“Wow, your camera takes such nice pictures, which one do you have?”
Meanwhile I have to smile about this question, which has offended me before. On a photo trip many years ago, where I was a participant with a Canon 600D, another participant said to me “Hach, you have a beginner’s camera. I got the 6D” – the counter-attack of the then leading photographer is still in my ear today, namely that it’s not the camera that counts, but the person behind it. How true.
Whatever camera you got. You can learn to photograph with any camera. Just know the photography basics. Here’s how you will…
… get rid of automatic mode for ever
… take better photos
… compose your photos to create dynamic and interest
… master your photography skills instantly
Table of content
1. The most important icons on your camera and what they mean
I already mentioned in the introduction that it doesn’t matter which camera you have. Even if you have a pocket camera with fewer manual settings or just take pictures with your mobile phone, you can still get a lot of tips here for image composition and on the subject of light.
The symbols on the camera are confusing for beginners. But I can reassure you, you will know the most important ones by heart within a very short time. And you simply check the manual for the less important ones when you need them.
The function wheel, usually located on the top of the camera, is used to select the camera mode.
P … Program Auto. My goal is to get you completely away from this mode and instead teach you how to set the settings to get the best results.
S (T, Tv) … Shutter priority. This is one of two semi-automatic modes. With this mode, you set the shutter speed and the camera selects the aperture. The S stands for Shutter priority, the Tv for Time value.
A (Av) … Aperture priority. This is the second semi-automatic mode. In this mode, you set the aperture and the camera selects the time. Note that the camera does not know if you are shooting with a tripod. With a certain shutter speed, the photos that are taken freehand are no longer in focus and might be blurred.
M … Manual exposure setting. With this setting, you select both the aperture and the shutter speed.
B … Bulb mode. You use this setting for long exposures of 30 seconds or more.
Here’s a description of the icons you will find on the back of the camera. The icons may vary slightly depending on the camera manufacturer. The exposure lock, for example, is set through the star on Canon cameras, the equivalent on Nikon is the AE-L/AF-L button.
With the Q Quick Adjust button (on Canon) you can quickly jump to the individual setting parameters.
2. The light
Let’s get to something much more exciting than camera symbols, to a very important factor in photography: light. Photography means “drawing with light” (it is composed of the ancient Greek words photós (light) and graphein (drawing).
Basically, the best light for photography is in the morning and late afternoon. Why? Because the sun is still low and therefore it looks warm and golden. Golden light has a warm and pleasant effect – emotions that people usually prefer. The time of the golden light is also called the golden hour.
Especially when you travel, it is not always possible to photograph exclusively during the best-light-hours. Note that the light is very harsh at noon and in the early afternoon as the sun is very high. This results in long and hard shadows, which are not suitable for many sceneries. Landscapes, for example, appear flat and boring without depth or structure. In a big city with skyscrapers, however, the high sun can be an advantage, because you will find a street and its buildings in the light. Buildings with columns and symmetry are also very suitable for the midday light to highlight the shadows.
I also recommend to use the amazing light of the blue hour. It is the time in the morning before sunrise and in the evening after sunset. When the sun is between 4 and 8 degrees below the horizon, the earth’s ozone layer absorbs the yellow and red parts of the sunlight. The blue parts of the color remain and therefore the sky turns deep blue during this phase. Here you will find my tips for photographing in the blue hour and which sceneries are particularly suitable for shooting in the blue hour.
BAD EXAMPLE: I shot this lovely village in Provence in the early afternoon light. It seems boring and flat. In the golden evening light the roofs glow reddish and the whole scenery would look much warmer and more inviting.
3. Understanding exposure
Now it’s time to talk about the second important factor of a good photo, the exposure. Once you’ve understood the basic principle, it’s really easy to adjust the exposure settings manually. To know the exposure triangle belongs to the photography basics – there’s now way around
We start with the three terms that define the so-called exposure triangle:
shutter speed and
All three are connected. If you change one setting, you have to adjust another as well. Let’s deep dive:
It indicates HOW MUCH light hits the camera sensor through the lens. The aperture is given as a number before which you usually find an f/.
