Free Beginner's Digital Photography Guide

(562) The Balmoral Hotel, Princes Street to Firth of Forth, Edinburgh, Scotland.jpg

FREE Beginner’s Digital Photography Guide

by David Wheater

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In this short guide I’ve tried to include my top tips for taking creative control of your camera and taking great shots. Please don’t be overwhelmed by all this information. Just take it one step at a time and practice as much as you can. It will all become second nature quicker than you think. If there’s anything you don’t understand please don’t hesitate to call me on 07400 705 357, or email me at david@davidwheater.com. I’m always happy to give quick tips or arrange further tuition.

Photography is a wonderful hobby and gives you a great excuse to explore the world around you. The excitement of taking a great photo and the joy of looking at it really can last a life time.

1 - COMPOSITION

Here’s a few brief tips on composing great shots and injecting a little emotion into them.

MOOD

Think about the overall mood of your photos. Try to always give your work a deliberate, consistent mood.

THINK FIRST – SHOOT SECOND

A good picture is made not taken. The difference between a good photographer and a bad one is the amount of thought they put into a picture – before picking up their camera. Stand and study your subject in detail. Walk around it 360 degrees and always consider the angles and the quality of light falling on it - is the light soft or hard, diffused or harsh? Always ask yourself what is beautiful or interesting around you and how you can capture the essence or soul of your subjects - whether an object, person or animal.

TELL A STORY

After studying your subject carefully, do not take a photo unless it has meaning to you. Always think about what you’d say about the picture if you were describing it to a stranger. Will you be able to tell a good story about your picture? Is there emotion behind your picture?

STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR CAMERA

The camera you have will never be more important than what you aim it at. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that an expensive camera will instantaneously improve your pictures. Entry level DSLRs are now so good that your choice of camera isn’t as important as it once was. How you compose your subjects is far more important than your technical ability.

CHECKLIST FOR COMPOSING A SHOT

1. What is this picture for?
2. What’s interesting or beautiful about this scene?
3. What is it about this scene that I really want to capture?
4. Does it tell a story?
5. Is there anything I should hide?
6. Is this the background I want?
7. Will I have room to crop this?
8. Should I shoot closer or further away?
9. What angle should I shoot at – up high or down low?
10. Should I zoom in or out?

CHECKLIST FOR CAMERA SETTINGS BEFORE SHOOTING

1. Am I in the right mode?

2. Is my shutter speed going to be high enough to avoid shaky images/freeze the action?(the faster the action the faster your shutter speed – e.g. birds 1/1000th)

Rule of Thumb - To keep your shots sharp, try not to go lower than 1/60 s if you’re taking shots handheld!

3. Aperture - should the background be clear or blurred? (e.g. f2 blur – f11 in focus)

4. Can I keep the ISO as low as possible to reduce noise?

5. Is the colour temperature set correctly - or just keep it in auto?

CLASSIC RULES OF COMPOSITION

Composition is the pleasing placement of subjects and the background in a photo.

1. Rule of Thirds
Instead of centring your subject – place your subject one-third of the way through the frame. This makes your image more pleasing by creating “negative space” around your subject. Keep your camera’s rule of thirds gridlines switched on and even consider placing subjects at 4/5ths or 9/10ths of the frame if you think this will make it more interesting.

2. Rule of Space
If your subjects are moving in a certain direction (e.g. car, runner, animal etc) leave plenty of room in front of your subject to avoid the image feeling crowded.

3. Have a Focal Point
Often your focal point will be obvious e.g. a person, building or object, but if you’re taking a landscape you really need something in the picture to avoid all of it being regarded by the viewer as just background and a little boring. Look for buildings, trees or other notable features to include and even another person if you’re struggling.

4. Keep Backgrounds Simple
A busy, noisy and complex background can be very distracting. Move around your subject to find a non-distracting background – something plain and simple that keeps your subject the focus of the picture. If you’re struggling, consider cropping in tight or shooting up to the sky or down to the ground.

5. Less is More
Many beginners think they have to include all of their subjects, but you don’t have to include all of your subjects! Consider cropping in tight to your subjects and let the viewers brains fill in the rest e.g. crop tight into someone’s facial expression or take just part of a flower. These shots will nearly always be far more interesting and striking. A mixture of wide angle and close ups, when viewed altogether, gives people a better understanding of subject and place.

6. Concentrate on the Detail
Don’t be afraid to zoom in tight on detail. Most beginners try to get everything into their shot – but the truth is that picking out interesting details nearly always make more interesting and pleasing photos. Start with the whole of your subjects in context with their surroundings and then start picking off detail. This way you’ll be able to paint a much fuller story of your subjects.

