Basics of Photography

Understanding light is one of the very basic principles of learning to be a photographer. When you have a group of people in front of you with smiling faces ready for you to say 'cheese' or if you are taking a shot of a scenic area, the most important consideration is the light factor. Light controls the type of exposure and therefore the quality of the photo is dependent on the quality of the light on your subject and the amount of light that impacts on the film or digital sensor when you click. Controlling the amount of light is a good pre-occupation in the mind of a photographer keen to get a good shot. It should be one of the key considerations.

The word 'exposure' is a very important word in the lexicon of both amateur and professional photographers and is based on the understanding of light in creating good photographs.

--If there is too much light, the photo will look overly bright and over exposed.

--A happy group of people will not look as vibrant if there was inadequate light when you took the picture.

--Bright sunlight can create shadows under the eyes.

--Poor lighting may not bring out the colors in the scene to maximum effect

There are a few basics that you can apply to circumvent poor picture quality due to unfavorable light conditions:

--Change the position from which you take the shot

--Change the light if clicking indoors

--Use the flash

The use of the flash can be a boon when you operate in different light conditions. If you have an overcast sky, the flash in your camera will serve the purpose of letting some light into the image that you are trying to capture and brightening it up. The flash also works to your advantage when your subject is not too close but slightly away from you. But you have to check the 'flash range' of your camera in your manual. The flash works best when your subject is within a recommended range that is usually at least 4 ft and generally not more than 10 ft.

Most simple cameras have an automatic flash. Slightly better models will have settings for fill-flash. The concept of fill flash revolves around filling light in areas of a picture that may turn out dark or shadowed. Fill-flash has the ability to balance the amount of light on different parts of a subject to ensure that the exposure is adequately bright. For instance, a portion of a person's face may appear shadowed and the fill-flash setting can help iron out this problem.

The angle of light is another important consideration. You have to pay attention to the direction from which light falls on your subject and there are several approaches in manipulating the angle of light to improve the visual appeal of a picture.

Sideways lighting: Light from the side is used to creates depth in the picture and is considered one of the best ways to use light if you are taking a portrait photograph.

Light from the top: This is a method used to brighten up most of the scene but does not work as well when you take a photograph of a person. It tends to create shadows on the lower half of the face when the lighting is high.

Light from behind your subject: This strategy is sometimes used by photographers to amplify the impact of the picture. It can create a halo like effect; it can add artistic shadows and can also create a striking contrast between the subject and the background if used effectively. When you use a 'back light' it is recommended that the fill-flash settings on your camera are also adjusted in order to avoid shadows in your photograph.

The second issue in photography is the aesthetics of the picture. Aesthetics is the creativity and attention to detail that you bring to your photograph. It is the most interesting part of photography since it is almost like a visual equivalent of composing a poem or writing a story. Aesthetics requires the use of visual skills to compose and deliver a pleasing, eye-catching and captivating image. It is a type of vision that you have for your photograph in terms of look and appeal.

Aesthetics requires a good eye for detail. The following factors have to borne in mind in creating an aesthetically appealing photograph:



--Distance from subject

--Changing the direction of your camera based on picture dimensions

--Objects impinging on the picture

--Avoiding too many elements

Each of these factors that go into aesthetics are described and explained below-


The background in a photograph requires much consideration. It influences the manner in which your subject is portrayed in the photograph. Depending on your choice of background, your subject will be shown to effect or may be overshadowed. The background also makes the difference between a boring and an interesting photograph. The colors, the type of background and the context add to the vibrancy of the photo.


A common problem among beginners in photography is not paying attention to whether the image is being captured fully. When you view your subject through the viewfinder, you may think you have clicked a person from head to shoulder or from head to toe in a full shot. But when the actual photograph is processed, the top of your subject's head or part of the hair may be missing! Or, if you did not center your subject when you composed the shot through your viewfinder, a part of the shoulder or hand may be lost into the edges of the photo. You need to concentrate when you view your subject through your camera before you click, in order to get the picture exactly the way you want it.

-->Distance from Subject

The distance from a subject is another critical aspect in getting a good picture. You want to see facial expression, not a mass of faces when you take a photograph. To do this, you have to be at a suitable close distance from your subject. On the other hand, when you click pictures of a campus, the distance that you click from can give you a wide view and take in a lot more of the scene. To take close up pictures of flowers or crystal or any decorative item, you have to move into close range and use suitable lenses to achieve the right magnification.

-->Changing the Direction of Your Camera Based on the Picture

Many a time you may not be able to capture the subject in it's entirety in the conventional horizontal position in which the camera is usually held. You can easily change the direction. Hold the camera vertically and then view your subject. You will be able to capture more of a longish subject like a tall monument, a full-length picture of a child, and so on.

