Photography 101

During the course of obliviously touring Paris, I took about five hundred pictures with my digital camera. For more experienced photographers, especially those shooting digital, that’s not a particularly remarkable number, but for me that amounts to the most shots I’ve ever taken on a single vacation. This is basically a reflection of a new and increasingly serious interest in my camera and how I can get the best shots I possibly can from it.

Never having had formal training in photography, I dabbled for a long time with point-and-shoot digital cameras. As anyone who’s used one can attest, they allow for instant gratification with little or no requirement for actually understanding the inner workings of photography. In that respect, they’re fantastic introductions to the craft.

But in the four or five years I was shooting with these models, I never really got it straight in my head what an f/stop is, for instance, or how to properly meter a shot — I was too easily insulated from the inner logic of picture taking. As a result I continually ran into frustrations in getting the kinds of shots I really wanted. I knew that I’d actually have to learn this craft, but it seemed silly to try and learn it with cameras so clearly designed not to teach it.

The Learning Curve

So I bit the bullet, bought a Nikon D70 and, in fits and starts for the past year, have been slowly, painfully trying to put together an understanding of the basics of taking pictures. It’s not particularly easy, and it always amazes me when I think, first, of how many people have undertaken this highly technical art form and mastered it, and second, of how many of those people who did it using traditional film cameras. I can’t imagine trying to learn the basics much less the artistry without the immediacy and virtually non-existent per-shot cost of digital photography. If you count yourself as one of those who learned the hard way, then respect.

For me, I’ve hobbled together a basic understanding from photography books, third party manuals for my camera and more experienced friends. It’s been hard, and I’ve often thought to myself, “You should really take a class in this.”

Focus On…

But I’ve never found a class — or a book — that focuses exclusively on what I want to learn. There’s almost always too much emphasis on how to manipulate photographs once they’re taken; how to get them from the camera to the computer, tricks for retouching unsightly details, techniques for vivid color printing, etc. All of which is nice, but of little interest to me; it’s no accident that I’m coming to photography at this stage in my life, because it’s one digital activity that will get me out from in front of my computer and engaged with the real world.

What I want most out of photography instruction is very concrete, very practical lessons on how to take pictures: tutorials on optimal equipment usage, hints for intuiting proper settings, frank advice on what mathematics I simply can’t get away with not knowing, inside tips on how to get the shot. There’s nothing wrong with making the most of an image with Photoshop, but I want to generate the best pictures I possibly can within the camera itself. If you know how I can get this done, please let me know.

  1. I once asked a photographer friend of mine what the most important key is to getting a good photo and his reply still makes perfect sense: “Keep hitting the shutter button.”

    The more pictures you take, the better your chances of getting a great shot. That’s what, to me, makes digital cameras so amazing: you can litterally take hundreds of shots of the same subject, and with each click, your chances improve of having a keeper.

  2. Try the “Learn” section on, it is quite well written. John Hedgecoe’s books on technique are also pretty good, with excellent production values to boot. I can never understand how people can write horribly designed photography books and expect to be taken seriously as visual artists…

    Digital Photo Pro magazine also has decent tutorials on advanced equipment usage, but less so on basic composition technique.

  3. For me the fundamental shift was when I finally understood aperture, suddenly everything clicked (no pun intended)…

    Check out Bryan Peterson’s books “Understanding Exposure” and “Learning to See Creatively”

  4. As I read this, I convinced it’s a regurgitation of my own thoughts and current experiences. I’m going through the exact same thing at the moment… trying to muddle my way through the digital SLR learning experience. I’ll second the request for any additional info for getting the most of out the camera

  5. Ditto the comment above about “keep hitting the shutter button”. You can read until the cows come home but it’s more productive (and fun) to learn by actually using your camera. I’ve barely done any reading about photography – enough to know what aperture, shutter speed and other settings mean – but learned a lot more just by practising.

    I supposed my best advice would be to look at as much of other people’s work as you can: it’ll give you lots of ideas that you can try to apply when taking your own shots.

  6. I don’t know how much time you have, but check your local college for a real photography course – when I went into college I needed four subjects, and took photography as one that I could do purely for fun.

    Doing a course that focuses on print photography, with film, gets you into the mindset of thinking through the entire process. Digital cameras are a powerful tool, but like any tool you have to know the basics before you’ll be really effective with the more advanced models.