7. Zoom in On People
When taking portraits of people, take a few steps back with a telephoto lens (200mm) and you’ll see less of the background, which will be closer, while keeping the model taking up the same space in the frame.

8. Avoiding Uninteresting Backgrounds When Taking Shots of People

  • Find an interesting background by moving around your subjects 360 degrees.

  • Go low (blue sky) or go high (grass or ground) if you’re struggling.

  • Move back and zoom in with a telephoto (200mm). The person will fill the same space in the frame, but the background will be closer, smaller & blurred making the person pop-out.

  • Change the aperture to blur the background with a small f-stop e.g. f2 to f4.

  • Use high-powered flash on your model which will automatically darken the background and disguise it.

9. Show Scale in Photos
If the size of subjects is important, always include something of a known size to give viewers a sense of scale. This could apply to small subjects such as babies, puppies or large subjects like mountains and waterfalls. In landscapes this could be as simple as including a person in your image.

10. Leading Lines
Leading lines draw viewers eyes through the picture to a focal point – often where the lines converge. This helps create depth and perspective which is pleasing to the eye.

2 - THE EXPOSURE TRIANGLE

ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture – the three pillars of photography.

A thorough understanding of these three essential elements of photography is key to taking great pictures. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with relying on the automatic modes of your camera, these modes aren’t foolproof and don’t allow you to take full creative control of your camera and overcome exposure problems.

There are two fundamental ways to control how much light reaches the sensor of your camera - the aperture in your lens (like the iris of your eye) and the shutter in your camera (like your eye-lid or curtains shutting).

ISO

This is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to the available light.

ISO stands for International Standards Organisation. It is the standard industry scale for measuring sensitivity to light.

A lower number such as ISO 100 represents lower sensitivity, while a higher such as ISO 1600 means higher sensitivity. If you change your ISO from 200 to 400, you’re making your sensor twice as sensitive to light. The important thing to remember here is that the higher the sensitivity the higher the noise and grain of your images - and the lower the quality of your images. Keeping your ISO to the lowest possible number e.g. 100 is therefore desirable in most cases.

As you increase your ISO (sensitivity) you need less time to properly expose your image and can therefore use faster shutter speeds. For example, increasing ISO from 200 to 800 will allow you to shoot at faster shutter speeds, which is especially useful in low-light photography to keep your photos sharp and un-blurred.

So, to reiterate, the ISO setting allows you to control the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light.

REMEMBER:-

Lower ISO settings (e.g. 100, 200, 400) = make your sensor LESS sensitive to light. Lower settings can be used for bright conditions or when you’re using a tripod to support your camera.

Higher ISO settings (e.g. 3200, 6400) = make your sensor MORE sensitive to light. Higher ISO settings also make your shutter speed faster – which is useful if you want to freeze movement and avoid blurry images. This is particularly useful if you’re shooting handheld, in low-light, without a tripod.

Higher settings are generally used when you’re hand holding your camera in low light and require a fast enough shutter speed to achieve a sharp picture.

Remember that ISO and your shutter speed are directly linked. Every time you increase or decrease your ISO by 1 stop (doubling or halving) e.g. 100 to 200 your shutter speed will also increase or decrease by 1 stop e.g. 1/60th second to 1/120th second.

The downside of higher ISOs – Noise & Grain
Remember that as you increase your ISO you generally diminish the quality of your images by introducing noise. Noise comes in two forms: Grain and Colour. There comes a point when your images will be too blotchy and grainy to make them useable. Therefore, try to always aim as close as you can to ISO 100 to get the best possible quality – although remember that it’s always better to get a sharp image with a bit of noise than no image at all!

The benefit of Auto ISO
This setting lets your camera automatically choose the lowest possible ISO it can. The great advantage of this is that your camera will ensure fast enough shutter speeds to avoid blurry images and camera shake problems. This can be very useful in low light.

ISO and Low Light Conditions
If you have to shoot handheld on a dark, dull day or in very low light, you may have no choice but to shoot at higher ISO settings and introduce noise to your images. This is something you may just have to acccept – or use a tripod.

SHUTTER SPEED

The shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open for to allow light into the camera sensor. You can think of the shutter as curtains which open or close, or as an eyelid which blinks.

The difference between adjacent shutter speeds is known as a ‘Stop’. Each stop represents a halving or doubling of the light reaching the sensor. As the shutter speed is made faster, the shutter is open for less time and vice versa.

