Learning Photography: Basics for Complete Beginners

Choosing your first camera, Shooting in manual mode & Getting better fast

Most of us walk around with a smartphone in our pocket every day and are able to capture pretty good pictures. But making the leap from smart-phone photographer to grabbing your first “real camera” can be incredibly intimidating. It’s expensive, the camera is full of settings you don’t understand, and you’re not really sure where to even start.

I get it… I just made the leap a little over a month ago and I wanted to share what I’ve learned along the way to help you get more confident with your camera.

Here are some examples of what I’ve been able to do in that time:

From one beginner to another, here are some things you’ll find helpful as you get started.

*I’ve also included a ton of my favorite resources at the bottom!*

Choosing Your First Camera

Googling “Best cameras for beginners” wasn’t really helping me understand why a camera might be a good fit, so I decided to learn the differences between cameras and then just choose what I wanted.

Here’s the top things to keep in mind when choosing a camera that’s right for you.

You’re buying into an ecosystem — Choosing a brand

Cameras and lenses aren’t cheap, I won’t mince words there. When you buy a camera with an interchangeable lense system, chances are you’re spending at least a few hundred dollars on the body of the camera itself.

Over time, you’ll build up a lens collection for your camera, which will also add up. The thing to keep in mind here is that lenses aren’t generally compatible across brands.

So if you build up a collection of Nikon lenses and then decide to switch to Canon, those lenses won’t be transferrable and your collection will be useless. You’ll have to build your collection back up, which is expensive.

Try to think ahead. Find your ideal camera and if you can’t afford that one, it might be a good idea to stay in the brand as you start to build your lens collection so that you can eventually re-use them.

Cropped or full-frame?

Cropped sensors do exactly what it sounds like they do, they give a smaller frame of view. Whereas full-frame is bigger and newer.

Full-frame tends to be more expensive since it’s got a bigger sensor, and generally has the option to switch between full-frame and cropped.

Why would you still want cropped? They actually magnify the view by 60%, so that’s a pretty cool benefit to eek a bit more magnification out of your lenses if that’s something you’re after. This works especially well for wild-life photography.

Original from The Photography Blogger

New or used?

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. Camera’s are EXPENSIVE…and so are lenses.

I learned that the higher-end cameras tend to hold their value pretty well. By going used, you are able to buy a newer and better camera than if you bought new.

For me, it was an easy decision to buy used as long as it was in good condition. I found a local camera store where they showed me everything, let me try it out, and even gave me the original box with the unwrapped camera strap and manual inside. I got it for 23% off and was able to buy the camera I wanted to eventually end up with, right at the start.

Every lens I’ve bought so far has also been used and I’ve had no problems. You can check out my current favorite online retailer here. They give a description of the condition for every single lens, so nothing will be a surprise when you get it.

DSLR or Mirrorless?

If you’re on a budget, DLSRs are probably your best bet.

If your main constraint is budget, I’d highly suggest going with a used, crop sensor DLSR. You’ll have more options and tons of older used lenses available to you.

So why didn’t I choose that?

In a DSLR the main mirror that flips up to let the light hit the sensor behind it can technically run out of life after so many pictures. I knew I’d be buying used, and so I wanted to avoid that. It wasn’t the main reason I went with a mirrorless though.

I also knew that mirrorless was the way that cameras were going and I wanted to future-proof my purchase.

It’s also about fit. I went to Best Buy in person and tried out a few cameras to see what felt better. I’m a pretty small person (5'1) and I’ve got small hands, so the mirrorless was also just a lot comfier for me to hold and the small size meant it would be that much easier to travel and hike with.

My first camera

I ended up getting the camera that I knew I’d eventually want to trade-up into; the Canon EOS R.

After enough research I knew that I wanted a full-frame, mirrorless camera to start out, and that I’d save myself money in the long-run by building that ecosystem to start off with.

By buying used I mitigated depreciation, and could actually sell it pretty easily for what I bought it for. Meaning even if I decided that I didn’t like photography, I could “get out” without losing much money. Same for my lens.

So far, I’m super happy with my purchase!

Canon EOS R. Original from Snapshot

The Basics of Using Your Camera in Manual Mode

The first thing that felt super overwhelming to me was dealing with the main settings that you’ll use on your camera on a daily basis. So that’s where I started. After tons of tutorial videos and articles, here’s a quick summary & lesson for you.


The first priority that we have is making sure that the pictures we take are correctly exposed, which basically means that we want the light levels to be correct. You can use your eyes here, but there’s an easier more precise way to get it done that will help you avoid extra editing later.

You’ve got a pretty straightforward exposure level indicator that you’ll want to be exactly centered.

