A beginner’s guide to photography

Photography is an enjoyable and rewarding hobby, but if you’re a beginner it can be hard to know where to start. From choosing the right camera and setting it up, to understanding exposure and knowing how composition works – there’s a lot to figure out. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but try to keep in mind that even the best photographers started out as beginners. With the right guidance and plenty of practice, there’s no reason why you can’t learn to take beautiful, meaningful photos.

So if you’re keen to take that camera off auto mode, then we’ve got 5 steps to help you get started on your photography journey.

1. Considering which type of photography might be best for you

There are many different types of photography. Some of the most popular include landscape photography, portrait photography, street photography, food photography, wildlife photography, event photography, still life photography and wildlife photography – and that’s just naming eight. We’ll look at four of the most common photography genres below, but if you want to look into other types of photography in more depth, you can have a look at this helpful guide.

It can be tricky trying to choose your niche when you’re just starting out. You may not have a specific interest in any particular type of photography yet, and want to do it all – but it’s helpful to have an idea of your interests before you go camera shopping. You might want to spend a few days trying out different types of photography and see which you find most interesting. It doesn’t matter what you use to take photos at this stage – an old point-and-shoot camera will work, as will a camera phone. At this point it’s not about whether your photos are top quality – it’s about seeing which type of photography excites you and inspires you the most.

Street photography

We’d suggest, if you’re able to, going for a walk and trying your hand at street photography. This is all about capturing life as it happens, observing candid moments and depicting them in artistic ways, usually without any central theme or topic. You can take photos of anything that interests you: a neighbour’s cat on the wall, someone working in their garden, two people waiting at the traffic lights. The beauty of street photography is that it’s unplanned, so it’s a good place for beginners to start. You can have a look at some powerful examples of street photography, and get some tips, here.

Food photography

Food photography is another popular genre, and one that’s easily accessible to most people – not everyone goes for walks along the streets, but everyone eats. Food photography is more technical than street photography, as you need decent lighting and to be able to actively create your scene yourself. However, if you’re just starting out you can leave the more technical side for later, and just spend some time seeing if food photography is something that excites you. If nothing else, it might inspire you to make some great looking meals! You can get some advice on how to bring your food photography to life here.

Portrait photography

Portrait photography is another good place for beginners to start. Because portrait photography is all about capturing your subject’s personality, it makes sense to experiment by taking photos of friends and family – people you know and feel comfortable with. Authentic portrait photography relies on the photographer’s connection to the subject, and ideally, the camera becomes second nature. If you’ve always preferred taking pictures of people rather than landscapes, this might be a good place to begin. You can read some portrait photography tips for beginners here.

Landscape photography

If you love to travel, landscape photography might be for you. Good landscape photography can transport the viewer into the photo and give them a sense of what the photographer saw and felt at the time (have a look at some evocative landscape photos here). A challenge of portrait photography is that many elements are out of your control – the lighting, the weather etc – but you might find that to be part of the fun. With trips to exotic destinations currently on hold, you can try taking photos in your local park, or even your garden, if you have one, to figure out if this genre is for you. Remember that as you develop your photography skills, your interests might change over time. You may plan to get into food photography, but instead find it’s taking people’s portraits that makes you happiest. This is all part of the journey, and part of the fun.

2. Choosing a camera

If you’re interested in learning photography, the first thing you’ll need is – unsurprisingly – a camera. Buying a decent camera doesn’t mean that you’ll instantly start taking good photos anymore than buying a decent paintbrush means you’ll paint a good picture. But if you want to learn about photography, the natural first step is to learn about your camera, get used to the different settings, and get to work taking photos and gaining experience.

There are four main types of camera: compact cameras, bridge cameras, DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras. There are key differences in image quality, advanced features and how easy they are to use, and there definitely isn’t a one-size-fits all option. The best DSLR camera for portrait photographs won’t be the best camera for taking wildlife photography, so the first step is to figure out what you actually want to use your camera for.

The next step is to think about your budget. How much are you willing to spend? It’s helpful to be as specific as possible here, otherwise you might be overwhelmed with the range of cameras on offer. If you want to spend under £500 the options will seem never-ending, whereas if you know you want to spend around £350, looking at your choices and picking one will be much more manageable.

If you’re serious about getting into photography, there’s no substitute for a DSLR camera. Also known as digital SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras, these cameras aren’t cheap, but they offer a level of control you just can’t find with other cameras. The photo quality is excellent and you can edit and control all aspects of your imagery. But the decisions don’t end here: even once you know the type of camera you want, the next step is choosing a brand: Nikon or Canon? Olympus or Sony?

