Learn Digital Photography: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

The world of digital photography is a vast, rewarding place. While learning how to take photos properly can seem daunting at first, it’s important to realize that this hobby is remarkably easy to pick up.


It takes some time to master, but even a complete novice can take stunning shots with a little knowhow. This guide is designed to get you started.

Why Pick Up Digital Photography?

Photography can help you cultivate a profound appreciation for the world around us. Taking good photos means developing an eye for beauty, precision and intrigue. A photographer really does see the world differently.

The beauty of digital photography lies in how endless your shooting opportunities are. The world is your oyster! If it exists, you can capture it in a photograph forever. This is a hobby with a deep, rewarding path to mastery.

Below are just some of the genres of photography you’ll be able to explore. It’s important to note that these examples are the tip of the iceberg. Remember that while some of these might seem complicated, they’re well within your reach.

Macro Photography

macro-photography

Macro photography gets up close and personal with the intricate details of the world. Digital photography like this can uncover parts of life you’d never even considered before. Flowers, insects, and all of life’s intricacies become subjects for you to capture.

For an in-depth look at macro photography and how to approach it, check out our macro photography guide.

Landscape Photography

landscape-photographyA gorgeous way to capture the vast expanse of the world, landscape photography is one of the best categories for newbies to sink their teeth into. Capturing a massive snapshot from your trip is a wonderful way to remember it years later.

Nature Photography

nature-photography

Digital photography can get you back in touch with the natural world. Nature is packed full of exciting challenges for new photographers and will earn you some stunning photos if you’re patient. For a more detailed look at taking wildlife photos, check out our nature photography guide.

Portrait Photography

portrait-photography

Taking photos of other human beings is one of the most rewarding parts of becoming a photographer. Encountering other people and learning what makes them beautiful is something you can look forward to if you decide to pick up digital photography as a hobby.

The Absolute Fundamentals of Digital Photography

Becoming a master photographer takes a whole lot of patience. Picking up the hobby, however, is refreshingly simple if you understand the fundamentals. This section of our guide will run you through the basic principles that are worth wrapping your head around.

fundamentals-of-photography

Lighting

Lighting is perhaps the most important element of photography to understand if you’re a beginner. Mastering your lighting setup will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you when it comes to getting a good photograph.

Below are the basic types of lighting and how to use them. We will discuss camera settings and some equipment here that are explored in detail later in this guide.

Natural Light

Natural light is, you guessed it, natural. Sunlight, and less typically moonlight, is sometimes all you need to get the right shot. The type of natural light you’re working with will depend on the time of day and the conditions of your environment.

The primary reason that photographers like to shoot with natural light, or at least incorporate some of it into their shoots, is that it makes it easy to capture subjects in a way where they look the same as they do in real life. Natural lighting often leads to natural-looking photographs.

Things to Consider With Natural Lighting

When working with sunlight, it’s important to remember that you’re at the whim of the elements. It’s best to work with the sun rather than against it. Realize that you only have a certain amount of time before your light source moves and plan accordingly.

Position yourself and your subject in a way that takes advantage of the current position of the sun. Take stock of which parts of your subject are highlighted well with the natural light you have available. Use your situation to your advantage.

Important Camera Settings for Natural Light

Relying on the automatic settings of your camera can often be enough, but knowing what to tweak is a hallmark of a good photographer. When shooting in natural light, you’ll often need to adjust your aperture and shutter speed settings.

Aperture refers to the amount of light you’re letting into your camera lens. Adjusting your aperture means changing the size of the hole that lets light into your camera. Experiment with this setting and learn how it affects your final image.

Shutter speed determines how long the shutter stays open when capturing an image. Faster speeds mean crisper, blur-free shots. Slower shutter speeds can add artful blurr to your photographs. Play around with your shutter speed when using natural light.

The Golden Hour

In photography, the golden hour is a time of day with particularly favorable lighting conditions. It is the last hour in the day before the sun starts to set. For filmmakers and photographers alike this short period can produce some jaw dropping images and videos.

Use this Android app or this iPhone app to plan for the golden hour in your area.

Artificial Light

Artificial lighting is how photographers can create the ideal environment for their shoots. We discuss the equipment and accessories used later in this guide. For now, all you need to understand is that artificial light is a powerful, versatile means to get the photos you want.