You’ve also got a more detailed histogram that you’ll see which will show you the different amounts of light that the sensor is reading. Here, you want to make sure that the readings aren’t skewed too far right or too far left.

Tip: When I got my camera, I could only see most of these features when I looked through the viewfinder. However, you can set up quite a bit of these tools to show on your LCD screen. I’ve added all of these, as well as a handy-dandy level to my screen and it’s been nice to easily see everything I need in one spot.

Taking control of your lighting

Turns out, there are 3 big things that you’ll constantly be working with when it comes to getting the right exposure when you’re in manual mode.

  • ISO — The light sensitivity setting on your camera. If you need the camera to pick up more light, you crank this number up. If it’s already really bright, you don’t need it to be very sensitive and you can lower it.
  • Aperture — How much the hole in your lens opens up to let light in. The lower the number, the more wide open the lens hole is and the more light you’ll let in. If your aperture is set to f/1.4, the piece of the lens that closes is barely covering over the sensor, so a ton of light is coming in. If your aperture is set to f/22, it’s covering a ton of the sensor, and so less light is coming in.
  • Shutter speed — How quickly your shutter is closing, or basically the amount of time that your camera is “seeing” the scene that you’re taking a picture of. If you set it to 1 second, your camera sensor is getting a lot more light than if you set it to 1/250 of a second.

Each of these 3 things work together to affect the amount of light coming into your camera.

Original from SmugMug

So which settings should you change?

Those 3 things don’t only affect light though, they also affect various properties of the image. So you’ll need to know what else each of these do in order to get the picture that you’re after.

  • ISO — This light sensitivity will increase the noise that you see in a photo. As you crank it up, you’ll start to see more grain show up. You’d like to avoid this, so if you start seeing it, it’s time to lower that ISO and adjust the other 2 settings to crank the light up instead.
Original image from DigitalTrends.com
  • Aperture — As the blades cover your sensor more, you’ll increase how much of the field you’ll be able to see in focus. The more wide open your aperture (lower number like f/1.4), the blurrier your foreground and background will be. The more closed your aperture is (higher number like f/22) the more in focus the foreground and background will be. In general, people will want a blurrier background when they want to focus on one subject (like in a portrait) and less blur in something like a landscape.
  • Shutter speed — This will control how blurry things are as they move. So if you leave the shutter open for a while and things are moving, it’s going to be blurry. This is a great way to show motion if that’s the goal. If you want super crips images and action shots though, you want a very quick shutter speed. For these birds, I had to set my shutter speed suuuuper low to get their wings crisp instead of blurry.

These are the main 3 settings that you’ll be constantly switching between to keep the lighting right and to make sure that you’re getting the picture that you want.

It’s a balancing act.

Original from SLR Lounge

Where to start & how to improve

It might seem like a lot to remember, and I felt pretty overwhelmed at first trying to keep all of these things in mind. Here’s what I’d suggest as a ramp up:

  1. Focus on lighting first. Don’t worry too much about the details, but get out there and start practicing setting your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to get the exposure right.
  2. Critique your own photos to see what you’d like to be done differently next time, and iterate.
  3. Focus on the specifics of what ISO, aperture, and shutter speed can do for the look of the photo only once you’ve figured out how to get your exposure where it needs to be and you’ve critiqued the look of your pictures.

Personal critique examples:

  • My background is too blurry— Crank up that aperture from f/8 to f/22.
  • My subject’s legs are blurry as they walk — increase that shutter speed to get those images nice and crisp.
  • The images that I took at night are suuuper grainy — Lower the ISO and compensate with either aperture or shutter speed settings to get more light into the camera.

These critiques are something I’ve done every time I’ve uploaded a set of photos.

I sit down and figure out if there’s anything I don’t like about my pictures that needs to be fixed. I also look at other people’s photos to see if there is anything I’d do differently or want to try out. In this way, it’s gotten much more intuitive for me to quickly adjust things while I’m out taking pictures to get exactly what I want the first time.

The good news? It does get easier to quickly think about all of this!

I hope this quick article on the basics was helpful to you, I’m planning on putting together a few other pieces based on my recent experience with learning photography. I’ll be covering:

  • Prioritizing expensive purchases for camera gear
  • Getting started in Lightroom
  • Delivering pictures to clients
  • Using a printshop to sell prints online

Want more interesting and honest content? Sign up here to keep in contact.

Follow along on our adventures over on Instagram

Resources I’ve loved

The video I wish I’d found before pouring hours into research:

Camera basics with Peter Mckinnon (A 3-part series):

Designing my best life & helping others do the same | Digital Nomad | UX Designer & Innovator

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store