Photography 101: A Beginner’s Guide – Lesson 1

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How do I work this thing? I get that question a lot. I’ll be over at someone’s house and they pull out their new camera, plop it in my lap and say “I just bought this thing and I can’t figure out how to work it.” This isn’t surprising, considering that even small inexpensive cameras have capabilities that usually only professional photographers use. I have always had difficulty answering this question because I don’t know where to begin. Photography has its own language. I can’t explain the settings if one doesn’t know what aperture, shutter speed, or ISO mean. In order to understand the instructions I may give, one must first understand the language they are written in.

Welcome to your Photography Course!

If you are willing, able and really wanting to learn the answer to the question, “How does my camera work?” then you have come to the right place. Over the next several posts, I am going to explain some of the terminology and basic concepts of photography that will allow you to use all of your cameras settings to their full potential and take some mind-blowing photos.

Lesson 1: How a Camera Sees the World

All of the color we see with our eyes is due to light. The visible spectrum of light we see is broken into 7 colors; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.  All of these wavelengths of light come together to produce the millions of colors that we see with our eyes. Our eyes only have 3 different types of cells for color, however, which means we mostly only see the 3 colors red, green, and blue.

How do we perceive the millions of colors around us then? As different amounts of red, green, and blue light enter our eyes and hit those light-sensitive cells, those cells convert the different amounts of light into chemical and electrical signals or amounts of each color. Our brain takes this biological code and mixes the color so that we perceive pink instead of just red, or purple instead of just blue.

Why am I talking about our eye when I should be talking about cameras? Oddly enough, modern digital cameras work very similar. Light enters the lens and when the shutter is open that light hits a sensor. That sensor is covered with lots and lots of light-sensitive electronics, just like the cells in the back of our eye. Each little cell on the sensor is either sensitive to red, green, or blue light. When light hits these cells, it sends an electrical signal to a processor, the camera’s brain. The processor then calculates the amount and color of each pixel or dot in the photo and outputs the closest representation on the screen.

Photography 101 Our eyes and camera see only red, green, and blue. Those colors combine to create the true color we see.
Our eyes and camera see only red, green, and blue. Those colors combine to create the true color we see.

The Camera is not as Good as Us at Color

In a nut shell, a digital camera can tell you how much light has entered it and the color of that light. Unfortunately that does not always duplicate what our eyes see. Our brains are very complicated biological machines that can white balance automatically.

According to dictionary.com, white balance is the process of removing unrealistic color casts so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your photo.

What we see as white is not necessarily white. Sunlight is white before it enters the atmosphere, but as it scatters, due to the atmosphere, we see lots of blue. This blue light shows up, especially in shadows. If we hold a piece of white paper in a shadow it should have a bluish tint. It doesn’t visually because our brains can compensate for that and still see the color as white. Sunlight is just the tip of the iceberg. Florescent light is green, incandescent bulbs are yellow, and so on.

While our brain can figure all of this out without us even thinking about it, cameras are not so smart…until recently. Most cameras today have an auto white balance feature. It is not perfect, however, so if you have auto white balance set on your camera, you may get some odd colors every once in a while.

To find the white balance settings on your camera, it is best to consult your manual since each manufacturer sets up the menu differently. In addition, depending upon the camera, it may have only a few white balance settings or it could contain more settings than those shown below. Play around with it. Try setting your camera for a cloudy day and take photos on a clear day, or set your camera for outside on a sunny day and take photos inside with a florescent light.

Photography 101 My dog Brewy under different white balance settings.
My dog, Brewy, under different white balance settings.

You can’t have your Shadows and Eat your Highlights Too

Other things our brains are quite amazing at executing are exposing for shadows, highlights and constructing a neutrally exposed image.  For example, if you look at a scene with dark shadows, you will see some of what is in the shadows while the rest of the scene will not be blown out and white but properly exposed and visible. How do we do that? Our eyes expose for the dark areas, then expose for the light ones, and our brain combines both exposures and shows us the average of the two. It’s quite a bit more complicated than that and it happens in real time at staggering speeds.

With photos you don’t get the advantage of two exposures to average. If you want the objects in a shadow to be perfectly exposed, the the highlights will be blown out, and if you want the highlights exposed properly, the shadows will be very dark. So when you take a photo you have to decide what to compromise in order to find a middle ground you like. The photo may not look exactly like you saw the scene with your eyes. In order to do this, it is important to be able to control how much light enters the camera and how long light is allowed to hit the sensor. This is known as the proper exposure.

In the photo below you may notice the first shot has a vibrant blue sky, but the rock face is a bit too dark. The second photo is better; the rock doesn’t have too much shadow, and the sky is still vibrant. The last photo has great exposure for the rock face, but the sky is now overexposed. Given the choice of the three, I would say the middle photo is properly exposed.

Photography 101Exposure

Using special software, I can combine the exposures to give you an idea of what I saw when I shot these photos at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. (I will cover this process in later, advanced lessons.)

Photography 101 What I saw when I took the photo.
What I saw when I took the photo.
The foreground is under exposed...but that isn't a bad thing.
The foreground is underexposed…but that isn’t a bad thing.

There are exceptions to every rule, however. Sometimes you want something to be underexposed or overexposed. Take silhouettes, for example. The black silhouettes of birds flying in a v-shape across a crimson sunset certainly has underexposed birds, but the result is artful and striking.

