Getting started in photography is easy. In fact, if you’re looking for how to get into photography, all you really need is a camera and a willingness to learn. This photography guide covers the basics of what you need to know to become a good photographer, then a great one.

As you learn to be a photographer, remember to evaluate your photography work with a critical eye and discard anything that isn’t good enough. Even great professional photographers may toss out 90% or more of the pictures they take, so don’t be afraid to imitate the photography experts when deciding what to keep.

What Every New Photographer Should Know When Getting Started in Photography

Here are the basic things you should know to get into photography. While you can get started as soon as you have a camera, these photography principles will help you find your place as a photographer.

1. Expand Your Knowledge

Information is a crucial aspect of taking good photographs. As a beginning photographer, one of your most important jobs is learning how different things affect pictures. This includes everything in the basic photography principles section (explained in further detail below), as well as your camera, environment, and subject.

If you don’t know why pictures are turning out a certain way, you can’t change settings to account for a problem. Don’t worry if this sounds like a lot of stuff to learn. It isn’t as hard as it seems, and once you practice a little, you’ll be a master before you know it.

2. Experiment With Different Photography Styles

There is an incredible number of different ways to be a photographer. Some people focus on portraits, while others do landscapes or drone shots. Some people do close-up macro photography, and other people travel to dangerous zones around the world to collect photos for news companies.

You don’t have to go far from home, but make sure to experiment and find out what sort of pictures you enjoy taking the most. This will make things significantly easier for you as a beginner of photography. Aside from helping you find out what you enjoy in Photography, the experience of taking so many types of pictures will be useful in the future.

male photographer holding sony camera

3. You Need To Invest in Photography for High-Quality Images

You can take a few photos with your smartphone or tablet, but for serious photography work, you must make an investment. Between cameras, lenses, memory cards, carrying gear, and various other accessories, you can spend thousands of dollars in Photography just getting ready to start.

This is why I recommend starting with a small investment in your photography equipment, such as a point-and-shoot digital camera with zoom and other basic features. These usually cost about the same as a smartphone for a decent model, and they allow you to get hands-on photography experience before you start investing in more expensive equipment.

That said, photography is a world where you get what you pay for. High-quality lenses and cameras do make a difference in the final pictures you get, so if you’re looking to work as a professional photographer, you’ll need to make the investment and get the right gear.

4. Editing is an Important Step of Photography

Post-processing is an editing phase of photography where you change up a picture to get the result you want. This is not inherently a bad thing or some kind of falsification of your work. While there’s something to be said for purely-natural images, post-processing can help you smooth out blemishes and create pictures that would otherwise be impossible.

Do not be afraid of post-processing your photos to make them better. It is a common and widely-accepted practice in photography, especially when you’re working for customers who care more about the final quality of the images than anything else.

5. Creating Depth Makes You a Better Photographer

Depth is a crucial aspect of good photography, and it doesn’t refer exclusively to having a foreground and a background. Depth is a broader photography concept that also addresses the subject matter and encourages people to get the idea as soon as they look at your artwork.

Great photographers often try to tell, or at least imply, a story in each photo. An image of two animals fighting over food, for example, is far more exciting and dynamic than pictures of the same two animals just sitting there.

There are many ways to add depth to images, from changing the focus to adding a touch of humanity. In general, the more depth you add when you take photos, the better. 

6. Never Stop Learning More About Photography

Learning is essential to great photography, even if you already have years of experience. Continual learning will help you develop new photography techniques and broaden your portfolio, both of which are essential for professionals.

woman drinking coffee while looking at laptop on a bed

Selecting the Right Camera Equipment for You

The best equipment for a newcomer is an all-in-one camera that you can use for digital photography. Almost all photography is digital these days, by the way. Classic Polaroid-style cameras still exist for special situations, but professionals almost exclusively stick with digital.

If you decide you want to continue as a photographer after learning the basics, you can invest in pro-grade equipment. How far ahead you should plan depends on your personal finances, but I recommend spending several months with your first camera and saving up money for professional gear at the same time.