Choosing the right camera is important, so once you know what you want to use your camera for and have a budget, we recommend going into a camera shop and speaking to an expert (or, if you have any photographer friends, asking them for advice). You can search for your local camera shop online – most are open now – or find your nearest Jessops store here. You can also buy a camera online  – Jessops and Camera World are good places to start looking.

If you want to do research yourself, we recommend watching the excellent free class, How to Choose Your First DSLR Camera, or reading an in-depth guide which goes into more detail about the different features of each camera.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that good quality cameras today are all of an exceptionally high standard, so you don’t need to worry too much about this decision. Once you’ve purchased a camera you like that does the job and fits your budget, you can start developing your photography skills.

3. Deciding what equipment or accessories you need

If you buy a DSLR camera, and you want to get the most out of it, then you’ll probably need to purchase some equipment to use with it. A lot of camera accessories are optional, so you can always wait and see if you need them further down the line – but it’s a good idea to buy lenses and editing software at the same time as you buy your DSLR camera. This way, you can ensure they’re the right fit for your model, and get an expert opinion. If you can’t get to a shop, you can call up the Jessops sales team and ask for advice.

Lenses

First, you’ll need lenses. Lenses are probably the most important piece of equipment you can buy for your camera – more important even than the camera itself. Lenses are so crucial because they determine which photos you can take in the first place. Different lenses are compatible with different types of photography.

For everyday photography, it’s best to begin with a standard zoom lens – a 24-70mm or 18-55mm. If you want to take portraits, it’s better to choose a prime lens – one without a zoom – at 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm. If you want to take photos of sports, a telephoto lens is best. To learn more about different lenses and what they’re good for, have a read of this guide to the different types of camera lenses;  alternatively, you can ask an assistant in the camera shop, when you’re buying your camera.

Editing (or post-processing) software

Even the best photographers edit their photos – and if you’re committed to moving forward with photography, at some point you’ll need to do some editing too. Buying special editing software off the bat isn’t entirely essential, and you may want to start off with photo editing software that’s already on your computer, or one  that comes with your camera. But if you want to get into the editing process, then Adobe Photoshop Express and Paint.NET are free editing tools that are specifically aimed at beginners. There are also some great quality paid for programmes like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, which are often the go-to post-processing software for professionals and beginners.

You can try out Adobe Photoshop for a week for free before you purchase it, and if you like it, you can take one of their courses for beginners. Adobe Photoshop tutorials are free and can show you how to brighten a photo, change the tone and colours, and completely overhaul your image.

At one point, people would take photos and drop their roll of film into a shop to be developed, modern photography does require you to spend a bit of time in front of the computer if you want to access your photos. Getting the right software is important – but it’s perfectly okay to save the editing part until later, once you’ve become much more comfortable using your camera to take high-quality photos.

Other helpful accessories and equipment you might like to consider buying are:

A tripod. If you want to take landscape photos, a tripod will come in very handy. It can also help you to keep a steady hand.

Camera bags. These vary according to the type of photography – you’ll want a shoulder bag for street photography, a technical backpack for landscape photography, etc.

Memory cards. To begin with you’ll need a memory card that has a least 32 GB range. Anything smaller and you may find yourself having to delete images while shooting to make room for new ones.

Polarising filter. This is super important for improving the quality of landscape photos: it reduces sun reflection and overexposure and helps make your images look vibrant.

Cleaning kit. This can be a simple microfibre cloth to keep your lens clean.

4. Understanding your camera’s features

Once you’ve got your camera and equipment, the next step is to learn how to use it. It’s normal to feel daunted when you first set up your camera and encounter all the menus, settings, and options for customisation… not to mention all the photography lingo which for now, seems so unfamiliar. Glancing through the (usually) dry, technical user manual often makes everything seem trickier – but try not to feel intimidated. Becoming familiar with your camera and its settings is probably easier than you think.

Before we delve into the fundamental camera settings every budding photographer should know, it might be helpful to first have a look at how cameras work. Knowing what happens when you press the shutter-release will help you understand the different camera settings and why they’re  important.

