Photo Tips: The Basics

Photo Tips Part 2: The Basics

In my last Photo Tips post, I talked about the basics of camera gear, what they mean, and made some recommendations based on my personal history and preference. In Part 2 I will cover the basics of taking a photo, from composition to camera settings, to lighting.

Part 2: The Basics

From my post titled, “First Rain“.


A great photo consists of two main elements, composition and lighting. Composition basically means how the photo looks, spare the technical details. What angle did you take on it? Are you too close or too far from your subject? What is in focus? Are there any unsightly items in the photo? Does it draw your attention? A photo with good composition is pleasing to the eye. A general rule of thumb is to follow the golden mean.  If there were a grid over your photo dividing it into thirds both horizontally and vertically, the main elements of the photo might fall onto one of the lines, or fill one or two-thirds of the photo. For example, in the image above, Aiden’s body is taking up two-thirds of the vertical space in the photo. There are also golden triangles, and the golden spiral. Sometimes a photo doesn’t fall into any of these categories and can still be pleasing to the eye. In most of my experience I find that it’s more about the overall look and feel of a photo than it is about fitting your image into the golden rule.

From our trip to Lake Tahoe, California


There are 5 main settings on your camera when you are taking a photo:

Film Speed is also known as ISO in your settings. It controls how sensitive the image is to light. A lower number will result in darker images and is better for photographing in more harsh conditions, while a higher number will result in lighter images and is easier to photograph with in more evenly lit conditions. If the number is too high or too low, it will result in grainy photos. An average for my camera for this setting is anywhere from ISO400 to ISO800.

Aperture is how wide your camera lens opens when you take a photo. Sometimes it’s referred to as an F-Stop. The lower this number is set, the wider it will open and the more depth and light you will get in your photos. It will also have a more shallow depth of focus, so less of the image will be in focus. If this number is higher, more of the image will be in focus, but it will also be a darker because less light will be let in. I prefer my photos to have a more shallow depth of focus so I tend to shoot wide open, which means that I hang around the lower end of the aperture spectrum for my lenses. I commonly shoot around F/2.8 to F/3.5.

Exposure is your shutter speed. It’s how long the shutter stays open. The longer it is open, the more light will be let in, but it also creates the opportunity for blur in a photo.

White Balance sets the temperature of the photo. For most candid photos, this is OK being set to auto. There are great Gray Card tutorials if you want to learn how to set a custom white balance.

Focus basically means the part of your photo that is the sharpest. It should be what you want your viewer to be drawn to first. Photos can be in focus or out of focus in a good or bad way. You can set your camera to automatically focus on something, or you can use focus points, or you can manually focus your image. I find that using a full automatic focus doesn’t have the best results and that manually focusing the image takes a lot of time so I use the focus points on my camera a lot.

Plane watching at the airport in Dallas, Texas.


All of these settings are there to help you control light. The biggest key to taking a beautiful photo is being able to control light. You don’t want the photo too bright (blown out) or too dark. Outside of my photo studio, I only use natural light for my photographs. In most cases you will want to try to achieve an evenly lit photo with the exception of silhouettes. If you are a beginner, it is easier to seek out open-shade or large shaded areas during the day, or photograph early morning or late afternoon/evening during the golden hour. As you get better at taking photos it will become easier for you to adapt to different lighting situations. I find that I am attracted to naturally lit photos more, and when we are on the go I just don’t have the time to mess with anything extra. If you do have some extra time and would like to experiment with lighting, you can use a strobe, speedlite, or reflector.

Exploring an orchard in Modesto, California

In this post there are a variety of photos labeled with their corresponding camera settings. The numbers in the corner, from top to bottom, are: Focal Length, Film Speed/ISO, Aperture/F-STOP, and Exposure/Shutter Speed. If you ever have a photo that you love you can usually ask the photographer what their settings were and what the lighting conditions were. They are often more than happy to share if they have time. On Flickr it is usually listed in the image information.

Now that you’ve got a little more understanding, go snap away! My one tip that I always, always give people interested in taking better photos, or pursuing photography is to practice, practice, practice!

Please, if you have any questions feel free to ask away in the comments. I will try to answer them in the comments or in a later installment.

This post is part of a series for the month of January. To read Part 1, and all of the posts in the Photo Tips series, please click here.


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Responses to “Photo Tips: The Basics”

  1. I’m enjoying this series very much! I was so surprised at the caption on the last photo though: Modesto is my hometown! Too funny 🙂

    1. That IS funny! It’s such a small town. I actually grew up near there, not actually IN Modesto, but no one really knows where I grew up, so I just say Modesto.

  2. love this series! what a beautiful photo the last one is.

    1. Thanks! 🙂

  3. These are soooo cool! 🙂 I haven’t picked up my camera in a long time and looking through these made me want to reach for my camera all of a sudden!

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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