The Essential Photography Primer 2017-05-10T22:16:55+00:00

The Essential Photography Primer

[download PDF copy]

Do you have a nice camera with lots of buttons and dials, but find yourself only shooting in auto? There’s no shame in it, auto does a great job most of the time. But if you want more creative control to produce unique and captivating images, this primer is for you. It will help you learn photography easily and is the perfect companion to an Alaska Photo Treks workshop or class or tour.

Auto vs. Manual Modes

The camera takes control of three variables to determine exposure in auto mode. Once you learn these variables and how to set them yourself, you’re well on the way to creating the coolest shots. They will help you to:

  • Control Depth-of-Field [DOF]: This refers to how much of the scene is in focus. There may be times when you want a shallow DOF, isolating your subject from a distracting background, and other times when you want everything throughout scene in sharp focus, from foreground to background. A deeper DOF is used most often in landscape photography.
  • Stop action or create motion blur: In auto mode, your camera usually strives to get the fastest shutter speed possible for the light conditions; ensuring no motion blur occurs in the scene. But capturing blur can be a creative choice that conveys excitement. Imagine a marathon runner with hands and feet in a blur of movement. Motion blurs can also be calming, like when ocean waves or mountain streams are made to look silky smooth.
  • Capture stars and auroras: If night photography is your interest, you’ll need to take manual control of exposure.

Sequence of events when shooting in auto mode:

  1. Autofocus is activated [provided it is on] when the shutter button is partially depressed, and the lens locks focus on the subject [determined by your focus point settings]. If the lens cannot lock focus due to low light or low contrast, the camera will usually not take the photo.
  2. Light meter is activated activated when the shutter button is partially depressed and the camera attempts to get the fastest shutter speed possible for the light conditions by adjusting the three exposure variables. If it cannot accomplish this due to low light, the flash will pop up [provided your camera has one built in].
  3. By the time the shutter button is fully depressed, the camera has determined proper exposure [the greatest range of values from black to white], and has calculated and applied the three exposure variables to achieve it.

Sequence of events when shooting in manual mode:

  1. Autofocus is activated [provided it is on] when the shutter button is partially depressed and the lens locks focus on the subject [determined by your focus point settings]. If the lens cannot lock focus due to low light or low contrast, the camera will usually not take the photo.
  2. Light meter is activated activated when the shutter button is partially depressed, and the camera displays the meter with an indicator showing where the current exposure is at. As exposure variables are adjusted, the indicator line will move to the positive [over exposed] or negative [underexposed] side of the meter. The camera determines correct exposure to be at the 0 marker.
  3. When the shutter button is fully depressed, the camera will take a photo regardless of exposure choice. The flash will not deploy unless it is turned on.


Technology has come a long way since since the dawn of photography, but cameras still struggle to capture the dynamic range of values seen by the human eye. Most cameras use a built-in reflected light meter to measure light bouncing off the surface of a subject, and then uses the information to calculate an exposure with a wide range of values and no loss of detail in either darks or brights. By default, the meter is set to Matrix mode [Evaluative mode on Canon]. This mode uses information from throughout the scene, and may also reference a database of images of similar scenes to determine exposure. It is a sophisticated system that works well most of the time, but in certain situations it can be fooled. In such instances, there are other options to control how the meter behaves, including zone, center, spot and partial modes. Read your manual to see what is available on your camera and how it’s used.

Shooting Modes

Novice photographers usually start out by shooting in Auto and scene modes [which are also essentially automatic]. Four other modes are available on interchangeable lens cameras and some point-and-shoots. These are displayed in a group on the same dial:

M [Manual] takes full control of the exposure variables.

A or AV [Aperture Priority] provides manual control for aperture; camera choosing shutter speed.

S or TV [Shutter Priority] provides manual control for shutter speed; camera chooses aperture.

P [Program] acts like auto mode, but can allow exposure setting overrides.

Focus Modes

Most autofocus systems allow you to choose a focus mode that’s appropriate for the subject, whether you are shooting a stationary subject or one in action. You may also be able to control the number and position of focus points. Consult your camera manual to see what focus options are available on your model.