With artificial lighting, everything from the intensity, to the unique qualities, of your lighting can be tweaked to your heart’s content. We explore the different characteristics that light can have below; artificial lighting can help you achieve all of them.

Soft/ Diffused Light

Diffused light is a wonderful way to capture flattering photos of people. Sunlight passing through clouds is a great example of soft, diffused lighting. The clouds spread the light out evenly, providing an indirect light source that allows for beautiful photos.

In general, soft and diffused light:

  • Casts small, hard-to-notice shadows
  • Is used for a lot of commercial and modelling photography
  • Can be very flattering when taking photos of people
  • Is considered quite “natural-looking”

Notice how the shadows in this image aren’t harsh or overbearing. The warmth and characteristics of this image were achieved with soft, indirect light.

soft-light

Hard Lighting

Hard lighting is direct, bright light that usually comes from a single source. It produces dramatic images with harsh, long shadows. Maybe you want to highlight a particular element of your subject. Perhaps you’re going for a moody shot with tons of drama. Hard lighting can help you achieve this.

hard-lighting

Front Light

Front lighting refers to the direction of your light in relation to your subject. When your subject is facing the light source you’re using, that’s front lighting. This approach is the most common setup you’re likely to encounter when getting started with digital photography.

At its most basic, you point your light source at your subject and are ready to start shooting. Front lighting is used in lots of portrait photography as it’s often the best way to bring out someone’s features.

Backlighting

A challenging approach to lighting that many new photographers are scared of. With a little knowledge and practice though, backlighting need not be so intimidating. This type of lighting is the opposite of front lighting. Your subject is positioned with your light source directly behind it.

When shooting backlit photographs, you’ll want to switch to manual mode and tweak the aperture and shutter speed settings on your camera.

In general, a wider aperture and a shutter speed of between 1/100 and 1/600 is what you’ll need. This will allow you to over expose your image to where it needs to be. If you’re scratching your head wondering what on earth we’re talking about, we explain camera settings later in this guide.

When to Use Flash

A common question for many beginner photographers is “when should I use flash?”. While it might seem appropriate to use your flash whenever it becomes dark, this isn’t always the best approach.

Using Flash Indoors

Indoor lighting environments can often be far from ideal for quick photos. A well-used flash can improve your situation significantly. If you want to avoid the harsh, overbearing lighting that can come from using flash, it’s best to bounce the light from your flash off a flat surface.

If you’re able to, direct your flash towards a wall or ceiling to diffuse the light for a softer effect.

Using Flash Outdoors

It’s important to remember that your distance from your subject will determine how effective using flash will be. Taking photos of the sky, for example, is unlikely to be made easier by using flash.

If you’re relatively close to your subject and the available light is quite low, using flash may help you. Remember that pointing your flash directly at your subject can result in a hard image with lots of shadows.

Remove Unwanted Shadows

If you notice shadows in your image that you want to eliminate, a well-timed flash can help you remove them. Direct your flash towards the light source that is casting the shadows you want to eliminate. It may take some trial and error, but this should do the trick.

Lens Size

lens-size

Many digital cameras allow you to mix and match the type of lens you use. The size of lens you take photos with will determine the images you create and the way you should approach your photography.

Focal Length

Focal length is most typically described using millimeters. In basic terms, the focal length of your length determines how close, or far away, you should be from your subject. The focal length of your setup will influence the type of photos you’re able to take effectively.

So, what’s a normal focal length? The important thing to emphasize at this point in our guide is that “normal” is relative. The type of photography you’re doing will change the “normal” range of focal length you should expect.

That said, for most everyday photography that tackles a variety of straightforward scenarios, a focal length of around 50mm is usually enough. For more specific tasks, however, your focal length can vary wildly.

Macro lenses, for example, typically use a focal length of 90 – 105mm in order to maintain sharp focus for close-up shots.

Your Gear

Your knowledge and skill will go a long way in the world of photography. At the same time, it’s worth making sure you have the right kit for the job! This section will explore the different types of camera available to help you make an informed decision about the gear you use.

Cameras

The pièce de résistance of any photographer’s gear, the camera you use will influence the type of work you’re able to achieve. There’s tons of choice when it comes to the specific camera you buy.

