Basics of photography


When you buy (or borrow), your first digital SLR, everything looks different, and it can be a bit worrying. What are all these buttons and dials for? Why is it so heavy? Where do I start? How do I change the shutter speed? All these are very good questions, and this is the place to find the answers!

Before we start, I should mention that I’m a Nikon user, and I have one D800 and one D810 camera body. The other major camera manufacturer is Canon, and they use slightly different terms for each function, but I’ll try and include both to make life easier.

Our first job is to cover the basics of photography: exposure and focus. Without understanding those two things, nothing else will make sense!


Your first job as a photographer is to make sure that your images are well exposed, in other words, not too dark or too bright. Photographers talk about the ‘exposure triangle’, but that’s just a complicated way of saying that how dark or light a photograph is depends on three things: the shutter speed, the aperture and the ISO.

The level of exposure is measured in ‘stops’ or Exposure Values (EV), but what is a ‘stop’? Well, if you increase your exposure by a stop, the light is doubled (and vice versa). For example, if you lengthen your shutter speed from 1/200 of a second to 1/100 of a second, your shot will be twice as bright. They try to use round numbers, though, so the gap from 1/60 to 1/125 is obviously not quite right! The maths gets a bit more complicated when the gap is only 1/3 of a stop, but the idea is the same.

The built-in exposure meter in your camera will work out what the best exposure should be, but it has to make assumptions about the world that may not be true. To judge the ‘best’ exposure, the camera needs a starting point, and that is that the world is, by and large, 18% grey. If it assumes that to be true, then it can set the exposure accordingly. However, anyone who’s ever taken pictures of polar bears on the ice knows that that’s not always true! In order to make sure the camera is not fooled by very bright or very dark conditions, you need to use exposure compensation. If the scene is especially bright, you can dial in up to one or two stops of positive compensation. If it’s especially dark, you can do the opposite. It might take a few test shots to get it exactly right, but that’s better than coming home with lots of shots of grey bears!

Shutter speed (or Time Value if you have a Canon)

In the old days, cameras used film, and the shutter speed controlled how long it was exposed to the light in order to take the shot. These days, cameras are digital and have electronic sensors at the back, but the principle is still the same. The longer the shutter speed, the more light reaches the sensor and hence the brighter the image. The shorter the shutter speed, the less light reaches the sensor and hence the darker the image.

The shutter speed is measured in seconds and can be anything from 1/8000 of a second to 30 seconds or more. The amount of camera shake increases with the focal length, so the rule of thumb for general photography is to make sure your shutter speed is no less than the inverse of the length of your lens, eg if you’re using a 400mm lens, you should be using at least 1/400 of a second. Lens technology such as Nikon’s ‘Vibration Reduction’ or Canon’s ‘Image Stabilisation’ means that you might be able to get away with a couple of stops slower – ie 1/100 of a second – but that’s about it.

The reason why shutter speed is an important setting is that it controls how much (if any) motion blur there is in the image, and that is an artistic decision. Some people like shots of kingfishers catching a fish that look like they’re frozen in time, with every single water droplet sharp as a tack. Other people prefer shots of waterfalls shown with creamy torrents of water cascading over them. There isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Just try both and see what you think.


The aperture is simply the size of the hole in the lens through which light passes on its way to the sensor, and the principle is similar to that of the shutter speed. The bigger the aperture, the more light reaches the sensor and therefore the brighter the image. The smaller the aperture, the less light reaches the sensor and therefore the darker the image. The only thing difficult about it is the numbers, which often have a decimal point in them like f/5.6 or f/7.1. The reason the aperture is not always a nice round number is because it is what you get when you divide the focal length of the lens by the diameter of the hole. Neither of those numbers is necessarily going to be a nice round number, so the result of dividing one by the other certainly won’t be!

The aperture is measured in f-stops, which typically start at f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6 and continue up to f/22 and beyond. A ‘fast’ lens is one that has a wide maximum aperture such as f/1.4. Photographers like fast lenses as they allow pictures to be taken in low light and offer great flexibility.