On the right, you can see the aperture of f/1.4. You can see in the graphic that the diameter of the opening of 1.4 is very large, which means that a lot of light flows through it. Your image becomes brighter. The further you move to the left, the smaller the opening becomes and thus less light flows through.
Large aperture = small number = large opening = much light
Small aperture = large number = small opening = less light
How does the aperture work?
You use the aperture as a creative element whenever you want to achieve a certain depth of field within a scene.
What is meant by the depth of field? The point on which you focus on is the sharpest point on a photo. Everything in front and behind is called depth of field.
If you open the aperture wide (= small f-number), the depth of field is shallow and the foreground and background blur. A classic example is a portrait. With a large aperture and the focus on the person (or in my example the animal), you make it stand out from the background and make it the main subject.
A small aperture (large f-number) lets you achieve a large depth of field and everything in the image is sharp. For landscapes, use a small aperture (large f-number) to get as much depth of field as possible.
Large aperture = small number = large opening = much light = blurred background
Small aperture = large number = small opening = less light = everything is sharp
Set the function wheel of your camera to A or Av (A comes from Aperture and means aperture). This mode is a semi-automatic mode and is called aperture priority. It allows you to set the aperture you need for your subject and the camera automatically selects the exposure time.
3.2 Shutter speed
It indicates HOW LONG light hits the camera sensor through the lens. The shutter speed (or exposure time) is given in fractions of a second or second. The longer the shutter is open, the longer the light will pass through and your image will become brighter.
Long shutter speed (i.e 1/2 s) = much light
Short shutter speed (i.e 1/500 s) = less light
How does the shutter speed work?
The shutter speed is also a creative element that you use with moving subjects to either freeze them in motion or blur them. The shutter speed lets you decide whether your photo is dynamic or static.
With a short shutter speed, you freeze a movement. The choice of time also depends on the speed of the object. For a bird, you usually need 1/1000s or even less (in this image I set the exposure time to 1/2000s).
If you choose a longer exposure time, you blur movement and create dynamics. You can try this with people in the city, water or vehicles.
A waterfall with short exposure time and longer to achieve a smooth effect. During the day you usually need an ND filter in order to achieve longer shutter speeds.
Long shutter speed (i.e 1/2 s) = much light = blur motion = dynamic
Short shutter speed (i.e 1/500 s) = less light = freeze motion = static
Basic photography tips when photographing freehand:
The shutter speed is no longer than the reciprocal of the focal length in millimeters. If you shoot with a focal length of 200mm, the exposure time should be at least 1/200s. Especially for beginners, I recommend sticking to this rule despite the image stabilizer.
The shutter speed should be at least 1/50 or 1/60. If the exposure time is slower, you risk blur.
Set the function wheel of your camera to S or Tv (S comes from shutter speed, Tv from time value). This mode is called shutter priority. You choose the exposure time you want for your subject and the camera automatically selects the aperture.
The ISO value indicates how light-sensitive the camera sensor reacts. It is given as a number between 50 and 64,000 (depending on the camera model). The brighter your ambient light, the lower your ISO value should be. If you have little light available, you have to increase the ISO value.
An increase of the ISO results in so-called image noise. It is the consequence of an error in signal processing that occurs with increasing ISO. Your image becomes less contrasted and blurred due to a higher ISO.
It is important to keep the ISO value as low as possible in order to avoid or minimize image noise.
Low ISO value = more light available = less noise
High ISO value = less available light = more noise
3.4 The connection between aperture, shutter speed and ISO
Now you know the three values of the exposure triangle and what they do. The first cornerstone to escape the automatic mode has been set. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are directly related because correct exposure is a combination of the three values. If you change one of the three values, you also have to change another one accordingly, because the sensor needs the right amount of light to expose the photo correctly. Sounds logical, right?
