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The Essential Photography Primer

Does your camera have a lot of bells and whistles but you only shoot it in auto mode? There’s no shame in it. Auto does a great job most of the time, but if you want more creative control to create unique and captivating images, this primer is for you. Along with Getting to Know Your Camera, it’s a great way to help you learn photography easily and quick start your photographic pursuits.

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; foreground to background. A wide 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 sometimes motion blur is a creative choice that conveys excitement. Motion blurs can also be calming, like when ocean waves or mountain streams are made to look silky smooth.

Capture stars and auroras:

If learning night photography is your motivator, you’ll need to take manual control of exposure.

Sequence of events when shooting in auto mode:

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.

Light meter is 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).

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:

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.

Light meter is activated when the shutter button is partially depressed and the camera displays the meter with an indicator showing where the current exposure is set. As exposure variables are adjusted, the indicator line will move to the positive (over exposed) or negative (underexposed) markers on the meter. The camera determines correct exposure to be at the 0 marker.

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.

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

The following three camera settings form the cornerstone of photography. Once you understand how they work and their relationship to one another, you will you will have a whole new world of photographic possibilities open to you.


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 to achieve sharp 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: If the shutter speed falls below the focal length of your lens, in most cases it will be too slow to handhold the camera and achieve a sharp image. For example, if your shutter is set at 1/125 sec and your focal length is 135mm, you’ll likely have camera shake in the photo unless your camera is on a tripod. So the Handheld Rule dictates that the shutter speed should be equal to or greater than focal length. However, this is not set in stone. Some cameras and/or lenses have built in stabilizers and some photographers have a steadier hand and can successfully shoot at slower shutter speeds. So the handheld rule is more of a suggestion, but it is a fairly accurate predictor of whether a scene will have motion blur or camera shake.


This is a diaphragm-like device inside a lens. Each lens has its own range of aperture values. 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 lot of light into the camera and reduce the amount of time a shutter needs to stay open for good exposure. These types of lenses are therefore called “fast.”  


If you have ever shot with film, you might remember when rolls of it 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 and is best for bright, sunny days, because it either takes an abundance 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. Photographers used to have to change rolls of film to match shooting conditions, but since the digital sensor replaced film, one of its greatest features (aside from not paying for film) is that you can now change the ISO sensitivity in camera. Each camera has its own range of ISO values. Pro model cameras can 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 and much of the noise can be reduced in post processing.

The Exposure Triangle

Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed form an interrelated group of camera settings called the Exposure Triangle. When one is adjusted, it becomes necessary to balance one or the other of the remaining two settings in equal 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 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 in the camera’s Playback menu. In a way, photography is a lot like cooking. When shooting in manual mode you’ll need to do some taste testing before adding seasonings. Let’s say you’re in a low light situation without a tripod or flash. What are your options? First, you’ll want to make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to avoid camera shake. To do this you’ll either need to 1)increase ISO until the shutter speed is equal to or greater than the focal length (possibly introducing more noise), 2) open the aperture to let more light hit the sensor, resulting in less time needed to gain exposure (remembering that wider apertures also decrease DOF), or 3) 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), this can be compensated for by turning aperture three clicks wider (more light for exposure).

Be sure to check out Getting to Know Your Camera for a familiarization aid to learning your camera’s controls.


Technology has come a long way since since the beginning of photography, but cameras still struggle to capture the dynamic range of values seen by the human eye. Most cameras use a reflected light meter to measure light bouncing from the surface of a subject back to the camera. This information is then used to calculate an exposure with the widest range of values possible. 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. At such times, 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.

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 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, which will increase exposure by slowing down the shutter. EV is also adjusted in 1/3 increments.

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.

Depth-of-Field (DOF)

Aperture size plays a part in determining Depth-of-Field. The two other factors affecting (DOF) are lens focal length and distance between camera and subject. 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 a number of smartphone apps designed to calculate exactly how much DOF will occur in a scene. To use one, simply enter the camera model, lens focal length, f/stop number and distance to subject, and then it will a range of focus from near to far will display. Our favorite online calculator is Depth of Field Master.

Drive Modes

This setting 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.

Helpful Camera Features

Demystifying the Histogram

The histogram is type of graph that can be displayed in the playback menu on the camera’s LCD screen. It’s a tool to review exposure. Often, reviewing a photo in playback is not a great way to tell if it has a good exposure.  Histograms provide an 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. It’s usually best to aim for an image that has histogram 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, which will be especially helpful during post processing if the image was shot in raw file format (more on that coming up). If histogram lines are stacked up on either side of the box, it means detail is being lost in either black or white, depending what side is being clipped. Photos shot with a white or black background would be expected to have graph lines stacked up in either of the danger zones, which is 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 images shot under fluorescent light come out green. The camera’s 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 light sources. This can be done using white balance presets, or manually adjusting to a specific kelvin. Before the option of shooting in raw file format was available, 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 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 to 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 discards the rest. 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 a JPEG. But raw files contains ALL the sweet shooting data. So correcting issues like color casts or exposure problems are possible, along with a wide range of tonal adjustments. Raw is not an acronym. It means a raw, unprocessed image file.

Lens Choice

Lenses plays a big part in photographic composition. Wide angle lenses (short focal lengths) have a wide perspective. Telephoto lenses narrow the side to side view and compress the scene from 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 humans see, so a lens in that range is called “normal.” In addition to controlling depth-of-field, lenses can produce desired, or undesired distortion and starburst patterns (when shooting at bright light with a short focal length and small aperture). Specialty lenses are also available through your camera manufacturer or a third party and include fish-eye lenses, macro, and tilt-shift.

Be Unique with Creative Technique

It’s hard to know where 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 nothing sharp, there usually isn’t anything interesting to look at. An exception to this rule is intentional motion blur, but in almost every other case the focal point should be sharp. 

Learn Light

Photography literally means “writing with light” and the more you know about the medium you’re working with, the more effectively you will use it. Light has three qualities: intensity, color and direction. Intensity describes the power and quality of the light. It can be soft and wrapping, or hard and specular with defined lines between shadows and highlights. 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 like at sunrise and sunset, the warmer colors of the spectrum are pronounced. Artificial light can produce a range of color casts, from orange to green. Direction refers to the angle it’s coming from in relation to the subject. Is it in front of or behind the subject (backlight)? Is it coming from either side, above or below (sidelight)? Or is it directly in front (front 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]

Thanks to advancing technology, more people are taking photos now than every before. One simple way set your images apart from the rest, is to give the viewer a unique point of view. 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 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 drawing and painting and other 2D art forms. The rule-of-thirds is so often used in photography that many cameras come with an option to display a grid pattern in the viewfinder. It’s purpose to to help compose a photo with the subject situated in the upper, lower, right or left third of the frame, or on one of the intersecting lines. Centrally placed subjects are usually static, so following the rule-of-thirds can make an image more dynamic. It’s also effective to place strong horizontal lines (like the horizon) 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 apply them. Also, because photography is two dimensional, use available tool to create the illusion of three dimensions. This means showing a foreground, middle ground 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 objects are in your photo 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 end game for the pictures you are taking 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! Not doing is the only real failure. So be bold, have fun, learn from disappointments and celebrate success.

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