Photography Basics Lesson 3: Camera Basics

In this lesson, we are going to start exploring and experimenting with our cameras. The introduction will break down components of getting started, as well as list reference books for the lesson.

Thank you for joining me on this adventure!


In this lesson, we will explore the basics of “doing.” This includes

  • getting started factors,
  • shutter speed
  • aperture control
  • what will you photograph?

All you really need at hand is a minimum of one Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, film or digital is your choice.

The books being referenced include: “Photography” by Barbara London, et al; “Designing with Photos” by Allison Tyler Jones and Donna Smylie; “Kodak Guide to Shooting Great Travel Pictures” by Jeff Wignall.


When it comes to photography, don’t ever forget to check the basics:

Have I charged up my camera? or Do I have film and batteries that work in my camera? (Don’t laugh. It’s happened to us all.)

A camera’s main function is to help you capture a scene the way you see it. Focus to get the scene sharp where you want it to be. Expose the film so the picture is not too dark and not too light. Okay, knowing that is the easy part.

If you’re digital, you can correct images via computer and programs such as Adobe’s Photoshop. If you’re using film, gauge the light you have available. [If your film is sold in a box (package of 1 or 4) look for the expiration date on the box. Film that has expired can be damaged by excessive heat or an extra-long shelf life.]

To create a dramatic composition, keep it simple and focus on the most important part of your scene to insure sharpness. When photographing an individual, focus on their eyes. Look through any major magazine and if you are drawn to a photograph of a person’s face, look at their eyes. Usually, it’s what is highlighted for attention.

When photographing a thing, focus on the most interesting part. Is it the handle of a jug? The door of a house? The unique mailbox?

Most of us photograph from too far away. Get in, get up, get closer! Whatever caught your eye first, focus on that. How is it framed by your viewfinder? Are you interested in a person’s expression? Their shoes? Their hands? If you ask politely, most people will oblige you. I once photographed a girl’s shoes at a subway station. They were so bright colored, and it was a great contrast against the dirty floor of the station.

To get a photo that is exposed to light correctly, set the aperture (lens opening) and the shutter speed (how fast the lens opens and closes) based on your film speed and how well-lit the subject is. The aperture size determines how much light will pass through the lens; the shutter speed determines the length of time that the light hits the film. More detail (and exercises!) on this later.

Camera shake is one of the deadliest things that can happen to a photo. Your subject is still and the aperture seems to open and close with no problem, but when you see the finished result it’s more of a blur. What happened? Even the most minute shake of your hand or your arm, can jolt the entire picture.

For horizontal photographs, keep your arms against your body to steady the camera. One hand is clicking the shutter release button and other one should be under your lens to steady that.

For vertical photographs, support the camera in either hand, but keep your elbow against your body to steady the camera.

A tripod is a guarantee that your camera will be steady (unless, of course, the ground is shaking). A tripod also allows you to use slow shutter speeds which is great for night shots or other dimly lit spots.

Keeping a record of your exposures (this is where the small notebook is handy!) helps the learning curve immensely. Write down the frame number, the subject, the aperture, and shutter speed settings, and any other relevant information like location or weather condition. When you see your finished photo, you now have a record of the written components. (This is great when sending submissions into photo magazines…they always like to have that technical data.)

Some things to keep an eye out for…(I’d recommend printing this out and going around your house, your yard, or your neighborhood with some of these things to look for.)

When you see something you’d like to photograph, just put your camera up to your eye to check it out through the viewfinder. Having the scene before you framed allows you to see it more clearly. I’m constantly putting my own camera up this way to “see” better. People are always amazed because they think I’ve gone through so much film, but in fact I’m just testing my scenery. I think about what interests me in this scene, as well as why I want to photograph it. Is it the juxtaposition of color? The lines of light?

Another rule of thumb to make photos more interesting is the rule of thirds. Whatever has captured your eye, focus on that and then realign to put the subject in 1/3 of the frame. This allows the eye to travel to the subject of the photograph.

Look at the edges of what is framed within your viewfinder. How do the edges work with your subject? Does it cut into your subject’s head? Is the subject at one side of the frame with lots of empty space around it? Look at what you’ve got and keep re-framing in your viewfinder to find something you love.

Look at the background and foreground of your potential photograph. How does your subject fit in with surroundings? One of the greatest issues on this is…does your subject have something coming out of his/her head due to improper positioning? Towers, trees, and signs are huge culprits…they just seem to show up without our realizing it.

