My alternative beginners guide to photography

There have been a request for a tutorial about how to take good quality photos. Another member, rhstanley3, has already written a great guide that focuses on different kinds of cameras and camera settings that is useful. I however have another idea about what is important in photography and what an introduction to photography should convey. I therefor want to present my beginners guide to photography. It is by no means a criticism of his tutorial, we simply have different ideas about what is important.

Mine will be presented in three steps. I will use my own pictures as examples. Because of pure laziness, the same pic might get used several times. Let's begin!

Step 1: Don't worry about ISO, Shutter speed or expensive gear.
There are a lot of myths about photography. One is that it is complicated. Another that it is expensive. Neither of them has to be true. To become a good photographer you don’t need an expensive camera and you don’t need to have a clue what ISO, shutter speed or aperture is. Once upon a time you did, but today cameras in all ranges are very good. And they have auto-focus and auto-exposure that in 99% of all circumstances work just great. Plus they are probably a lot faster than you.
Photography is about creating a piece of art. To do that you need to know what you want to tell with your image and you need to know how to compose the image to make the impact you want. If you do that with the latest super-expensive DSLR or with your smartphone doesn’t matter. It’s the person behind the camera that makes all the difference. I compete a lot at the site The two images below are both very well scored images. Both are shot with a less than $100 compact camera.

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Of course, there are some types of images that are difficult to create without a more expensive camera, and DSLR offers more possibilities. And if you want to print your image as a big poster, your smartphone picture ain’t gonna look pretty. But just as you wouldn’t recommend a couch potato to start buy running shoes and gps-watches for hundreds of dollars, an amateur photographer should start with simpler equipment and then maybe buy more when he/she thinks he/she needs it.

Step 2: What is it that you want to convey with your image?
Okay. Let’s get started for real. The most important starting point when taking an image is to ask yourself what kind of image you want take and why. It doesn’t matter if you are a landscape photographer or a photojournalist, the photographer most always make a choice about what kind of story he/she wants to tell and what kind of feeling the image will convey. By placing things in the foreground/background or by focusing on different places, two images from the same event can convey completely different stories and feelings.
Here are two images I really like. The first one is a staged shot. The camera is set on a time and I am my own model. I love the mystical and eerie feeling of the shot. The second is a photojournalistic task from an Ann Romney-rally in Florida. To me the image really conveys the enthusiasm of the voluntary workers at those events.
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What do you want to tell with your images?

Step 3: Learn about composition
The last step to create a great image is to learn how to compose an image to convey the message/feeling/story you want. The first thing to realize is that when someone looks at an image they will always begin to look somewhere in that image. By composing it right, you should be able to control where. You need a strong focus point that grabs your viewers’ attention. You also need to have something in your image that makes the viewer interested. How to do this?
There are several tricks. Let me share some of them.

Find a unique angle.
We’ve all seen pictures of the Eiffel tower from below or pictures of a baby from above. A simple way to make an ordinary object become more interesting is to simply show it from an angle we usually don’t perceive. Move around and see what you can find and don’t hesitate to crawl on the ground.
Here are two example of photos taken in height with an object you usually would see from above:
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Don’t add anything unnecessary (most often: come closer to your subject).
It’s simple: something that is big in your image will get more attention than something that is small. So if you i.e. want to photograph your friend who has a beautiful face, take the photo so close that you are showing only her face. If you include something else (other body parts, a blue sky, a nice background et cetera) you should do that for a given reason. The most common beginners mistake is to include too much around the main subject and thus make it too small. Here is a photo of a photo friend of mine. I wanted to photograph him during a photo-walk. I like how the small background and the upper part of his body gives a nice atmosphere to the shot, but I have filled most of it with just him.

And here is a photo where I wanted to photograph some strawberries with yummy chocolate. And that’s it. Everything else is removed.

Rule of thirds.
If you start look around at movie posters, ads et cetera you will discover that a large amount of them place their main focus point not in the middle, but in the third of an image: And if they have a horizon or other line that it also is placed in one-third of the image.

I don’t know why, but this way of composing an image is very pleasing to the eye and is therefore used a lot, in photo, painting and movie. Go back to the photo of my photo-friend. Look at his right eye. It’s located perfectly in the upper right “third”. If you don’t have a good reason: place you main focus here.