Aperture

The aperture is one way we control the amount of light that hits the sensor. It works just like the pupils of our eyes. In the dark, our iris opens our pupils so they are big and can take in more light. This allows us to see in low light. In the sun, our pupils close down really small so our sensors are not flooded with light. You have experienced what this looks like when you go from a dark house to daylight. Everything appears very bright until your eyes have a chance to adjust. (There are other biological process at play that make this light bloom effect, but I will discuss them later in the ISO section.)

In a camera, the aperture or diameter of the opening can be changed to control how much light is let in. Not all consumer digital cameras have this setting. Consult the manual to see if you can change the aperture or f-stop yourself. I will discuss the f/stop in more detail later on.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is the length of time that the sensor, in your camera, is exposed to light.

Shutter speed can help show movement.
Shutter speed can help show movement.

Being able to set the shutter speed allows you to control the exposure in bright situations by limiting the length of time the sensor has to collect light.  In darker situations, one would increase that time to absorb more light. Your manual will tell you if you can control your camera’s shutter speed. This setting can also create some interesting effects with motion, but that will be for later lessons.

As long as the shutter is open, those light values will keep going up. This turns a sunset photo into a beach photo.
As long as the shutter is open, those light values will keep going up. This turns a sunset photo into a beach photo.

ISO

When we enter a low light environment, our body activates a special set of light receptors called rods. The rods don’t see much in the way of color, that is why in a dark room you can see, but it’s not colorful. Try this. Cover one eye for 20 minutes, then go into a dark room with that eye still covered. Once in the dark room, cover the other eye, you will notice the eye that has been covered can see quite a bit.

Light can be measured, which means it can be given a number. Like your different light receptors, the light sensitive sensor in your camera can be told what number of light it will respond to. In other words, you can set the sensitivity of the sensor like your brain sets the light sensitivity of your eyes. Fortunately, it doesn’t take 20 minutes for your camera sensor to warm up.

This setting on your camera is known as the ISO. If you set your ISO to lower numbers, your camera is less light sensitive which is ideal for bright days. Higher numbers make the sensor more light sensitive for darker situations.

OK, Now What?

Now that you know how the camera works, I am going to use subsequent lessons to explain each function in detail and show how each can be incorporated to your photo taking. Lesson 2 will focus on the aperture or f/stop. I hope that you have enjoyed the first lesson. If you are looking forward to more, please subscribe to our site or like us on Facebook to be the first to know about new lessons, as well as other posts. If you have questions, feel free to comment below or contact us using the Contact Us Page.

Homework

That is it for my first photography lesson. I wouldn’t leave you just waiting for the next one without something to do.

Your homework:

  • Read your manual to see if you can control aperture and shutter speed.
  • Using your manual, find out how to change the white balance and change it. Try changing it to the outside setting and take a photo inside. Note how the color of the photo changes.
  • Play with the other white balance settings and find out if the individual settings work better than the auto white balance.
  • If your camera has a manual white balance, try setting it with a white piece of paper in different environments.


If you are in the market for an awesome entry level camera that takes professional level photos and has all of the functions you will need for these lessons, I recommend the “Nikon D3300.” It is one of the most inexpensive, full-featured DSLR cameras I have found. You can get one from Amazon by clicking the “Shop Now” button.

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12 thoughts on “Photography 101: A Beginner’s Guide – Lesson 1

  • August 12, 2017 at 10:33 PM
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    This is really cool, and you have a tremendous amount of knowledge! If you have an iphone, would you be willing to make a post with recommendations for making the best photos/videos with it?

    Reply
    • August 13, 2017 at 12:08 AM
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      Thank you, I have had it in my mind to write a post about taking photos with a smart phone. Stay tuned. 🙂

      Reply
  • February 9, 2016 at 7:50 AM
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    Thank you so much for this. I’ve been taking photos for quite awhile. Still consider myself an amateur. I know I will be learning a lot just by the way you are explaining things.

    Reply
    • February 9, 2016 at 8:57 AM
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      Thanks!

      Reply
  • February 8, 2016 at 10:05 PM
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    We have many beautiful subjects here in Idaho you can take photos of…and full RV hookups in our driveway! 🙂

    Reply
    • February 8, 2016 at 10:23 PM
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      Really, we’re going to have to put these hook up photos on the schedule…wait…That didn’t sound right.

      Reply
  • February 8, 2016 at 8:35 PM
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    Thank you so much for doing this. I have wanted to find something about photography written in words I understand. Thank you. You were very thorough and clear.
    Love it

    Reply
    • February 8, 2016 at 9:25 PM
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      Thank you for the kind comments. I am looking forward to finishing the next one.

      Reply
  • February 8, 2016 at 7:02 PM
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    I am looking forward to future lessons! Very thorough and great explanations. I’ve had a DSLR for years, but somehow don’t ‘get’ it.

    Reply
    • February 8, 2016 at 7:21 PM
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      Thank you Lolalo!

      Reply
    • February 8, 2016 at 7:31 PM
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      You do however have a lot of really nice photos on your blog yahooramblers.blogspot.com. I subscribed and will be looking forward to more of your adventures as well. 🙂

      Reply

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