Here are some things that really helped me out when I first started trying to take ‘real photos’. This guide is designed for someone with a basic Nikon or Canon DSLR and a kit lens (the lens you get with your camera), but these tips apply to all cameras. The easiest way to think about it, and sorry if this is way too basic is that the camera is essentially a box that lets in light, all you’re doing is adjusting how much light gets in and how it interprets it. The three things that affect this light are aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
We’ll talk about how all three of these affect your photos and also the importance of Focal Length.
Aperture, which refers to the opening and closing of the ‘eye’ of the camera to allow more or less light in (f1.8, f8 for example, also called f-stops, you can adjust this in A mode(Nikon) or AV(Canon) on the dial) and shutter speed, which controls how long that eye is open for (1/2000 of a second, 1/30 of a second, 1 second etc. all the way up to 30 seconds. You can adjust shutter speed in S Mode(Nikon) or Tv(Canon) on the dial).
You can adjust these both at the same time in M Mode (Manual), but most people stick with either A or S mode depending on the situation, I prefer A mode, which allows you to adjust the aperture, while the camera automatically chooses the best shutter speed). The longer your shutter speed, the more you’ll have to hold your camera as steady as possible to avoid blurry images. Opening the aperture wider, or having a longer shutter speed both allow more light in, but the two affect the image in different ways. A wider aperture will allow a more shallow depth of field, meaning you can really focus on one thing in an image like this bird. This is very handy for portraits and such.
A longer exposure, a low/slow shutter speed (with a small aperture) will mean very detailed shots or non moving objects like architecture or landscape like this:
A longer exposure (slow shutter speed), with a wide aperture will give a blurry effect on fast moving objects or capture a lot of light in dark conditions, like this:
The third thing that affects the outcome of a picture is ISO, this allows you to set how sensitive you want your image sensor to be, it’s a holdover from the film days when different films were more sensitive than others. The higher your ISO, the better your camera will perform in low light, but it will produce noise, like this:
You really only need to worry about ISO in very specific circumstances, so for now just set it to auto in your menu if it isn’t already, this will mean it will rarely go above 100 or 200, but your camera can go above 3200, which people use for things like star photography. These three things are explained here in a handy guide, it also mentions white balance, but you should leave that in auto for now.
One thing you’ll notice in A or S modes is that your flash will not pop up, this is a good thing, you really shouldn’t be using a flash unless it’s in close quarters at night, and even then the pictures will be difficult to make look good. Once you’ve nailed Aperture and shutter speed, then flash comes more into play in the rare circumstances you’ll need it (in a nightclub or something). Once you understand the basics of Shutter Speed and Aperture, everything else will make a lot more sense. The next thing to understand is framing pictures and composition, this is the easiest way to improve your shots immediately without understanding anything else. Here is a handy guide to get you started.
Focal Length is an important idea to understand. When you shoot things at 18mm (without zooming in on your kit lens you got with your camera), everything is wider and you can see more in the shot, but it will also look a lot different if you shoot something at 18mm up close rather than 55mm (the most ‘zoomed in’ on your kit lens) from far away. Here you can see portraits of a model taken at different focal lengths at different distances:
You can see that although it looks like the camera is the same distance from her in all the shots, the effect is very different at different focal lengths, the wider ones (anything lower than 35mm is wide) will make her look a bit weird, the 35mm to 50mm look the most natural, and up to 200mm are very flattering because the camera ‘softens’ wrinkles and other ‘flaws’ because you’re farther away. This also has an impact on other types of photography such as landscapes or architecture; perspective can really be affected with focal length:
So even though the cans have not been moved in the above image, they look like they are closer together at longer zooms. This is how shots like this are taken:
That’s something that can be fun to experiment with, but it’s also interesting to try and make the pictures look as natural as possible and know what the ‘correct’ focal length is for different situations, keeping it in 35mm or so is good for most situations and then taking it down to 18mm for wide shots indoors or of buildings etc can add drama (they can always be cropped afterwards to focus on things), while going up to 55mm or higher can create nice portraits with blurry backgrounds. The best thing to do is just to dive in and go for a walk for a couple of hours and take the camera and force yourself to play around with different settings and when you take a photo that didn’t come out as you hoped, stand there and think “What can I change to get this how I want it to look?” and then take another one, and then as you take more and more ones you’re happy with, try and copy those. I hope this helps, you can check out some of my pictures here and see my slow progress. After all, I’m a beginner too.