Beginner Photography - Quick Start Guide

by Karl Taylor Education

Beginners photography landscape photo.

There's lots of essential photography knowledge out there on the internet but when it comes to photography for beginners, a lot of it can be confusing, complicated or just plain wrong! We've put together this blog post full of photography basics diagrams, images and information that will allow all beginner photographers to easily learn the basics and more established photographers to brush up on the information they should know like the back of their hands!

Understanding these six principles will help eliminate confusion in other areas as you continue to learn photography. The below information will set the foundations for your photography and equip you with the knowledge and skills you need to move quickly on from the ‘photography for beginners’ level, to more advanced skills.


    1) LIGHT

    If you’re serious about wanting to learn photography, you’re going to have to learn about light. To make a picture you require light, that light may be natural (sunlight or moonlight) or artificial (light bulb or flash). Light that our own eyes are sensitive to is called visible light but other creatures and materials are sensitive to non-visible forms of light such as ultraviolet light, infrared or x-ray. We can’t see those (some animal’s can) but we have certain materials or mediums that can record non-visible light in the form of a photograph.

    2) MEDIUM

    The medium is the material that is used to record the light or image. This is usually film, a digital sensor or special recording material. These materials or mediums are available in different sensitivities which are generally called ISO (film speed).


    (Av = Aperture Value) - The size of the hole that the light has to pass through to form an image. An example would be a pinhole camera. The hole focuses the rays of light to form an image on the medium. However, to effectively form a high quality image we use lenses to focus the light. The aperture in the lens controls how much light gets through and how much of this light will be recorded on the medium.

    (NOTE - Aperture is referred to in measurements known as f-stops, which you can find out more about in the 'Exposure Settings' section below.)


    (Tv = Time Value) - The shutter speed determines the amount of time that light is recorded for. By controlling the shutter speed we have the ability to freeze action of fast moving subjects using a fast shutter speed or blur motion using a slow shutter speed.


    Composition refers to the content (the subject) of your picture and the way it is composed. To compose a shot one should consider the following - angle of view, perspective, color, contrast and any factor that will influence the layout of your picture. Using certain rules of composition generally result in the most pleasing images - you can read more about these below.

    6) OPTICS

    Lenses play the role of focusing the light to a given point on the medium. Different lenses yield different results depending on the configurations within the lens barrel. This will determine if the image is more magnified or will give a wider view than your eye.

    (NOTE - It is possible to record an image without optics by using a small aperture i.e. in the form of a pinhole camera. However, this would not be practical in most instances.)

    Let’s take a look at some key photography basics where these six principles come in to play:


    Exposure is the brightness level of the recorded image and is controlled by the aperture and shutter speed as illustrated below.


    F1 is the widest aperture (lets the most light through). Each jump shown on the scales above either doubles or halves the amount of light, this change in light is known as a one stop change.  Most modern cameras have the ability to alter the stop range in smaller increments on either the shutter speeds or the aperture setting.

    The f-stop stands for the lens focal length divided by the maximum diameter of the lens opening (hole/aperture). e.g. measure the hole, divide the focal length of the lens by the width of the hole and then you have the f-stop value.

    Remember the f-stop value on one lens (e.g. f5.6) should let through the same amount of light on a different lens also set to f5.6.

    (Note : The wider the aperture – the less depth of field – see below.)

    Shutter Speed

    Shutter speed controls the amount of time that we can capture light for, allowing us to freeze or blur motion for creative effect.

    Most modern DSLR cameras allow you to adjust the shutter speed faster than 1000th of a second and also set exposures as long as 30 seconds in manual mode.  A faster shutter speed will freeze fast moving objects such as race cars while a slow shutter speed will capture motion blur. By using techniques such as panning the camera at a slow shutter speed you can create the effect of a blurred background, as shown in the image below.