Here is another example:

Another classic way to direct focus is by using leading lines in your picture that leads the viewer’s eyes to your main focus. Look at the picture of the crumpled paper again. See how the lines in floor point right into the paper and would’ve “ended” just in the middle of it? Not a coincidence. It is a way to create stronger focus. There are much better example of this, google search “leading lines” and you’ll se.
Strong lines can also be something of interest in itself, as the lines formed in this image.

Another classic composition is to try to create a diagonal from one edge of the image to another so that the viewer’s eyes will be led this way. This is very classic and can be done in many ways. Here I have simply used a very strong line to create the diagonal:
It can also be done by i.e. having to interesting subjects at the different edges.

Patterns is another way of creating interest. The idea is to have repeating shapes throughout the image, that is usually intercepted by something. This something will therefore claim the attention of the viewer since it conflicts with what the eye predicts. I don’t really have any good examples of this, but will edit when I do.

Color contrast.
By using contrasting colors it is easy to create an eye-pleasing image. It will make the color that differs pop out and claim all attention. Best way is to let one color dominate the whole image and than add your object that is in another color. Example:

Depth of field.
Depth of field can be used in two ways. Either, as in the photo of my photo-friend, by blurring the background and thus making it less distractive.

This is the most common and will make the sharp object pop.
Sometimes, making an important part of the image blurry can be a great way to show distance and make the image more dynamic. I think this image would be less interesting if the bee in the background were in full focus:

Symmetry, just like patterns, work best if there is something that breaks the symmetry. Either way, a symmetrical image can be very powerful. Look at this example.

Finally, a classic way is to use a path, or some other “line” that leads right into the main object of the image. The eye will naturally follow the path. Here is an example:

Final words
Now. This is of course just an introduction and there are so much more to learn about photography. But those compositional tricks should give you a good start. Usually an image will use more than one of them (it could i.e. be using color contrast, rule of thirds and a leading path).
Whether you have a big DSLR or just a smartphone, get out and start experimenting using this knowledge! It will make your photos much better!


Former Member
Great post mate, having just got into DSLR photography i need all the help i can get.
My weapon of choice is the Nikon D3100, slightly older now but within my price range and i think a really good starter kit.
This is a great topic for those wanting to try there hand at photography. I may refer to this after Christmas when I get my camera.


Well-Known Member
Although i agree with part of your post, especially composition parts, I completely disagree with discouraging people to get familiar with shutter speeds, ISO, aperture settings etc. because it may be complicated. True, photography is art, but how are you planning to paint if you don’t know how to hold your brush or write without understanding how letters create words.
For example even your depth of field advice (one of the most important one) required knowledge of aperture. Basic camera setting knowledge is mandatory to to start your adventure with photography and its really not that hard. Without knowledge of Exposure triangle your photos will composed perfectly but rest of it will be completely random. Why is it not sharp, why is my background blurred/not blurred? Why all photos are look so noisy?

Digital photography school is doing a great job with providing detailed information for beginners

Learning about Exposure – The Exposure Triangle

Introduction to Aperture in Digital Photography

Introduction to Shutter Speed in Digital Photography

ISO Settings in Digital Photography

also a little cheat sheet

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I of course do not want to discourage people from learning about ISO, Aperture och shutter speed. I just don't think that it's the natural starting point. As you learn more and want to take better pictures, of course those things will be important to learn.

As a comparison: I drew a lot when I was younger. I had a lot of books about how to draw. None of them starts by explaining the pros and cons of different canvases, pens or brushes. They start by learning how to scetch a realistic human figure or how to scetch an animal.
When it comes to photography: if you are not in a situation with very dark or extreme lighting most cameras will do a splendid job calculating the correct exposure. Rather than learning the complicated technical details, I would encourage people to start by go out and photograph and then ponder what makes some images good and some bad.

Edit: great spreadsheet by the way.
Dear Sir, I am a Beginner in Photography, I have a question to you, That is which one is best camera in Photography between Nikon D80 and Nikon D3100?
I am going to purchase a camera soon,
So, I would be happy if you please tell me that which one is best camera in Photography between Nikon D80 and Nikon D3100?