If you open up your aperture one stop brighter (= you choose a smaller number), twice as much light falls on the sensor. This allows you to choose a shorter exposure time.
If you increase the shutter speed by one step, twice as much light falls on the sensor. This allows you to close the aperture one step (choose a larger number).
If you increase the ISO, the image sensor needs only half as much light.
3.5 Manual exposure setting
Set your function wheel to M for Manual Exposure and try it out right away. In manual mode, you select aperture and shutter speed yourself.
Find a subject and choose the effect you want to achieve. Let’s say you want to photograph a bouquet of flowers on your kitchen table and have the background blurred. So you choose a large aperture (= small number). Focus on the bouquet and press the shutter release button halfway. This triggers the camera’s internal light meter. Now observe the scale (exposure level indicator) on the display or in the viewfinder, which ranges from -3 to +3. Turn the aperture and time wheel until the scale line is at 0. Then release the shutter and check if the photo is well exposed.
The scale is your guide to correct exposure when shooting in manual mode. You need to correct to the left or right for certain subjects.
Nicola’s quick photography tip: Go the extra mile and start shooting only in manual mode. This will not only make you set the settings faster but also help you understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO much better.
In some situations, a semi-auto mode is recommended. If, for example, you are shooting extremely fast objects (birds in flight), switch to the shutter priority mode and select an appropriate exposure time. If you do street photography and want to capture random moments, I recommend using the aperture priority.
Remember that your camera doesn’t know if you’re shooting with or without a tripod. For example, if you select the aperture priority and set a certain aperture, the camera automatically selects the exposure time. The exposure time may be too long to take sharp photos. The camera does not take this into account.
4. Some more settings
Now you know how and when you set aperture, shutter speed and ISO. But hang on. There are some more settings you should know about:
4.1 light metering
The camera has an internal light meter that comes into effect when you press the shutter release button halfway. We distinguish between 4 metering methods:
Matrix or Evaluative Metering (ESP)
In matrix measurement, brightness is measured at many points throughout the image. It is the most common measurement method and fits the majority of images. If you are just learning to take pictures, I recommend that you set this measurement and leave it as it is.
In spot metering, the camera measures only a small area in the center of the image that is about 1-5%. It is particularly suitable for extreme contrasts and when a certain part of the image is important. The best example is a stage with artists against a black background. If you want to photograph the star violinist here, spot metering is the best choice.
The partial metering is like the spot metering, but the measuring range is approx. 10%. You can use this method for extreme backlight situations or strong reflections in the background or for portraits.
Center-Weighted Average Metering
The center-weighted average metering is based on the entire image with strong weighting towards the center of the image. For example, if you have an image with strong contrasts and a bright main subject in the center, the center-weighted method will not easily overexpose it. This method requires a lot of experience though.
The most relevant one for you is the first one, the matrix metering as it is suitable for the majority of images. If you are already a little more experienced, try the partial metering with a portrait.
4.2 How to focus?
You use the focus to determine which part of the image should be in focus. Each camera has an auto focus (AF) function that. There are different modes, depending on whether you are shooting still, moving, or changing subjects. The operating modes have different names depending on the camera manufacturer.
Single auto focus (One Shot, AF-S, S-AF): For still objects or those that are barely moving
Continuous auto focus (AI Servo, AF-C, C-AF): For moving objects
Auto (AI Focus, AF-A, AF-F): The camera selects between the other two modes. As an example, this mode is used when you shoot a bird in the water and wait for the bird to shake.
Nicola’s quick photography tip #1: I recommend that you manually select the auto focus area (these are the rectangles and dots when looking through the viewfinder). This determines which part of the subject should be sharpest.
Nicola’s quick photography tip #2: If you change the focus to continuous (AI Servo, AF-C, C-AF), don’t forget to reset it. If you’re wondering why your auto focus doesn’t beep, this might be the reason.