The reason why the aperture is such an important setting is that it controls the depth of field, which is the amount of the subject that is acceptably sharp. The human eye is drawn to things it can see clearly, so making sure the subject is sharp and the background is an ideal way to focus the viewer’s attention on an animal, say, but a landscape photographer might want his image to be sharp all the way from the boat in the foreground to the mountains on the horizon. Again, there is no right answer; the important thing is to experiment and find what works for you.

ISO (or ASA if you’re still using a film camera!)

The ISO used to measure the sensitivity of the film being used, a ‘fast’ film with a high ISO being more sensitive than a ‘slow’ film with a low ISO. Now that most cameras are digital, we get the same effect, just with an electronic sensor instead of film. You might think that extra sensitivity is a good thing – and it is – but it comes at a cost. The higher the ISO, the ‘grainier’ or ‘noisier’ the image, in other words, the less smooth it is.

ISO is measured in ISO (funnily enough!), which just stands for International Standards Organisation. The lowest value is usually ISO 100, and the highest might be 12,800 or more, although the image quality at that value wouldn’t be acceptable to most professional photographers.


Your second job as a photographer is to make sure that the subject of your images is in focus. In the old days of film cameras, there was obviously no such thing as ‘autofocus’, and focusing had to be done by manually turning a ring on the lens, but today’s digital cameras have very good systems for making sure the images are sharp. In using the autofocus system, your job is first of all to choose the correct settings and secondly to make sure the camera is focusing on the right part of the frame.

There are lots of different focus settings, but the basic choice is between single area, shown as AF-S (or one-shot AF for a Canon), and continuous, shown as AF-C (or AI Servo for a Canon). Single area looks to focus on the area of the image under the little red square in the viewfinder (which you can move around the frame manually); continuous does the same but follows the actual subject if it moves. The best version of this on Nikon cameras is called ‘3D’. The other setting you can change is which button actually does the job of focusing. The shutter button does that on most cameras, but the disadvantage of doing it that way is that the camera stops focusing when you take a picture, which is bad news if you’re tracking a cheetah running at 60mph! The alternative is to use ‘back-button focusing’, which means separating the jobs of focusing and taking pictures. The shutter button still takes the picture, but the focusing is done by pushing a button on the back of the camera. (You have to set this up yourself, but I use the AF-ON button, which I can press with my right thumb.)

Camera guide (based on the Nikon D800)

This guide won’t go through every single setting on a DSLR, but it will show how all the main buttons work, not by saying what each one does but by answering the obvious questions. I hope that’s the easier way to learn!

(All the numbers used are taken from the diagram at the top of this article.)

How do I switch it on?

That’s simple. Just turn the power switch on the top right-hand side (1) to ‘ON’ (and back to ‘OFF’ when you’ve finished). If you turn it to the light bulb symbol, that just lights up the LCD display on top of the camera.

How do I set it to Manual?

There are lots of exposure modes on a camera, such as aperture-priority, shutter-priority and program, but using anything other than manual is a bit like buying a Ferrari with an automatic gearbox – you just don’t get as much control (or satisfaction). To select manual, press the ‘Mode’ button (50) and turn the main command dial on the back right of the camera (31). This allows you to set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO yourself, although I usually set the ISO to ‘ISO-AUTO’ by pushing the ‘ISO’ button on the top left of the camera (56) and at the same time turning the sub-command dial (21).

How do I make sure I’m shooting in RAW?

Press the ‘QUAL’ button (47) and turn the main command dial until the word ‘RAW’ appears on its own. The word ‘RAW’ doesn’t actually stand for anything, but everyone writes it that way to show that it’s a file format that contains the ‘raw’ data from the sensor. The alternative is JPEG (which stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group), but that’s a compressed file format and therefore should not be used. Note that RAW files don’t end in ‘.RAW’. It’s just a generic term, so each manufacturer has its own RAW extension, such as Nikon’s .NEF.

