Week 1: Basics

Creative photography is all about pushing boundaries, but in order to do that, you need to have a firm grasp on the basic elements. When you have a good solid foundation under your belt, you can break rules and stray from the "expected" to create unique and creative images. But before you can start breaking rules, you want to feel really comfortable with the basics.

For DSLRs (digital single lens reflex), I use a Canon 5D Mark iii and a Canon 5D Mark ii for backup. In 2013 I made the switch to Canon after 8 years of shooting with Nikon. All pictures of digital cameras in this post are of the Nikons. For film cameras, I use a Pentax K1000 and a Canon AT-1. The film camera pictured in this post is the Pentax K1000.

If you are one of the course participants using a point and shoot or phone camera, do not feel discouraged! Having a good understanding of photographic basics will allow you to explore ways to acheive a certain look using what equipment you have, or after in an editing program (we will use and discuss a free option online available to everyone!). And if you find you absolutely, positively adore photography and all it has to offer your creative life, you can consider upgrading to a film or digital SLR someday, and you will know loads about it!

We will be diving into these core elements of basic photography:

  • exposure
  • aperture
  • shutter speed
  • reading your meter
  • shooting modes
  • ISO
  • Depth of field (DOF)
  • noise

For this week's main lesson, we are going to be discussing four of these key elements: exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and depth of field!


Exposure is basically how much light is allowed in to create an image. You can overexpose an image, which results from having too much light. With overexposure, your image will look washed out and lose details. These are also called "blow outs" or "highlights" and can not be reversed, even in an editing program. You can also underexpose an image, which results from not having enough light. The image produced will be dark, and lose details due to the lack of light. Depending on the severity of the underexposure, you can recover some of the lost details in an editing program. Proper exposure uses just the right amount of light to produce an image that retains all the details of the subject, and captures the subject in the way you intended.

There's so much I can say about exposure in reference to "creative photography" and breaking the rules, but I want to save that for later. I want you to master properly exposing an image first. I like to think of proper exposure as capturing your subject the way your eye sees it.

And how can you know if your image is properly exposed, you ask? That's where your camera's light meter comes in!

If you are using a DSLR, your light meter is located in one (or two) different places. I have a meter on both the top of my camera by the aperture and shutter speed dials, and there is also one located in the viewfinder towards the bottom. This is the one I use always. It is the first thing I look at when looking through the viewfinder. By studying your light meter, you can then properly expose an image!

When looking through the viewfinder at your light meter, you should see something like this:


The "0" in the middle of the meter indicates proper exposure, while the "+" indicates over exposure (too much light), and the "-" indicates under exposure (too little light).


Above are two examples of an overexposed image. Notice the "blow outs" where the photo loses details. Those details can never be recovered.


Above are two examples of underexposure. Sometimes when an image is underexposed, you can recover lost details, but it all depends on the image.


Here are two examples of a properly exposed image. All the details remain intact, the colors, tones, and lighting are all true to life.

I always tell students to err on the side of underexposure. I typically shoot with my camera settings slightly underexposing an image, because if I find it a wee bit too dark, I can always increase the exposure or brightness in an after editing program like Photoshop, or any free program should allow you to do the same. But if I overexpose something, it is much harder to get back any lost details.

Now, take a moment to pick up your camera and find a place to stand. Look through the viewfinder and while doing so, turn 360 degrees around, while staying in the same spot. You will notice the light changing depending on where the camera is pointed. Now, do the same thing again and keep your eye on the light meter. Notice how the exposure will change. Sometimes I find that by just changing my position by a quarter of an inch will result in a completely different exposure!

If you are using a phone or a point and shoot, you can do the same thing while looking at the image through your screen. Sometimes with my iphone, it takes the exposure a minute to catch up and adjust, so you can see where an image would be overexposed or underexposed given the amount of light available.


There are a few ways to achieve a properly exposed image. Let's dive into those different options. You've probably heard the terms "aperture" and "shutter speed" before, right? If not, don't worry. But these are the two most important components to a properly exposed image.

Let's locate the aperture and shutter speed controls on your camera. If you are using a DSLR, there will either be one or two dials on the top right hand side near the shutter release button (what you push to take the picture). If you have just one dial near the back, you will need to locate the button near the shutter release that you engage while turning the dial to switch from shutter speed control to aperture control. It should look something like this...


If you are using a film camera, your shutter speed is controlled by a dial on the top, while the aperture is controlled by the actual aperture ring on your lens. It will look something like this:


If you are using a point and shoot (there are so many different ones!), please look in your manual to find out if and how you can control things like aperture and shutter speed. They will be located in different places depending on the camera. But if you have any questions at all, or need help, please contact me! If you do not have controls for these available on your point and shoot, don't worry! We will achieve the same look in our editing program when we dive into that, so you just need to understand what each component does.

And those of you using a phone camera, you can also achieve the same look either on your phone (depending on what Apps you own), or with an after editing program. But we will discuss all that soon!

Aperture (also known as "f-stop") is one way to control the amount of light entering into your camera's sensor (the sensor measures the amount of light and reports that to your meter). It is located in your lens and is measured in numerical units like f1.4 all the way up f22.. Let's think of aperture as a water pipe...the smaller the pipe, the less amount of water is going to be able to flow through it. The larger the pipe, the more water will be able to flow through it. Your lens is the same way! A larger aperture means more light will be able to reach the sensor, and a smaller aperture means less light will reach the sensor.