No matter how complex they seem, cameras are actually pretty simple tools. For a DSLR camera, there’s the body of the camera, and an attached lens. Light enters through an opening in the lens. When you’re not taking photos, the mirror inside the camera reflects the light up through a prism, like a periscope, and into the eyepiece. This means you see the image exactly as it appears in the lens. When you take a photo, the mirror flips out of the way, and the lens adjusts to the aperture you’ve chosen (aperture is the opening in the lens – we’ll cover this next). Then a shutter in the back of the camera opens – this allows light to hit the sensor and create your image.

Understanding how cameras work makes it easier for you to learn about  exposure. Exposure is made up of three fundamental components: aperture, shutter speed and ISO (light sensitivity). If you want to see a visual depiction of how your camera works, and the role aperture, shutter speed and ISO play, have a look at this handy infographic. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the most important settings on your camera, so it’s helpful to understand a bit about them before you get snapping.

Aperture

Aperture is the opening in your lens. It can be helpful to think of this like the pupil of an eye – the bigger the aperture, the more light that comes through the lens. If you’re shooting somewhere dark, you can open the aperture to allow more light in – and likewise, when it’s bright you might want to make the aperture smaller. Being able to control aperture is vital if you want to ensure your image is bright enough, but aperture also affects depth of field (how much of your photo is actually in focus).

Aperture is displayed like this: f/3.5. The number relates to how narrow or wide the aperture is. A wide aperture is a low number, like f/2.8, and this means you’ll allow in a lot of light. This setting also means the subject of your photo will be in focus and the background blurred out. This is a popular setting for portrait photos. A narrow aperture is a high number, like f/16, and this lets less light in and keeps more of the scene clear and in focus. This setting is popular for landscape photography. You can read more about aperture here.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed relates to the amount of time your camera sensor is exposed to light. After the light has passed through the aperture of your lens, it hits the shutter, and adjusting the shutter speed determines how much light is allowed into the camera. Understanding shutter speed is a core element of basic photography. For most cameras, shutter speeds are displayed in fractions of a second, e.g. 1/250, 1/8 etc, while slow shutter speeds in whole seconds are displayed like this: – 2” = two seconds, –30” = 30 seconds.

For general photography, shutter speeds in the range of 1/200 – 1/600 are best, as they ensure you get a clear, sharp shot without motion blur. However, if someone is taking sports photos, they’d want a really fast shutter speed – e.g. around 1/3600 will ensure you capture the movement of fast-moving objects. Slow shutter speeds – sometimes for up to 30 seconds – allow you to produce long exposure images that intentionally blur movement. These settings are great for shooting light trails, stars, or night photography. You can find out more about shutter speed settings here.

ISO

ISO is a little more complex. While it looks like an acronym, “ISO” is actually derived from the Greek word “isos”, which means equal, and in photography it relates to a measure of sensitivity to light. Once the light has travelled through the aperture and been filtered by the shutter speed, it reaches the camera’s sensor. When you increase the ISO, you’re instructing the sensor to increase its sensitivity to light – so regardless of the aperture and shutter speed settings, the sensor will capture more light and your image will be brighter. The higher the ISO number, the higher the exposure and the brighter your image.

In general, the standard ISO setting of 100 is ideal — and you should only increase the ISO if you need to brighten up an image. The disadvantage of boosting the ISO is that it can lead to an increase in digital noise — the look of grain or speckles on your photo. However, it’s usually not until you boost the ISO to over 6000 that the image quality might become compromised.

The three fundamental components of exposure – aperture, shutter speed and ISO – are the most important camera elements to learn about first if you’re interested in getting into photography. It’s best to wait until you understand  exposure, and how aperture, shutter speed and ISO affect it (and each other), before you move on to learn how things like composition and framing work. We’ll look at these next.

As you progress your skills, you can learn  more about complex elements of photography – things like white balance, depth of field and focal length.

5. Learning what makes a good photo

Considering photography is thought of as an art, it might seem like everything has been very technical so far. But while it’s key to understand a camera’s settings, if you want to progress with photography, you’ll also need to use your artistic skills. You can wield your camera like a pro and be able to adjust the settings to suit every situation – but it’s also important to learn how to create a basic composition, if you want to produce  beautiful or powerful photos.

This is where the creativity comes in. A common mistake many new photographers make is to spend too much time obsessing over their camera and its settings. While it’s true that these will help you take good photos, if you ask any professional photographer what the most important element of photography is, they’ll probably suggest it’s something along the lines of passion and personal expression. Being able to express yourself through your photos is what will sustain your interest in photography in the long run – even when you’re struggling to adjust the ISO or aren’t sure which shutter speed is best!