AF-S [Nikon] One Shot [Canon]  locks focus on a still subject. It also allows you to recompose the shot by moving the camera, while keeping focus on the subject until the shutter is released.

AF-C [Nikon] Al-Servo [Canon] locks focus on a moving subject and tracks it through the frame until the shutter is released.

Drive Modes

The drive mode controls how many photos are taken with one shutter click. Options usually include single shot, low and high continuous, and timer. When shooting action events, it’s sometimes helpful to be able to fire a series of photos in rapid succession. Continuous drive mode is often used in conjunction with continuous auto-focus.

The Three Variables of Exposure: Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed

These variables form the cornerstone of photography. Once you understand how they work, you will become a master of manual control.



This is a diaphragm-like device inside the lens. Each lens has its own range of values. Aperture settings are measured in ‘f-stops.” An aperture setting of f/2.8 or greater is considered wide, and f/16 is pinhole small. Thus, the lower the number, the wider the aperture and conversely, the higher the number, the smaller the aperture. A lens that opens very wide, like f/1.4, can let a flood of light into the camera, reducing the amount of time the shutter needs to stay open to gain exposure. Lenses with wide aperture settings are therefore called “fast” lens. Fast lenses are more expensive than slower lenses.

Aperture size helps control Depth-of-Field in concert with two other variables; lens focal length and distance between camera and focus point. A wider aperture combined with longer focal length [zoomed lens] and close proximity to focus point will reduce DOF. A smaller aperture with shorter focal length [zoomed out lens] and greater distance to focus point will increase DOF. There are many smartphone apps designed to calculate exactly how much DOF will occur in a scene. You simply enter the camera model, lens focal length, f/stop number and distance to subject, and it will display the range of focus from near to far. Our favorite online calculator is Depth of Field Master.


If you ever shot with film, you might remember when rolls came with different ISO numbers, like 100, 200, 400 and so on. These numbers referred to how sensitive the film was to light. ISO 100 is not very sensitive. It’s best for bright, sunny days, because it either takes a lot of light and/or a long time to expose. ISO 400 is more sensitive so is appropriate for lower light situations, like shady scenes and cloudy days. Back in the day, when light conditions changed the photographer often had to switch film. A digital sensor replaced film and one of the greatest things about this [aside from free film] is that you can now change the ISO sensitivity easily, in camera. Each camera has its own range of ISO values. Some cameras go quite high, but the downside of extremely high ISO’s is that they produce softer, more grainy [noisy] images. Some cameras handle this better than others [the more expensive ones], and some noise can be reduced in post processing.

Shutter Speed

This setting controls how quickly the shutter, a curtain-like device in front of the sensor, opens and closes. As you might imagine, a slower shutter means that light hits the sensor longer. Conversely, a faster shutter shortens the time light falls on the sensor. Choosing the right shutter speed is necessary for sharply focused images, as well as creative effects like stop-action and motion blur. Shutter speeds around 1/500 sec will usually freeze motion on just about any subject.

Handheld Rule: In most cases, if your shutter speed falls below the focal length of your lens, it will be too slow to handhold the camera and get a sharp image. For example, if your shutter is set at 1/125 sec and your focal length is 135mm, you’re likely going to get camera shake unless your camera is on a tripod. So the Handheld Rule is that shutter speed should be equal to or greater than focal length. It’s not absolute. Some cameras and/or lenses have built in stabilizers and some photographers have a steadier hand and can successfully shoot at slower shutter speeds. But it’s often a fairly accurate predictor of whether a scene will have motion blur or camera shake.

