Q&A: Photography Basics

[symple_box color=”gray” text_align=”left” width=”100%” float=”none”]We have an ongoing Q&A series. The way it works is that you get to ask us anything. We’ll respond to the first comment in the next blog post in the series.

So, if you’re interested in hearing about Photography Basics, read on. OR, if you don’t really care about them, jump to the bottom of the post and claim your spot as the first question in the comments. You can ask us about anything that strikes YOUR fancy.[/symple_box]

On the last post, Cori asked

If you had to narrow photography down to the 3-5 basics (and explain them briefly), what would those 3-5 things be? Think like a serious beginner here.

I love this question, Cori. Thanks for asking it!

Photography is a field where exploration and learning may never end. I love that about it. If I ever get bored, I know it’s my own fault. There’s more to learn, and I just need to find it.

The down side of the depth of photography is that it can feel difficult and overwhelming to get started. There are terms, concepts, equipment, names, and so much more that just take a while to learn and get comfortable with.

All of this is to say, I know where you’re coming from, Cori! So I’m going to do my best to give a few basic photography ideas, and a couple practical tips to go with them.


Photography is all about light. The major three factors to consider are Quality, Direction, and Color.

I could write whole blog posts on each of those, but I’m going to break them down quickly here.

Quality of light refers to how hard or soft it is and the kind of shadows it will cast. For example, direct sunlight is hard— it makes hard lines between what is lit and unlit.

Here are some examples: the one of me on the left is soft light (notice the lack of clearly defined shadows) while the one of Stacia is hard light (notice the harsh shadows).

Generally soft light will be more flattering on faces than hard light, but both have their places (like above).

Direction of light is simply where the light is coming from. This can be trickier than we think. Our eyes are not used to paying attention to things like this. But by knowing where the light is coming from, you can use it to your advantage.

In the photos above, I put Stacia in the hard sunlight because I wanted a dramatic look. Similarly, she put me in the shade, because she wanted a softer look.

So here’s the tip: use soft light for the most flattering photos of people. If you’re in direct sunlight, put the sun behind the person you’re photographing so that their face will have even shadows on it.

Color of light is the final factor. Light color can vary from daylight, to fluorescent bulbs & incandescent bulbs, to light bouncing off colored objects.

Here’s the tip:pay attention to what color the light is and try not to mix too many colors. If you’re taking a photos inside a room by a window with the lights on, you’ll have blue light coming from the window and orange light coming from the bulbs. Turn off the lights to get a better picture, or plan on using a black and white version of it.


What you put into and exclude from your photo, and where in the photo you put them is all called “composition”. This is one of those things you learn it best by doing, but I’d say a couple quick things:

rule-of-thirds-compositionPut your subject somewhere beside the center. It’s tempting to frame a photo of a person with their face in the middle of the frame. Instead, put them to one side or the other. Pay attention to what gets left out of the frame: are you cutting off a hand? Their waist? There isn’t a simple “right” and “wrong”. Instead just pay attention to how a photo feels if you include/exclude different things.

Think in thirds. Most smart phones have an option to show a grid when you’re using the camera. This helps you divide the frame into thirds, which helps with balance. Try putting your subject on the intersections of those lines.

Make use of negative space. That’s just a fancy word for empty space. Try not filling your entire frame. Include empty sky, blank walls and ceilings, etc. The less you have going on in the image, the more the viewer’s eye will be drawn to the subject.

Say Something

I’m about to get philosophical here, so brace yourself. Photography today is used by many people as a tool for capturing and remembering. Most of my friends’ Instagram feeds are full of photos that are taken to help them remember an experience, moment, or event (or meal!). I think this is a great use of photography, but the images are generally not amazingly artistic images. And they’re not supposed to be. They’re photos of friends around a table, a blurry moment at a concert when your favorite song was played, etc. This isn’t supposed to be art. It’s supposed to be an artifact.

If you want to take better photos, try making something with your images rather than capturing/documenting. This may be a subtle difference, but bear with me.

Let’s say that you’re meeting up with an old friend for dinner. You have an amazing meal at a nice restaurant. You love this friend and would love to make a great photo of her. The easy choice is to have the waiter take a photo of the two of you at your table. That could be a nice way to remember the evening. But what if instead you spent five minutes after dinner walking around the neighborhood taking photos together to try to make an image of her that really captures who she is. Maybe you find a wall with a cool texture that she stands in front of. Maybe you have her stand in the middle of of a wide street with the sun setting behind her.

Instead of using your camera to capture things, use it to make things. This is hard. It can require you to do things you’re not used to doing.

One more thing…

Take lots of photos. The more you take, the more you’ll learn. Great photographers show less than 10% of the photos they take. So remember that you have to take a bunch of bad photos before you make a really great one.

If you want more, I teach a short course—”Getting Off Auto”—for people wanting to learn more about using their digital cameras. Contact me if you’d like to talk about scheduling a class.

Now on the the next question! Ask anything in the comments and we’ll do our best not to take three months to respond!


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