Composition

If photography is considered a form of artistic language, then the way you frame a shot – the composition – is one of the ways you can use it to communicate. Imagine that you’ve come across a beautiful scene. You want to take a photo – but what kind? What type of message or feeling do you want to convey? Do you want to create a sense of peace, ask a question, or simply please the viewer? Understanding different types of composition helps you to see a potential photo in a range of different ways, without picking up your camera.

Below we’ll look at two of the most common composition rules – and you can have a look at some more complex rules here – but it’s important to note that you don’t have to follow these guides all the time. While knowing the basics of composition is very helpful for new photographers, there’s no need to follow rules to the letter. Try to use your knowledge of composition to help you get the results you want, but spend time experimenting and taking photos that are personal and meaningful to you.

The rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is the most famous composition rule, and also the simplest. It’s such a central part of photography that your camera is probably already set up for you to use it. If you look through your viewfinder, the chances are you’ll see an overlaid grid – this enables you to quickly compose images using the rule of thirds.

The basic premise of this rule is that you place your subject or key object – whatever you want your viewer to focus on – on one of the cross sections of the grid. This helps draw the viewer’s eye into the photo and gives the subject more prominence. The rule of thirds is often a very overused composition, but that’s because it’s simple and it works. If you’re just starting out, using the rule of thirds is a great way to improve your photos and make them more interesting. You can find out more about the rule  of thirds and the different ways you can apply it here.

Leading lines

Leading lines is a form of composition that uses lines inside a photograph to lead the viewer to something interesting. This line could be footprints in the snow, or the crest of waves in the ocean, or a path through a field – it can be anything, as long as it’s a natural line that pulls your view into your photo. Leading lines are a compositional tool, not the actual subject of the photograph, so if you want to include them, you first need to figure out what they’re leading people to, and whether it’s interesting: where are the footprints in the snow going? What’s above the crest of waves? Where does the field path lead? You can find out more about leading lines, and see some examples of this composition being used effectively, here.

There are lots of other, more advanced composition rules you might want to play around with – for example, visual weight, triangles, balance, eye-lines – but we’d suggest getting really used to the rule of thirds and leading lines before moving on. Try applying them to different types of photography – portraits, landscapes, food etc – see what you learn… and have fun!

As you continue to develop your skills, you’ll see that good photography hinges on careful composition. The rule of thirds is a great composition style but it isn’t right for every photo you’ll take. Great photos need more than a good idea and an interesting concept; they need these elements to interact with each other in the right way. It will take time and effort to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t – not to mention plenty of practice – but that’s all part of the experience.

If you want some more guidance, there are plenty of online photography courses you can do from the comfort of your own home – check out our article on creative skills, where we highlight some of the best free and paid photography tutorials and classes. We’ve also got some excellent photography courses on our own site. Alternatively, you could read some books on photography: whether you want to familiarise yourself with black and white photography, get more instruction on exposure, or learn how to use your skills to advance your career, there’s a book to suit everyone.

As you continue to develop your skills, it might be fun to consider entering some amateur photography competitions. It’s not all about winning: entering competitions is a great way to challenge yourself, and it can help give you a new dose of motivation. Seeing your images posted alongside other photographers’ can be a big confidence boost too. You can have a look at some of the best amateur photography competitions to enter this year here – and you might want to take a look at the results of our own recent lockdown photography competition. We were overwhelmed with the number of photos that were sent in, as well as their quality. So hopefully you’ll find it just as inspiring as we did!

Final thoughts…

Photography is an enormously rewarding hobby, and well worth the investment. Once you master the basics you can capture beautiful-yet-fleeting moments forever, convey different moods and feelings, and get your viewer thinking. As you evolve as a person, so can your photographic interests, and while you might begin photographing people, you might realise shooting the night sky is where your passion really lies. Progress takes time, but as you improve you’ll probably notice that you start examining how the light falls as you walk down the street, or coming across a scene and being struck with a powerful urge to photograph it. These are signs that your skills are developing, but it’s also just part of the beauty of photography, and how it can change the way you see the world.

Are you a photographer, or have you recently got into photography? We’d love to see your photos! Please send your images to [email protected] or leave a comment below.

Interesting in taking a photography course?

We have thousands of courses listed on our courses section – most of which you can study in your own time, from the comfort of your own home. Look out for those with exclusive deals for Rest Less members.

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