With manual focus (MF), you do this by rotating the focus ring at the front of the lens. Look through the viewfinder, rotate the focus ring and watch the focus change.
4.3 Image format
We basically distinguish between two camera image formats, the RAW and the JPG (JPEG). The RAW file is the raw data format that leaves all data from the camera as raw data. It has much finer brightness gradations and shows more details than the JPG. The disadvantage, however, is that it requires a lot of memory space. In addition to that, not all programs can read the raw data, mostly you need a converter or an appropriate image processing program. JPG files need much less storage space, but the possibilities of post-processing are very limited.
Nicola’s quick tip: If you plan to edit the images and enhance them even more, shoot in RAW format.
4.4 White balance
With White Balance, you can change the color temperature of the light in your images. The color temperature is given in Kelvin (K). Depending on which light source you currently have, the Kelvin number changes. If you shoot in RAW, you don’t have to worry about this setting and can leave it at AWB (automatic white balance). Even if the temperature of your photo does not fit at all, you can change it with a click in the image editing programs.
If you are shooting in JPG and you notice that your image has a strange color cast, try the different options.
Auto White Balance. Works very well in most of the situations.
White balance for day light. 5.200 Kelvin color temperature
White balance setting on cloudy days. Color temperature 6.000 Kelvin
White balance setting for sceneries in the shadow. Color temperature 7.000 Kelvin
Icon for Tungsten. Color temperature approx. 3.200 Kelvin
Use this setting when you have Fluorescent Lamps. 4.000 Kelvin
Used with flash, Kelvin will be set automatically
Manual setting of the color temperature
Nicola’s quick photography tip: If you adjust the automatic white balance and make a different selection, remember to reset it as well.
5. Common photography beginner's mistakes
Especially as a photography beginner you often don’t realize the mistakes you make. Why is the photo simply not sharp? Why does something blink or why does the auto focus not find a point? Here are the FAQs for beginners in photography.
My photos are not sharp. What am I doing wrong? These could be the reasons for unsharp photos:
Check the exposure time. I recommend 1/50 or 1/60 to my photo course students when shooting freehand – with or without image stabilizer. When shooting with a longer focal length, observe the reciprocal rule of thumb. With a focal length of 200mm, the exposure time should be 1/200 sec. Turn on the image stabilizer on the lens.
Your subject is moving. Note the exposure time. If you want to freeze it completely, you need a short shutter speed.
Minimize your movements. Hold your breath or support yourself somewhere so you don’t move when the shutter is released.
Maybe you accidentally activated manual focus?
Or you’ve turned on the autofocus, but you’re too quick to push the shutter button and don’t focus accurately before.
Did you choose the right focus point?
Check the auto focus mode. You may have set the continuous focus mode.
Are you shooting with a tripod? Use a remote shutter release or at least the 2-second self-timer to prevent camera shake when shooting. If you expose for a long time and your tripod is not completely stable, you may get blurred images, especially if the wind is blowing.
The auto focus does not find a focus point. Why?
f you focus and the auto focus hums and searches and simply doesn’t focus then you may be too close to the subject. Increase the distance and try again. Autofocus is easy to confuse when there are many things in an image. You have to focus precisely and with a steady hand.
The photo has a funny color cast. Why is that? I certainly didn't do anything wrong...
Are you sure? Remember the white balance in point 4.4, which controls the color temperature of the image. If your photo has a blue or yellow cast, change this setting. Usually, the automatic white balance (AWB) is a good choice.
I don't see the scenery sharp when I look through the viewfinder. Do I need glasses?
Possibly. But maybe it’s just the diopter dial you find next to the viewfinder. Turn it and adjust it so that you see the image sharp. Problem solved or off to the ophthalmologist?