A slow shutter speed allows more light into the sensor (typically used in low-light), while a faster one allows less, helping to freeze any action e.g. flying birds, racing cars or athletes. You might use a slow shutter speed at night e.g. 1-30 seconds to allow more light in and capture your subjects and a fast shutter speed during the day for sports or fast moving animals e.g. 1/1000 or 1/2000 of a second to freeze the action.

APERTURE

The aperture is the hole within your lens through which light travels to the sensor in your camera. You can control this hole to make it larger or smaller and therefore control the amount of light reaching the sensor. The larger the hole (aperture), the more light that passes through.

Aperture operates a bit like the iris of your eye. The larger the hole (aperture), the more light that passes through.

Aperture can be adjusted in a set series of sizes known as ‘f-stops’ (expressed in ‘f’ numbers and known as the ‘focal ratio’). A typical lens will have a range of f-stops ranging from f2.8 to f16 and beyond. Each f-stop in the range represents a halving or doubling of the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor compared to the nearest value. For example, the camera sensor receives half the light at f5.6 as it does at f4.

As well as regulating the amount of light into your camera, aperture also controls your depth of field (the amount of the scene that appears sharp in your picture from front to back).

REMEMBER:-

Smaller apertures like f11 or f16 mean less light to the sensor - but a larger depth of field meaning more of the scene is in focus.

Larger apertures like f2 or f4 means more light to the sensor, but a smaller depth of field and blurred backgrounds.

BALANCING THE THREE FOR A GOOD EXPOSURE

Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are all linked. Adjust one and at least one of the other two must also be changed to maintain the same level of exposure. To properly expose an image, you need to balance the shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

To illustrate this, lets take the example of shooting in broad daylight, when lots of light is entering the lens, with the ISO set to a sensitivity of 100:

1. SMALL APERTURE (HOLE) E.G. F11-22 = LOTS OF LIGHT GETS BLOCKED = SENSOR NEEDS MORE TIME TO COLLECT LIGHT = SHUTTER NEEDS TO STAY OPEN LONGER

So, given a constant ISO OF 100, choosing a smaller aperture (hole) means a longer shutter speed for the sensor to have enough time to gather enough light to make a good exposure.

2. LARGE APERTURE (HOLE) E.G. F2 or F4 = MORE LIGHT ENTERS = SENSOR NEEDS LESS TIME TO COLLECT SAME LIGHT = SHUTTER DOESN’T NEED TO STAY OPEN AS LONG

So, a larger aperture means a shorter shutter speed for the sensor to gather enough light to make a good exposure.

3 - CAMERA MODES

Nearly all DSLRs will have a multitude of camera modes. The most common and useful for taking control of your camera are the following:-

APERTURE PRIORITY (A)

In this mode you set your own lens aperture and the camera automatically selects the correct shutter speed to ensure a good exposure. The great thing about controlling your aperture is the ability to control the depth of field (i.e. background blur/or clarity).

A small aperture (i.e. small hole in the lens), such as f16, offers greater depth of field and a sharp background, while a big aperture (big hole in the lens) e.g. f2 offers a shallower depth of field and a more blurred background.

Large depth of field means everything is sharp, from nearby subjects to the far distance. Shallow depth of field means only subjects close to your camera are sharp, while more distant objects are out of focus (blurred).

A shallow depth of field is often used in portraits to give a pleasingly blurred background often referred to as ‘bokeh’. This is why fast lenses (letting more light in) like f1.4s and f2.0’s are so sought after.

SHUTTER PRIORITY (S or Tv)

In shutter priority mode you choose the shutter speed and the camera automatically chooses the lens aperture to give the correct exposure. This mode is useful to freeze fast moving action and control the amount of movement blur in shots.

MANUAL MODE

In manual mode you control both the shutter speed and the aperture, allowing you more control with exposure, especially in difficult lighting conditions. To balance the exposure you need to keep a close eye on your camera’s in built Exposure Meter. Generally, when the exposure needle is in the centre of your exposure scale you will obtain a good exposure - although it’s not foolproof all the time.

4 -METERING & METERING MODES

Every DSLR now has a built in light meter - a sensor that measures the amount and intensity of light - that automatically measures the reflected light and adjusts the shutter speed and aperture for the best exposure.