If you decide to continue, you’ll have a nice pile of cash ready to help you get started. If you decide that it’s not right for you, then you’ll still have a nice collection of money you can put towards a different hobby. Either way, it will be useful.

What Should Every New Photographer Learn?

I want to say “everything,” but in all seriousness, there are two basic categories that you should learn when deciding how to get into photography: the basic principles of taking images and camera equipment and settings.

Learning the Basics of Photography

Here are some of the basic principles of photography. Keep in mind that the only way to truly understand most of these is by doing. You can attend some beginning photography classes if you want to, but that’s not necessary. It’s possible to self-teach photography for the beginner with sufficient resources.

The Three Factors of Exposure: The Triangle

The exposure triangle is a combination of three photography factors: the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO. I’ll discuss each of those in more detail below. What you need to know about this triangle is that changing these settings is essential to taking the best possible photographs, and changing one usually requires changing at least one of the others as well.

Aperture

Aperture determines how open the lens of your camera is, and this has a significant effect on digital photography. Wider apertures are more suitable for low-light situations where you need as much lighting as you can get. Smaller apertures are better for illuminated areas where you don’t need as much extra light.

Wider apertures are also suitable for narrowing the depth of field, while smaller apertures can bring more of a landscape or other large scene into focus.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed determines how long the lens of a camera stays open. Just like aperture and ISO, this has a significant effect on your photography. An image records everything that happens while the shutter is open, so leaving it open too long can create blurriness. However, some photographers do this intentionally with certain elements of a picture.

High shutter speeds are particularly useful for collecting images mid-action. This is how you can capture a sharp image of a person running or a drink spilling. Any camera with a high shutter speed can also lower the speed as needed, so most photographers prefer to get as high a maximum speed as possible.

ISO

ISO is the last component of the exposure triangle used in digital photography. This is the image’s sensitivity to light, and you want to control it to adjust the final image. A high ISO allows you to take a picture with less light, but it also increases digital noise and reduces detail. A low ISO means you need more light but offers a sharper image.

In general, you want your ISO as low as possible. However, there are times when increasing it is the only option to take a good picture, so be sure to practice with it.

Perfect Exposure Takes Practice

Exposure is by far the most essential part of taking a great image. Experienced photographers instinctively know how to adjust each of the three elements of the exposure triangle for a given situation, but for beginners, there’s no substitute for experience. The best camera and lens in the world can’t make a photo look good if the exposure settings are bad.

woman holding camera up to her face

Paying Attention to Light

Light is a necessary element of photography. All cameras work by recording the light that reaches their sensors, and when there isn’t enough, they need support from flash devices. However, too much light can brighten an image and make it look washed-out or even impossible to discern details in.

Draw Attention with Eye-Lines

Eye-lines, sometimes known as leading lines, are elements of composition that photographers use to draw attention to the main focus of the image. You can think of these as supporting elements for the visual weight (as described above). Eye-lines are more useful in pictures without a particularly noticeable focus (such as a single bright spot of color).

Pro Tip: The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the idea that photos should be divided with two horizontal and two vertical lines, and particularly important elements should be centered on one of the four intersections created by the lines. This rule is so common in photography that many cameras can display a nine-square grid onto their visual areas to help you manage it.

Like all rules of composition, you can break this guideline when necessary, but it does help produce great photographs. I recommend following this rule strictly until you have at least several weeks of experience.

Understanding the Importance of Visual Weight

Visual weight defines the ability of something in a photograph to draw the eye. For example, a single bright-red candy on a black background has a lot of visual weight because people immediately focus on it. Photographers can add visual weight to an image by using lines, colors, or other elements as needed.

Pictures do not require visual weight, but adding some helps create more of an impact on the user. Remember, you don’t always have to capture visual weight within your initial photograph. You can sometimes add it in post-processing, and that may be easier than trying to manipulate every real-world variable of your photography.

Consider Triangles in Your Composition

Triangles are an element of composition that photographers can use to create a sense of stability and harmony within the image itself. Triangles are generally seen as balanced shapes, even if they’re not symmetrical, and having a clear shape within the image itself tends to create a better result.

