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5 Things You Need to Know


First, let's get the bad news out of the way. There's a lot more to mastering the art of photography than simply “buying a fancy digital camera and letting the automated settings do the work.”

You probably already knew that, though, didn't you?

Sure, it helps to have the right tools and a lot of free time to learn and make mistakes. And it also isn't the worst thing in the world if you have an insatiable curiosity, and the desire to get better.

But above all, you need to have an emotional connection to images. You've got to care. Why? Because caring about a thing is what drives you to get better at it.

So… how do you know if you have this vague “emotional connection to images”?

Well, let's see if you can relate to this story…

The Power of Imagery

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You're walking along in a crowded city. Might be New York. Maybe Tokyo. The downtown of the nearest major urban center. Anywhere that's got plenty of photographic images just hanging out on walls and the sides of buildings.

Billboards, posters, ads. You pass by one… and another… and another.

But then, out of the blue, one catches your eye. And it stops you dead in your tracks.

This image is different. It completely nails you to the sidewalk. Forces you to stop and pay attention.

There's something about this picture that has a power beyond the two-dimensional sheet it's printed on. It's got a life of its own. Whoever created this picture is speaking to you through it.

Now, it doesn't matter what the picture is of. It could be a picture of a person, or a landscape, or a grumpy koala peeking out from behind a tree like it wants to start a fight with you.

Doesn't matter. Because whoever took this photo knew what they were doing.

It might sound over the top, but if you're the kind of person who has had this near-religious experience, then you know what I mean.

Now at this point, most people might just keep walking on by. Some might stop and say “oh that's a cool shot” and keep going.

But not you.

When you see a picture that has this power, your reaction is, “how do I do that too?”

That attitude is what you need if you want to learn the art of photography.

Let's get started on the basics.

Capturing Your Light

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People have been taking pictures for about two hundred years now. The art of photography isn't new, but it's not exactly old, either. When you compare it with music, painting, or dance, it's pretty much a baby.

The basic concept of taking a photograph goes like this.

Light bounces off an object.
You receive and manipulate that light so that it lands on a surface.
This then creates an image.
You use a surface with special qualities to preserve the image.

You can sometimes see this principle in action if you sit next to a window on a sunny day. Especially in early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low.

sunlight coming through a window

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The light filters through your window and projects a blurry image on the opposite wall. Maybe it's light bouncing off a car's windshield. You can clearly see the dark line of a windshield wiper in the pattern on the wall. Kinda cool.

At this stage, your room is basically the body of camera. The window is your aperture, and the wall with the windshield's reflection is where we would ultimately want to position our method of “capturing” the image.

Hundreds of years ago, people noticed that this was something that happened... so they designed special rooms that would control the light even more, to the point where they could display images of impressive size and detail.

camera obscura

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This type of room had a name. They referred to it as a “dark chamber” or “camera obscura.”

For centuries, these “camerae obscurae” were used to study the properties of light. In the 16th Century, people realized they could use lenses to focus the light in interesting ways.

Occasionally, an artist would put up a canvas on the wall and try to trace the reflection.

So the ancients understood the basic process of directing light… but they lacked the technology to store a true “photographic” image.

That started to change in the early 1800s, with the invention of the device that we now call a camera.

Inventing the Modern Camera

old photographer in studio black and white

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There world's first photograph was taken in 1816 by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. He was experimenting with new ways of coating paper in light-sensitive chemicals.

Niépce knew that if he covered paper with certain chemicals and exposed that paper to light, he would wind up with an imprint of the light's pattern. He refined his techniques, and the earliest surviving photograph is from about 1826.

Although Niépce was taking the first photos, they were extremely basic and blurry. His friend Louis Daguerre carried on his work and invented the daguerreotype photograph.

louis daguerre

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1840, a new method was invented by British scientist and multiple-name-haver William Henry Fox Talbot (yes, that's the guy's real name… we checked).

Fox Talbot developed the approach of creating negatives, which could then be used to generate multiple copies. This basic method became the standard idea behind most photography until digital started replacing film in the 1990s.

The technology had become established, and the art of photography was born. The camera as we know it today had been invented, albeit in multiple stages.

