A Quick Guide to Photography

Photography is a hugely versatile skill to have under your belt. Aside from being incredibly rewarding in its own right, the ability to take a decent photograph is highly sought after across a multitude of different roles, whether that's journalism, blogging, marketing or, of course, social media.

In this article, we've compiled a quick guide that will teach you the basics of taking a decent photo, with introductions to some of the key aspects of the discipline! Read on if you want to start taking better photos!

The Technical Stuff

The key is to remember that whilst cameras can vary quite a lot in their mechanical functions, whether you're shooting on a professional DSLR camera or your smartphone, the three basic variables that dictate how your photo will look remain the same.

Different cameras will allow different amounts of controls over the three factors -  a DSLR will let you control everything, where as on a smartphone, most of the control will usually be automatic (though certain phones and apps will often enable more or less control).

The three factors are:

Shutter Speed:

The shutter speed refers to how long your camera's shutter stays open for. The longer your shutter is set to stay open, the more light is let in and therefor the brighter your image will be, and vice versa.

It's also important to remember that any motion within your image is also affected by shutter speed - if your shutter is set to stay open for a long time, then any moving objects in your photo will appear blurred as they move across the frame. If you're shooting handheld, for example, you'll want to shoot using a quick shutter speed as any motion caused by your hands moving will cause your image to blur.

PONToon Digital Skills Guide: Photography - motion blur
In this image, the shutter speed has been set quite low, so the shutter has remained open for a second or two, resulting in trails being formed from the brake lights due to the photographer's hand movements.

Aperture:

Aperture refers to the diaphragm inside the camera lens that light passes through, which can be increased or decreased in size to allow for more or less light. Aperture is measured in f. (pronounced "f stop"), with small f. numbers indicating a larger aperture, letting in more light to your sensor, and vice versa. 

The size of the aperture also affects the depth of field - the amount of an image that appears in focus. The larger the aperture (and smaller the f. number), the shallower the depth of field will be.

In this example, a large aperture (low f. number) will result in only the orange portion of the image being in focus. A smaller aperture (high f. number) will result in a greater depth of field, meaning that the area in focus will encompass both the orange and turquoise sections of the image.
PONToon Digital Skills Guide: Photography - shallow depth of field
In this image, the photographer has made use of a large aperture (low f. number) to isolate a single tree branch. The branches falling outside of the shallow depth of field appear out-of-focus, thus making the in-focus branch much easier to see. If the photographer had used a high f. number, the depth of field would be much greater and more of the branches would be clearly visible, making the image much busier.

ISO:

The ISO number indicates the sensitivity of your camera's sensor (or film, if you're going retro!) to light. Setting your ISO to a higher number will let more light into your sensor - but will also result in a more grainy image. 

PONToon Digital Skills Guide: Photography - ISO grain
Bumping up your ISO can be useful if you're shooting in low light situations - just be wary of the grainy effect this will give your image.

Having full control over these three settings will allow you to consistently get the shots you want, and the more you practice playing about with them, the more naturally and quickly you will get an idea of what settings you'll need to use for any given situation. Getting a feel for all three elements will also afford you much more creative control over your shots. However if you're in a pinch, almost all cameras will have some kind of automatic setting that will do the work for you. 

Scene Modes

Scene modes are also present on a lot of cameras - you can select these different modes to quickly adjust your settings based on what kind of image you're taking:

Portrait

Portrait modes aim to make your subject stand out from the background by making use of a shallow depth of field, which is created by increasing the aperture of your lens (reducing the f. number). In portrait modes, the f. number will normally sit around f.4 or f.5.6. The larger aperture lets in more light, so shutter speeds can be faster, reducing any potential motion blur. The ISO can also be set lower, reducing the amount of grain in your photo.

PONToon Digital Skills Guide: Photography - Landscape Photography

Landscape

Landscape modes will essentially do the opposite of portrait modes, using a smaller aperture to ensure that more of the scene remains in focus. The higher f. number does mean that less light will be allowed into your camera, so to compensate, your shutter speed will be slower. If you're shooting hand-held, this could result in some motion blur so it might be worth setting your camera down on a solid surface or using a tripod.