The Exposure Triangle

Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed together form the Exposure Triangle. They are interrelated. When you adjust one, you need to adjust at least one of the others in a corresponding measure to maintain exposure. There are no hard and fast rules to dialing them up and down. Some photographers take a test shot in auto or program mode first to see what the camera thinks before making adjustments in increments for the desired result. If you go this route, make sure to set your camera to display the shooting information for each photo. You can usually access this option on the Playback menu. Shooting in manual can be a lot like taste testing from the pot before adding seasonings. Use some caution though, because each of the “seasonings” you add to the mix may have some undesired effects. Let’s say you’re in a low light situation without a tripod, and you don’t want to or can’t use flash. What are your options? First, you’ll want to make sure the shutter speed stays fast enough for a sharp, handheld image. To do this, you have several options: increase ISO until the shutter speed is equal to or greater than the focal length [possibly introducing more noise] or, open the aperture to let in more light, resulting in less time needed to gain exposure [remembering that wider apertures also decrease DOF] or, use a combination of higher ISO and wider aperture, in balance with shutter speed. The point is, when you start tweaking camera controls, you’ll find there are contingencies involved. Also a lot of problem solving and compromising.

Cheating Exposure Settings…a little bit

Exposure settings are referred to as “stops.” On many cameras, they are dialed up or down in 1/3 increments, so if you turn the shutter or aperture dial three clicks either way, it equals one stop. Rather than memorizing exposure charts, an easy way to balance exposure with manual settings is to count the clicks. For example, if you turn the shutter dial three clicks faster [less time for exposure], you can compensate by turning aperture three clicks wider [more light for exposure].

Exposure Value [EV]

The Exposure Value control is often depicted with +/- symbols. It works in Program, Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority Modes, and allows an override of the camera controlled variable of exposure. For example, if you were to shoot a scene in Aperture Priority and the exposure comes out dark [due to the camera choosing too fast a shutter speed], you can use the EV to override the camera’s shutter choice and increase exposure by slowing down the shutter. EV is also adjusted in 1/3 increments.

Helpful Camera Features


Demystifying the Histogram

The histogram is type of graph that can be displayed photos in review on the LCD screen. It’s purpose is to better judge exposure. LCD displays are sometimes hard to see in bright light, and backlight from the camera’s screen often makes images look better exposed than they really are. Histograms give a more accurate illustration of the photo’s dynamic range of values. The left of the graph represents black, right is white, and middle is the entire range of values in between. In many cases, it’s best to try for graph with lines peaking toward the middle of the box, or in the right third. This insures there’s enough information captured to render a nicely exposed photo with wide dynamic range for post processing, especially if the image is shot in raw file format [more on that coming up]. If lines get stacked up on either side, it means detail is being lost there; in either black or white. Photos shot with a white or black background would expect to have graph lines stacked up in the danger zones. That’s okay. Histograms are a tool, not a rule.

A Word on White Balance [WB]

Did you know that white light is not really white? It actually has a variety of color casts. Our eyes naturally adjust to these variations but cameras do not. That’s why a photo taken in the shade will have a bluish or cold cast. Tungsten light produces yellowish photos and fluorescent images come out green. Auto white balance strives to read and compensate for these variations. On most cameras, you can also adjust the WB setting manually to match specific lighting situations. This can be done using scene modes, or adjusted manually to a specific color temperature. Before the day of digital post processing and raw file formats, it was important to get color balance set right in camera. A bad color cast on film could destroy an entire shoot. But we now have some great digital editing tools that are designed to correct color balance issues. If you’re a purist and want every photo to have the right WB in camera, you can easily adjust it as you shoot. Just remember to dial it back to auto when you’re done, or you’ll end up with some crazy color casts on the photos from your next shoot.

Shooting In Raw

No, this doesn’t mean get starkers and go shooting. It refers to a file type option on interchangeable lens cameras and some point-and-shoots. Most early digital image files were rendered in JPEG format. JPEG images process faster and take less space on a memory card, because the camera decides what information is important and throws away the rest. Then it applies compression. JPEGs are easy to share because the file type is universal and compact. Raw files are not processed automatically in camera, so until processed manually they look tonally flat compared to JPEG. But this file type contains all the shooting data, which is helpful for correcting issues like color casts or exposure problems. The deeper raw file also affords far more creative choices in post processing. Raw is not an acronym. It means a raw, unprocessed image file.