  7. Basic photography” by Micheal Langford, and then “Advanced Photography” by the same if you need more.

    I’m currently making my way through the first and it’s excellent: gives you advice on old school film techniques, and digital photography as well as groudning you well int he physics of light and the workings of the machinary…

  8. sixtoe is absolutely right, just keep taking lots of photos. How did you learn how to do anything in Photoshop? You probably stopped using the auto controls and tried to do stuff for yourself. It should hopefully go without saying that you are using the camera on Manual mode. If not, that is probably the best thing you can do; stop letting the camera do everything for you, force yourself to learn.

    I took a photography class in school which helped with a lot of the technical stuff. I am sure if you are looking for a class you can find one in NY. Even a cheaper night class or something. As for the D70, after doing some research, I grabbed Thom Hogan’s guide. It’s fantastic.

  9. I beleive it was in Thom Hogan’s guide that I read that the “A” (Aperture) setting on the D70s wheel is preferred by many photogrophers over the straight “M” (Manual) setting. This is because the A setting allows you to adjust to your prefered aperature and the camera will automatically set the optimal shutter speed. I’ve tried this on my D70 and have been generally pleased with the results.

    I also made the mistake early-on of taking every shot with the flash on (every other camera I’ve ever owned has been a point-and-shoot). All my shots looked like they were taken under flourescent lighting. Another photographer friend of mine told me to turn it off and leave it alone. I found by just opening up the aperature I could get much warmer, richer photos. Now I only use the flash to take out some of the shadows in portraits taken outside. (Is that’s what’s known as “fill flash”? I don’t know.)

    Newbie advice, I know, but I’m the same place you are with this camera.

  10. I remember trying to track down an old exam paper I had on photography. It was a comprehension piece in “General Studies” (a compulsory course), but it basically described the functions and mathematical principles of an SLR camera. I’m still trying to track it down as it taught me how to work out what aperture I should use for a particular f-stop, and all that. Trouble is, it was a long time ago.

    So, if anyone knows where to get the 1993 General Studies A Level comprehension paper for Lancashire LEA, then I’d love to know…

  11. Khoi

    I predict you would thoroughly enjoy a photography course a la old school – actual film developing and dark room printing. This is how I learned and there’s something very romantic and Zen (for lack of a better term) about the way things used to be done. It will make you appreciate a very non-computer way of producing an image.

    I think Cooper Union has non-student courses for the public at large taught by some top-notch folks for little $$$. Think of it as a 2 hour retreat from your Ibook.

  12. Nam: iBook? I’ve got a PowerBook!

    But I get your meaning. When I tried darkroom work in high school, I didn’t really enjoy it a lot. Similarly, I never really enjoyed the mechanical/paste-up part of old school graphic design. Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t enjoy it today. I’m probably more open to it now then ever before. Still, I’m not sure I want to start paying for a lot of photo paper, chemicals, darkroom time etc.

    Sixtoe: Thanks for the news on the battery recall; I’ll have to check mine as soon as I get home. And regarding Aperture Priority mode: I definitely have come to like this feature a lot. It’s certainly helped me learn a lot more about how aperture controls affect a picture.

  13. get books about film cameras. most of the same information applies, (excluding developing, and grey balance turns into white balance, etc.) but the basic principles will be much better laid out for you.

    Learning about Film and Light and optics and everything OTHER than the computer garbage going on will give you a much more solid concept than trying to “Learn a DSLR!” 🙂

  14. One thing that I always found a bit trying when I used a D70 is that Nikon takes the approach of giving you the most neutral reading of a scene possible, with the assumption that you’re going to want to manipulate it in Photoshop. In my opinion, almost any image coming out of a D70 is going to need some manipulation, in the form of increased contrast/curves/shadow & highlight, etc.

    When my D70 got stolen awhile back, I decided to get a Canon 20D, and I’ve found that the images coming out of it need far less manipulation that the Nikon ones. This is because Canon takes the approach of going for contrast and saturation at the expense of a few blown highlights here and there.

    You should, however, be able to adjust the contrast and other settings on your D70 so that the images coming out of the camera are more saturated and less “blah.”

    All of that said, I think you may be too quick to dismiss Photoshop. It’s a large part of what makes digital photography so superior to traditional film photography.

  15. If you’re into shooting “landscapes”, there’s no shortage of coffee table book with photos of NYC. Find one that you like. Then go through and try and shoot the same photos. When you do, think critically about why your photos look different those that you’re trying to replicate. You’ll learn very quickly this way.