In general, it’s worth considering the following:

  • A good camera is future-proof. Buying a camera that can grow with you is a good way to go. A cheap camera today can become expensive if it needs to be replaced every year. A good camera with an interchangeable lens system can expand with your hobby.
  • Numbers like megapixels are only one small part of the picture. Bigger numbers on paper don’t always lead to a better camera experience. It’s best to read up on the experiences of others and the real-world performance of a camera.
  • The “best” camera is different for everyone. Your specific photography requirements will heavily influence the best camera for you.

With this in mind, let’s explore the different types of camera available.

DSLRs

dslr

DSLR cameras are a powerful, versatile option used by photographers around the world. They use an interchangeable lens system which means they can adapt to a wide variety of scenarios. Need to capture a landscape? Pop on your wide angle lens. Want to capture the intricate details of a flower? Time to use your macro lens. The list goes on!

A good DSLR can set you back $1-2K, but will serve you well as a powerful photography tool. Some general things to bear in mind about DSLRs:

  • They’re comparatively bulky and heavy
  • DSLR is a mature format which means there’s a plethora of choice available
  • Budget options exist, but they’re generally quite expensive

Mirrorless

mirrorlessMirrorless cameras are something of a modern-day answer to the DSLR. They forego a mirrored system in favor of an entirely digital approach. The immediate advantage of this setup is that mirrorless products tend to be much lighter and more compact.

Like DSLRs, these cameras can accommodate a wide variety of different lenses. While the mirrorless format is comparatively young, multiple brands compete fiercely for the top spot; you won’t struggle to find a good mirrorless camera these days.

Some general thoughts on mirrorless cameras:

  • They’re much lighter and compact than DSLRs while still packing a lot of power and versatility
  • They’re usually a very expensive option
  • The format is comparatively new

Point-and-Shoots

The term “point-and-shoot” can sometimes feel synonymous with “cheap” or “poor quality”. This definitely isn’t always the case.

Part of the reason for this reputation is due to the fact that the point-and-shoot category is very broad. Anything from an $80 kid’s camera all the way up to an $800 all-in-one can be rightly described as a “point-and-shoot”. In general, these cameras:

  • Use a single, fixed lens designed to tackle most scenarios reasonably well
  • Are a cheaper option for those who don’t need loads of versatility
  • Use smaller sensors, onboard processing and lenses

Lenses

The lenses you use can be just as important as your camera. They bring a wealth of versatility to your gear. As a new photographer, it’s important to make smart decisions when building your first setup.

Most mid to high-end cameras come with a standard kit lens. A “kit” lens is designed to tackle most photography jobs reasonably well, but might not be enough in more nuanced scenarios. We’ll run through the major lens types below and then discuss how to choose the right one.

Macro

Macro lenses are designed to handle ultra-close-up shots of intricate subjects. The unique focal lengths of these lenses allow them to maintain focus at a distance that wider lenses just can’t handle. Use a macro lens for detailed shots of smaller objects.

Our macro photography guide will give you the lowdown on everything macro in the world of digital photography.

Wide Angle

Wide angle lenses are great for landscape photography and for larger images. Any photo that needs more space on the horizontal can benefit from a wide angle lens. They usually use focal lengths between 24 and 35mm and are a formidable tool in the photographer’s arsenal.

Zoom

Zoom lenses offer an excellent level of flexibility when it comes to the distance you need to be from your subject. These lenses have much broader ranges for focal length to accommodate a variety of different focusing distances. A zoom lens can be a great option if your photography involves scenarios spanning multiple distances.

Fisheye

fisheye-effect

Fisheye lenses use focal lengths between 4 and 14mm and are used for more creative images with an ultra-wide viewing angle. Their namesake comes from the wide image a fish sees in the water to keep watch for predators.

Photos taken with these lenses have a unique, abstract effect and can fit tons into your composition. The distortion caused when using this kind of accessory can be used to create fascinating lines and shapes in your image.

The list of existing lens types is far longer than those featured above. Within the scope of this beginner’s guide, though, they’re the most common types that you’re likely to encounter.

