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Four Essential Beginner Photographer Tips

beginner photographer tips

If you are new to photography the possibilities can seem endless and the options almost overwhelming. Buttons, dials, apertures, shutters, flashes…where do you even start? Of course, it’s always good to learn basics like the exposure triangle, but there are some simple beginner photographer tips that will immediately elevate your picture-taking prowess.

A bee pollinating a pink flower
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/5.6, 1/250 second, ISO 100, +10 close-up filter

Look for the light

The first of the beginner photographer tips is tho look for the light.

Does your camera have a flash? Great!

Does it turn on all the time? Not so great.

This is usually a sign that your camera thinks your picture is too dark, so it tries to add a bit of light to fix things. From that perspective, the flash makes a lot of sense, but often it can end up ruining what might otherwise be a perfectly good photo. Instead of a pleasing, well-lit image, you end up with red eyes, harsh shadows, and bright spots of light reflecting off windows.

An adult hand embracing a baby's hand
I shot this in a well-lit room with a lot of windows letting in the sunlight. Nikon D750, 50mm, f/5.6, 1/90 second, ISO 6400.

Instead of relying on the flash, look for the light that’s already available and reposition yourself accordingly. If you are indoors, put your subject in front of you and put your back to a window. If you are outdoors, look at where the sun is. Move yourself and your subject so that the light is behind you, not behind the person or object you are shooting. Better yet, re-compose your shot so your subject is in the shade and evenly lit.

beginner photography tips – a silhouette of two children looking out of a window
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/2.8, 1/750 second, ISO 100.

In the picture above, the light was so bright that my kids were entirely shrouded in shadow, creating a silhouette.

The only way to save the photo was to make it black-and-white in Lightroom! I could have also waited until the light was more overcast to get a more even exposure. Or I could have intentionally used the pop-up flash as a fill flash to add a touch of light to the two shadowy subjects.

This technique works for casual snapshots, formal portraits, or pretty much any style of photography.

To get this group photo of three generations of women in a park, I had to get a little creative with light and positioning. I found a spot that was in the shade of a tree, so all their faces were well lit. You can see a swath of light going across the foreground that would have wreaked havoc on the photo if everyone was two steps forward.

a family portrait
Nikon D750, 70-200mm f2.8, f/4, 1/200 second, ISO 360

Looking for the light is one of those beginner photography tips that sound constraining, but with practice, it will become second nature. You will automatically find yourself thinking about light and shadow and how to create the best composition without resorting to that pop-up flash. It’s also one of the most impactful things you can do to differentiate your photos and make people think twice when considering you as more than just an amateur.

Use Continuous Autofocus

Modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are outstanding when it comes to autofocus – certainly much more than their counterparts from a few years ago.

Modern focusing systems can track people, objects, and animals with ease. The latest mirrorless cameras can even lock focus on a single eye and reacquire in an instant if the person turns their head or another object momentarily blocks your view.

beginner photography tips – a child playing soccer
Nikon D750, 140mm, f/2.8, 1/3000 second, ISO 100

Action shots are almost impossible without rock-solid autofocus. Almost any camera you get is probably going to be up to the task as long as you’ve got the right lens.

There’s one mistake that a lot of beginner photographers make that can really hold back your action shots or even just everyday photos of people or pets. They use single-shot autofocus instead of continuous autofocus.

When you half-press the shutter button you probably here a sound to let you know that your shot is in focus. It might be a quick beep-beep along with a little dot or square lighting up to indicate that your picture will be tack sharp. Continue pressing your finger and you’ll get just what you expect: a crystal clear image in bright, vivid color.

beginner photography tips – a child playing sport
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/6000 second, ISO 100

This is all well and good, but what if your subject moves in that brief moment between the time you lock focus and press the shutter button fully? Worse, what if you want to take another picture?

You have to lift your finger off the shutter button, do a half-press to acquire focus, and then push the shutter down all the way to complete the shot. It might not sound like much, but a lot can happen in that short time!

The solution is to enable your camera’s continuous autofocus setting.

Instead of focusing once, continuous autofocus means your camera will keep your subject locked no matter where your subject goes. It will be in focus as long as you never fully lift your finger from the shutter button. This technique is incredibly useful for everyday shots and almost mandatory for fast action, especially when paired with back-button focus.

