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How to master your photography skills

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Understanding Exposure

Now to be honest, there's only three real settings you need to know in photography.

The Exposure Triangle.

Being a triangle, it has three major sections to it that are the foundation to all photography.

Aperture, shutter speed, + ISO.

If you understand the three of these things + how they affect light, then you’ll already know 90% of what you need to be a good photographer.

Understanding Exposure Part I: Aperture

Aperture is a lot more complicating sounding than it is.

But it’s actually quite easy to understand once you play with it a bit.

The aperture is a hole that you look through. So aperture in photography is controlling the size of the peep-hole that light enters the lens through.

Once light enters through the glass + aperture hole it hits the sensor. And how big or small that hole is controls a lot of things about your photo. It controls how much light hits the camera’s image sensor, for one.

Aperture is written as f/numbers. Don’t ask me what the f/stands for; it’s just an expression carried over from film photography.

Contrary to logic, the bigger the f/number the SMALLER the aperture hole is for light to enter.

If I see f/1.4 I know that the aperture is wide open + light is pouring in. If I’m shooting a wedding in a dark church a number like this is perfect.

If I set my camera to f/11 or more, the hole is much smaller and very little light can enter.

So why would I ever want to make the number smaller if I want light as a photographer?

Well, aperture has a second effect that’s just as important as light control.

When I narrow my aperture I control what’s called depth of field.

Depth of field is how much of a scene is in sharp focus.

If you’re a fan of portrait photos, then you’ve seen lots of images where the person is in sharp focus but the background is blurred out.

In those photos, we’re using a narrow depth of field.

In a landscape photo where both the foreground meadow and background mountains are in sharp focus I’m using a wide depth of field.

For the portrait I used a wide open aperture like f/1.4 to create a narrow depth of field. For a landscape scene I’d use f/11 or more to ensure everything’s nice and sharply focused.

Understanding Exposure Part II: Shutter Speed

Shutter speed isn’t complicated, either.

If the aperture is the pupil, then shutter speed is the eyelids. How fast they blink is shutter speed. That’s it!

If I use a fast shutter speed, then only a little light has time to enters to hit the sensor which makes a darker photograph.

If I use a slow shutter speed, then more light can strike the sensor.

But just like aperture, shutter speed also has a secondary effect.

It controls the flow of motion in an image. By using a fast shutter speed, I can freeze the action.

Fast cars racing around a track become blurred if I use a slow (or low) shutter speed but frozen when using a fast (or high) one.

Understanding Exposure Part III: ISO

ISO is the third part of the Exposure Triangle.

It has a primary + secondary effect, just like aperture and shutter speed.

Using the eyeball analogy again the ISO setting might be the sensitivity of the retina to light.

The ISO number determines how sensitive the film is to light.

The higher the number, the more sensitive the film, which lets me use it in darker and darker scenes.

If I’m shooting in the middle of a field in broad daylight, I probably only need basic sensitivity, like ISO 200 (many cameras can go even further to ISO 100 or 50).

But if it’s a cloudy day or I’m shooting in shade I might want to use ISO 400 instead. And as the sun goes down the numbers need to creep higher.

At night I’ll be using at least ISO 6400 or more, depending on the scene.

So again, the same question as before. We want as much light as possible, right? So why not keep the ISO as high as possible all the time?

Because of the secondary effects.

The secondary effect of ISO is noise control.

Noise is pixelated artifacts that come up as errors in an image. 

So we want to make sure our sensitivity is high enough that our image looks nicely lit but not so high that noise starts making the photo look bad.

ISO is the setting you’ll adjust the least often on an interchangeable lens camera.

But because shutter speed + aperture have such dramatic secondary effects on composition sometimes it’s better to just change the ISO value.

So play with these three concepts because they’re foundational to photography.

If you can master the Exposure Triangle you’re well on your way to mastering the rest.

Composition 101

Composition is a little more challenging because there are rules about composing a good photo and those rules are also meant to be broken as needed.

Composition is about creating good art.

So what is good art in photography?

Well, it’s the art you like, just like any other art!

But there are a few agreed-upon rules that are worth looking at.

One of those is The Rule of Thirds.

Imagine four lines of equal distance, two going horizontally across a scene and two vertically. That’s essentially the Rule of Thirds right there.

The image is broken up into nine sections that are the same size.

The idea is to align subjects either along the lines or at the intersections of those lines for maximum impact.

The Rule of Thirds adds a pleasing symmetry to landscape and architecture images and a sense of impact to portraits.

It’s hard to describe unless you’re looking at two photos of the same subject, one using it and one without.

The vast majority of people will prefer the image composed using the Rule of Thirds.

There are other rules as well, like Leading Lines + the Golden Ratio, that will vastly improve your photography.

But start with this one + watch how much your images improve just by keeping the grid in mind!

Conclusion

So I’ve done my best to condense all that I know about photography into an easy to digest guide! There’s still a lot to chew on for you but not so much to be intimidating.

We’ve covered the major types of photography, elements of exposure, basic composition, and some thoughts on gear selection.

If you only have time to read one section, I suggest you skip straight to Promoting Your Photos