    Example of panning to capture motion blur


    Depth of field is the range of sharpness either side of the focus point. It is important to remember the following:

    Depth of field is shallower (less sharp either side of the focus point) in the following circumstances:

    • When you have a large aperture
    • When you are focused very close
    • When you are using telephoto lenses (more powerfully magnified lenses)

    Depth of field is greater (more sharp either side of the focus point) in the following circumstances:

    • When you have a small aperture or a smaller format camera
    • When you are focusing far away
    • When you are using a wide angle lens


    There are a number of factors that can determine the quality of lenses. These are as follows:

    • Its maximum light gathering ability (f-stop number written on the lens e.g. 1:2.8)
    • Its resolving power (how sharp can it make the picture)
    • The colors it can focus (quality of the glass) 
    • The contrast it achieves (quality of the glass)
    • The type of material the lens is made from

    Lens power is identified by a number called its focal length (written on the lens). That focal length is determined by the distance from the centre of the simple convex lens (or the principal point) to the focal point. Because most photographic lenses are made from a series of convex or concave lenses and therefore have an internal principle point it is the distance from that point to the focus plane that is its focal length.

    To avoid confusion as you learn photography, you need to think of lenses in terms of magnifications and angle of view – each lens specification should tell you its angle of view for the format you are using (that is the information that will be useful to you).

    Zoom Lenses / Fixed Focal Length

    Lenses can fall into two categories, zoom lenses or fixed focal length (also referred to as prime or standard) lenses. Both have benefits and drawbacks as explained below.

    Fixed Lenses

    Fixed focal lenses can usually gather more light as they are available with larger apertures. However due to the constrictions in zoom ability they do force you to move on your feet to find the best composition. This can have its benefits by making you less lazy with your photography but means you may require more lenses to cover a wider range of focal lengths.

    Zoom Lenses

    Zoom lenses offer more versatility as they cover a range of focal lengths. This can be problematic though as it means they have more glass and moving components, which can result in more engineering problem. The intricate make up of these lenses usually means higher prices for lenses with large apertures.


    This image taken with a fish eye lens shows it capturing a 180 degree view.

    LIGHT (with tutorial)

    Light can come from a variety of sources but it also comes in many forms that affect the way a picture looks – these forms can be described as:

    1) Hard Light
    2) Soft Light
    3) Transmitted Light 
    4) Reflected Light

    Sources of Hard Light

    Light that comes from a source which has an apparent small surface area. 

    e.g. Direct sunlight, flash, bare light bulb or spot light

    Characteristics of hard light are as follows:

    • High Contrast
    • Hard sharp edged dark shadows
    • Burnt out highlights 
    • Strongly reveals texture 
    • Acertain sparkle and sharpness (due to high contrast)

    Sources of Soft Light

    Light that comes from a source with an apparent large surface area in relation to the subject you are taking a picture of. 

    e.g. Light through clouds on an overcast day, a big window with net curtains or a large soft box.

    Characteristics of soft light are as follows:

    • Low contrast
    • Very soft shadows or no shadows
    • Does not reveal texture well
    • If used incorrectly can look very flat and dull (due to low contrast)

    (There are also many levels of light mixtures and combinations in between these two extremes)


    Here you can see the massive difference between soft light (left) and hard light (right).

    Transmitted Light:

    Is the light that is visible in your image when you can see its source such as the sun setting in the sky or a visible candle illuminating your subject.

    Reflected Light:

    Exactly that – light that is reflected off an object such as light reflected off the sea or a white wall. Most of the light around us is in fact reflected light.

    If you’re serious about your photography success, take a look at our market leading ‘photography for beginners’ course. It’s stacked full of in-depth video tutorials shot by us. Find it here: Photography Essentials

    The Magic Hour: 

    Low sunlight in the late or early hours of the day is often the most popular time to photograph. This is because:

    • It has lower contrast than hard light
    • It has greater warmth to the color/mood
    • It still has an element of sparkle because it is coming from a small light source but the extra diffusion from the thicker atmosphere creates a softer version
    • You can often include the light source in the picture along with your subject
    • You can often get more reflection off surfaces such as water or glass
    • Side lighting subject matter, because of the angle the light is coming from it is often more flattering.
    Stunning seascape and sunset photograph.

    This image, taken at the magic hour, illustrates examples of reflected light, transmitted light and soft light.