Choosing the Right Lens for You

When you’re first starting out in the world of digital photography, learning about lens types and camera options can feel pretty overwhelming. As a general rule, it’s better to choose a more standard lens and specialize when you have a specific need for something else.

It might also help to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a specific kind of subject or scenario that interests me as a photographer?
    • Do these subjects involve the photographer typically standing a certain distance away?
    • Are these subjects particularly large or small?
    • Are these subjects typically static?
  • How often will I be in extreme lighting conditions?
    • Are these conditions especially bright or especially dark?
    • Will I be using my own lighting equipment or relying on natural light?
  • Will I be taking photos of moving subjects?
  • Do I like photos that are color-accurate, or do I prefer a warmer, more saturated image?
  • Do I care about post production and detailed editing?

The questions above are far from exhaustive, but they’re designed to get you thinking about the kind of lens you might need once you start to ‘specialize’ as a photographer. Use your answers to these questions to make an informed decision about which lens might be best.

Tripods

tripod

 

Tripods are an oft-overlooked accessory by beginners, but they can prove incredibly useful. They’re one of the best ways to guarantee a steady, blur-free shot. Follow these general rules when using a tripod:

  1. Switch off image stabilization
    1. Onboard image stabilization can actually cause blur and noise if you’ve attached your camera to a tripod. While you know your camera will be stable, switch off this feature.
  2. Consider using an IR remote with your tripod.
    1. We discuss remote accessories later in this guide. In short, they free up your hands and can make you much more productive.
  3. Only extend the legs when you actually need the height.
    1. The further your tripod legs are extended, the less stable your base will become. Only extend when the height will actually help your shot.

Lights

Adding a few studio lights to your setup can elevate your photography and dramatically improve your versatility as a photographer. With the right lights, you’ll be able to optimize your lighting environment every time you shoot.

The list of lighting accessories is staggeringly long, but many are used in pretty niche scenarios. We’ll explore the basics here.

Softboxes

Softboxes are a phenomenal way to add more soft, diffused light to your environment. They achieve this with a single bulb that scatters light through a white covering filter.

They’re one of the first lighting accessories that many professional photographers buy, as diffused light tends to be far more forgiving in portrait and product photography.

Strip Boxes

Strip boxes are a specific type of softbox with a narrower, more accurate frame. They can be used to great effect when lighting your subject from behind or the side. The smaller beam of light they produce is easier to manipulate in the studio.

Strobes

Strobes are dedicated flash accessories that emit a targeted burst of light when taking an image. Unlike softboxes, strobes don’t run continuously and can therefore be less predictable when used by a beginner.

Diffused/ Umbrella Flash

If you ever had your picture taken at school, the photographer was probably using an umbrella flash. These accessories direct a flash device at a reflective umbrella that bounces the resulting light strategically throughout the room.

These tools can make portrait photography much simpler and are well worth the investment if you’re interested in this line of work.

Basic Lighting Terms

When you first start to experiment with lighting your setup, there are a few terms to keep in mind.

Ambient Lighting

A good photographer will take stock of their ambient light first. This is any light that is already present in your environment before you start setting up. Ambient light can be used to produce stunning, natural-looking images.

Key Light

This is the main light to consider. It’s usually the brightest and most powerful light used and defines the bulk of your composition. Decide the key element(s) that you want to highlight in your image. Use the key light to draw focus here.

Fill Light

Fill light is used to reduce unwanted darkness and shadows in your environment. Softboxes can be a great option for this.

Background Light

The background of your subject is tackled with this kind of lighting. Consider your desired outcome and plan your approach accordingly.

Reflectors

Reflectors are used to give your lighting that extra push when needed. They’re used to reflect and reposition the light in your environment to where you’d like it to be. They typically come in the form of collapsable discs that are white, gold or silver.

For ambient light in particular, a well-positioned reflector can be a godsend.

IR Remote

An IR remote isn’t essential, but you might be surprised how much it can improve your workflow. They connect to your camera wirelessly and can be used to trigger your shutter. This allows for seamless, hands-free shooting.

In certain contexts, this can give you the flexibility you need to hold reflectors, reposition lights, or simply redouble your focus on the subject at hand. Double-check that your specific camera has built-in IR functionality. You’ll need this if you’re going to use a universal remote.

