quaking aspen, previously

photography 101 – more or less

Posted on: February 29, 2008

Probably less, really. But an old friend from high school (with a baby, and one on the way, these things are really not possible, are they?) has a dSLR as well and after our recent conversation (wherein he lamented that it was “really too much camera” for him) I will foist advice for beginners, or at least links, onto him, and you as well, my unsuspecting readers. (Much of the advice will not be specific to dSLRs, though I cannot help but recomend them.) And I couldn’t resist getting a post in on Leap Day.

A caveat — I am all self taught (net taught? mostly the internet and scrapbook magazine articles, a couple of photography books from the library thrown in; this also affects what I know. A lovely landscape or still life is all very well, but usually I’m trying to do portrait and wildlife (i.e. child) photography). Definitely still learning, so please do not mock me. Thank you.

First of all, in my supposedly humble opinion, if you want to start off slowly because you are easily overwhelmed (hmm, I wouldn’t know anything about that, oh no…) or just busy, here are my recommendations: read the first article below (Taking Better Snapshots). It’s a great place to start. And then, focus on composition first (the rule of thirds, and zooming in!), and second, lighting. You can go a long way with just those to start with. Your camera is very smart and can take care of a lot of other things on its own, at least for a while. But composition, and getting into some nice light, are the big things it can’t do for you.


Here is a wonderful article/tutorial called Taking Better Snapshots, which I think is a really fabulous place to start. He goes on and on about how film is cheap (what is this “film” of which you speak?), which for us translates to: TAKE A TON OF PHOTOS AND SORT THEM OUT ON YOUR COMPUTER LATER. There are some photo examples, which is always good. It covers getting closer, framing, composition and the rule of thirds, and other points as well. I remembered this article while my friend and I were talking, and it is even better on rereading. Go to it! Bookmark it! Go try the stuff he suggests! It is good. If you feel intimidated, please, just pick one thing (like rule of thirds for example, that’s a good one to start with) and keep it in mind for a week or two as you take pictures. Lots of pictures. Get a nice big memory card (they’re cheap, like this one if you use SD, for example) and go crazy.

Here is another photography tutorial/textbook which seems pretty good — Making Photographs — starts out talking about light! Which we will talk more about in a bit.

Composition: The above articles talk about composition some. Here is a short article exclusively on composition, and a longer, more comprehensive one. My only note — yes, the rule of thirds, use it! For the love of Pete, please, when you’re taking a photo of a person, or even better, group of people (especially a horizontal/landscape oriented photo), stop putting their heads right smack in the middle. Just stop. It’s that whole “how much of the photo is taken up by the subject” thing that is mentioned in the Taking Better Snapshots article above. Put their heads (or eyes!) along the top third line. And get way closer, too, unless there’s some compelling reason to get the background in. It’s the difference between this:

and this:


Neither are fantastic shots, but you can tell the second is much better. Here’s a second example, my brother and I a few years ago (he’s still not married, ladies!). Please disregard that the first is also blurry — that’s not the point for this example. Also I apologize for the flash. 🙂




Okay, I lied, one more thing on composition — move around! Kneel down, especially for shots of kids, go eye level; get up on things, lie down, zoom with your feet, and so on. Try different angles, and turn your camera. People and faces work so well with vertical (portrait) orientation. And my best suggestions for group shots: shoot from above if you can. Staircases are awesome for this. It’s so much easier to get everyone’s face … and? Looking up is very flattering. Minimizes the extra chin and all. Ahem, not that we know anyone who needs that….

An article about light — I’m looking for one specifically about it (if you know of one, do suggest) for beginners. ETA: Here’s an article from an old Navy manual. In the meantime let me summarize what I know:

  • Flash is (often) evil. PLEASE learn to turn off your flash. I know sometimes indoors at night there isn’t much other choice, but even if you do use it, first get as much other light as you can, it helps. (Lookie here! A short article about indoor lighting!)
  • Noontime or other direct overhead sunlight is very harsh — leaves things looking flat and puts harsh shadows under people’s eyes and such. In this case, counterintuitively, you want to turn your flash ON (this is called fill flash) and let it even out some of the shadows (also sometimes the case in very dappled, contrasting shadow, under trees in harsh sunlight for example).
  • Early morning and sunset-ish evening are the prime light times. If you can take advantage of them, do. This photo below was taken by my husband at the lovely golden evening time (while I was still inside, taking care of church choir things) — I’m so proud of him for seizing the moment! And taking some awesome shots as well.
  • christmas beauty
  • North facing windows and doors are good. I don’t have any right now though, so I use the overhang outside our door, and open the blinds in our apartment, but angle them so that I get indirect light, not bars of bright sunshine. (Often i warm up the shot with the “cloudy” white balance setting — see below.) And learn to walk around if necessary — the sun should be at your back, as the photographer. Sometimes that means you have to avoid getting your shadow in it, but in the case of indirect light, it makes a big difference what angle you’re shooting from.
  • Overcast days are nice even light too. We don’t get many of those here in Arizona though, either. See above.
  • Low light: Learn to hold your camera still. Elbows in. Lean against the wall or something to steady yourself, or try propping the camera on something if possible (and secure). (For some things, you just really need a tripod. And I like my shutter remote too.) Use burst mode (many point and shoots have it too) and hold down the shutter button, take several pictures in a row — often the first will be blurry, but one of the middles will be sharp. Higher ISO can help, though it means more grain. Most of all for low light I recommend getting a fixed 50 mm lens — I have a 1.8. The Canon and Nikon ones are only about a hundred bucks. Totally awesome and worth it.