Here's an example of what the aperture looks like inside your lens. (Source) And here's the part that always confuses people at first (including myself!)...the smaller the number (like f1.4 or f2.2, etc.) the larger the opening, meaning that it lets in more light. The larger the number (like f22), the smaller the opening, which lets in less light.

So, let's say you are outside on a bright sunny day. The sun is shining down, there are no clouds...it's just FULL sun. You have to properly expose an image. So, since there is abundant light, you'll want to use a smaller aperture to diminish the amount of light that reaches your sensor.

And if you're inside at night, or on an overcast day, you would want to use a larger aperture to be able to let in as much light as possible!

There's one more thing that aperture controls, and that's depth of field. Depth of field (or DOF) is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a photograph that appear in focus. Now this is something that I find most people come to me to find out how to do...they want that "look" in their photographs. They want to have one person or object completely in focus, but the background slightly blurry, and they can't figure out how to do it! The frustrating thing for many of you if you're trying to achieve this look, is that your lens limits your ability to create a really small depth of field. Most DSLRs come with what's called a "kit" lens. The range of aperture settings will typically start anywhere from a f3.5-f5 on a kit lens, while another lens purchased separately could open up to a f1.4, which will give you the greatest depth of field.

Take a look at your camera lens if you are using a film or DSLR camera for this course and locate the aperture measurements on your lens. They will be located on the lens in two places:


When I shoot, I always adjust aperture first thing. When I see an image, I know exactly how I want the depth of field to look in my mind, and because I am so familiar with the aperture settings and the kind of depth of field that results from each, I am able to quickly adjust my aperture to achieve that look.

Here are some examples of different apertures and the depth of field each achieves. I focused on the dandelion. Pay close attention to what happens to the background...


f1.4 is the WIDEST my aperture will open up. So not only is it letting in a LOT of light, it's also giving me the narrowest depth of field. The only thing that is in focus is the dandelion in the center. Even the stem is blurred.


With the f2.2, you will notice more detail in the foreground and background.


The f2.8 gives you even more detail. This is a good portrait setting...it allows your subject's face to be fully in focus, but the background to be blurred.


With the f4, the image is starting to lose some depth and appears flatter.


With the f8, all the objects in the foreground are now in focus and the background is clearer.


The f16 produces a very flat image. There is virtually no depth of field; only the farthest objects (buildings) are out of focus.

I find that most people are looking for a narrow depth of field in their photos to create an interesting, eye catching image. A narrow depth of field allows you to focus on one object in a photograph, so that when a viewer looks at that photograph, their eye will automatically focus on what was intended.

To summarize, aperture not only helps to control the amount of light reaching the sensor, but it also allows you to choose a depth of field.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the other component to achieving a properly exposed image. Shutter speed is the amount of time the camera's shutter is open. Shutter speed is measured numerically as well, with the numbers representing seconds. Depending on your camera, your shutter speed will range from full seconds to 1/8000th of a second, or more! In most cases, you'll like be using a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second or more, because below 1/60th of a second, you will likely get blurred images (from shaky hands holding the camera, or objects in motion).

Now, to tell you the truth, I rarely think about shutter speed when taking a picture. My main priority is always aperture, and obtaining the look I want through that. So I always set my aperture first, then I need to adjust my shutter speed accordingly to properly expose my image. So really, all I'm actually considering when taking a photograph is the aperture. The shutter speed is just something I adjust to compensate for whatever the available light is.

The only time I consider shutter speed before aperture would be if I purposely wanted to show motion in a photograph.

If I wanted to capture a moving subject and show its motion but keep the background in focus, I would use a very slow shutter speed. (FYI: hand holding a camera at a slow shutter speed is tricky. I have very steady hands from practice, but you can use a tripod if you find that it's a problem for you.)

Here's an example of showing a subject in motion:


Here's another image I captured long ago showing motion:


Shooting Modes

Now that we know what aperture and shutter speed are and how they affect exposure, let's wrap this lesson up with a brief overview of shooting modes. We will only be discussing three.

Different cameras offer different modes, but DSLRs will tend to offer them all. These modes allow you to choose what you would like control over. In manual mode (M), you have full control over everything. You need to not only adjust aperture, but also adjust shutter speed in order to get a perfectly exposed image.

In aperture priority mode (A on a Nikon, Av on Canon, you are only in control of the aperture. The camera automatically adjusts the shutter accordingly to properly expose the image.

In shutter priority (S on a Nikon, Tv on a Canon), you have control over the shutter speed, but the camera automatically adjusts the aperture.


If you're using a DSLR, locate the dial (typically found on the top) or in the menu that allows you to select your "shooting mode." Some point and shoots have this option as well, such as the Nikon Coolpix P500 and Canon Powershot S95, among others.

For this course, if your camera allows it, I want you to focus on solely shooting in manual mode (M) to really master these basics. But in the future, if you are looking to simplify your shooting, or find yourself in a situation where kids are running around and you don't have time to manually adjust to be quick enough to capture the shot, you can put the camera into one of these modes and cut down on your adjusting time.

I will say, from my own experience, that I have not been particularly happy with my exposures when I use a mode like aperture priority. I find that they tend to be slightly overexposed on my Nikon. I shoot 100% in manual, and found that the more I did it, the faster I became at setting up a shot, and I rarely miss a shot because I am adjusting aperture and shutter speed!

So that wraps up our intro to basics. It can seem like a lot at first, but keep in mind that proper exposure all comes down to these two things: aperture and shutter speed. Once you master those, you will be confident and comfortable with shooting in manual mode!

Don't forget to download the worksheet and challenge for this week that will help you to get comfortable with all that we learned in this lesson!