Welcome to Photography 101! Since the proliferation of smartphones in the last few years, it’s been easier than ever to get into photography. For the first time, everyone with a cell phone is now able to take really high quality photos. However, if you have a DSLR camera but still shoot on auto, you’re probably missing out on the full potential your camera has to offer. This quick guide will get you thinking about general photographic concepts, and get you oriented with your DSLR camera.

The Rule of Thirds

One of the easiest ways for your photos to look better is by knowing how to properly compose them. This includes where to place your subject in the frame, and what conditions draw attention toward the subject of the photo.

The first and most basic aspect of this is the cornerstone of photography: the rule of thirds. This concept states that, typically, photos where the subject occupies a third of the frame will look the best. Consider, for instance, this photo of a kingfisher. The subject of the photo — the bird — lies in the leftmost third of the photograph. Photographers of all sorts use this concept, whether they’re capturing wildlife, landscapes, or even your Aunt Irma at your wedding.

The great thing about this simple tip is that it can be used with any camera, even if you don’t own a DSLR. Smartphone cameras have an integrated grid that can be placed onto the screen to make visualizing this rule easier. To do this, access the general settings for your camera app and look for a setting called “Grid” (iOS users can find this setting in the general Settings app, while Android users may be able to find it in the settings of the camera app itself).

A comparison between a center-aligned photo and one conforming to the rule of thirds
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Unfortunately, this tool can be misleading. Instead of trying to orient your photo within one of the sections, you’ll want to orient it where the lines intersect. Take the above image as an example. In the left photo, both the rock structure and the horizon are occupying the center vertical and horizontal thirds of the photograph, respectively. The right photo shifts the image to align with the rule of thirds concept, where the rock structure lies on the left gridline, and the horizon lies on the bottom gridline.

The DSLR Holy Trinity

If you have a DSLR camera but only shoot on auto, you could be missing out on a lot of creative freedom with your photos. Pop that thing over to manual, and I’ll explain what three main settings you should be playing with.

A close-up of a camera lens
Image courtesy of Expert Photography

The first is the shutter speed. This controls how quickly a photo is taken, which determines how much light enters the camera. The longer your shutter speed, the more light comes into the camera, so your photo becomes brighter. Leaving the shutter open for longer, however, can make photos come out blurry if the camera or the subject moves while the photo is being taken. For this reason, changing shutter speed allows you to control if your photo seems frozen in time, or conveys motion.

The next option is the f-stop, also known as the aperture or focal length. This controls how large the camera’s aperture is, which again determines how much light enters the camera. This setting also determines your focal length, or how blurry the background is. In this case, changing your f-stop from f/8 to f/1.8 opens the aperture wider to let more light in. Because of this, more of your background will blur. This is used when taking portrait photography, as it turns attention toward your subject.

The final setting to know is the ISO. Changing this setting makes the camera’s sensor more or less sensitive to light. Increasing the ISO too much, however, will cause your photo to look grainy. I recommend that you keep your ISO as low as possible given the current light situation. For example, if you’re shooting in low light, you may have to compromise some graininess to make the photo visible.

Balancing These Settings for the Perfect Photo

Balancing each of these effects is incredibly important when shooting with a DSLR camera, but it’s also really freeing. These options make taking a photo seem like a puzzle, so you may have to play with it a little.

Since each of these settings have an upside and a downside, it’s important to think about how you want your photo to look before you calibrate your settings. For example, if you want to capture a moving object and have it look still in your photo, you should increase your shutter speed. This will make your photo look darker than if you shot it with a lower shutter speed, so it’d be a good idea to consider which of the other two options to increase to allow more light inside. If you want your photo to come out crystal-clear with a low ISO, you’ll probably have to allow the background of your photo to be a bit blurry. If you know don’t mind that your photo may be blurry, however, this decision becomes a lot easier to make.

All of this theory may be a bit confusing until you actually have your hands on a camera. The best advice I can give is to just go outside and play with your camera. Change a bunch of different settings while you shoot one specific object. You should be able to start seeing the effects that each of the settings have on your photo. You’ll take a million crappy photos (I know I did), but it makes understanding your camera much better.

Starter Kit

Now that you have all of this knowledge, you need the right equipment to use it all. Photography can be expensive, but the cost is worth it when you capture that shot you can be proud of.

The contents of a photography kit laid out on the floor
Image courtesy of Digital Photo Magazine

For a beginner’s kit, you’ll obviously need the camera itself. Canon’s Rebel series or  Nikon’s D3500 are two good options that I would recommend. The lens that each of these cameras comes with is enough to get you started, so I wouldn’t worry about springing for another just yet.

You’ll also need a tripod for when your hands are too shaky, and a camera bag to keep everything safe. You should pick up a few extra 64gb SD cards too, so you never run out of space when shooting. Finally, I would definitely recommend getting a shutter remote. Having a remote to take your photo allows you to take even more still photos when your shutter rate is low, because even pressing the camera’s button can shake the image too much.

Putting it All Together

Knowing how to use your camera is the most important skill you can learn to improve your photography. Practicing how to balance exposure settings and utilizing the rule of thirds will make an immediate difference in your work, so there’s nothing else stopping you from shooting whatever you want. I can say from experience that there’s nothing more rewarding than finally getting that one shot you’ve been waiting all night for, and I hope these tips will get you there just a little bit sooner.

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