  16. How to take better pictures with your digital camera:

    1. Get closer. No, closer. Even closer than that.

    2. If you can’t get closer, get a zoom lens.

    3. Even though it’s what you’re looking at, don’t put things in the exact center of your picture, especially heads.

    4. Turn off the flash unless the subject is extremely backlit.

    5. Consider investing in a diffuser for your flash if you really want to use it. Helps counter that “deer in headlights” look.

    6. Set your camera to f5.6 aperture priority and leave it there.

    7. Set your camera to “motor drive” and hold down the shutter button a little extra – sometimes the shot you want is the one right after the shot you got.

    8. Start paying attention to light, especially directional light in morning and evening. Strong contrast from midday light is the photographer’s enemy. Basic photography skill really is just learning to see and recognize good light.

    9. Shoot RAW. Photoshop can save just about anything.

    10. Take a lot of pictures of the same thing – try different angles, different lighting, different distances – and study them. What worked? What didn’t? Do it again with something else. Then do it every day for a long time.

    There’s more to it than that, but those are the 10 most important things I learned by pursuing a very expensive photography degree and wasting a lot of film.

  17. I try to pay attention to clean backgrounds. When you’re taking the shot, it’s easy to concentrate only on the subject. But when you get back home, it’s the bad backgrounds that ruin things. Of course, the “take a lotta shots” theory comes in here, because the annoying things in backgrounds change in every shot.

  18. The summer course I took at my uni was quite an excellent experience. We only did black & white (since it’s an introductory course), but some of my shots ended up being beautiful. Things were very confusing when I first started, but I quickly figured out the details. Perhaps it helped that we developed our own film and made our own prints.

  19. Funny!
    I recently bought an analogue, manual, Pentax k1000. I totally understand the pro’s of digital, unlimited photos and instant gratification etc. I do however, love the simplicity of my new toy.

    One of the nice things about using film and having a limited number of shots is taking the time to get everything right and framing the shot (although, sometimes missing the moment). I know you can do this with digitals but the temptation to just fire away is often overwhelming.

    I agree with Nam, you should sign up for a traditional course, darkroom techniques are good learning and as Nam said, there is a kind of zen about it. Think I’m going to do just that

    Also thanks to Fazal for the link. Nice resource.

  20. I’m in Peter’s camp. I’ve owned a Pentax P3 for almost ten years, and though I’ve never really put it through its paces, I’ve learned a little bit about photography using fully manual controls. I recently decided not to be afraid of focusing manually on dynamic elements and tried to learn to do so, with limited but positive results.

    The one thing I think I’ve found most befuddling is film choice. I remember, back when I was high with the photographic opportunity afforded by my “new” camera, reading a lot about how Fuji film is creates more saturated photos than does Kodak, but I haven’t really studied it as much as I’d like. It’s akin to Buzz’s commentary on the default settings of two different cameras and the resultant images.

  21. If you want hands-on instruction, try a community college. I’m not sure about New York, but here in T.O. one of the colleges offers night school, and the image lab across the street form me does as well.

    1) I agree totally with the “Accuracy through Volume” approach. It works for photography as well as it does for paintball 😉

    When I go to hand in the odd roll I always see professional photographers gettign back whole rolls of what I would call one shot.

    2) Photoshop is your friend, and I know you know how to use it 😉

    Maybe check for some more specific photo-editing techniques if you don’t normally do that, but there is nothing wrong with a lot of post production work. Most great photos didn’t come out of the camera that way – even which (film) processing you choose is a creative decision.

    3) Shoot in either P or A, and don’t be afraid to experiment.

    Take the same picture with the camera stopped-down and wide open and have a look, play with focal lengths. Have fun.

    4) LAB is your friend.

    I like LAB, it seperates out the colour and the details (LAB is like the photo equivalent of XML-CSS). You can change the colour without effecting the detail, and sharpen the image without effecting the colour.

    I picked up the D70s this summer and it totally re-invigorated my shooting. P&S cameras really disconnect you from your subject in a way that became increasingly irritating. So where’s your flickr handle? 😉

  22. I’ve got nothing against post-processing. I definitely recognize it as a legitimate advantage of digital photography, and also that a lot of the brilliant digital photos I see are products of skilled Photoshop work. But for me, personally, I just happen not to be all that interested in post-processing, probably because it’s too time consuming, and I’d rather be out shooting. It’s the skill of taking shots that I most want to concentrate on.

  23. Here’s a great seris of articles on street photography, that focuses mostly on the act of taking pictures, and not so much on the technical stuff:

    I also got a lot out of The Time Life library of Photography, in particular “The Camera” and “Light and Film”. Lot’s of good basic information. You can find them used on Amazon, or keep an eye out at your local used bookstore.