Triangles can be many things, ranging from light sources visible in the image to implied triangles created by multiple subjects within the image. Between this and the rule of thirds, the idea of having three of something in pictures comes up a lot in photography. Nobody’s quite sure why this is true in photography, but it is.

Finding the Right Balance

Balance is a photography technique that focuses on giving two or more subjects equal weight within an image. Many pictures use eye-lines and visual weight to highlight a primary subject, but there are times when you want to avoid this. For example, families asking for photographs may want everyone in the image to be given equal value when people look at the picture.

Achieving balance in an image takes practice, so photographers often start with single-focus images before moving on to multi-focus images.

The Elements of Your Composition

Composition consists of various elements in a picture that help it stand on its own merits as a work of art. Elements of composition can include textures, colors, patterns, symmetry or asymmetry, depth of field, lines, curves, and many other potential aspects of the image.

Photographs usually turn out best when 1-2 elements of composition serve as the focal points of the picture. While a good or even great picture could have more than this, it’s difficult to have too many elements in a photo without making it look cluttered. Great photography usually minimizes such clutter.

back of camera showing settings

Getting to Know Your Camera

Up to this point, we’ve talked about what it takes to compose and take a photograph. However, taking a great image requires more than understanding what would look good. It also requires understanding your camera and its many settings. When learning how to get into photography, this is just as important as the basic principles of photography.

Metering Modes

Metering modes evaluate the amount of light entering your camera and determine whether or not it is suitable for the images you want to take. By telling you if you need to raise or lower the light, which can often be done by changing the exposure triangle settings, these modes help ensure you take fantastic images every time.

Near and Far: Depth of Field

The depth of field is the distance between the closest and the furthest objects in the image that need to be sharp. Having two subjects about five feet from each other is very different from, say, having a person right in front of you and a mountain several miles away.

Understanding Brightness with Histograms

Histograms are a type of graph that shows how much brightness is distributed throughout your image. Most images should have an arch-shaped histogram, without too much in the way of black or white extremes. If there are unusual dips or shapes, it could mean that you’re missing detail in the final picture.

The traditional arch shape is not always appropriate. For example, if you’re taking low key photographs (which are usually black-and-gray with a dark or black background), your histogram will be slanted heavily towards one side. Knowing what the histogram should look like is the most important part of interpreting it.

Histograms are essentially an advanced aspect of photography, but the sooner you master them, the more helpful they’ll be.

Commonly Used Shooting Modes

Modern cameras have a variety of shooting modes, but several options are particularly common. These include:

  • Auto: The camera attempts to determine the best settings on its own; this is ideal for amateurs and if you don’t know what to set it to
  • Portrait: This mode focuses on a subject in the foreground and blurs the background
  • Macro: Macro modes are for shooting very small subjects, usually from extremely close up
  • Landscape: Landscape modes are for shooting broad scenery shots with even sharpness across the full width and depth
  • Sports: Sports modes are for capturing fast-paced events, and relies on high shutter speed to work
  • Night Portrait: This mode is less common, but tried to create a lighter foreground balanced against a dark background
  • Manual: The complete opposite of Auto; this mode requires photographers to set every setting first, then take the picture
  • Aperture-Priority: In this mode, photographers can set the aperture value first, and the camera automatically selects a shutter speed based on that information
  • TV: The opposite of Aperture-Priority; this mode selects the shutter speed first, and the camera then selects the aperture

Amateur photographers often start with the Auto, Portrait, and Landscape modes before experimenting with other shooting modes. Not all cameras have all modes, so consider which types of photographs you want to take before getting a camera.

Adjusting Color and Quality with White Balance

White balance helps adjust for the color and quality of light entering the camera. The human brain is exceptionally advanced at processing color, and it goes so far as to create colors to fill in the gaps where it thinks they should be. Mechanical devices like cameras can’t do this all on their own, so they need to do extra work to balance out how the colors of light appear.

Zoom Level: Focal Length

The focal length determines the distance between the image sensor and the lens while the subject of the image is in focus. Some people refer to this as the “zoom” level of the camera. A short focal length equals a wider picture, while a long focal length covers a much smaller area in greater detail.