DSLRs commonly have a number of “Metering Modes” that can be chosen in different situations - particularly when subjects aren’t evenly lit and there are objects with different light levels and intensities. You can choose different metering modes from your camera’s menu. The most common are:

1. EVALUATIVE METERING (Matrix Metering in Nikon)

2. CENTER-WEIGHTED METERING

3. SPOT METERING

You can see your camera’s meter in action when you look through the viewfinder in MANUAL MODE. The meter is represented by the bars going left (-2) and right (+2) from a zero located in the centre of the viewfinder.

When you point your camera at a very bright light source you will see the flashing indicator on your meter go to the “plus +” side of the meter and, vice versa, to the “minus -“ side when you point it at very dark subjects. This is your camera metering and measuring the light through your lens.

To achieve the optimal exposure you need to bring the flashing indicator to zero by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed. Adjusting the shutter speed is usually done by turning a wheel located on the top of your camera (top right on Canon’s).

Once you’ve balanced the ‘exposure triangle’ to zero by getting the needle in the middle of your exposure meter indicator, you should be able to achieve a reasonable exposure - although it’s important to remember that meters in default mode (i.e. Evaluative Metering) can be fooled when there are objects in your scene which have different light levels and intensities - e.g. a bright sky and mountains in dark shadow. This is when choosing a different metering mode may achieve a better result.

EVALUATIVE METERING - good for general shooting

Evaluative Metering (known as Matrix Metering in Nikons) is the default metering mode in most DSLR’s. This mode divides the entire image frame into different zones which are then individually analysed for light and dark tones. The camera then tries to balance all this information to achieve the best possible exposure.

It’s important to note that your camera in Evaluative metering will place more significance on where you’ve set the focus point. Cameras use lots of factors to determine the best exposure which are complex and it’s not really necessary to delve into in any detail.

Evaluative Metering does a very good job for most photography and will probably be your default metering around 90% of the time.

2. CENTER - WEIGHTED METERING - good for portraits of people & central subjects

Center-weighted metering analyses the light in the middle (i.e. centre) of your frame (around 60%-80%) and places less emphasis on the edges and corners of your frame. It also ignores the focus point you select.

This mode can be very useful when shooting an object or person with the sun behind them - or very large subjects which take up the middle of your frame.

3. SPOT METERING

As its name would suggest, spot metering only analyses the light directly around your focus point (around 1%-5% of your scene) and ignores everything else. This can be useful when you want to get an accurate exposure on a specific object - like a bird, regardless of whether the background is dark or light - or - a person with the sun behind them.

Spot metering is therefore ideal for properly exposing any specific objects, people which are backlit or contrasting scenes of light and shade.

5 - LOCKING FOCUS & RECOMPOSING

Relying on your camera to auto-focus, or actively selecting a focus point manually, can either lead to the wrong part of the scene being in focus, or missing the shot completely because it’s taken too long to move your focus point.

The answer to quicker, more spontaneous shooting is to use just one AF point in the centre of your frame and “lock” the focus before quickly reframing your scene and taking your shot (note that this will also lock in the exposure read from that point too - see below if the reframed part of the scene is lighter or darker and how to separate the metering from the focus point).

To do this you’ll need to make sure:

  • your lens is set to ‘AF’ - auto focus

  • you select your auto-focusing mode to be “Single-shot” (rather than Continuous Autofocus).

  • You select the central autofocus point by manually selecting it using the dedicated button (check your manual).

  • Aim the central autofocus point at the subjects you want to be in focus and half-press the shutter-release button to lock on the focus.

  • Keeping the shutter-release button half depressed, recompose your frame until you’re happy with the composition (the camera will maintain focus on the point you chose while you reframe your shot). Then simply press the shutter-release button to take the shot.

  • Check you’re happy that the area you want to be sharp is in focus.


Automatic Focus Lock - when the reframed part of your scene is lighter/darker

When you use the above technique, half depressing the shutter-release button will take a light-reading from that particular point and lock in the exposure for that single point.

If you want your camera to read the exposure in the part of the scene you’re reframing too, then you’ll need to use your camera’s “Automatic Focus button (AF-L)” which can be found on the back of most modern digital camera’s these days. Using the AF-L button simply means that you can lock focus and recompose and your exposure will change if necessary.

6 - OVERCOMING COMMON EXPOSURE PROBLEMS

One of the fundamental skills of photography is getting the exposure right.

Getting a good exposure is all about controlling the amount of light which reaches your camera’s sensor. A good exposure will have lots of details in both the highlights and the shadows of a scene.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to underexpose your image to avoid completely white areas in your image known as ‘blown-out highlights’. While it’s not ideal to lose detail in the darker parts of your image, it’s not as detrimental to an image as large areas of pure white – particularly in a sky.