  24. Khoi,

    Post-processing one’s own shots is essential in learning how to *shoot* properly, either digitally or with film. When a photographer reviews a recent session, they can see what they did wrong, what they did right, and what new things they should try next time. Digital gives you the advantage of being able to see your camera’s settings after the shot, a great way to learn about aperture and shutter settings.

  25. I learned photography on an old-school Pentax Spotmatic 1000 Camera, the only thing the batteries in it did was control the light meter. It was a great way to learn, since you couldn’t escape learning f.stop, shutter speed, field of view etc unless you didn’t want to take any pictures.
    If the literature you’re finding spends too much time talking about photoshopping, I suggest you find books aimed not at digital photography, but photography in general. There’s enough literature out there about proper camera usage, shot framing, etc that came about before the digital age, I think few people would have tried to re-write it. The basic camera functionality between film and digital hasn’t changed a whole lot, most of what has changed is in what you do after you take the photo.

  26. I once attended a presentation on flash photography by a pair of wedding photography pros. Using flash well is actually one of the hardest techniques, a wedding album can’t have the deer-in-headlights look yet sophisticated multi-flash setups are required in that line of work.

    The instructional technique they used was very effective: they hooked their camera to a TV, and kept shooting to demonstrate with instant feedback the impact of various flash ratio settings, reflectors/diffusers and so on. The LCD on the camera is too small to judge effectively, but the TV out is instant, unlike laborious post-processing in-computer.

  27. Having learn manually long time ago, I rediscovered photography this year when I bought a small digital camera. I was surprise that most of what I learned back then still applies. Here are a couple of small tips (that you probably already know about) and looking at your picture, you don’t look like you need much help.

    Ћ The best light to shoot is either in the morning or at the end of the day (the magic hour).

    Ћ You can set the exposure to minus a third, it helps to punch the colour.

    Ћ Never use your flash (ok, never is a big word), try to avoid using your flash, colour always look flat with it.

    Ћ Use your flash as a fill-flash (like you did at the Jardin du Luxembourg).

    Ћ Use your semi-auto mode and look at the aperture and time readout, it’s the best way to get what’s happening with the light.

    Ћ Never, really NEVER center a subject.

    Ћ Take lots of photographs.

    Ћ You can use your zoom AND the macro setting to simulate a small depth of field (really a nice digital trick to photograph flowers).

    Ћ Try a fourchette (sorry, I just know the french name), most camera have a multiple shots/exposure setting. Looking at the result helps a lot to understand light… again.

    Ћ As you can see, light is important.

    Ћ But even more important than anything, have fun 🙂 (corny but true)

    p.s. sorry fot the long post

  28. ack! exposure is the scariest word when you first get a SLR.

    I ditto on that not using flash. Try to get a lens with a large aperture so you can take decent pictures indoors without a flash.

    I took a class when I got mine.. it really helped a lot. The great thing about it is it was practical, cheap (not-for-profit), and it was held at a local gallery so you got a lot of input from other photographers.

    Reading books and taking classes helps you get the basis down, but as with any other art, the touch comes from experience. The more pictures you take, the better you will get and the more you will get a feel for being behind the camera.

  29. I am at a young age (very young) but has discovered a passion for photography. I’m getting my first digital camera in Christmas. It might not be like those 1000$ Profesional cameras, but it’s a start! I will take pictures mostly of the town I live in, nature and people. I hope that one day I could become a profesional photographer.

  30. I’m going to say something completely different.

    Take your time between photos.

    Linger over the time taken, not to “get things in” the viewfinder, but to position them where you want in the resultant frame. (This transcends “don’t centre a subject” or the “rule of thirds” etc.)

    Learn what the effects of extreme aperture and speed and ISO settings are. Learn what the different metering modes achieve for you.

    Ponder the results in Photoshop and see what features you like, what you don’t.

    Find a book and/or local college course on artistic appreciation. I’ve got both Langfords, some Hedgecoe and some of Tom Ang’s work, but I’m most fond of David Ward’s “Landscape Within” ( He has one overriding meme that will help: with your picture, connote more than you denote.

    (Gratuitous plug: I have a `composition notes and exposure’ section on my site. At over 9000 photos on the d70 alone, I’ve got quite a good sample from which to draw common factors that make a photo appealing to me. Use my and other folks’ ideas to help short-circuit your path.)

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