How do I set the white balance?

Press the ‘WB’ button 57 and turn the main command dial (31) to whatever is right for the lighting conditions. The icons aren’t very easy to see, but the options are:

  • Incandescent (ie light bulbs)
  • Fluorescent
  • Direct sunlight
  • Flash
  • Cloudy
  • Shade
  • Choose colour temp
  • Preset manual

The white balance tells the camera the colour of the light you’re working with. It’s a bit like working out what colour the curtains are at the cinema. The camera can’t tell the difference between something white that’s lit by red light and something red that’s lit by white light, so the white balance setting just makes sure it makes the right call. If you can’t quite see the icons or want to set up a custom white balance or preset, you can always go through the menu system. However, if you’re shooting in RAW, you can always change the white balance later on your computer, so don’t feel bad about sticking with ‘AUTO’!

How do I set the focus mode?

First of all, make sure your lens is not set to ‘M’, or manual focus, and that the focus mode selector (18) is set to ‘AF’, or auto focus. After that, press the AF-mode button (17) and at the same time turn the main command dial (31) to choose single area or – preferably – continuous. If you want the 3D option, you press the same button but at the same time turn the sub-command dial (21) until the LCD screen shows ‘3D’.

How do I set up back button focusing?

Press the ‘MENU’ button (46), scroll to the menu item with the pencil icon, select ‘a Autofocus’ and then set ‘a4 AF activation’ to ‘AF-ON only’. Half-pressing the shutter-release button won’t work any more, so don’t forget to focus by pressing (and holding) the AF-ON button (30) with your right thumb while you shoot.

How do I set the shutter speed?

Half-press the shutter-release button (3) if the shutter speed is not illuminated in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen and then turn the main command dial (31).

How do I set the aperture?

Half-press the shutter-release button (3) if the aperture is not illuminated in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen and then turn the sub-command dial (21).

How do I set the shutter-release button to continuous shooting?

Press the release button next to the ‘D800’ symbol and turn the release mode dial (48) to ‘CH’, or Continuous High. The D800 can shoot five frames a second.

How do I move the focus point in the viewfinder?

Turn the focus selector lock switch (34) to the dot symbol (rather than ‘L’ for lock) and use the multi selector to move the focus point anywhere within the central area of the viewfinder.

How do I check the depth-of-field?

Press the depth-of-field preview button (20).

How do I set the shutter-release button to continuous shooting?

Press the release button next to the ‘D800’ symbol and turn the release mode dial (48) to ‘CH’, or Continuous High. The D800 can shoot five frames a second.

How do I add exposure compensation?

Press the exposure compensation button (52) and at the same time turn the main command dial (31) to add or subtract as many stops of compensation as you need.

How do I bracket my shots?

Press the ‘BKT’ bracketing button (55) and at the same time use the main command dial (31) to choose the number of frames (3-9) and/or the sub-command dial (21) to choose the exposure interval (from 0.3 to 1 stop).

How do I shoot video?

You have to use the monitor rather than the viewfinder for this, so first of all turn the live view selector (36) to the film camera icon, press the live view button and then, when you’re ready, press the red movie-record button to start (and stop) video recording.

How do I look at my pictures?

Just press the playback button (22) and scroll through the images using the multi selector (32). To zoom in, either use the playback zoom in/zoom out buttons (43, 44) or set up the multi selector centre button to zoom immediately to 100%. This is very useful to check that images are acceptably sharp. To do that, press the ‘MENU’ button (46), select ‘f Controls’, then ‘f2 Multi selector centre button’ and set ‘Playback mode’ to ‘Zoom on/off’ with ‘Medium magnification’.
To play videos, just press the multi selector centre button (32).

How do I delete my pictures?

Just press the delete button (23). If you want to delete all the pictures on the memory card, the best way is to format it. Press the ‘MENU’ button, select ‘Format memory card’ and then select the appropriate card, either the small, thin Secure Digital (SD) card or the thicker, bigger Compact Flash (CF) card.


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