your Depth of Field. The closer you are to the subject, the less detail in the "out of focus" area. In my sample picture, I was only about 5 feet from my subject.

In the sample picture above, getting these three factors right was critical to the success of the outcome. Notice that the bird's head and eye are in focus, but the focus starts to deteriorate by the time your eye gets to its wing. This is a very shallow Depth of Field.

For comparison, check the picture of the robin. This bird was in a tree about 10 feet away from the goldfinch. The robin was photographed using the same camera and lens settings. The only difference is the distance from the subject. You can see how distracting the branches are compared to the goldfinch shot.

One more thing I want to mention about the goldfinch photo. The berries that the bird seems to be eying with interest were taken from another photo and added through the magic of Photoshop.

Basic Digital Photography Techniques 2

Rule of Thirds


One way you can make your pictures more interesting is to pay close attention to the composition. Most people try to get their subject in the center of the picture. After all the subject is the star of the photo, right? Well if you examine many of the great works down through the ages, you will see that this is not the way most pictures are presented. There is something called the Rule of Thirds which has a place of honor in the world of photography. I have given two examples to show off the Rule of Thirds. I included the lines so you can see it more clearly. In the candle image, notice that most of the elements that draw your attention are located on the white lines. These are the "third" lines.

In landscapes, such as the ocean picture, consider having your horizon on one of the "thirds" lines. Many times I will crop a picture so that this happens. In fact, the ocean picture here is a cropped photo. Also notice that the sunrise is at an intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines. Even if you are not artistically inclined (like me) you can do this to increase the interest in your photos.

Where are your Photos?

What do you usually do with your photos?

See results
Canon EOS Rebel T4i DSLR with 18-55mm EF-S IS II Lens (OLD MODEL)
Canon EOS Rebel T4i DSLR with 18-55mm EF-S IS II Lens (OLD MODEL)

This is the camera I currently use. I highly recommend it. It has many pro features at an excellent price point.

 

Photo Editing Software

If you need photo editing software (every photographer does), check out these links.

Picasa from Google - This tool will cost you nothing, but it is great for organizing your digital pictures and doing some basic photo editing. It is a free download.

Paintshop Pro - This was my very first image editing software. Extremely inexpensive, but a great piece of software. Also has a free trial offer.

Adobe Photoshop Elements - This is not the professional version of Photoshop, but it is a very powerful tool. (not nearly as expensive.)

Adobe Photoshop CS6 -Create powerful images with the professional standard.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom - much less expensive than Photoshop, it a professional, yet simple, photo editing tool. It was developed with lots of input from photographers. There are many pro photographers who use this editing software exclusively.

Photoshop CS6 Extended - Student Edition - Let me give you some inside info - if you are an educator or a secondary student, you save BIG on Adobe products. If you do not have proof of being in education, you cannot qualify for education pricing.


Adobe Photoshop CC

Adobe Photoshop CC - 12-month Plan
Adobe Photoshop CC - 12-month Plan

This is one of the best investments I have made as a photographer. Compare to hundreds of dollars for the regular version... and then your version will be outdated in a year or so anyway. With CC, you get the most current product without any extra fees. I definitely recommend the CC version.

 

Rick Sammons - 10 tips for taking great photos

Rick is an amazingly energetic photographer... and good too. These tips are a bit more advanced than what I have been sharing, but they are great tips, none the less.

How-To Books About Digital Photography - Not all photography and software books are created equal.

I have used the products from these authors and I highly recommend them.

Would Love to Hear from YOU!

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    • Wayne Rasku profile image
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      Wayne Rasku 3 years ago

      @PhotoBuff: Hey PhotoBuff, thanks for stopping by. Just keep shooting; you will get sharp pictures.

    • profile image

      PhotoBuff 3 years ago

      I love your picture of the Goldfinch. I wish I could get pictures that sharp. I will need to try some of your tips to get them that sharp and interesting.

    • Rosaquid profile image

      Rosaquid 4 years ago

      Great tips. Thanks!

    • vinodkpillai lm profile image

      vinodkpillai lm 5 years ago

      Good tips, references and info - thanks for sharing.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 5 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      You have wonderful advice. Very interesting.

    • ndStreetPhoto1 profile image

      ndStreetPhoto1 7 years ago

      great tips

    • EditPhotos profile image

      Edit Photos 8 years ago from Earth

      Great lens - excellent tips I can use!

    • profile image

      cinemiss 8 years ago

      Excellent lens - nice job!

    • profile image

      ngl 8 years ago

      This is your first lens, my goodness what an excellent job! You've inspired me to dust off my camera! 5* for you...

    • profile image

      michaelr 8 years ago

      Your lens is great and full of resources. I also love the lynda.com training site. I've learned a ton of information about CS3 for photographers. I love listening to Chris Orwig. Good job on this lens. Also, I took a peek at personal gallery. You have a good eye!! Keep up the good work!!

    • profile image

      Mmfh 8 years ago

      I enjoyed reading your lens. I'm thinking of doing the big switch from film to digital. Most all concepts are the same but it will be nice to not have to deal with the smell and mess of my darkroom.

      Nice job!

    • EditPhotos profile image

      Edit Photos 8 years ago from Earth

      Great lens - I just lensrolled it onto a few of my lens which are related to editing digital photos.

    • CounselMom profile image

      CounselMom 8 years ago

      Great lens! We love our digital camera and use it frequently!!

    • TopStyleTravel profile image

      TopStyleTravel 8 years ago

      Five Stars! A great resource for photographers. I have always been interested in digital photos but only casually use my camera.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 8 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      I love your profile photo. How cool! Very informative lens and good-looking too.

    • profile image

      LPogue 8 years ago

      This lense is great! The bird with berries photo is inspiring. I would enjoy seeing more information for other brands, such as information on a digital Pentax.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 8 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      I love photography too! I really enjoyed your lens. The photo of the beach scene is great as well as the bird. You give useful photography tips! Thanks