Understanding the modes on your DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

Most beginners tend to lean on the automatic settings of their camera in the beginning. There’s absolutely no shame in this, and some of the more premium cameras on the market can be uncannily intelligent when it comes to autofocus and lighting adjustments.

However, there’s an endless list of scenarios where automatic mode just won’t cut it. In these cases, you’ll need to at least understand what the different settings on your camera do.

Auto

If you use a camera in auto mode, you’re letting it do the bulk of the thinking for you. Simply point your lens at your subject, press the trigger, and your camera does the rest. Adjustments for ISO, focus, color and everything in between are handled by the sensor and chip on your device.

More expensive cameras use dizzying numbers of autofocus points and AI features that make them staggeringly smart.

Areas where auto modes can falter include:

  • High contrast images
  • Low contrast images
  • Moving subjects
  • Backlighting
  • Low-light or bright environments

It’s worth noting that this is far from an exhaustive list.

Aperture Priority

The aperture priority setting is a great way to manually optimize your setup while saving quite a bit of time. In short, it allows you to manually choose your aperture setting while allowing your camera to automatically choose a shutter speed that matches.

As mentioned earlier in this guide, aperture refers to the amount of light you’re letting into your camera lens and therefore the portion of your image that is in focus.

When changing the depth of field for your image (the distance between the farthest and closest objects in focus for your scene) you’ll need to tweak your aperture setting.

Check out this video on aperture priority from photographer James Lavish.

Shutter Priority

This is essentially the reverse of aperture priority mode. It allows you to manually select your shutter speed while letting your camera automatically choose an aperture that matches. Shutter priority is a great mode to use when aiming for sharp images of moving subjects.

The folks over at Photo Genius have some great tips on shutter priority here.

Program

This mode is sometimes referred to as “programmed automatic”. It’s basically a compromise somewhere halfway between full manual and automatic settings. Using program mode allows your camera to handle exposure but gives you control of some key elements.

These are ISO speed, white balance and flash. This is a great mode to use if you want to improve your understanding of manual settings.

Your camera will tell you the aperture and shutter speed values it has automatically chosen, allowing you to get to grips with which figures work for which scenarios. Practice taking shots for a while using ‘P’ mode and take note of the values your camera chooses.

For a great introduction to ‘P’ mode, watch this video from photographer Mike Smith.

Manual

Once you’ve got a little more experience, manual mode will give you complete control of your camera. Full manual mode allows you to tweak to your heart’s content, changing each and every aspect of your shot.

Once you’ve worked in ‘P’ mode for a while, the next logical step is to practice in full manual mode.

When you’re ready to try manual mode, Hyun Ralph Jeong has a great introduction on YouTube.

ISO

Your ISO setting determines your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher your ISO number, the brighter your image will become. Darker shots are achieved with a lower ISO. Tweaking your ISO setting will allow you to adapt to different lighting environments.

If you need to brighten your shot, try tweaking the aperture and shutter speed first. Increasing the ISO can increase the noise in your photo.

This YouTube video from Saurav Sinha offers a great ISO tutorial.

White Balance

The human eye is fantastic at identifying colors immediately. Digital cameras have to use complex programming to figure it out. White balance refers to the color-accuracy and temperature of your shot.

Good white balancing produces photos where white objects in particular appear true to life. Automatic white balance settings can struggle on some cameras and can over or under compensate, resulting in images with a blue or orange tint.

If you want to get to grips with manual white balance settings, Radhakrishnan Chakyat from Pixel Village does a great job of outlining the fundamentals.

Composition Guide

Reading is a great way to improve your intellectual understanding of a subject, but it’s important to practice in the real world too. This is a vocational, physical hobby so it’s important to shoot as often as you can!

This section will run you through the absolute basics of getting started for your first shoot. The more you get out there and practice in the real world, the easier this will all become.

Shot Framing

The way you position your subject is fundamental in how your final composition is received by others. Consider the following:

  • Which feature(s) of my subject(s) do I want to draw attention to?
  • Are there particular shapes and lines that could add intrigue to my shot?
  • Do I want my background in or out of focus?
  • Are their colors in my scene that should be drawn out and highlighted?
  • How do the foreground and background of my scene relate to each other?