When bright white areas in your shots (the highlights) become ‘blown out’, this means the pixels in your sensor are actually completely white and you have no detail in the scene (just like a completely blank piece of paper with nothing on it). A similar loss of detail can happen to your shadows resulting in areas of your scene which are completely 100% black. Most cameras theses days have a setting which can warn you when your details are ‘blown’ which is very useful to switch on.

Using Your Camera’s Metering Modes for Good Exposures

As mentioned earlier, most cameras these days have three or four different metering modes to measure the light in different areas of your scene. Different manufacturers have different names for these modes, but they all do pretty much the same thing. It’s worth studying these modes a little further to ensure you understand them and how they can help you achieve better exposures.

1. All Purpose Metering (Canon Evaluative / Nikon Matrix)
This is the default metering mode for most cameras and the one you will use most often – probably even 90% of the time. This general metering modes is suitable for general everyday scenes that don’t have areas of high contrast or challenging lighting conditions.

2. Centre-Weighted Metering
This mode gives precedence to the centre of your scene. If your subjects are in the middle of your frame then this will help to ensure that your subjects (and the most important part of your image) are correctly exposed.

3. Partial Metering
This mode meters a much smaller part of your scene which is ideal in difficult lighting when you have very bright and very dark areas in your frame. A good example of this would be shooting a portrait with bright light back-lighting the person.

4. Spot Metering
Like partial metering, this mode is ideal when you want to expose correctly for very small areas of your scene. It measures the light over an even smaller part of your scene and is often used in situations where the subjects cover a very small part of your frame e.g. wildlife or someone’s face.

BLURRY EXPOSURES

Remember that if you’re shooting at low shutter speeds it’s best to use a tripod for tack-sharp pictures. Although many cameras and lenses come with several stops of image stabilisation – if you don’t have good technique and steady hands you won’t achieve sharp images.

BACKLIT SUBJECTS - HIGH CONTRAST SCENES

When shooting subjects which are backlit by the sun or artificial light, you may find that your camera underexposes your subject and overexposes the background. This is because your camera takes a meter reading of the whole of the scene and produces an incorrect “average reading”. The result being that neither your subjects – nor the background - are correctly exposed.

The answer? Use your cameras ‘centre-weighted’ or ‘spot-metering’ metering modes. This allows you to meter off your subjects and achieve a better balanced exposure.

BALANCING FOREGROUND WITH A BRIGHT SKY

It’s common when shooting landscapes to have a bright sky and darker foreground subjects. Trying to balance an exposure between these contrasting areas of the scene can be tricky. To keep the details in these areas and balance the exposure you can use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter which will reduce the amount of light hitting your sensor from the sky. Simply attach one to the lens of your camera and place the darkened part of the filter over the sky to achieve a better balanced exposure. Some cameras even have a built in ND Filter which can be fairly effective.

LOTS OF BRIGHT AREAS IN A SCENE

This will often fool your camera’s metering system. Try using Exposure Compensation and check your histogram which should be balanced somewhere in the middle.

Histograms, however, should not be the be-all and end-all in exposure. It’s simply a good indication of whether your scene is likely to be too dark to too light.

BRACKETING TECHNIQUE FOR DIFFICULT LIGHT

This technique involves taking three different shots and combining them in software. One will be a standard shot, one will be deliberately underexposed and one overexposed.

Using software, these three shots are blended together to achieve an average of the three exposures and ensure that you have lots of details in the highlights and shadows of the scene.

UNDERSTANDING HISTOGRAMS ON YOUR CAMERA

A histogram is available on most modern digital cameras. It is simply a graph displaying all the ‘exposed pixels’ in an image.

The bottom axis shows the ‘brightness levels’ of your image. If the pixels are all bunched up to the left your image is probably underexposed (too dark) and if they’re all bunched up to the right it’s probably overexposed (too bright). You generally want to aim for a grouping of pixels around the middle of the graph to ensure a good exposure, but different subjects and lighting can require more subtlety and sometimes a touch of underexposure is required to maintain your highlights, especially if you don’t have a filter for contrasty scenes.

Please remember, however, that your metering isn’t always correct and you may deliberately wish to underexpose or overexpose an image for artistic effect or to achieve the vision you have for the final picture.


NEED MORE HELP?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief beginner’s guide to digital photography and have found these quick notes useful. If you have any questions, or you’d like to book further tuition with me personally, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

You may call me directly on 07400 705 357, email me at david@davidwheater.com, or through my website at www.davidwheater.com.

UPDATED: Edinburgh, December, 2018