You went out and spent a fortune on a camera, and maybe you got a few additional pieces – like a lens or two, a tripod and maybe a flash. So now what?

STEP 1: Get the Basics Down

The very very first thing you need to do is go out and take a few hundred pictures. It doesn’t matter what you’re photographing – landscapes, portraits of unwilling family members, flowers. It doesn’t matter if the photos are awful, out of focus, badly exposed or if they’re “perfect” because you were running on the Automatic setting the full time. It’s important that you get a feel for your camera, explore the menu system, and learn where the buttons are even if you don’t know what they do yet.

STEP 2: Study the Manual 

Your next assignment takes you back inside: Read the manual. I hear you groaning – but I’m serious. READ THE MANUAL. You don’t need to understand or memorize it, but you do need to have a good idea of what it contains beyond the basic table of contents. You’ll probably see something cool that you’ll want to try out right away. The key point is – there will be something you’re trying to figure out later. Knowing where to find it in the manual will be invaluable.

Now that you’ve read the manual, go take more pictures. You’ll still be getting used to your camera at this point, which is why we haven’t gotten into anything about shutter speed, depth of field, flash guide numbers or anything else. They’re all very important concepts, but you need to have a strong grasp on the basics before you take this any farther. For now, just stick with automatic mode and play around. Be sure to get the photos onto your computer so you can look at them properly – on-camera is a great to check while you’re out shooting, but you want to really examine your photos on a larger screen when you’re done.

STEP 3: Beginning Technique 

By the time you feel comfortable with your camera, it’s time to take the good photos that you’ve taken – and make them better.

Let’s start with three things that automatic mode was taking care of for you: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. These are the three main variables that we use to control the exposure (lightness or darkness) of an image and each one of them impacts the photograph a little differently.

Aperture is probably my favorite of the three variables. It’s represented by what is known as an f-stop or an f-number. The smaller the number is, the wider the opening in the lens is, and the more light gets let in. f/1.4 lets in more light than f/2.0. Artistically, the wider the opening is, the thinner the in-focus area is. The in-focus area is known as depth of field. For example, if you are taking a portrait and you want only that person’s eyes in focus (a thin depth of field), you would use a small f-number like f/1.4, which would also be a really wide aperture (letting in a lot of light). The aperture also affects sharpness, vignetting and on really fast cameras the maximum number of pictures you can take per second, but for now, just remember small numbers give you less in focus, effectively isolating your subject. If you’re taking pictures of people, smaller numbers are usually better. If you’re taking a landscape photo, you might want to use a higher f-number like f/11.0 so that everything in the frame is sharply in focus. Finally, understanding aperture in relation to the amount of light getting in is going to take a bit of math. Take a look at the list below. For reference, a lens capable of f/1.0 lets in an immense amount of light. An f/1.0 lens will let in so much light that, given the right settings, you might even be able to photograph by the light of a single candle. Every step in the list represents an aperture that lets in half the light of the one before it. You can simply memorize the list but if you’d like to calculate each step just multiply the one you’re on by 1.4. So if you’re on 2.0 then to get half the light you’d want to stop down to 2.8. 1.4 probably seems like a random number but it has to do with the way lenses are designed and built so for now just run with it.

If f/1.0 = 1 (lots and lots of light and a super thin depth of field.)

f/1.4 = 1/2 

f/2.0 = 1/4(Yup we’re already down to a quarter the amount of light that an f/1.0 lens can let in)

f/2.8 = 1/8

f/4.0 = 1/16

f/5.6= 1/32 

f/8.0 =1/64

f/11.0 = 1/128

f/16.0 = 1/256

f/22.0 = 1/512(Yeah you need 512 times more light than you would at f/1.0)

Shutter speed is next, and compared to aperture, it’s pretty simple. If you double your shutter speed you’ll cut the amount of light falling on the sensor by half it’s entirely linear. The faster your shutter speed is the more light you’ll need or the more you’ll need to compensate with aperture and ISO. The really important thing to remember about shutter speed is that the faster the shutter speed is, the less blur you’ll have. There are two main kinds of blur: motion blur and camera shake. Camera shake is critical to avoid because it can ruin low-light photography. The first and easiest way to get rid of camera shake is to increase your shutter speed. The rule of thumb is that you should keep your shutter speed above one over your effective focal length. Confused? Get out your camera.