These questions are designed to get you thinking about how to frame your shot. Once you have general answers for them, it’s time to use either the rule of thirds or the phi grid.

Rule of Thirds and the Phi Grid

composition

 

Two common composition tools used by photographers are the rule of thirds and the phi grid. They differ slightly, but are both similar in application.

Both grids consist of four intersecting lines that create 9 rectangular spaces of equal size. The theory behind these tools is that it’s best to position your subject(s) within these 9 spaces to achieve great aesthetic results.

Most modern cameras have overlay settings that can digitally place a rule of thirds grid over your viewfinder. Experiment with using this feature while setting up your shot. Try to position your subject(s) in the areas of the grid that will draw the most attention.

This rule of thirds extension is a great way for beginners to visualize its effects on images. We also go into the phi grid, the rule of thirds and their applications in far more detail here.

Quick Steps to Taking a Photo

The vast depth of digital photography means that your approach should change quite dramatically from environment to environment. The list below is designed to be a general introduction to taking a photo effectively.

Choose Your Subject

Take stock of your scene and identify one or two elements that you would like to highlight. These are what you should focus on moving forward.

Decide How to Frame and Light Your Subject

Now it’s time to pay attention to the subject you’ve chosen. Use your knowledge of the rule of thirds to make decisions on how you’d like to frame it. At this point, you should also decide how to light your scene.

Which particular elements of your subject do you want to celebrate in your image? Use these elements to determine where to position your key light and other lights.

Experiment With Your Settings and Shoot

Play around with the settings on your camera and take a few test shots. Take a look and see if there’s anything you’d like to change at this stage. Once you’re happy, it’s time to get shooting!

Photography Challenges for Beginners

understanding-modes

As we mentioned earlier in this guide, practice really is everything when it comes to photography. The suggestions below are designed to challenge beginners to expand their knowledge and experience.

Portraits

portraits

Get some loved ones together and practice taking pictures of them. The human face is a fantastically varied subject that will force you to adapt quickly to the features of each model. Different people will require vastly different lighting setups and camera settings.

Things like skin tone, bone structure, hair and myriad other factors will keep you on your toes.

Macro Subjects

The world of macro photography is really quite something. Working with tiny subjects can feel like something of a gear change, which is great for your photography practice. You’ll want to use a dedicated macro lens, or at least an extension tube, when shooting.

Backlighting

backlightingTaking photos of subjects that are lit from behind will force you to get familiar with changing the exposure of your image. Your first few shots won’t come out as planned, but that’s why you’re practicing!

Bokeh Experiments

bokeh-experiment

Bokeh describes the aesthetically-pleasing effect in images where the background is soft and out of focus. Aiming for this effect when shooting means increasing your grasp of things like depth of field, focus and aperture.

The Perfect Beginner’s Kit

In an ideal world, we’d all have the money to splash out on a $4000 camera kit when starting out. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that kind of money and need to think practically. Everyone’s ideal kit will vary quite significantly. We outline some key elements to consider below.

Start With “Jack of All Trades” Then Expand

Even a state-of-the-art fisheye lens will prove useless in certain contexts.

When you’re first learning how to take good photographs, it’s best to use gear that can adapt and hold its own in a variety of different circumstances. Start with a decent kit lens and a reasonably powerful camera with an interchangeable lens system.

This way, you’ll learn so much more about capturing great images and will have a much better chance of knowing which specialist lenses might actually be useful later on. Once you have a clearer picture of the more niche pockets of photography you enjoy, it’s time to buy a secondary lens.

Versatility is Key

If you want to make photography your hobby, it’s probably best to consider either a DSLR or mirrorless camera with an interchangeable lens system. This way, your setup will come with built-in versatility and expandability.

You’ll be able to adapt and grow your kit over the years. Buying a decent point-and-shoot is great in the short term, but these cameras can show their age quite quickly.

Spend Within Your Means

Be clear with yourself about how much money you can afford to dedicate to your new hobby. For a good entry-level camera, $300-$600 should be enough. Remember that lighting and knowhow are a huge part of what takes a great photograph.

Final Thoughts

The two words you should keep with you when learning are: patience and practice. Make them a part of your daily photography routine and you’ll be a pro in no time!

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