Action / Sports

Sports or action modes utilise a faster shutter speed to help freeze the action as it happens. That means that your aperture may need to be larger (as with the portrait mode) and the ISO may also need increasing in order to increase the light levels of your photo.

Taking Pictures

When it comes to taking photos, considering a few simple things will help you to get the best possible results:

Your Subject

When you're preparing to take photos, asking yourself a few questions can really help the overall quality of your shots.

Firstly, what is the primary subject of your photo? This might seem like an obvious question to ask yourself, but having your subject in the forefront of your mind will help you to concentrate on what exactly your photo is. If you're too focused on secondary details, then you risk placing the emphasis on them instead of your primary subject, which will make the final photo less coherent.

Secondly, ask yourself how much time you'll have to take your photo - will you have enough to set things up, or are you going to have to react quickly? Knowing this will help to ensure that you're not rushing if there's plenty of time, and not panicking to get your settings right if you're in a pinch!

It's also good practice to ask why you're taking the photo. Are you trying to present your subject cleanly and clearly, in as much detail as possible? Are you trying to convey a certain mood or feeling? All of these things will have a bearing on how you compose and light your photograph.

Your Scene

Next, ask yourself where you are, and what's going on around you. Not only will this help to keep you from backing into a road or tripping over something, it will also help you work out whether there's anything in the background of your shot that might negatively affect your photos, such as an unsightly bin or someone walking through in a high-vis jacket.

The Lighting

When it comes to photography, unless you have a full studio set-up, the lighting is often considered one of the most difficult things to control. Our eyes are very good at adjusting to different levels of light, and contrasting strengths of light emanating from different sources, whereas cameras don't handle these differences so well, so must be managed with some degree of care.

Make sure to consider where the light in your image is coming from. If your goal is to capture detail, you'll want that your subject is lit from the front, however if you're wanting to photograph a person illuminated by bright sunlight, it might be a good idea to offset them slightly so that they do not have to squint. It's also important to pay attention to any shadows - are they going to be distracting or unflattering?

Typically, there aren't any solid rules when it comes to lighting - different situations will suit different types of light and light placement. Illuminating your subject from the back or the side with a harsh light, for example, can be a good way to create strong contrasts between light and dark areas, increasing the dramatic effect, whilst a soft light from the front might be more appropriate for a family portrait.

If you have the time, be sure to play around with the lighting to see what different effects you can achieve!

The Composition

When it comes to composing your images, one of the most widely utilised techniques is to use what is known as the Rule of Thirds.

The rule of thirds essentially states that you can create a more aesthetically pleasing image by dividing your scene into a 9 by 9 grid (two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines), and setting up your image so that your main subject is placed either along one of the four lines, or at any intersection.

PONToon Filming Tutorial - Basic Composition and the Rule of Thirds
The 'Rule of Thirds' grid

Most modern cameras will give you the option overlay the rule of thirds grid either on screen or through the viewfinder, making it that bit easier to compose your image.

As mentioned previously, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to photography, and there are plenty of other ways to compose your scenes to create visually pleasing images. However it's always good to have guidelines like this to fall back on when you're not sure what to do, so be sure to give it a go!

Focusing and Shooting

The vast majority of cameras nowadays come with autofocus. This can work in a number of ways but some of the most common methods include tapping the screen to focus on a certain area or briefly holding the shutter button. Some cameras will even feature software that automatically detects faces! Once you are happy with your lighting, composition and focus, taking your picture is as simple as pressing the shutter button!

Sometimes you may want to adjust your focus manually (on most DSLRs, this is done by first flipping the focus switch to manual and then rotating the focus ring, both located on your lens).

This can seem excessive, however with practise it becomes second nature. Don't forget that if you're working with a digital camera there's no harm in taking a test shot then reviewing your image to see how it looks - if you need to move something or try out a different angle, you'll know almost instantly. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to do things - rules and guides can be bent and broken, just so long as you're happy with the images you're producing!

So there you have it! Now that you're more familiar with the basics of photography there's nothing left but to go out practice your newfound skills!

If you're uploading your photos to your social media, tag us in your post and we'll be sure to give you a mention:

Twitter: @PONT_oon

Instagram: @pont.oon