Four Essential Beginner Photographer Tips
This child moved around a lot! Continuous autofocus helped me make sure these images were sharp. Nikon D750, 120mm, f/4, 1/250 second, ISO 1400.

Every camera does this a little differently and you’ll find it by looking in the menus under the focus settings.

While it’s not always required, especially if you are shooting still objects or doing macro work where manual focus is preferred, I have found that I generally prefer continuous autofocus in most situations. If you are shooting with a prime lens wide open, where depth of field is razor-thin, it can really help you get better photos with minimal effort.

Use Program instead of Auto

The next of the beginner photography tips is to use Program Mode instead of Auto.

Every camera has a few different exposure modes, and if you are new to photography, you might find comfort in using the familiar green Auto setting. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Auto is great for a lot of people, and camera manufacturers have tweaked the auto setting so well that it really does produce good results.

Most of the time.

beginner photography tips – a person graduating from college
My dad shot this photo of me when I graduated with my Master’s Degree. He shoots in Program Auto all the time, and he’s able to get lots of great shots with it. Canon Rebel T4i, 270mm, f/6.3, 1/50 second, ISO 1600.

Even though there’s a lot to be said for learning Aperture or Shutter Priority, or even going all the way with Manual Mode, there’s a good middle ground that a lot of beginners don’t know about. It’s called Program Auto, and if you want a little more control than what Auto has to offer, it might very well be the solution for you.

Program Auto is kind of like regular Auto, but you get a little more control over the exposure. The camera starts by setting a value for lens aperture and shutter speed that it thinks will give you a properly-exposed image. You can see these numbers in the viewfinder or on the rear screen, but if you don’t like what the camera selects all you do is turn a dial.

beginner photography tips – a butterfly on flowers
Canon Rebel T4i, 270mm, f/7.1, 1/400 second, ISO 320. Shot in Program Auto mode.

You’ll see the aperture and shutter change but the exposure will remain constant.

Want a little more depth of field? Rotate the control dial on your camera until the aperture value is larger.

Want a faster shutter speed? Spin the dial until the shutter speed increases. Program usually lets you control the ISO as well. And if you still don’t like your picture, you can use exposure compensation to make it brighter or darker.

While the green Automatic mode on cameras is a great way to get started, Program is a good way for beginners to take a bit more control over their photography without getting too confusing.

Adjust your eye level

This final of the beginner photography tips applies no matter whether you have a fancy expensive DSLR or a basic mobile phone. It’s about getting yourself on the same plane as your subject or shooting your subject from a more interesting angle. It’s particularly useful when taking pictures of children, but applies in almost any photographic situation.

Four Essential Beginner Photographer Tips
I had to lay on the ground to get this picture. It’s a lot more interesting than if I had stood up and shot at a downward angle. Nikon D750, 122mm, f/3.3, 1/500 second, ISO 100.

The default position for a lot of beginner photographers is to take a picture from an eye level that works for you. It’s usually standing up, sitting down, or whatever position you happen to be in when a picture opportunity presents itself.

For better photos, it’s important to move around and look for a more interesting, compelling, or exciting vantage point.

beginner photography tips – a close-up photo of a flower with backlight
A normal flower became much more interesting when I shot it crouched down and positioned with the sunlight coming from behind. Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/2000 second, ISO 100.

This a simple thing to do, but it takes repeated practice until it becomes second nature. If your subject is short, crouch (or lay) down to get a more interesting shot, and if your subject is tall, find a way to elevate yourself.

It might not be easy or even comfortable, but your pictures will be much better because you took the effort to adjust your eye level.

Four Essential Beginner Photographer Tips
This young man was so tall I brought a stepladder to his photo session. I had to elevate myself about a meter off the ground to get on his eye level! He and his family were extremely pleased with the results. Nikon D750, 200mm, f/3.3, 1/250 second, ISO 110.

Conclusion

These four beginner photography tips are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to learn when you start down your exciting journey to learn more about photography.

Everyone has to begin somewhere and if you’re not sure where to start, give these a try. If you have any recommendations from what you have learned over the years, share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.