I'm now living in Israel! Support this site & receive a newsletter with stories from my travels.

Introduction to Photography

Over the last few months, photography has become my passion. There is something about photography that relaxes and excites me. There is a certain thrill that I get when taking pictures that cannot be expressed with words.

Many people have asked me how they can get started with photography. Honestly, I have no idea. I learned most of what I know about photography from Google University. Like many things in life, there is no simple “1, 2, 3″ answer. There is no “become an ace photographer in 30 days” formula (at least that I know of).

Despite this, I have decided to write an introduction for those looking to get into photography as a light past-time, or even as a future career. I wanted to write this a) so that people will know what they are getting into, and b) so that they don’t make the same mistakes I did.

If the word “photography” even remotely interests you, print this post out and take it with you everywhere. To work. To school. To bed. Heck, even laminate it and take it into the shower. Drill these concepts into your head, and they will feel as natural to you as brushing your teeth (I’m under the assumption that all readers of my blog brush their teeth).

The best place to start is at the beginning.


The basics

Like any other creative medium, on the most basic of levels, photography is about telling a story. You have to have something you want to say – something you want to express. Your camera is the tool that you use to express it. Sometimes the best pictures aren’t the ones that follow all the rules. The best pictures most often the ones that break the rules and stand out. They are the ones that set your photography apart from the status quo.

Just like blogging, your photography must develop a voice of it’s own. The expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words” is truer than ever. It is your job to take those words and turn them into a voice. Develop a unique style for your photography. Despite the temptation, don’t try to copy someone else’s style (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Create photos that you personally are completely satisfied with, and let them speak for themselves.

When choosing a camera, the most important thing is not the features or the brand or the reviews. The most important thing is that you will bring your camera with you everywhere. Most of the time, my best shots aren’t the ones I went out specifically to shoot. Usually, they were taken in the spur of the moment that I just happened to have my camera by my side. There have been many of times that I missed great shots because I didn’t have my camera with me. When picking the “best camera” for you, remember, isn’t necessarily the one with the most megapixels or features. The best camera for you is the one that you are going to carry with you all the time. I’m a fan of (small) DSLRs, as they give you a lot of control while being fairly portable. Plus, you can expand to them, buy lenses, and “grow into” your camera.

A great way to start learning photography is to buy an entry-level DSLR. Currently, I’m using a Nikon D40x, and have been been as of late December. It is my first DSLR, and has served me well over the months. The comparable camera from Canon is the Digital Rebel XTi. Since then, the Nikon has been replaced by the D60, and the Canon by the Rebel XSi.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Nikon, and like their variety of lenses. Having a universal SD card in my camera that I can easily slide into the card reader in my computer, the family P&S camera, and the even the Wii, is magical. Plus, to put it bluntly, Nikon has far better design and ergonomics than the competition. Picture quality between cameras is similar across the line. When it comes down to it though, you have to go into your local camera store and try them out for yourself. Features and specs aside, choose the camera that feels right for you. Where the buttons are located can make the difference between a great shot, and a missed opportunity.

Share ‘em

If you really want to learn photography, you are going to need to get a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. Get Flickr. It is the de facto photo/video sharing site on the Internet. Pony up the $25 for a year-long membership that allows you to upload and store an unlimited number of photos. Add friends, comment on people’s photos, and become part of the community.

Flickr is the number one best way to learn photography, and is how I’ve learned the most. I usually browse through people’s photos, see one I like, say to myself “how did he/she do that?” and then click the “More Properties” button on the photo. This lets you see exactly how the photo was taken, and the settings that were used. This is the best way to learn, especially if you understand what all the numbers mean.

The technicals

Now for the fun part – the technicals. I’ll give you a run through of three main elements of photography. These three things create the “triangle” of exposure. Think of exposure as exactly that. It is the amount of light that comes into contact with your camera’s sensor. The higher the exposure, the brighter the image.

There are three settings on your camera that will affect the exposure. They are called Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO.

