Want to be a better photographer? Here are our recommendations on the things every photographer needs to learn to start mastering the craft!
When you first start trying to improve your photography, it can feel overwhelming. What should I learn first? Do I need to learn A before I learn B? What should I prioritize in learning? To help you focus your efforts (pun fully intended), here’s our list of 10 Things Every Photographer Needs to Learn to help you get started.
Before you jump into camera settings or worry about shooting in manual, you should learn good composition.
Why? Because good composition will help you improve your images almost immediately. Regardless of whether you’re using a DLSR, cell phone or point-and-shoot camera, your images will improve using tried and true composition techniques.
The basic composition rules include the rule of thirds, framing, leading lines and filling the frame. Try learning and using these composition techniques and watch your work grow almost overnight!
Number 2 on my 10 Things Every Photographer Needs to Learn list is aperture. Aperture is the opening in your lens. It controls how much light reaches your sensor. So aperture helps control how bright or dark your image is. It also controls your depth-of-field (how much of your scene is in focus from front-to-back). Because of this dual purpose, I think it’s the most important camera setting to learn and master first.
Aperture is expressed with a number called an f-stop. You usually see it expressed as f/2.8 or f/11.
- Understanding Aperture in 3 Quick and Easy Steps
- The basics of Aperture Size
- What’s an f-stop
- Depth-of-Field – DOF explained easy
3. Shutter Speed
Shutter speed is how fast your shutter opens and closes. That speed affects how much light reaches your camera’s sensor, which also affects the relative brightness in your image.
Shutter speed is also one of the most important things every photographer needs to learn because it controls how action is conveyed in your images. Wow, that was a really long sentence. Let me explain, briefly this time.
Fast shutter speeds stop motion. It’s how you can stop a basketball player in mid-air or drops of water in mid-fall. Slower shutter speeds create blur which conveys motion. Slower shutter speeds smooth out water and clouds and create blur in moving objects. We call deliberately using really long shutter speeds long-exposure photography.
Shutter speed is expressed in seconds. Faster shutter speeds are expressed as a fraction of a second, like 1/1000 (1/1000 of a second). Slower shutter speeds use whole seconds, like 2 seconds or even 30 seconds.
- Shutter speed settings 101: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide
- The Magic of Slow Shutter Speeds
- Shutter Speed: The most useful setting for sports photography
ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. Higher ISOs make your camera more sensitive to light, making your image brighter. The trade off to using high ISOs to brighten your image is noise, or grain. Each camera make and model handles noise differently, so you’ll need to learn how high of an ISO your camera can use and still product quality images.
ISO is expressed in whole numbers. Most cameras start at ISO 100 and go up from there. My Nikon D750, for example, has an ISO range of 100 to 12,800.
- Understanding ISO camera settings and how they affect exposure
- Learn ISO Settings Like a Pro
- Photography Basics: ISO Explained
Now it’s time to bring #2-4 together! Aperture, shutter speed and ISO work together to control how much light enters your camera and hits the sensor. That’s called exposure. Most simply, exposure is how bright or dark your image is.
Photographers call the interplay and interconnectedness of aperture, ISO and shutter speed the “exposure triangle.” Understanding how these three functions work together is at the heart of photography. Once you grasp each component individually, then you can start seeing how they work together and are the key to making beautiful images!
You might also hear fully controlling exposure referred to as “shootnig in manual mode.” That means you are adjusting aperture, shutter speed and ISO and not letting the camera do it for you.
Other great exposure tutorials:
- Photography Basics: Understanding the Exposure Triangle
- How to get consistently magnificent photos in manual mode
Understanding light is the essence of photography. In fact, the word photography is Greek for “drawing with light.”
Photography is all about light. Some professional photographers might argue light trumps all other concepts when it comes to the most important things every photographer needs to learn. And they aren’t wrong. Light IS crucial to this craft. But I think after studying and understanding the above-mentioned concepts, understanding light becomes easier.
Photographers obsess over every aspect of light– its quantity, quality, color, direction and intensity. For example, soft diffused light is more flattering for most portraits. Hard light creates more contrast in an image, lending it an edgier look.
We chase the light, praise the light and fight the light. Sometimes we even create our own light using flashes.
So light is critical. But for me, all these characteristics of light and their importance to your images become more relevant after you understand the composition and the interworkings of exposure.
- What is flat light (and other kinds of light photographer’s talk about)
- Using Natural Light to Create Standout Photos
- Shooting the Golden Hour
- How to Shoot in Harsh Light
Once you understand the importance of light to photography, you need to learn how to measure it and use it to shape the image to your liking. That’s where metering comes in.
Modern cameras come with in-camera light meters. The light meter measures the amount and intensity of light. Using the meter, or “metering” helps determine the optimal exposure for your image.
Metering correctly involves knowing how to read the in-camera meter, where to point the camera to get the correct reading and understanding what optimal exposure means.
- Using Your Integrated Light Meter: What is the Light Meter
- Metering Modes
- What is the zone system in photography?
Focus is another important tool in photography. The best photographers know what camera settings to achieve sharp, well-focused images. Nailing focus involves using the right focus mode, shutter speed, and focal point. How you hold the camera and stand even affect focus!
- 6 Simple Tips for Sharper Photos
- Understanding autofocus modes – Which should you use?
- Everything you need to know about getting sharper images
9. Conveying Emotion
Our last two things every photographer needs to learn about photography are slightly more advanced concepts: conveying emotion and conveying motion.
Every picture, in my humble opinion, should convey emotion. Else, what’s the point? Joy, sorrow, anger, vulnerability, peace…just convey something. Anything!
Emotion is what connects viewers to your photograph and draws them in. It’s fairly easy to shoot a technically correct photo. It’s much harder to shoot a technically correct and emotionally charged photo.
Learn to convey emotion through expression, posing, color texture and composition and you’ll go from being a good photographer to a great photographer!
- 3 Tips to capture emotion in your photography
- Tips to Capture Connection and Emotion While Posing Your Couples
10. Conveying Motion
We touched on motion briefly in our discussion of shutter speed. Conveying motion (or the absence of motion!) adds contest and life to an otherwise static image. Motion can be expressed by stopping the action, panning to blur part of the image or purposefully blurring part of the image while leaving other parts sharp.
Whether you’re brand new to photography or an amateur photographer looking to improve your images, I hope you benefit from our list of 10 things every photographer should learn. There are lots of other things to learn about photography to really master the craft. But these ten items are the foundation for all types of photography, from pet portraits to action photography. Start by learning and practicing one concept at a time. Soon you’ll be through the list and amazed at how much your technique improved!