So let's take a look inside…

Some Light Camera Action

camera in pieces

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So how does this image-capturing device work?

To start off with, it's worth noting that the fundamental idea behind the camera hasn't really changed since the early days.

Sure, today's models have a lot more sophistication and are mainly digital. And the art of photography has changed significantly over time. But the basic concept of channeling light through a lens and onto a surface that saves the image? That's the same idea now as it was back in the 1800's.

Let's take a look at our camera piece by piece. Then we'll see how it works in action.

The Camera Body

nikon black camera body

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The body of the camera is like the frame of a house or a car. It provides the shape and structure. Everything else attaches to it in some way.

The very first cameras were pretty bulky, and the body was often basically a large wooden box. Sometimes the box could be adjusted for size, to better capture the image.

The Lens

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The camera lens exists in order to bend and focus the light before it travels through the aperture and into the camera body.

On a very simple camera, this lens will be attached to the camera body, which means it's the only one you get to use.

On most cameras, though (and certainly any that will be used by pros) the lens is changeable. You need to be able to switch it up depending on the distance of your shot.

When photographers talk about the lens, or “swapping out the lens”, they usually mean the whole lens device, which often contains multiple glass lenses inside of it.

The Aperture

camera aperture

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With the aperture, we can remember Leonard Cohen's famous lyrics: “there's a crack in everything… that's how the light gets in.”

When it comes to the camera, the aperture is how the light gets in. It's the hole in the camera body that keeps the ray of light to a controlled space.

When photographers talk about aperture, they may also mean be referring to how the aperture is set. Apertures look like an iris and can be adjusted to let in more or less light, and given that some days are much brighter than others, that's a good thing to be able to control.

The Viewfinder

camera viewfinder

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The viewfinder is like a view scope for the camera. It helps the photographer line up the shot.

The first viewfinders were typically situated on the top of the camera. Sometimes, the viewfinder really was like a scope. It provided the photographer with a “best guess” of the picture's frame. It had to be adjusted, and could become inaccurate based on the distance of the subject of a shot.

So, a more accurate viewfinder was developed. This version relied on the use of an interior mirror added to the inside of the camera body. This mirror would redirect the light that was coming in through the lenses and aperture.

It would then send it up into the viewfinder, making it possible for the photographer to see exactly what the camera was seeing.

When the photographer took the picture, the mirror would quickly fold down so that the light could travel straight through to the film.

The Flash

camera flash

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The early cameras often had to take long exposures to get a good image. The images were sometimes blurry as a result. The early photographers realized that if they used an external light source, they could get sharper pictures with less time spent.

With the invention of the light bulb came the widespread use of the flash. As you no doubt know, the flash is a light to help illuminate the area being photographed. The first flash devices were often single-use bulbs that had to be replaced with each shot.

Nowadays, the flash is built into the camera, and used primarily in low-light situations.

The Shutter

camera shutter

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The shutter is a small set of flaps or blinds that sits right in front of the film or digital sensor. When closed, the shutter shields the film or sensor from light. When opened, the light lands on the film or sensor for a very short amount of time.

The “shutter speed” determines duration of the exposure. Less exposure will mean less light and therefore a darker picture. More exposure will mean more light, but with a loss of sharpness.

The Film or Image Sensor

camera film

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Of course you know that there's a difference between film cameras and digital cameras. But if you're just starting out, you may not be aware of where this divergence occurs.

The difference is in the image capture. Film uses a thin, chemically treated plastic surface, which was the most common method from the late 1800s all the way to the 1990s.

digital image sensor camera

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The digital revolution began in the 1990s and fairly quickly overtook film as the main format. Digital uses an image sensor that captures light and converts it to data, which is stored on a chip and can be easily removed.

Digital was more convenient fairly quickly, as the photographer didn't have to develop a roll of film in order to see if the shots taken were any good. But for a while, it was a choice between convenience (digital) and quality (film).

As the technology has advanced, many of the high-end digital image sensors are capable of such precision that they are every bit as sharp as film.

One Shot: Step By Step

setting up a shot

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So how does it all work together? Let's take a look at what goes into the taking of a single shot.

Step One: A Light Subject

What elements do you absolutely need in order to take a photograph?

A camera, okay, sure. A subject. You usually need the photographer as well, although automated cameras are capable of taking pictures without one.

But you're really not going to get anywhere if you don't have light (the “photo” part of the word photography does mean light, after all).

So the first step is that light reflects off the item being photographed. It bounces off in different directions, which is important.

If the light just traveled in one simple line, it would be very simple to capture the image. But because it bounces in multiple directions, and because different colors of light move differently, we're going to need a lens in order to focus it all in one place.

Step Two: Through the Lens

picture through camera lens

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The lens is typically the first part of the camera that the light hits. The purpose of the lens is to bend the light in a specific way in order to form the best real image.

Photographers use the term “real image” to talk about the image that gets redirected through the camera onto the image sensor or film. This is to differentiate it from a digital image or the image that's on the negative or hard copy of a photograph.

Light passes through the lenses, which focus the light to one specific point.

lens flare

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The sensor or film is placed in front of that point (so closer to the lenses). If you were to place the sensor at the exact point of focus, you wouldn't be able to capture the image, as all you would get would be a little dot.

By putting the sensor closer to the lenses, a small but sharp real image is created.

Because different colors of light travel at different wavelengths, not all light bends the same way. Some camera lenses contain multiple individual lenses that are made out of different materials so that the color stays true to real life.

Step Three: Capturing the Image

Image sensor

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the light is focused, it will need to land on a strip of film or an image sensor in order to be saved. In order to do that, it's going to have to get past the shutter.

With most cameras, there is a shutter that protects the film or sensor from light exposure. When the camera takes a picture, this shutter opens, usually for a very short amount of time. The focused image lands on the sensor, and the image is preserved.

So you've got your camera… now how do you use it?

Take Your Best Shot

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So, you know what the main pieces of the camera are, and you know how they all work together to create and save an image.

Now that you've got those fundamentals, there are a few more abstract ideas that you'll want to know when you're learning the art of photography.

These are just a few of the terms photographers use… there are more, of course. Lots more. But this is a good list on which to cut your teeth.

Exposure

No, we're not talking about getting exposure for your work as a photographer so everyone can see how good you are… although that'll be important in building a career!

But what we're talking about here is how the light affects your image sensor. Exposure is talking about how much light the sensor gets.

Too little exposure, and your image is dark and blurry and undefined. Too much, and it becomes washed out.

There are three variables to consider with exposure.

Aperture

iris shaped aperture

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The first is the aperture. The opening in the camera that lets the light in. Most of these come with an iris-shaped mechanism that can be adjusted to let more or less light in. So this controls the amount of light in your exposure.

Shutter Speed

long exposure blue and pink field and sky

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Second, you want to consider shutter speed. That's what controls the time of the exposure. A faster shutter speed means that only a little light gets in, because the shutter snaps closed again very quickly.

A long exposure will capture movement. This is where you get photos that show streaks of light from car headlights, or the movement of stars. The shutter stays open for a long period of time for these shots.

ISO

ISO has to do with the sensor's light sensitivity level. Not all image sensors are exactly the same. An ISO with high light sensitivity will mean that it takes less light to get a reaction, so if you're shooting in a dark setting, you often want a higher ISO.

The downside of a high ISO is that it is so sensitive, it will record lots of little bits. This is known as “noise” and can give the picture a grainier quality.

If you understand the basics of each of these three elements, you can probably see how they are all related to one another.

Maybe you want to take a picture of a leopard sprinting across the grass. Or one of an athlete in motion. Because your subject is moving quickly, you'll get the sharpest picture if you have a fast shutter speed.

But this will mean that the sensor is only exposed for a very short amount of time. So in order to adjust for that, you're also going to want to set your aperture so that more light gets in.

Many cameras automatically adjust for these. But if you want to master the art of photography, learning to balance these three elements is key.

Now, we just need to focus…

Focus

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Focus essentially implies that the image is sharp. You can see the details. If the entire image is sharp, then the whole thing is in focus.

Having some part of your photo be “out of focus” is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to highlight a certain piece of the picture, putting it in focus will attract the viewers' attention to that spot. Where you put your focus will tell viewers where to put theirs.

The art of photography hinges on knowing what you want to show and communicate to your audience. Focus will be one of your best friends in carrying this off successfully.

Depth of Field

depth of field

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Depth of field is another concept you'll hear people mention. It simply means the range that you can reasonably capture an image in focus.

Say I have a certain lens and camera. I want to take a picture of my friend, who is twenty feet away. Right now, she's in focus. But if she gets too close to the camera she gets blurry, even when I adjust the focus as far as it will go.

Likewise, if she gets too far away, I won't be able to get a sharp image.

This term is not scientifically exact, because objects don't go from “sharp” to “blurry” in one instant. But it's a useful way of referring to the distance where you can capture an image that you'll be satisfied with. As you learn to master the art of photography, you will develop your own ideas about what that will be.

Types of Photography

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The art of photography has got a ton of subfields. Sometimes these have to do with style (black-and-white, time-exposure) and sometimes they have to do with subject (wedding, food).

Although each of these may hold some appeal for you when you're getting started, most career photographers will make a name for themselves in a specific subfield.

But that doesn't mean you can't dabble (or get really good) in any of them!

Portrait Photography

portrait winter red head

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Portraits covers a wide range of possibilities, including family photos, fashion, or work in ads. Typically, though, the point of a portrait is to capture something about the person themselves.

Everyone should experiment with portraits at least a little bit. But if you like people and you like noticing their qualities, you should give this a try.

Wildlife Photography

red fox

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It takes guts to do this professionally. Wildlife photographers travel all over the world, in untamed regions, getting close to animals who may be dangerous. There's mud, there's rain, but there is always something interesting.

Part of the fascination with wildlife photography is that while both humans and animals are alive, only humans tend to become self-conscious when a camera is introduced. When taking photos of animals, you get an honest, candid shot every time.

Wedding Photography

wedding photo purple flowers bride

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Wedding photography is big business. If you can handle the intense pressure that comes with dealing with people's expectations for their wedding day, you can do very well professionally. Then again, you also get to capture a lot of beauty and sheer joy from this work.

Black & White Photography

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Maybe you're an old soul. You like the classics. Or you simply like to play with shadow and shape. Black and White photography may no longer be the norm, but just about every serious photographer studies it at some point.

Food Photography

fresh skewer green veggies meat

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Many freelancers find some of their first work in food photography. Restaurants looking to promote their menus want the absolute best picture of their food that they can get.

Instagram particularly has made this a big business (and no, we're not just talking about snapping a quick shot of your brunch). Food photographers get up to all sorts of inventive ways to make sure their subject doesn't melt under the lights, like using mashed potatoes in place of ice cream.

There are many other types as well… landscape, aerial, composite, abstract.

The sky is the limit! Or not, if you're into astrophotography (the photographing of stars)…

What Makes a Good Photographer?

stunning landsape lago di limides reds

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Every pro will have a different answer to this one. But we've picked five elements that we think are absolutely essential.

Demand for Detail

At first, we assumed this should be “an eye for detail.” But after thinking about it for a bit, we changed our minds. Why? Because having an eye for something doesn't mean you will always use it. But if you demand the best work of yourself each time, you will never stop getting better.

Creativity

Study techniques and learn the tools of the trade. But have fun. Play, don't be afraid to try something and fail (just be safe!). The idea here could also be playfulness, ingenuity, or curiosity.

Hustle

This is especially important if you want a career. Many photographers are freelancers, so they have to constantly put themselves out there. Knowing the tricks of networking and self-promotion can keep you in the game.

Determination

This is true of pretty much anything you want to get good at. There will be tough days. Artists and professionals stick with it, and photographers are both.

Faith

Sometimes you don't know how a shoot will turn out. You just have to make it up as you go along, and respond to what happens. In these moments, it helps to have a little faith in the process.

What a Wonderful World…

blue and purple sky himalayas

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Whether you're looking to build a career or just have a little fun, photography will change the way you see the world.

You will find yourself notice images and stories in your daily life. Beauty and surprise in the smallest and most unexpected places. In the end, the biggest impact may just be the one it has on you.