    You won’t get too far down the road of learning photography basics before encountering this one. Image sharpness is defined by the resolution that it achieves, and that is related to how much data and detail has been recorded. Generally speaking the greater the the amount of recording pixels the greater the detail. However there are many other factors that can affect the final result such as the quality of the lens and the quality of the output device used to make the final image.

    1 Million Pixels = 1 Megapixel   On most computer screens the images are displayed at 72dots/pixels per inch (28 per cm) On most printed material the images are produced using 300 dots/pixels per inch (118 per cm)


    ISO is the sensitivity to light of our recording medium. So just as different films came in different sensitivity to light, we can adjust our camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO number the more sensitive the medium is to light but image quality will be lower. Inversely the lower the ISO number the less sensitivity to light and the higher the quality of image.



    Composition is a combination of subject matter and how you decide that subject matter should be arranged within the area of your picture. Simply put it is choice – you are deciding what the subject will be and how it will be arranged in your picture.

    The success of your choices visually in the final image can be a measure of your creativity. However composition is not the only creative process, many other factors such as your exposure, shutter speed and depth of field all have a bearing on the visual success of your final image.

    There are a number of things to consider when setting up your image. Below are a number of points to think about throughout the creative process.


    • Choice of subject
    • Colors of subject
    • Lighting on subject
    • Contrast on subject
    • The story of your subject – what is the picture about?


    • Position of subject
    • Position of camera
    • Choice of lens – effects the position of your camera 
    • Choice of focus point
    • Choice of depth of field – affecting the range of sharpness
    • Choice of shutter speed – affecting the effect of motion
    • Would it look better portrait or landscape?


    • Use of texture & shape
    • Lines – shadows and edges as leading lines 
    • Balance and Symmetry 
    • Isolating the main subject
    • Simplicity – keep it simple & avoid confusing backgrounds 
    • Framing your subject with other objects
    • What is my point of interest?
    • Is this image any good? If not, why?
    • Look at the corners for distractions and try to avoid them


    The rule of thirds teaches you to split your picture area into thirds vertically and horizontally. Where those imaginary lines cross or lay is often the best place to position your subject. You can also place the secondary subject at the opposite third for balance.

    Using this rule of thirds will generally give you the most pleasing layouts, but these rules can be broken. As you continue to learn photography, your compositional ability and creativity will generally improve with practice and study although it does appear that certain people have a greater natural ability.



    When it comes to photography for beginners, everything you need to learn can seem daunting but the above information contains all you need to know to get the ball rolling. Having this knowledge will ensure that you not only master the basics but have the skills to progress and confidently take creative control of your photography.

    Download a copy of the Manual Photography Cheat Sheet - Infographic.

    If you are looking for further explanations on these topics you can find detailed videos in our Photography Essentials section. Once you are confident with this material our Advanced Photography and Portrait Photography sections are the perfect place to find a new challenge.

    Got any questions about photography for beginners? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

    © Karl Taylor Education. All rights reserved. No content on this page may be used or shared by third parties.


    1. It is always good to check on the basics. One error in your training however that I feel I should point out… At the same image size and a given f-stop depth of field is IDENTICAL – regardless of what focal length created the image. Focal length DOES NOT affect the Depth of Field. The misconception arises from the fact that as the focal length gets wider the image size gets smaller. Again, as long as the image size on the sensor or film is the same at any given f-stop (which does govern depth of field) then the depth of field will be identical. You can prove this by taking an image with a 50 mm lens of a subject at a given f-stop and the same subject from twice the distance with a 100mm lens at the same f-stop. The depth of field in both photos will be IDENTICAL. The perspective and relative size relationships, however; will not.

      Hope this helps to clear up this common misconception. focal length DOES NOT affect depth of field!

      1. Hi Christopher, yes you are absolutely correct. However my explanation in our tutorials was based on the most common scenario which is people adjust their position to reframe the shot based on the focal length. There are however scenarios where focal lengths in different formats have a bearing for example 80mm on a Medium Format will look different to the DOF on a 35mm camera because the recording medium size and therefore image magnification differ. Even within the same format lenses aren’t perfect and there are small differences in the characteristics of lenses and the apertures that mean f8 on one focal length will not be the same f8 on another focal length.

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