-->Objects Impinging on the Picture

At times there are certain objects in a scene that seem to almost invade into the picture. For instance, if you take a picture of a group of your friends on a street, chances are that a street sign may gain prominence in the photograph unbidden and may seem to sprout out of the head of one of your friends in the photograph. Or the light fixtures in your living room may find a place in the picture and appear in the form an unseemly blob in your photo. And the tough part is, when you take the shot you may not be aware of this because the eye is focused on the people in the picture.

-->Avoiding Too Many Elements

A picture cluttered with too many objects may detract from the actual subject. For instance, a wide view of a room in which your subject is sitting may create a photo in which too many objects vie for attention. If the person in the picture is your main target then narrow down and concentrate mostly on clicking the subject. While a good background adds value to a picture, too much paraphernalia could take the attention away from the main subject. Your picture may be focused and the lighting may be good but there is so much going on in the picture that it becomes aesthetically lacking and maybe even a little jarring.

Besides Light and Aesthetics, the third issue in photography basics refers to 'focusing' the picture. Getting the right focus is the difference between a blurred image and a sharp image. If you have an auto focus camera, the camera will do the job for you. This is available in most basic models. You can also achieve focus manually in other cameras using the mechanism to adjust the focus and to lock the focus on the subject before you click.

To achieve the right focus, it is important to decide on the artistic elements of the final picture. There are areas of a scene that you may want sharper and clearer. For instance, when you photograph a famous monument, you may want the building as well as the blue sky against which it is silhouetted to be crystal clear. If you are photographing a camel in a desert, you might want the camel to be clear and a slightly hazy/blurred effect of the surrounding sand. If you are taking a shot of a room containing a priceless vase, when you look through your viewfinder, you want the finer details of the intricate patterns on the vase to be clearer than other objects in its vicinity. So, it's also a question of the portion or key part of your picture your focus is really on.

This area that you identify for your focus is referred to as the 'depth of field'. You can lock the focus on the depth of field that you choose. You can control the focus and depth of field depending on your objectives for different shots.

The basics of photography are better applied when you put into perspective the capabilities of the camera model that you use or plan to purchase. Simple point and shoot cameras require minimal knowledge in operating them. They are easy to use and have the bare minimum controls. The user has to just compose and aim the shot on the subject and presses the shutter button. 'Click' and the job is done. The camera handles its functions automatically.

For those of you who want to work with a slightly more sophisticated camera, you have the option of a Single Lens Reflex camera popularly called the SLR system. This type of camera is available in both 35mm film format as well as digital format. Digital cameras have no film but the image is captured on an image sensor and stored in photo memory. Digital cameras in general provide superior picture quality. The internal system of the SLR camera is made up of angled prisms and mirrors that actually work like a lens when you click. But you have a few things to learn about this camera system before you can achieve better light exposure, sharpness and good focus. While it is imperative that you study the instruction manual of your SLR camera system thoroughly to understand the features and functioning, given here are some of the features and a brief explanation on how these features can help you in achieving the right exposure.

-->Additional Lenses for Close Up Shots

An additional feature in an SLR camera that makes it far superior to a simple 'point and shoot' camera is the ability to use add-on lenses. When you attempt to take a close up shot of objects in nature like a flower or a butterfly, you might want a very high level of clarity. You can add power to your camera by attaching an additional lens onto your camera lens for greater magnification of your subject. These supplementary lenses are available at reasonable prices in different powers like +2, +3 and so on.

You can also look for a model with an optical zoom lens that gives you the flexibility of variable focal length and a range of lens options within a single zoom lens.

-->Shutter Speed

The shutter in your camera lets light in during a shot and keeps light out at other times. When the shutter opens for an exposure, light is allowed to impact on the film or image sensor. If you set a slow shutter speed, more light impacts on the sensor and affects the type of exposure. When you use a faster shutter speeds your picture is sharper and clearer. There is a maximum shutter speed that is available to you in your camera system. The shutter speed is set at a fraction of a second- for instance, 1/1000th of a second. It could also be 1/2000th or even the much-preferred higher speed of 1/4000th of a second that is available in certain models. Professional use models boast of even higher shutter speed of 1/6000th or 1/8000th of a second. If you want to freeze action such as in sports, you require fast shutter speeds.

There are many more features that when used effectively can add value to the impact of your photographs. Most 35mm SLR cameras have a TTL viewfinder. TTL stands for 'through the lens' metering system. This device has the ability to measure (on a scale) the amount of light impacting the film. Using this device is the key to control the exposure and get the right amount of light in order to capture a proper image. You can also use a tripod with your SLR camera. A tripod is your answer to achieving the right exposure in a close up shot and in low light conditions. It holds the camera steady, helps in focusing and ensures a sharper picture even when shutter speed is slow.

The guidelines discussed here on the basics of photography and the additional features of the SLR system, will not only get you started but also help you avoid the common mistakes that many budding photographers make. Study your manual thoroughly for insights and ideas. Learning photography requires patience and the ability to constantly experiment and teach yourself through a process of trial and error.

The author, Chris Haslego, is founder of, the internet's foremost source of camera manuals. With over 4000+ camera manuals available from all major manufacturers.

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