Photography is everywhere. Odds are high that whatever device you're reading this on has at least one camera on it. With most things in life, before you do something, you first learn something about it. No one just hops into a plane without first taking lessons. No one plants their own garden without a little research first. Yet everyday, people use cameras without really knowing what makes a quality photograph.
One small blog post isn't enough to cover everything, so think of this as just a super high level view of some photography basics. There will be more posts that go into detail for these later on, but with the holidays here I thought it'd be best to do a crash course introduction now. So, here goes!
1. Your camera doesn't matter...
To take a good photograph, you need a camera. That's it. It doesn't matter what type of camera, or what special features the camera can or can't do. A camera is a tool, no different than a hammer. An expensive DSLR may have more features than a cheap point and shoot, but that doesn't mean those features are always useful in taking a better photo. A Ferrari may be capable of 200mph, but it'll still get stuck in city traffic the same as a Honda. Professional photographers have specific requirements and need gear that performs in demanding conditions. High end cameras are geared to photography easier for them in those conditions. You can spend less than $300 and get a basic camera, like this Panasonic ZS50, that will let you practice standard lighting and composition skills, while still producing quality images.
"It's easy for you to say that cameras don't matter when you've already got the expensive cameras"
I would say the same thing even if I didn't have those camears. And sure, I've got professional level cameras, like my Nikon D750, but I also shoot with a 6-megapixel D70s that's over 12 years old. The best camera to use, is the one you have with you, and I don't carry either of those, with me 24/7. I'm a street runner, and if I see something that stands out during a run, the best camera I have is my iPhone. Experience makes the difference, and it's better to build experience with a cheap camera now, than to save up for months to get a $3000 camera later.
2. ...but your subject does
Your subject is your photograph's purpose, and every photograph should have one. There is nothing more important than your subject. Everything, from the lighting and coloring to the composition and background, should work to emphasize your subject.
Some photographs work better in black and white, while some work better in color. Some subjects need to be front and center, others need to be offset. Sometimes the entire image needs to be in focus, other times require depth of field, the aesthetic out-of-focus parts of an image known as bokeh. Some images need motion blur, some don't. Each image you shoot has things you can do to make the subject stand out.
3. Good composition is the most important thing you can do
"Wait, what? You just said that nothing was more important than the subject?"
Yes, but without a good composition, your audience won't know what your subject is. There are lots of "rules" about what makes a good composition, from the "rule of thirds" to the "golden circle" and while those are good to know, each image is unique. What works for one image, may not work for another. There is no "one rule to rule them all." The only way to learn what does and doesn't work is to start shooting.
Look at art also, photographs and paintings both. Critique the work, identifying what you do and don't like, or how it makes you feel. Close your eyes for a moment and open them, noticing what grabs your attention first. Pay attention to how your eyes move across the work. Do the same for your own images. Every time you realize that the photo could be better if something was different, you've made yourself a better photographer.
However that all takes time and, while there are no shortcuts, the rule of thirds is the closest thing to one. Even though it may sound complex, it's an easy concept to master. Simply visualize a 3x3 grid over your image. Many cameras even have it as an overlay on top of their displays.
Refer to the infographic on the right as a guide for some of the ways you can use the rule of thirds in your photos, but don't be afraid to experiment and find your own style.
4. Lighting is critical
I could go into a whole thing about the history of photography, but for now, I'll limit it to just this. Photography comes from the Greek words φωτός (phōtos) “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light.” With a definition like that, it should come as no surprise how critical lighting is for photography. What might be surprising is just how much difference lighting can have on an image. As an example, here are two images with the same composition, but different lighting conditions.
For the first image, I had managed to be in the building at the right time of day for the sun to shine through the skylight and illuminate the back wall. Using a flash unit helped to add a bit of fill light to the large area, but over-illuminated the lamppost. Without that flash, the lamp post would’ve been as dark as the area around it, essentially turning the entire right side of the image into negative space. The bright areas pull your eyes to the top of the image, following the lines and curves of the lamp and skylight. In the second, I had gone at a different time of day than before, which made for different lighting through the skylights. I also didn’t have a flash with me, which turned the lamp nearly invisible. Different lighting made for two very different images, both with their strengths and weaknesses.
A camera captures light onto a sensor. Parts of a sensor that receive a lot of light, get brighter. Generally speaking, the more light there is in an environment, the better your image will look. There's a limit to this, and too much light in a photo will wash away details, but not enough light will keep details You can control the amount of light that hits a sensor in four ways:
1) Add more lights. This isn't always possible. You can, however, position people closer to existing light sources, or turn them to face into the light so more is reflected into the lens. You could also wait for a different time of day.
2) Increase the shutter speed. Shutter speed is the time that the shutter is open, as a fraction of a second. A speed of 125 really means 1/125th of a second. 500 is 1/500th of a second. The longer the shutter is open, the more light can hit the sensor. But, that also means that longer the shutter is open, the more motion blur occurs. Without an stabilizer of some type, a camera can pick up noticable handheld shake at anything longer than 1/60th of a second.
3) Use a larger aperature. Aperature is an opening in the lens that allows light to hit the sensor. The larger the opening, the more light can enter. A larger opening also puts more of the objects infront of and behind your subject out of focus. This is called depth-of-field. At really large openings, such as f1.4, f1.8 or f2, you could have person's eye focused crisp and clear, while their ear and nose would be blurred. At smaller aperatures, such as f18, f20, or f22, the entire scene is in focus. An easy way to remember this, is by asking yourself how much you want in focus. If you want 22 things in focus, use f22. If you want 5 things in focus, use f5.
4) Adjust the camera's ISO. ISO refers your sensor's sensitivity. A higher ISO is more sensitive, capable of capturing more light from a scene. Higher ISOs can also have more noise and color distortion. Many cameras can adjust this automatically.
A properly exposed image is a balance of those four functions.
Each of these three things, a defined subject, a good composition, and a proper exposure, are tied together by a common theme: it takes deliberate thought. A snapshot is just that, a shot taken in snap. A photograph, however, is a deliberate piece of artwork, just as possible with the latest DSLR as it is with the Panasonic camera I mentioned earlier.