Alright – take a look at your lens. If it’s a zoom lens, it should say something like 18-55 mm or 70-300 mm. This is your focal length range. If you have a non-zooming lens, it’ll just have one number, like 50mm. Let’s pretend you have an 18-55 mm zoom lens, which is a basic kit lens included with a lot of entry level camera sets. If you’re zoomed all the way in, you’re at 55 mm.  Now you need to apply your crop factor. If you purchased a full-frame or FX camera, this number is 1. If you have a Canon or Fuji crop-frame camera, this number is 1.6. If you purchased a Nikon DX or a Sony crop-frame, it’s 1.5. If you purchased a Panasonic or Olympus, the number is 2.0. The smaller the sensor, the larger the crop factor. Now, take your focal length (55mm) and multiply it by your crop factor. For example, let’s say you purchased a Canon with a crop sensor, so your crop factor is 1.6. Your effective focal length would be 88 mm (55 x 1.6). Keep your shutter speed over 1/88th of a second. This is just a loose rule of thumb – you may find you’re more or less steady than the rule – but it’s somewhere to start. There are other things can help with camera shake, like image stabilization on a lens or a tripod. However, sometimes it’s not the camera moving – it’s the subject. And that gives us motion blur.

Motion blur. This effect can either be your best friend or worst enemy, depending on what you’re trying to do. If you’re trying to photograph a person and you’re on a tripod or you’re using image stabilization, you might have a perfectly sharp scene but the person is blurry. When taking pictures of people who are moving slowly or standing still, try to keep the shutter speed above 1/60th of a second. If someone is running, then that number could jump to 1/500th or even higher. The flip side of this is that you might want blur, like if you’re actively panning following a runner. This effect will intentionally keep the person fairly sharp and have the background streak past and is accomplished by keeping the shutter speed low. You could also put your camera on a tripod near some moving water, and turn the water to mist or glass by using a several second or even several minute exposure time. Have fun with it!

ISO is the final piece of the exposure puzzle. This is also known as your sensor’s sensitivity. The higher the ISO, the less light you’ll need, and like shutter speed, it’s entirely linear so 200 means you need half as much light as 100 and so on. Generally speaking, the lower this number is, the sharper the photo. Raise it only if you must. The higher the number is, the more noise you’ll have, and your photo will be less sharp and vibrant.

Here are some example combinations. Each set of three represents exactly the same exposure but the variables have been changed to suit different artistic purposes.

Outside on a sunny day:

ISO 100 + Shutter 1/100th + Aperture f/16.0  = hand-held landscape

ISO 100 + Shutter 1/800th + Aperture f/5.6 = Sports

ISO 100 + Shutter 1/6400th + Aperture f/2.0 = portrait.

Low-light indoor:

ISO  100 + Shutter 1 second + Aperture f/4.0 = tripod-based architecture shot

ISO 4000 + Shutter 1/80th + Aperture f/2.8 = Hand-held portrait (small group)

ISO 2000 + Shutter 1/80th + Aperture f/2.0 – Hand-portrait (one person)

Got it? Good. Now grab your camera again, and set it to manual mode on the dial (not on your lens- that should remain in auto-focus mode). When you look through the viewfinder, you should see an exposure meter. Try and keep the exposure right at 0, which means the camera thinks that the exposure is correct. It can be fooled – and you will need to understand how that happens and how to fix it later – but for now, assume it’s correct and use what you know now about the exposure triangle to go take another thousand shots. You won’t want to live on manual mode forever, but this mode gives you a great understanding of how ISO, aperture and shutter speed interact.