Shutter Speed is the amount of time your sensor is exposed to light. The longer you open the shutter, the more light enters your camera, the brighter you picture is going to be. Typically, shutter speeds are labeled in fractions. Common shutter speeds are 1/125 or 1/250 of a second. These are for daylight shots where you have a lot of light coming into your camera. When there is a lot of light, your sensor doesn’t have to be open for long, and can open for a very short amount of time. This will create a fast shutter speed. If it’s open for too long, your image will be over exposed and pure white.

When you are indoors and in a low light situation, you have to slow your shutter speed to 1/60 or even 1/20 of the second. The challenge is that a slower shutter speed will produce more camera shake and blur. If your shutter is open for an entire second, chances are your image will be become blurry because your hands will not be able to hold still that long. You may get photos like this.

But shutter speed is just one third of the equation. Next is the Aperture, which is how wide your shutter opens. Think of it this way: the lower the number, the wider your shutter will open, and the more light will enter into your camera. The higher the number, the narrower your shutter, and less light that enters your camera. These numbers are expressed in f/stops. A lower number is better for indoor photography because it lets a lot of light in. These Apertures are usually f/5.6, f/3.5, or even f/2.8. For outdoor, daylight photography, you can set a higher Aperture like f/8, f/11, or f/22. This will barely open your camera’s shutter, and will let less light in.

Aperture does more than that though. It also changes what we call the ‘DOF’ or Depth of Field. The lower the f/number, the wider the lens opens, the narrower the DOF. A narrow DOF means that there is a very small area in focus. If you want the background of a shot blurred out, you need to lower the Aperture (f/3.5). If you want a wider area in focus (a landscape shot, for example), you will need a higher f/stop (f/22). Note: Your lens will determine your Aperture range. All lenses can open up to f/22, but different lenses open wider. More expensive lenses may open all the way up to f/2.2 or even f/1.4. The kit lens that comes with most entry-level DSLRs opens up to f/3.5.


The final element of exposure is ISO. The ISO is the sensitivity of your camera to light. ISOs generally range from 100 all the way up to 1600. Increments include 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera will be to light, and the brighter the image will be. In daylight, you would generally use an ISO of 100 or 200 because there is a lot of natural light. Indoors, however, there is a lot less light (if you are not using a flash), so you can dial your ISO up to 400 or even 800 to allow more light into your picture.

But of course, there’s a catch. The problem with high ISOs (usually 800 or 1600) is that they add a lot of noise to your images. Try to stay away from anything over 800, or even 400, as they make your pictures look grainy. Some cameras are pretty good at handling this, and can shoot up to 6400 ISO with hardly any grain, but they are in the $5000 price range.

Now, it is important to understand that none of these elements can be adjusted without affecting the other. They are all connected. That is why we call them a “triangle”. Your camera will always try to expose your picture properly, but you need to know what settings to change in order to get what you want.

Let’s say you are outside, shooting at ISO 200 at an Aperture of f/8. In order to expose your photo properly, your camera will choose a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second. These are fairly easy conditions to shoot in, as the shutter speed is very fast. You then decide to take a portrait of a person, and wish to blur the background. You have to open your Aperture wider (by lowering the number) to f/5.6. This will let more light into your camera. Your camera will detect this, and speed up your shutter to 1/500 in order to compensate.

Then, you decide to shoot some indoor shots. If you try shooting at ISO 200 at f/5.6 inside, with low light, your camera will need to let more light into the camera and will slow the shutter speed to 1/15. This is too slow, and will introduce camera shake into your pictures. Subjects won’t freeze when you take pictures – they’ll blur. In order to help raise the shutter speed, you can turn the ISO up to 400 (hardly any noise here), and open the Aperture even wider to f/3.5. This might raise your shutter speed to 1/60 which is the minimum you should take pictures at with a normal lens.

As you can see, everything in photography is connected. Over time, you will learn how to use these elements to create photos that tell your stories. Changing settings will become second nature, and you will be free to imagine, dream, and create.

Welcome to the wonderful world of photography.