Lenses with variable focal lengths work well enough, but fixed-length lenses offer inherently better quality. Professional photographers often have both types of lenses.

A Look at the Crop Factor

Did you know that cameras capture circles of information, rather than rectangles? The actual size of this circle is its field of view. Crop factor describes how much of the circle a camera will capture compared to 35mm film sensors, which used to be the main style.

Full-frame cameras have a wider field of view and are better for landscape photographs, while highly-cropped cameras are better for narrow subjects and rapid action. Neither is inherently better overall, as they work in different situations. Some cameras allow you to adjust the crop factors.

Protection with Polarizing Filters

Polarizing filters go on the outside of your lenses and block sunlight entering at specific angles. This is useful for photography because direct sunlight can damage your camera and your lenses, especially during periods of long exposure.

Polarizing filters slightly reduce the quality of final images, but most photographers accept this and work to compensate for it in post-processing. Protecting the camera is usually more important than getting a slightly better shot.

In most cases, a single polarizing filter can cover many photography lenses. However, if you have any particularly special lenses, you may need to get a special polarizing filter just for them.

man holding lens filter showing buildings at night

Professional Looking Sharp Images

Taking sharp images is the type of thing that separates amateurs from professionals. To get a great image, you need to adjust the exposure triangle and determine where everything in your shot will be, then select the shooting mode, metering, depth of field, white balance, and focal length to get everything just right.

I could write every type of guide imaginable for each of these factors, but honestly, it’s better to get out there and start experimenting with all of the settings. When you start adjusting each setting individually and see how it affects the type of photos you take, you’ll have a much better understanding of how adjusting them can sharpen future images.

A 50mm Lens: The Nifty Fifty

The “nifty fifty” is a 50mm lens (hence the name) with an aperture speed of at least f/1.8. These are affordable, simple lenses that are good at both street and portrait photography, which makes them ideal for new photographers. Unless you want to focus exclusively on wide-angle shots like landscapes, I recommend making one of these your first lens purchase.

Observe Your Environment

Now that you know more about your camera let’s review a few other details about photography. First, study your environment before you start taking photographs. Once you know the type of environment you’re in, you can start adjusting the settings and composition of your photos.

What’s Your Niche and Personal Style?

Similarly, as an amateur, it’s important to find out what type of photos you enjoy taking. Many photographers have a personal style; that is, they have a type of photograph they excel at taking. Once you know what types of photos you enjoy, you can spend more time learning how to take great photos in that category.

You don’t have to limit yourself to one niche, but it helps to study just one area at a time. Chances are you’ll throw away hundreds of pictures, but once you’ve mastered one type of photography, you’ll have the experience needed to master other types much faster.

Take Editing Tips from the Pros

Editing helps produce the best possible pictures. When you can edit like a professional, you can create finalized pictures that are as good as they can be, not merely as good as your camera allows.

Networking is a Must for Pros

Networking is essential when determining how to get into photography as a professional. Many of your potential customers will come through networking, so this is the type of thing you cannot slack off on. This isn’t necessary if you want to take photographs exclusively as a hobby, though taking a little paid work can mitigate the costs of your equipment.

friends celebrating with drinks

Create a Versatile Portfolio

A portfolio is a collection of your best photography work, and it’s the type of thing every great photographer has. This is one of the things that will convince potential customers to hire you. Limit your portfolio to 8-12 pictures, ideally of different subjects and styles.

Choosing Your Photography Career Path

As a beginner in photography, you can pick almost any career path if you work hard enough. 

By Contract

Contracted photographers are essentially the top of the field. In this role, your full-time job is to provide photography services for your employer. This could range from traveling with a news crew to taking professional photographs at events. Contracted photographers usually have many years of experience in photography and own a wide variety of cameras and accessories.

Working Out of Your Home Studio

Home studios are for taking pictures solely within the confines of your house. This is useful for several different types of businesses, including makeup and fashion artists who want to demonstrate using specific products. Many people with home studios don’t focus exclusively on photography as a career.

Freelancing

Freelance photographers work independently to find customers looking for photography services. This isn’t as stable as contracted work, but with sufficient networking, it’s possible to earn a living exclusively from photography.