Introduction to Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

Capturing that perfect moment with a photograph can feel great, but it takes some skill and knowledge to take a great photograph. It can be a rewarding experience to learn about and gain skills in photography.

Luckily, if you are a beginner, just starting to learn about photography, then this guide is here to help you. This brief introduction should give you the basics you need to know about photography.

What is Photography?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, photography is the “process, practice, or art of taking photographs” or “the business of producing and printing photographs” (OED).

While this definition may not seem helpful, it offers three important terms related to photography—process, practice, and art.

Photography is a process. The length of the process depends on what you want to do with the photographs you take. However, photographers must first take a photograph. Then this photograph can be digitally enhanced, printed, and distributed.

Photography is a practice. Photography requires the application of ideas and methods. Photographers need to apply knowledge about light, color, and technology to take a good photograph.

Photography is also a practice in the sense that it takes repeated activity and exercise of skill to improve and maintain proficiency. Photographers spend a considerable amount of time practicing their methods to be good at their skill.

Finally, photography is art. It is a skill that takes creativity, expression, imagination, and vision. Photographers need to train their eye in what looks good and what is beautiful or interesting.

Photography, it is most basic, is the art and skill of taking photographs. However, photography is a skill that needs developing.

A Short History of Photography

While many may think of the camera as a relatively new invention, it has a history that can be dated back to Ancient Greece.

While photo means “light” in its prefix form and the graph comes from the Greek meaning “write” or “trace.” In the Greek sense, photography means to write or trace in light (OED).

Ancient Greeks did not have photography as we have it now. Rather, they had concepts of photography that pre-date modern photography. This kind of knowledge and photography is called camera obscura. 

The camera obscura is a kind of ancient camera where there is a dark room with a small hole. An inverted image of the image outside of the box is then projected onto the opposite wall of the box.

The camera obscura did not produce a print photograph; rather, it allowed for quick sketching to then paint on later. The camera obscura was improved upon by other mathematicians and scientists to give it better lenses and abilities to project images.

It was around 1725 that photography began to see photochemical processes develop when Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that the silver salt used to take photographs reacts to light, not heat or air.

Schulze experimented until he found a chemical mixture with silver chloride allowed for color change (Gernsheim). Many years later, in 1826, Nicéphore Niépce took the first chemical photographs. The photograph was an image of his window, a pear-tree, and a small part of the sky outside.

Throughout the 1800s, photography introduced metal plates into the photographing process. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre experimented with mercury during the early 19th century until he found a way of holding pictures with a salt solution.

Daguerre’s process of photography famously became known as the daguerreotype. The daguerreotype process was improved toward the middle of the 19th century. Photographers experimented with exposure times, different salt mixtures, and gold chloride.

Astronomer, John Hershel, shortly after the introduction of the daguerreotype, showed his first photographs on paper. At the same time, he introduced the words positive, negative, “to photograph” into public language.

From Hershel, the camera as a piece of technology continued to develop towards a more efficient camera that we know now. The chemical process because more effective until the eventual development of digital technology.

What Type of Camera Do you Need?  

The type of camera you need depends on the kind of photographs you want to take and the kind of processes you want to carry out.

The kind of camera you need also depends on the kinds of images you want to take. Will you take still shots or action shots? Are you going to be close to the subject or far away?

You also need to consider the kind of budget you have? The most expensive digital cameras can cost up to $48,000. However, cameras can be bought as cheaply as $35-$40. What you spend depends on the quality you want.

If you are looking for quality images, then you should check out the size of the image sensor. Larger sensors usually have better quality images. However, smaller sensors can take detailed pictures when the setting is right.

If you are looking to zoom in on objects, then you want a camera that has the ability to zoom. Some cameras have a fixed lens, which means you cannot zoom in.

If you also want to take action shots, then you need a camera that will focus quickly. This means you want a camera with higher shutter speed. However, for family portraits and other still shots, you do not need a camera with higher shutter speed.

Therefore, the camera you need truly depends on what you want to use the camera for. The camera you need to take pictures of your family during a barbeque is significantly different than a professional sports photographer.

Think about the kind of photographs you want to take and where you want to take them. Also, think about the quality and functions that you want on that camera.

What are the Three Basic Camera Settings? 

There are a few basic settings to consider when taking a photograph.

Aperature

This refers to how “open” the lens is, which decides the amount of light allowed through the lens. f-stop is the measurement of light. Higher f-stop numbers mean the aperture is closed more. The aperture, which controls the light passing through the lens, can change the sharpness of your image

Shutter

The shutter speed decides how long the sensor in the camera will be exposed to light. The longer the shutter remains open, then the brighter your picture will be.As you adjust the shutter, always consider the speed and movement of your subject. If your subject is moving, then you want a quicker shutter speed. Otherwise, your subject will be blurry.

ISO

This refers to the sensitivity of the digital sensor. The sensitivity, or ISO, determines how much light you need when taking a photograph (Nikon). The higher the ISO, the less exposure time you need

What Other Camera Gear and Accessories Do you Need? 

