Photography is one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned—even harder than programming or learning to write well. Pointing a camera and pressing a button is easy enough. The difficult part is getting a shot to match your vision.
It took over a year to produce the first photo I actually liked, and to this day I hate 99 out of every 100 photos I take. It’s a tough hobby to pick up and an even tougher career to pursue.
But don’t let that dissuade you from learning photography!
I firmly believe everyone should learn some photography because it can improve your life and make you happier. If you’re an absolute beginner, here are a handful of photography tips I consider must-learn-first material.
1. The Exposure Triangle
Photography is all about capturing light. Most beginners think the magic of photography happens in the camera body, but the true source of magic is light. A well-lit subject can be captured poorly, but a poorly-lit subject will never look good.
And to capture light well, you must understand the exposure triangle.
When taking a photo, the camera opens its shutter and starts letting in light through the lens. This light hits the camera sensor, which is then processed as an image. Three factors affect how the light is captured and what the final image looks like:
- Aperture: How big the lens opening is, measured in f-stops (f/2, f/5, f/11, etc). The smaller the number, the wider the aperture. The wider the aperture, the more light comes in. Aperture size also affects depth of field. (Learn more about depth of field in photography.)
- Shutter Speed: How long the shutter is left open, measured in seconds (1/200 sec, 1/60 sec, 5 sec, etc). The slower the shutter speed, the more light comes in. Shutter speed also affects sensitivity to motion (i.e. faster shutter speeds freeze motion while slower shutter speeds produce motion blur).
- ISO: How sensitive the sensor is to light, measured in ISO units (100 ISO, 400 ISO, 6400 ISO, etc). A higher ISO allows you to take photos in darker situations, but the trade-off is noise (“grain”). That’s why photos taken in the dark often have those characteristic spots.
Entire courses have been taught on the exposure triangle, so consider this nothing more than a brief overview. The takeaway is that you must master all three aspects—aperture, shutter speed, ISO—in order to take photos that match your vision.
2. How to Hold a Camera Properly
The very next thing a photography beginner must learn is how to hold a camera properly. When I say “properly,” I simply mean “in a way that minimizes camera shake as much as possible.”
Remember: When the camera is shooting a photo, the shutter goes up and the sensor fills up with light. If you move while the shutter is open, the light will smear across the sensor and result in a blurry photo. No movement equals no camera shake.
While the video above is specifically for camera bodies (DSLRs, mirrorless, point and shoots), you can easily adapt it to smartphones. The key is to bring your arms close to your body so they’re stable against your core. This will minimize camera shake and allow your hand-held photos to remain as sharp as possible.
For low-light photography, long exposure shots, or any photography involving telephoto lenses, you’ll want to use a tripod. Nothing guarantees a stable and blurry-free shot like a quality tripod. See our articles on buying camera tripods and best smartphone tripods.
3. The Rule of Thirds
Most of the time, you can get a sense of whether a given photo was taken by an amateur photographer or someone with more photographic experience. The biggest giveaway is composition. Amateurs often don’t have a feel for composition, and great composition is the soul of a great photograph.
Composition is the placement of every element in a photograph.
It describes how a photo is “composed,” which implies intentionality. Someone who pays no mind to composition can only take good shots by coincidence. But once you truly understand composition, you’ll be able to create great shots out of any subject, location, or circumstance.
The easiest compositional guideline to learn is the rule of thirds:
Mentally divide the shot into thirds using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, then place elements of high visual interest at any of the four intersections.
Every photographer uses this technique. Some use it as a crutch, others use it as a fallback method when other compositional techniques fail for a given shot. Regardless, the rule of thirds must be part of your arsenal. There aren’t many tips that’ll give you as much bang-for-your-buck as this one.
4. Change Your Perspective
One way to ensure an unremarkable photo is to snap a subject straight-on from eye level. Everyone knows this viewpoint already—we interact with the world from this viewpoint every single day. It’s ordinary, tired, boring.
But the fix is easy: shoot from a different vantage!
This can mean a few things:
- Change your elevation (e.g. get closer to the ground)
- Change your angle (e.g. try straight up or skewed from the side)
- Change your distance (e.g. get closer or go farther away)
Try a combination of all three. You’ll be surprised by how different your shots feel with these changes. For example, compare the following two shots:
The camera changed elevation (closer to the ground) and changed distance (closer to the subject). The first photo is what we normally see as humans. Uninteresting, isn’t it? But the second photo isn’t something we see every day, so it’s more compelling.
5. Post-Processing Is Essential
Post-processing is often thought of as “radically changing the source photo using high-impact filters or effects.” This misunderstanding has led some photographers to vow to NEVER retouch photos, instead restricting themselves to “natural” photos only. While their intentions are noble, they’ve misunderstood how cameras work.
Every camera performs post-processing whether you like it or not. The actual sensor data is captured in a RAW file, but what you see on your camera’s LCD screen (or your smartphone) is your camera’s interpretation of that RAW data—and your camera has no idea about your creative vision. Wouldn’t you rather do it yourself?
And not all post-processing has to look Photoshopped. Think of it like cosmetic makeup:
- Some unknowingly go overboard with blush and lipstick
- Some go bold with their makeup as a form of self-expression
- Some use makeup to subtly complement their best features
In the same way, post-processing can be heavy-handed and overdone, or it can be intentionally stylistic, or it can be subtle and only used to enhances what’s already there.
You need to post-process your images! Don’t overlook this important skill. If you do, you’ll eventually reach a point where all your shots feel like they’re missing something—and that something will be a bit of post-processing love.
6. Shoot Everything, Shoot Often
Practice makes progress. There’s absolutely no way around this. I don’t care how many YouTube videos you watch, how many photography articles you read, or how many Instagram photos you analyze—if you aren’t shooting, you aren’t improving.
An ounce of experience is worth a pound of theory. Get out there and shoot!
Your first photos are going to suck. You may need to shoot thousands before you get one that you like. But each one, no matter how bad, is one step towards being a better photographer. Practice doesn’t just help you apply the theory you learn, but also gets you familiar with your equipment and how different settings affect the final image.
7. Don’t Blame Your Gear
While gear does matter for photography, it doesn’t matter as much as you think.
A skilled photographer can produce great photos with a crappy camera, and an unskilled photographer will keep shooting duds even with high-end, expensive equipment.
It comes down to what we discussed above: light, exposure, composition, angles, perspective, and post-processing. If you can master all of those things, you’ll be able to take great shots with anything—even a smartphone.
Obviously, there are limits to your equipment, and it’s possible to outgrow a camera body, lens, speedlight, or accessory. But the takeaway is that upgrading your gear won’t upgrade your photography skills. The sooner you accept this, the faster you’ll improve and progress.
Before you get a DSLR, try your skills with your smartphone or a point and shoot camera.
More Tips for Learning Photography
For more beginner tips, check out an introduction to white balance.
We also highly recommend checking out these YouTube photography channels. They’re free and contain all sorts of informative videos that will get you started off right. If you’re willing to spend some money, consider these Lynda photography courses.
You should also be aware of common legal issues for photographers, which are good to know whether or not you intend to make any money with your photography or pursue it as anything more than a hobby.
Image Credit: REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock