Photography is one of the most exciting hobbies you can pick up, but when you're first starting out it can all just seem so daunting. But don't get discouraged! It's important to remember that everyone started somewhere. There are no Mozarts in photography, virtuoso geniuses who were born knowing everything there is to know about the craft. More often we began like Beethoven, sitting at the piano in tears.
But while learning how to compose a symphony would take years of practice, composing a great photo can be done at the click of a button—if you know what you're doing. Fret not if you don't, however, we've got some simple tips that are easy to remember, easy to follow, can be used with any camera, and will improve your photos in no time—no technical knowledge required.
The first thing you're going to want to know is that light is an elemental particle that exhibits wave-particle duality in accordance with the laws of quantum phys... Just kidding. This is the easy version. While you can spend literally your entire life studying the way light moves through the universe, you budding photographers just need to concern yourself with one concept: brightness.
Ever walk into a dark room after being outside on a bright day? You know how your eyes have to adjust before you can see anything? Your camera is the same way. The world varies from very bright to very dark and your camera can only capture so much of this range in a single shot. Controlling this range is very simple to do and can be a powerful way to change the character of your photo.
The easiest way to do this is with your camera's "exposure compensation" button, which is always signified with a +/- symbol. It might be a dedicated dial, a button on the camera, or an option in the menu. Whenever you shoot in an automatic mode on a camera, it tries to figure out how bright the scene should be. But cameras are dumb, and sometimes you have to nudge things in the right direction.
Have a sky that's way too bright? Slide that sucker towards the negative. Trying to brighten up an area in the shadows? Move it to the plus side. Play around with it until you get the idea. Congratulations! You just figured out the most powerful concept in photography.
So now you kinda sorta get how light is affecting your shots. Now you want to go find it. Specifically, you want to find situations where light is dramatic. The best time to do this is during something called the "golden hour." The golden hour is simply the hour right around dawn and right before sunset. It's named this for the beautiful golden color the sun often takes on at these times of day.
The golden hour is also important because it tends to create really wonderful shadows. While at noon shadows tend to be nonexistent because the sun is directly above you, at sunrise/sunset the sun is low. This low angle naturally creates shadows. That interplay between bright and dark areas is called contrast, and it tends to drastically improve the look of your shots. Carve out some time during the golden hour and you'll instantly see just how quickly the changing light will improve your photos.
Most of us see the entire world from between five and six feet off the ground. BOOOOOORING. While there are entire books on the creative use of perspective, how different lenses affect your perspective, and other wonderful tips, a beginner only needs to know one thing: experiment. Get lower, get higher, get directly above your subject, or directly below them. Zoom in on your subject, zoom out and show how your subject fits in the world around you.
The beauty of digital photography is that you can constantly experiment. Stand in one place with a zoom lens and you can see the world in a hundred different ways. Stand in a park and you can turn left and see one landscape, or turn right and see another. You can get lower and see things from a bug's view, or aim downward and take a picture of your shoes. Always try to think up a new way to see what's around you. Do this long enough and you'll probably also see a crowd, gawking at the odd person spinning in circles in the park.
When you're trying to capture something in a photo, you want that subject to be in focus so the details are crisp. On a smartphone this is easy; you just tap whatever it is you're trying to shoot on the screen. For other cameras it can be a little more complicated, but typically speaking if your camera has a physical shutter button, you can focus by holding the button halfway down. When the camera thinks it's locked in it'll usually surround the subject in a green box of some sort and give a cheerful beep indicating everything's good to go. Press the button the rest of the way and voila, you've got an in-focus photo.
While there are lots of advanced things you can do with selective focus, for starters just concentrate on getting what you want in focus. With software these days you can fix nearly any problem you may have with a shot, but you can't fix focus. That said, here are some simple things to keep in mind: With landscapes you usually want everything in focus, which the camera sometimes doesn't understand. Most cameras have a "landscape" scene mode for just these occasions. Also, when capturing portraits of people or animals, it's best to focus on the eyes above all else. They're the windows to the soul, after all.
Composition is essentially three things: what you keep in the frame, what you leave out, and where you put things that are in the frame. While the first two aspects are fairly straightforward, the third is a bit trickier. When we're starting out as photographers we tend to just put our subject in the center. This is fine, but it also gets boring, quickly.
Our brains naturally break things down into patterns, but having things slightly off-center is appealing. In photography there's actually a very simple method of composing called the "Rule of Thirds" that takes advantage of this. Basically, if you cut the frame up into thirds horizontally and vertically, you'll get something that looks like this:
Place your subject on one of the four points where the lines cross and most of the time you'll have a nicely balanced composition. Why does this look better to us? Because we're animals made of star junk and our brains defy logic. Just run with it. Most cameras can even lay the rule of thirds guides over your screen so you can quickly and easily put your subjects there.
Well that pretty much covers the basics. These are the foundational elements of photography, and they're generally pretty easy to wrap your head around. Keep these five things in mind when you're out shooting and you'll see a drastic improvement in your photos in no time.
For some more advanced lessons, check out some of our other beginner guides:
(Photos: Ben Keough and T.J. Donegan)