While there are a few extras you should consider having, some gear is nice to have but not necessary to buy:

  • A case: It is essential to have a case for your camera. Your camera is an investment, and you want to protect it from dust, scratches, and outside elements. A case will protect the lens of the camera and reduce damage to it by the environment.
  • SD Memory Card: It is a good idea to have an extra SD card on hand. If your card dies or runs out of memory, then you will be able to continue photographing by a simple exchange.
  • Cleaning kit: Even with a case, your camera can get dirt and dust into it. A cleaning kit can help reduce possible damage to your camera.
  • Camera strap: You do not want to drop your camera. A strap is just one extra safety precaution.
  • Rechargeable batteries and Charger: Most digital cameras use AA batteries. Investing in rechargeable batteries saves money and the environment.
  • External flash (optional): External flashes are useful as you build your skill. They offer you better light options than what your camera already has.
  • Camera tripod (optional): A tripod can be helpful to stabilize the camera. It helps you take quality still images, especially in low-light settings.
  • Shutter release (optional): This allows you to take a picture without touching the camera. It is often easier than dealing with built-in timers within the camera itself.

What Types of Cameras are There? 

There are several different types of cameras. They include the following: compact, (D)SLR, mirrorless, 360, action, and film cameras.

Compact

Compact cameras are the most common and inexpensive cameras. They are also referred to as the point-and-shoot camera. They are usually purchased and used by beginners.

Compact cameras are easy to use, but many do not have large sensors. This means that the quality of your photos will not be as good as other options.

These are a good hobby and casual cameras.

There are more advanced compact cameras like zoom cameras and advanced compact cameras that offer more features and quality.

DSLR

DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex. These cameras are larger and offer higher resolution than standard compact cameras. Professionals usually use some form of DSLR camera.

Both Nikon and Canon offer DSLR cameras. These cameras can be used to photography nearly all subjects. Therefore, beginners and more seasoned photographers find this camera useful.

Mirrorless

These cameras are similar to the other two. They do not have an internal mirror to reflect light onto the sensor in the cameras.

These cameras tend to have higher shutter speeds that match more expensive DSLR cameras.

Action

Just as their name suggests, these cameras are waterproof and more durable because they are used to take action shots in more hazardous environments. Think of these as your GoPros.

360 Camera

These cameras are specifically used for panoramic images. They are often used on cars and helmets. They are also used on drones.

This camera is less likely to be used by the hobbyist.

Film

These cameras are the ones that require film in order to function. These are not digital cameras.

Polaroid cameras, which print out your picture immediately after taking it, is one form of a film camera.

These cameras usually do not have as high quality; rather, they are used for their uniqueness and aesthetic.

What is the Most Common Type of Photography?

While there are many types of photography, landscape photography is the most common. This makes sense in that landscape is more universally appealing, and it can be used in more marketable ways.

However, other common types of photography include wildlife, aerial, sports, portrait, architectural, wedding, and fashion photography.

Most photographers find what type of photography most appeals to them and what they are good at photographing. Some photographers have an eye for landscape while others have an eye for weddings.

You can begin to experiment to see which type of photography appeals to you and fits your eye.

What Equipment Do I Need as a Photographer?

The obvious answer is—a camera. A good camera is a great place to start, along with a case, camera strap, and a cleaning kit. These are essentials.

You can see the gear and accessories section above to check out what other gear you may need.

Depending on the kind of work you are doing, you may need backdrops or props. If you are taking family portraits, you may need different backdrops or props.

What Makes a Great Photo?

According to National Geographic, a good photograph stops time and illustrates the perfect moment (National Geographic).

Other photographers note that you should offer a sense of place. There should be something of interest in the foreground (front) of the picture, but there should also be a clear background.

Using the light to your advantage makes a great photo. Think about what light is doing and how it changes or plays with the scene/subject.

Capture what is interesting about the subject or the landscape. If you are drawn to a subject, then think about how you can capture that point of interest and allow it to shine through in your photograph.

Beginning Your Photography Journey

While photography takes time and practice to develop as a skill, it can be a rewarding hobby or profession.

You can freeze a moment in time to tell a story or help others relive a singular moment in history. The best part is that anyone can take a photo.

This guide can be your first step in capturing that perfect moment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are automatic modes on cameras good? 

The automatic modes on compact cameras are good for beginners; however, photographers should begin to learn about the exposure/light triangle and move away from the automatic settings on cameras.

Why Should I Buy an External Flash? 

External flashes are more powerful, so you can better capture a subject further away from the lens. The external flash also occurs further from the actual lens of the camera, meaning you have a lower chance of capturing red-eye.

What are the Best Ways to Edit My Photos?

There is good editing software that allows you to edit photos. Adobe offers software like Photoshop. This can be expensive, and there are cheaper options.

What Batteries Do Cameras Use? 

Many cameras use AA batteries or Nickel Metal Hydride batteries. Some companies do offer lithium-ion batteries with certain cameras, but these can be expensive.

Some cameras have Nickel-Cadmium batteries, but they do not last long.