Lens Choice

Lenses plays a big part in photo composition. Wide angle lenses [short focal lengths] take in a lot of a scene at once, from side to side and front to back. Telephoto lenses narrow the side to side view and compresses the front to back, so that objects in the background are pulled forward and look larger than they really are. Generally, anything around 35mm or less is considered wide angle, more than 70mm is telephoto, and around 50mm is closest to the way we see things, so it’s called a “normal” lens. In addition to controlling depth-of-field, lenses can produce desired, or undesired distortion and starburst patterns [when shooting at bright light]. Specialty lenses are also available through your camera manufacturer or a third party, including fish-eye lenses, macro, and tilt-shift.

Be Unique with Creative Technique

It’s hard to know when the technical side of photography ends and the creative begins… they are both so intertwined. One thing is certain, once you master technical skills, your creative options explode. The final part of this primer bridges the gap between these two sides of the art by offering tips that will take your photography to the next level.

Make Sure It’s Sharp

There is no post processing fix for fuzzy images. Our eyes are attracted to the sharpest part of a photo and if there is no sharpness, there usually isn’t anything captivating to look at. Exceptions include intentional motion blur and out-of-focus backgrounds, but the focal point should almost always be in focus. Unsharp areas of the scene will then support the main subject by directing the viewer’s eye to the sharpest part of the image.

Learn Light

Photography literally means “writing with light” and the more you know about the medium you’re working with, the better able you will be to use it like an artist. Light has three qualities: direction, color and type. Direction refers to the angle it’s coming from in relation to the subject. Is the light in front of or behind [backlit]? Is it coming from either side, above or below [sidelit]? Or is it directly in front [frontlit]? Color refers to light temperature or cast. Clouds filter the warmer colors of the light spectrum, so on overcast days light can be cool and bluish. When light travels through atmosphere at a low angle to the horizon, the warmer colors of the spectrum are pronounced, such as at sunrise and sunset. Artificial light can produce a range of color casts, from orange to green. Finally, light can be soft and wrapping, or hard, with defined lines between shadows and highlights. These qualities are the type of light. Your photography will take a giant leap forward when you’re able to recognize all the qualities and use them to evoke certain moods.

Try a Different Point of View [POV]

Just about everyone has access to a picture making device these days, and just about everyone takes photos in a similar manner; approach the subject, click, walk away. If you really want to capture more interesting photos, take time to look at the subject in a myriad of ways. Get high, low, and walk around if you can. Even the most mundane scenes can be made more interesting simply by shooting them with a fresh perspective.


Play With Composition

Photography is a two dimensional art form and subject to the same design elements and rules that apply in other similar arts, like drawing and painting. The rule-of-thirds is so often used in photography that many cameras are setup with an option to display a grid pattern on the viewfinder. It’s purpose to to help compose the photo with the subject located in the upper, lower, right or left third of the frame, or on one of the intersecting lines. Anywhere but the middle. This is because centrally placed subjects are usually static. Horizontal lines, such as a horizon, often look best when level and placed on the top or bottom third of the frame. Other design elements include leading lines [staircases, roads, docks, rivers etc.], patterns, textures, light, and color. Whether or not you aspire to be a fine art photographer, your photography will benefit greatly from a basic understanding of design elements and how to effectively apply them. Also, because photography is two dimensional, use every tool you have to create the illusion of three dimensions. This means showing a foreground, middleground and background, and using shadow as much as light to give volume to the subject.

Fill the Frame With Meaning and Tell a Great Story

Whatever is in your photos should have a good reason to be there. If you’re shooting a closeup of a flower, you might want to put all the other elements in the photo out of focus to bring attention to the main subject. Or, perhaps you’re telling a story about a flower and a gardener. In this case you might want the flower in focus and the gardener out-of-focus, or vice versa. Either way, the contents of the frame should be purposefully selected to direct the viewer’s attention where you want it, and other elements in the photo should support the theme. There are many ways to tell a story through photography. A lot can be said with a single image, and even more with a series of images. Consider the objective of your photography and shoot toward that aim. For instance, if you are taking travel photos, do you envision compiling them in an album, or printing wall displays? Considerations like this can play a part in how you photograph the scene.

More important than any tip or tutorial is this: get out and start shooting! The only mistake in photography is not doing. So be bold, have fun, learn from undesired outcomes and celebrate success. Wishing you many happy clicks.

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