Here’s a blog post about flash, just something to think about. Flash does have a place. (I suppose.) (Though my D50 flash is worlds different from my old point and shoot flash — not nearly as much red eye for one thing.) You just want to be aware of it. (And — I hear — using a flash that mounts to your SLR so that you can turn it and bounce it is much preferable. I will get one eventually. Sigh. I am used to fairly cheap hobbies — notebooks and pens, a skein of yarn, even scrapbook paper. Photography is not so cheap.) Here’s another page with flash techniques, also good info, especially for avoiding harsh flash shadow (it’s kind of technical, perhaps too technical for me at my current level, but still…). Also, here is another page about flash photography, again, technical, but it looks like a good resource, eventually.

Also about light — the more you zoom in on your subject, the better the camera can adjust for that lighting. Just one more reason to get closer. 🙂


Now I’ll talk just a little about features, etc. that I use a lot on my camera. Some of this is camera specific, but should be fairly easy to find by perusing this entertaining piece of literature I like to call your “camera manual.”

Things I use all the time:

White Balance presets. These are the little icons that help you adjust when you’re under florescent lighting for example, or incandescent, so that your color isn’t quite so wonky (green or excessively orange). I often like using the “cloudy” setting to warm things up just a little, even in regular sunlight or indirect light. Now I’m wishing I had a little more control in this area on my D50 — someday, maybe. One important note — make sure you change it back to auto when you’re through, especially from incandescent. I often end up with blue-color-cast photos because I left it on incandescent. This can be hard to correct afterward, though it’s possible. Better to do it right the first time. Because I’m lazy, and love my SOOC (Straight Out of the Camera) shots. Someday when I get real Photoshop, I will have lots of fun with actions, like Pioneer Woman. Till then — lazy.

The focus brackets. I shoot almost exclusively in Program mode nowadays, mostly because it allows me to easily turn off the flash and to switch the focus to where I want it. On my camera the focus brackets are controlled by the arrow pad on the back of the camera. This way I can tell it to focus on one of the five points available, middle, either side, or top or bottom. Very nice for shooting photos where the person is off to one side, or where I want the focus on something that is not the closest thing to me. (There are different Auto settings — usually the default is whatever is closest to you.) If you have a point and shoot you might check out what the auto focus settings are. If it’s just the center, you can play with it a bit by using the focus lock — pressing the shutter button half way down, then holding it there and recomposing the picture with the person or face or whatever off to the side or wherever you want it that is not in the center. (Using this focus lock was also the only way I could get my old point and shoot digital camera to actually take the photo at the moment I finished pressing down the button. But if the subject moved I was screwed. Ah, the good ol’ days….)

AE lock. This is not something I use ALL the time, but since I learned about it, it does come in handy occasionally. If the lighting is difficult, the meter can be fooled sometimes. Or if you want to be sure something is properly lit, and you don’t care about the background, then you might use it. Basically you get in close to your subject (or point the camera at something with similar lighting), press your shutter half way down, hold down the AE lock button, and then go back to your full subject and take the actual picture. Then — get this — you check your screen, and try it again if it didn’t turn out quite right. Trial and error, baby. I highly recommend it. Here’s an example:

peppers v1

The first, automatic exposure. Doesn’t look bad, but it was really too bright — not how it really looked there. (We were picking out pumpkins, bright sunlight outside, but under a canvas overhang. Backlit.) (You can also see the focus I chose on this was different than the one I ended up with.)

peppers v2

The first try with the AE lock was definitely too dark, way underexposed. The thing I chose to lock the exposure on was too light.


Here’s the one I was happiest with.

Auto ISO. Very useful, if your camera has it. (Most point and shoots do this automatically.) Low ISO (100 or 200) is very nice for smooth clear photos. But, using this feature allows me to take low light photos without having to use a tripod, though often graininess is involved (you have to decide which you want, a quicker shutter or less grain; it depends on what you’re going for). Definitely something to check out, anyway, though you might not want to use it all the time.


We could go on and talk about photoshop, but the cold hard truth, my friends, is that you have to start with a good photo. Now and then cropping and such can help, and sometimes you can use it to save a photo you made a mistake on, like for example this one:

{54/366} gap

It was blue from being on the incandescent WB setting in daylight, oops, but it was fairly well composed, and I liked her expression better on it than any of the others I’d taken, and the best way I found to make it decent was to change it to black and white; but mostly, you need to have the best raw material possible to start with. (Speaking of “raw,” har har, notice I didn’t mention shooting in RAW. That is as yet unexplored territory for me. Mostly because I’m lazy and maybe I don’t want to have to photoshop every freakin’ photo to be able to print it or put it online. Someday I will experiment with it. But not today.)

And finally, no matter what camera you have, here’s my old favorite, Why Your Camera Does Not Matter.

Other resources:

  • Ken Rockwell — many articles, also reviews (lots of Nikon, but some others), good stuff.
  • If you’d like to see some videos for beginners, the Creating Keepsakes Website has some — sorry there’s no direct link, click the triangle next to Welcome on the purple bar, and choose Picture Perfect Photography. Also if you click Magazine and do a search for “picture perfect photography” in quotes, you’ll find some articles as well.
  • This is a good beginner tutorial on some of the more technical things: aperture, shutter speed, ISO. Don’t worry if you don’t get it at first, it takes time.

2 Responses to "photography 101 – more or less"

This was an awesome article- like everything I learned in many years of studying photo in school PLUS some more. I could kiss the screen. I’m sending a link to my friends with DSLRs. Maybe I’ll go buy one myself now (where are you, economic stimulus package???).

Comments are closed.

TDD rocks

Please spread the word

Here's my post on the topic.
%d bloggers like this: