6 Phrases to Help you Learn Photography Faster

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5 simple photography tricks for accurate shots

Learning all the ins and outs of photography is a never ending challenge. For some, the technical side of photography seems more difficult to understand. Others feel they are challenged by the creative side of understanding composition and light. When learning any new skill, the understanding of fundamentals is always most important. The complexity of settings, along with endless creative options is what makes photography so challenging. That’s where these six sayings come in. These simple phrases will bring you back to the basics, helping you to create quality images quickly, allowing for more time to experiment creatively.

1. ISO: Set it first – change it last

Set it and forget it until you have to remember.

Many people get confused by the purpose of ISO, and how to use it when controlling light. Unlike the other two big settings (aperture and shutter speed) when used properly, ISO gives your photograph the ability to be more sensitive to the available light. When you are setting your ISO, remember to choose a setting based on the amount of available light you happen to have in your scene. Don’t set it because the shot you took before was too dark and you want to brighten the exposure.

ISO - Set if first. Change it last.

ISO 2500, f/1.8 at 1/125th of a second

Every time you enter a scene, before you take a shot, ask yourself, what kind of light is there?

Here are some starting ISO settings, adjust as necessary for your scene:

  • Bright sunny day: ISO 100-200
  • Shade/clouds: ISO 400-800
  • Indoors: ISO 800-1600
  • Little/no light: ISO 1600 and up

Don’t forget the negative side of ISO. Most camera models go above 1600 ISO now. However, if you choose 1600, or higher, you will most probably see noise (digital grain) in your image. There are many post-production techniques to remove noise, but it’s always best to capture your best shot in the camera. Consider this when choosing a higher ISO in dimly lit areas.

2. Set an intention

Both shutter speed and aperture measure and control how much light the camera takes in. But they each also have a creative aspect that must be considered when choosing your settings. Knowing their distinct qualities, and creating an intention when you shoot, are two extremely important fundamentals of photography.

Set an Intention

ISO 200, f/4.0 at 1/5000th

Ask yourself, “What is my purpose?” Why are you taking that photo? Be clear on what you want to capture. Give yourself a moment to set an intention or two, then keep it in mind the whole time. Once you have figured out your main purpose, you can use that to choose which setting you will set first. As aperture affects the depth of field and shutter speed affects movement, which aspect is more important for creating the image you want?

Let’s take a look at two more awesome phrases to easily remember the different purposes of aperture and shutter speed.

3. Shutter speed: fast freezes – slow shows

Shutter speed is all about capturing (or not capturing) motion. When you want to show movement in the photograph, use a slower shutter speed. If a subject is moving and you want to freeze that movement, use a higher (faster) shutter speed. The faster the subject is moving, the higher your shutter speed must be to freeze them/it.

Quick Tip: Do not hand hold and shoot below 1/60th of a second. You are a vibrating creature, you are always moving. At about 1/60th of a second, the camera might capture the movement (called camera shake) you create just by pressing the shutter button.

Shutter Speed

Image #1 (left): ISO 1000, f9.0, 1/20th
Image #2 (right): ISO 1000, f/4.0, 1/125th

Here are some starting points to freeze moving subjects. Start here and adjust as necessary:

  • Moving cars: 1/4000th of a second or faster
  • People running: 1/1000th or faster
  • Kids playing: 1/500th or above
  • Person sitting still: 1/100th or faster
  • Still object: 1/60th or faster
  • Night scene: (tripod) 1/60th or slower

4. Aperture: High number = more in focus. Low number = less in focus

This setting is all about depth of field, the distance between the front and back of a focal plane. The focal plane is determined by the spot where you tell your camera to focus. The higher the f-number, the larger the distance of that plane. This means, more depth of the scene is within the focal plane, thus it is in sharper focus. The opposite is also true. The lower the f-number, the smaller the distance between the front and the back of the focal plane and less is in focus.

If you want everything in the photo to be fully in focus you will need to choose a higher f-number. If you want to create a shallow depth of field bringing only one part into focus, you will use a smaller f-number.

Aperture Photography Trick

Image #1 (left): ISO 160, f/11.0, 1/400th
Image #2 (right): ISO 160, f/1.8, 1/4000th

Here are some aperture starting points, same as before, adjust as necessary:

  • Close-ups or detail shots: f/2.8 or lower (larger)
  • Portraits: (one person) f/1.8 – f/5.6
  • Groups: (2 or more) f/5.6 – f/8.0
  • Local scene: (less distance) f/8.0 – f/11
  • Landscape: (more distance) f/11 – f/22

5. Frame your finder

Witness your scene through your viewfinder, as you allow your eye to examine every inch of what you can see through the lens. Look from top left, across and down to the right. What is in each corner? Notice the edges of the frame. When examining everything you see, slightly move your camera around as you prepare for finding the best version (framing) of this shot. This will give you a greater sense of what you do, or do not want to be in the shot. You will notice if you have cut something off, or added something into the shot you do not want.

When you make a habit of always re-framing your viewfinder as you are shooting, you will gain a greater sense of awareness, allowing for more shots from other vantage points you hadn’t considered before. Even more importantly, as you practice this, every shot you take will be closer to what you want to capture in the first shot you take.

Frame your finder

See what is in every inch of your frame before snapping the shutter!

6. Count your clicks

Once you have your desired exposure based on the purpose of what you are capturing, you can choose to change your purpose (capture a different effect) by going up or down the range of either aperture or shutter Speed. To make sure you keep a proper exposure like you had before (assuming you are shooting in Manual Mode), just count your clicks. If you click six times in one direction on shutter speed (because now you want to show motion), you will need to click six times in the other direction for aperture to keep a proper exposure.

For example: When photographing a birthday party, you may go from focusing on close-ups and details, to kids running around, to capturing a sunset. In this case, the first intention is creating a shallow depth of field to capture a non-moving object. Set your aperture to a low f-number. Using your meter, now set your shutter speed for correct exposure and snap away. ISO will already be set because that’s the first trick to remember.

Now it is time to capture the kids running around. You will  switch focus from aperture to shutter Speed. To make sure you freeze their movement (no one likes a photo of a blurry kid), you will change your shutter speed to 1/1000th of second.

Photography tricks

But wait! Before you start moving the dial, remember to count how many clicks you are going. If you clicked down four times to get to 1/1000th of a second, then you will click UP four times using your aperture dial. Now your exposure will be the same, but you quickly changed your settings to creatively capture something entirely different. Note: if you are using Aperture or Shutter Priority modes the camera will do this adjustment for you automatically.

There you have it

The best thing you can do now is turn these tricks into habits by jotting down these simple phrases and stuffing them in your camera bag. Next time you are ready to shoot, read over them once or twice before you begin. As you practice using these tricks in order to become more accurate and efficient behind the lens you will create more stunning eye-catching photographs of any subject you choose to capture.

Do you have any other cool phrases that you say to yourself when you are shooting? If you know any other great tricks that are easy to remember and simple to understand, let us know in the comments section below. Together, it will be fun to build a compilation of great photography learning quotes!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Danielle Werner is a free-spirited photographer, designer and retoucher, on an endless journey around the world. She is also a passionate writer and educator who teaches photography workshops wherever she goes. Read Danielle's inspirational travel stories at LiveWonderful.com, and check out more of her adventure and lifestyle photography at DEW Imagery & Design.

  • Paddy

    Great advice, thanks!

  • Karen Booth

    Great article that really simplifies all the technical stuff, wish I’d read this a long time ago.

  • I am so glad you loved this article. That is always my goal, to simplify! Let me know how these tips help improve your thoughts when you are behind the lens πŸ™‚

  • You are so welcome! Thank you for reading!

  • solaabis

    Nice to see a simple break down.. Love it

  • Tony Bivans

    Awesome article. Thank you.

  • Teresa Russell

    Really useful, thank you. Now need to put it all into practice!

  • Johan Bauwens

    I don’t see why it is wrong to increase Iso to get a brighter shot if there are no other options (limited by shutter speed and aperture).

  • waynewerner

    I’ve simply used my in-camera light meter, but “count your clicks” is actually some great advice!

  • Michael

    That was very useful article for a beginner. Thank you! However, your ISO suggestion is a little bit too high unless you really want constantly to use the shutter speeds in their faster range. I always read about that you should strive for the lowest possible ISO settings for any ambient condition. I never set my ISO more than 800 using flash indoors in dim light and I own Canon EOS 6D that has excellent high ISO performance. Bright sunny day – never more than 100 ISO, shades – 100 or 200, indoor with flash – mostly 400 and rarely 800. If using indoor with little light and no flash, I use a tripod and my ISO goes back either 200 or even 100.