6. 10 tips for a perfect image composition
Another mistake that photography beginners like to make is to simply photograph without thinking about the image composition. I know! When you start with photography you’re happy to get the camera settings under control. Nevertheless, I recommend learning the composition of the picture right away. To help you here, you’ll find a few important tips and rules that will assist you in composing your picture:
6.1 Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is one of the first rules when you learn photography. It ensures balance and harmony in your photo. Divide your image into 9 equal rectangles by drawing two horizontal and two vertical lines. Place your subject on one of the lines or an intersection. Also, think of the horizon: position it on one of the horizontal lines.
6.2 The horizon
Let’s stick to the horizon, which you place on one of the third axes. Align it straight. I very often see pictures of beautiful beaches and landscapes with a sloping horizon.
6.3 Leading lines
Search for a line in your scene that leads your viewer into the picture. Such leading lines can be paths, streets, rivers, stairs. They bring depth and dynamic to the picture.
A wide landscape often looks flat. That’s why we photographers look for a foreground to add depth to the photo and create a sense of distance. Park benches, rocks or people, for example, are very suitable as the foreground of a wide landscape.
Symmetry creates calm and balance. The human eye finds symmetries extremely appealing and relaxing. Search specifically for symmetries and loosen them by finding a disruptive point.
Reflections are very attractive images. In landscape photography, reflections seem quite powerful. But you can also find them in the city – look for puddles and observe what is reflected in them.
6.7 Shadows and contrasts
Buildings with arcades, arches and columns are common subjects to capture shadows and contrasts. Find a building near you and focus on this specific theme. Courtyards are also always a great place to start…
Moving subjects create a dynamic in images due to longer exposure times. These can be people at the crosswalk, the tram in front of a historic building or yellow taxis. There are no limits to the possibilities of imagination. Put yourself out there and try it.
Abstract photos usually make us curious. At first glance, we can’t see what the picture represents, but the object looks familiar to us. If you look out purposefully, you will find countless possibilities for abstract pictures. Don’t forget to gaze upwards. This picture shows a ceiling in a shopping mall. Would you have identified it?
In silhouettes, the main subject is not exposed but transformed into a graphic form. Try it at the next sunset. Choose an object that is easily identifiable, such as a lighthouse or a person. The human being may make exaggerated poses.
7. How you learn photography?
You now have an overview of the most important settings and rules for image composition. Now it’s up to you to learn how to take great photographs. But don’t worry, you won’t be left alone if you don’t want to. There are several ways you can learn photography.
Option 1: Self-study
They exist. The people who sit down at home and go through online tutorials and read books and teach themselves everything. I pay respect to those who do because it takes not only discipline but also patience.
Option 2: A photo course for beginners
If you prefer to be guided by someone, I recommend you take a photo course for beginners. The photo course explains the camera settings and how aperture, shutter speed and ISO are related. The advantage of attending a photography course for beginners is personal guidance and you can ask all the questions you have.
Whichever option you choose, the most important thing is to stay tuned and practice. The more you do, the better you get. The more you shoot, the faster you will be able to change the camera settings. Find inspiration from photographers, plan photo projects, and share your photos in groups.
Is a photography tour something for you?
If you like to travel and want to improve your photography skills in a group of like-minded people, I invite you to join me on a photography trip. A photography tour is about being able to take pictures in a quiet environment, visiting the most beautiful photo spots at the best times, developing your skills and having fun.
“Only those who are already so great in photography are going on these trips anyway. I do not fit in there”. Unfortunately, I hear that again and again from photography beginners and every time I am sad to hear that. I offer a few photography trips and especially invite beginners to join me. In small groups, I have the possibility to take care of each participant individually and to deal with the problems of each one. So please eliminate the quote above and give a photography trip a chance to inspire you.
I hope this article will help you improve your photos and encourage you to leave the auto mode. As a photographer and photo course instructor, I’d like to let you know that at the end of the day YOU decide whether you like your picture or not. I truly hope you will find the same passion for photography as I did.