Check your lighting. Is it fairly even? When your subject is against a fairly light background like the sky, a wall, or a sign, they can get bleached out. Find a background that allows contrast.

Hey! Don’t forget to have fun and experiment! See what happens when you’ve got a subject and you shoot him/her/it from a high angle, a low angle, a dead-straight angle, include something bright in the picture. Embracing photography means having fun with what you are photographing!

Woo-hoooo! Next lesson shutter speed and aperture. These two are the heart and soul of manipulating images, the left and right hands of the camera body.


The aperture is the opening that allows the light through your lens. Think of it as the eye of your camera, opening and closing.

The numbers that measure the size of the opening are called f-stops. The larger the f-stop (or number) is, then the smaller the opening size is, and vice versa. It’s a lot like fractions, when you stop to think about it. F-stop 4 sounds like a small number compared to F-stop 22 (or f/22), but think of it as a fraction. Would you rather have ¼ of the pizza when you’re ravenous or 1/22 of the pizza when you’re that hungry? Smaller number = more pizza for you (or more of an opening through the camera lens).

The aperture mode controls the depth of field in a photograph. Depth of field is the amount of the picture that is in or out of focus. If most of your photo (the foreground, middle ground, and background) is all in focus, then it has a long depth of field. If just a little bit is in focus (the foreground OR the middle ground OR the background), then it has a short depth of field.

Try pre-visualizing what you’d like your end results to be. Many professional photographers do this and even sketch out a general scene of what they’re trying to capture. All of these exercises help to focus your mind and your thinking. The rule of thumb is to simplify your photographs. You don’t want a busy scene with many points clamoring for attention. If the background is distracting, throw it out of focus by using a short depth of field.

It takes about a roll of film or about 20 shots to understand a photographic concept. Take some shots (and record the readings!) of a gorgeous landscape with every inch in focus (long depth of field). At what aperture were your best shots of the landscape? At what aperture were your best shots of a person?

Try shooting the same subject with different depths of field. What are your results? The key to being successful is to experiment and record the results. Note-takers can learn from their experiments.

A note on depth of field and pre-programmed modes:

The face profile is the portrait mode and that has a short depth of field, so as to blur the background. The mountain is the landscape mode and that has a long depth of field for landscapes. The flower is the close-up mode and that has a short depth of field for extreme close-ups.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the amount of time that the shutter remains open once you take your photo. With the manipulation of shutter speed, you can show fast action frozen or blurred to varying degrees. A fast shutter speed – like 1/500 – freezes motion like a waterfall or a child swinging at the playground. A slow shutter speed – like 1/30 – shows water blurred on the waterfall and the child as a blur on the swing.

Each full stop shutter setting is half (or double) the time of the next one, and is marked as the bottom part of the fraction of a second that the shutter stays open.

1 (or 1/1 stands for one second) 2 (1/2 second) 4 (1/4 second) 8 (1/8 second) and so on for 15, 30, 60,125, 250, 500 B (or bulb setting) keeps the shutter open for as long as the release button is held down.

Again, use a roll of film to experiment with various shutter speeds. Using water coming out of the tap or a fountain, try various shutter speeds. Take note. Which ones did you enjoy? The blurred look of water or the frozen-in-time look?

Sporting events are another great place to practice with your shutter speed. Take note, and see where you prefer the action…frozen or a blurred streak across the field? How about people on bikes or someone on a jump shot? All of these will work.

You’ve been introduced to the timing and lighting components within a camera. Use these to think about the structure of a photograph. In our next lesson, we’ll address lighting a subject.

People and Places

You’ve got the basics and as you strive to define your vision, think about this:

What do you prefer to photograph: People or Places?

Some photographers are drawn to capturing emotion and expressions while some are held under the spell of landscapes.

Look through magazines. What captures your eye?

Here are some focal points to consider:

Faces – With people you know, keep the mood relaxed; with people you don’t use a telephoto lens; avoid direct sun so no one has to squint; gentle or subdued lighting is most flattering for people’s faces.

City Shots – Find high vantage points to reveal city views; shoot early or late in the day; use fast films at twilight.

Distinctive landmarks – Work from a distance to reveal the setting; move close to capture distinctive details; use weather and lighting to establish mood.

Marketplace Photos – Get up early to catch the peak activity; search out colorful displays and colorful characters.

What will your photos reveal?