  • COLT BENNING

    Wow a old time photographer with a new time camera and I sure needed that..have screen shot the article and will make a file of it in my gallery..lol..ill have it at reach ..tks for the great advice

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    It is not “wrong” to increase the ISO but be aware of the consequences. A higher ISO may lead to a noisier picture, which is why you should first use a wider aperture or slower shutter speed, up to the limits each setting allows for your particular subject. There may be times when you have to increase ISO because you are using a fast shutter and a narrow aperture, even on a bright sunny day.

  • Johan Bauwens

    I know, I even used Iso 10.000 once when there was no other option.

  • George Johnson

    “Do you have any other cool phrases that you say to yourself when you are shooting?”

    Oh yeah, lots but they usually involve a lot of swearing and it’s a polite public forum so I’d best not! Ha ha!

    One thing I would point out is to consider to the rapid rate at which technology moves. You state ISO1600 as a sensible limit which is fair enough but today’s cameras have a lot more inbuilt capability in dealing with high ISO situations. I’ve shot with a 5DMk2 for my commercial landscapes the last 4 years and I’ve always fought to keep my ISO down as low as possible, usually using ISO100 99% of the time and never going above ISO400 even when I pushed. I recently bought a Sony pocket camera, a mirrorless APSC with which to just mess about doing some street shooting and gathering recon shots for my landscapes. I’ve been blown away by what it’s capable of in very dark situations. I’ve regularly been able to shoot images at ISO3200 and use them for print.

    We’re reliant on our tech and it keeps moving, which means we should always be aware and reassess our thinking at the tech changes and affords us ever more opportunities.

  • I agree with you both. Its a preference. These tips are meant to get you started with quickly assessing your surroundings and creating a starting point. As with all creative skills, once you master the fundamental rules, you can surely break them to be more creative!

  • Glad you love it! Simple is how I like to teach πŸ˜‰

  • Practice is always important. But be easy on yourself. 20-30 minutes here and there and you will master these tips quickly!

  • Yes. It is preference. It depends on the camera and lighting scenario of course. And I am only considering natural light, flash is a whole other subject πŸ™‚

  • You are so right! Technology is amazing. And in this field we always have to be willing to learn and grow everyday or we will fall behind!

  • Johan Bauwens

    I think the axioma ‘stick to Iso 100’ is outdated. Most modern cameras have no issues with Iso 1000. And I sometimes use Iso 6400 or even 10.000 when I have no choice (concerts, no flash nor tripod). Better a grainy shot than no shot.

  • Sandy

    Easy to remember hints. Thank you!

  • Jacqueline Terry

    Excellent tips for us beginners who find all the technical stuff a bit daunting. I always know in my head what kind of image I want to capture and am often disappointed that the shot isn’t quite right. Your simple breakdown and phrases have made it a lot easier to relate the theory to the kind of images I would like to create. Now I cant wait to get out and try them out. Thank you!

  • Bruce Harrison

    Thanks for this, really helpful stuff.
    I’m quite new to the hobby and I’m in the process of making myself a “scrapbook” full of useful tips and tricks to keep with me in my camera bag. I find myself jotting down notes of what works and what doesnt, so having these quick reference guides for things like ISO and depth of field are super useful.

  • gracebc

    It took me ages to get my head around aperture settings – I still don’t always get them right – but I made up my own phrase to help myself – which I find helps.
    small numbers mean small DOF
    large numbers mean large DOF.

  • Subramanya Kaushik

    Exactly what i was looking for… i was facing lot of trouble in capturing night, indoors and object in motion…. Thanks a lot sir Danielle Werner…. All i need to do is spend more time using these tips….

  • Superb. Exactly what I needed. I’m now confident to go out and play – can’t wait!

  • Michael Bogert

    Wow, thanks. I just tried this (setting iso for indoors first) and then shutter speed on shutter priority to take a pic of my cat. Before, I had to rely on PS to get the correct exposure. This time I am happy with SOOC!

  • Kathleen M Pearson

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! I have been adjusting my settings backwards! I have a Fujifilm Finepix S8100 point-and-shoot and I’m just learning the ropes. Unfortunately, the highest f-setting I can get is f/8. But, I shoot mostly nature/scenic shots so it has been working for me. ISO setting first, then shutter speed, and then aperture.

  • Sandra K Robinson

    Thanks Danielle. Your article was so helpful.

  • deepak

    Great tips

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