Introduction to Photography: 8 Tips for Beginners

Start Your Adventure in Photography With These Basic Tips

Black camera held up and taking photo of mountainscape closeup

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Starting out in photography is a wonderful time filled with creativity and discovery. Unfortunately, for many new photographers, their introduction to photography is a time of wrecked nerves, confusing advice from friends, and frustration as you learn a new camera and try to capture on film or digital media what you saw with your eyes.

Rest assured, it does not have to be a traumatic experience. You simply need a little advice to get started and the best place to begin is with the basic concepts that are used to create a great photograph.

By the end of this lesson, you will be ready to take your next steps in photography with a few stumbles as possible. 

Think About the Composition of a Photograph

Princeton University's WordNet Search defines composition as "something that is created by arranging several things to form a unified whole". That is exactly what it is: the composition of your photograph is the combination of elements coming together to create the whole image.

The composition is the foundation of every photograph. It includes the lines, shapes, and forms in a photograph. It also includes the placement of objects, people, or animals (or whatever the subject is) in relation to other elements within the scene.

When you are taking a photograph, you are actually composing it just as a painter designs a new painting. Pay attention to the composition of every photograph you take and you will soon see a significant improvement.

Wood railings on each side facing toward beach with blue and pink sunrise

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Include a Subject in Every Photograph

What is your photograph about? Without knowing the answer to this question your image will never work.

Your subject is what you want the viewer to see first when they look at the image. It can be small or large: sometimes your subject will be a tiny garden spider and at other times it may be an entire mountain.

No matter what your subject is, you must consciously choose a subject.

Honeybee climbing yellow pollen cluster in flower closeup

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Use the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds explains where to place your subject in the image. It is an essential 'rule' that you will use in composing almost every photograph you take.

Imagine that your image is divided into nine equal squares (basically a tic-tac-toe board) with the lines equally spaced.

  • The four points where the lines intersect are the strongest focal points of your image.
  • The lines that make up the squares are secondary strong points.

The human eye is naturally drawn to these spaces within a frame, not the center of the frame. Make use of this to maximize the impact of your images by placing your subject along one of these lines or at the intersection points.

For example, if you are doing a portrait "headshot" of a person, place their eyes along these points and lines. Likewise, for a landscape, place a tree at one of these points for maximum impact.

Large sunflower with bright yellow petals covering a third of photo

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Watch the Background and Foreground

A photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional scene. This means that the camera effectively "flattens" the scene. That is why it is critical to pay attention to the background and foreground of every photograph.

  • The background is anything on your subject: If there is a tree directly behind a person's head, it will appear that the tree is growing out of their head. Likewise, a fence could seem to grow out of the side of a person.
  • The foreground is anything in front of your subject: What is in your foreground is just as important as the background. If you are shooting a beautiful lake sunset but there is an ugly tire on the water's edge, the photograph can be ruined (unless your point is a commentary on pollution).
Tall mountain with snow behind small log cabin viewed between open window

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Learn How to Use Focus to Your Advantage

Will your subject be sharply focused or allowed to be blurry? Will you have the foreground and the subject in focus but the background fuzzy? How soft will the background be? The focus will make or break your image and, as you can see, there are many options.

This is where aperture, f-stop, and depth of field come into play.

  • Aperture is the size of the opening inside your lens that allows light onto the film or digital surface.
  • F-Stop is the measurement of the aperture.
  • The depth of field is a term telling you how much of your scene will be in or out of focus.

By understanding how to use these concepts to your advantage, you can begin to control how your camera flattens the scene.

In general, you want the subject and a small part of the foreground in focus while the background is blurry. This helps avoid distracting lines around your subject and draws the viewer's eyes to your subject.

However, there are times when you will want the entire scene in focus. Landscape scenes are a perfect example because you may want both the mountain range in the background and the tree in the foreground in focus.

A good rule of thumb regarding your f-stop choices is to remember:

  • The larger the f-stop number, the more of the scene will be in focus and the more light you need to record the image.
  • The smaller the f-stop number, the less of the scene will be in focus and the less light you need to record the image.
Thin wheat stalks focused in front of mountain with snowcaps

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Lighting Is Photography

Photography is the art of capturing light reflected from subjects on film or a digital surface. Always be aware of your lighting. If your subject is a child but their face is too dark to see, the image will not work. 

When you look at a scene, your eyes are constantly adjusting to the different lighting situations. When you take a photograph, the camera only records one light situation because it does not have our brain's ability to interpret and adjust to the scene.

Every camera is slightly different in how it " meters" or reads the amount of light in a scene. This is one reason why you must know your camera and should practice with it in a variety of lighting.

Some general rules of thumb are:

  • Avoid harsh light behind your subject.
  • Watch out for dark shadows.
  • Watch out for whites that glare in the light.
  • Avoid shooting at high noon when the light is harshest (mornings and evenings have the most appealing light).
Gray skies over pond and sloping mountain with yellow leaved trees

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Always Consider Color 

The world is in color. Sometimes the colors are white, black, and gray, but it is still color. While your subject will already have a color of its own, pay attention to how that color interacts with your background and foreground.

If your subject is green and the background is green, your subject may be harder to see in the image. In contrast, if your subject is red and the background purple, you may be able to see the subject very well but the clashing colors can distract from the subject.

Just like painters, photographers should have a basic understanding of complementary colors and color harmony. A little study of color theory will go a long way to improving your photographs

Tall Aspen trees with white and thin trunks and yellow tree canopies against blue sky

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

How to Handle Motion

There are two choices with motion in a scene: freeze it with a fast shutter speed or let it appear as a blur on the image by using a slower shutter speed. Either choice is just that, a choice.

  • A waterfall can be a beautiful image with the water blurred and showing motion or with the water frozen in midair.
  • A baseball player hitting the ball can be a great image with the bat and ball blurred or with them frozen in time.

The choice is up to you, but you should always make that conscious decision of which type of motion you want.

It is also important to remember that you may not always be able to see the exact moment a photograph is taken. This is particularly true if you have a TTL camera and your viewfinder shows the actual view through the lens.

As the camera records the image by tripping the shutter, your view will be blocked for a fraction of a second. It is in that fraction of a second that your camera records. The best advice we ever received with sports photography was to remember that if you see it in your viewfinder, you missed it.

Elk standing and feeding in middle of open pasture in front of snowcapped mountain

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald