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Photography Basics

Modern cameras are amazing – anyone can take a nice picture with the camera set to automatic. But taking pictures that really shine might require a little more know-how. Flipping the camera dial off “automatic” can be a little intimidating, but the results will be well worth the effort. Before flipping the dial it’s important to understand some camera basics.

Photography Basics – Shutter Speed

When the shutter release button is pushed to take a picture, the shutter is opened to expose the camera’s sensor to the image in view and then closed after a certain amount of time. How long the image is exposed to the sensor is determined by the shutter speed. Faster or slower shutter speeds will have different effects on a picture. A fast shutter speed is useful for freezing action, like in sports photography. A slow shutter speed is useful for low light photography or for artistic effects like a motion blur.

shutter speed

Fast shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second like 1/200 of a second and can stop action like the falling pear on the left, above. Slow shutter speeds can be small fractions like 1/15 of a second (pear on the top right) or even full seconds like 30 seconds.

Hand-holding a camera can be difficult at slow shutter speeds because the photographer’s hand might shake. The general rule of thumb is that hand-held shutter speeds should be at least “1/focal length”. This means that with an 18mm lens, the photographer should use at least 1/18 of a second or with a 200mm lens use at least 1/200 of a second. This is just a guide, however – some photographers have steadier hands than others.

Photography Basics – Aperture

Camera aperture is similar to the pupil in an eye. The aperture diameter can be made larger or smaller depending on the photographer’s desired effect. The larger the aperture diameter, the smaller the f-number and vice versa. These numbers can be confusing, but just remember larger diameter = smaller number. For example a large aperture is f/2.8, whereas f/11 is a small aperture.

Larger apertures allow more light to hit the image sensor, therefore shutter speeds can be faster. However, larger apertures result in a photograph with less depth of field, meaning things farther away than the main focus point will be out of focus. In the photos below, notice how as the aperture diameter decreases (larger number) the background objects begin to get more in focus.


Being able to choose which part and how much of a photograph is in focus is very important to photography. The photographer can tell his or her audience what’s important or where to look, simply by setting the focus point and depth of field.

Summing up Shutter Speed and Aperture:

-Faster shutter speeds are great for catching action.
-Slower shutter speeds can be used for blur effects.
-Faster shutter speeds are easier to hand-hold.
-Larger apertures allow more light which allows a faster shutter speed.
-Smaller apertures allow less light, but they put more of the image in focus (see depth of field).

Photography Basics – ISO

Put simply, ISO allows photographers to “cheat” and double the amount of available light. With cheating comes consequences. As ISO is doubled, image noise or graininess increases. 100 ISO is usually the starting point for most cameras, although some go lower. A photograph taken at 200 ISO will have twice as much light as 100 ISO. (400 is double 200, 800 is double 400, etc.) This is helpful for taking photographs that need a higher shutter speed, such as action, or hand-held low-light pictures.

With today’s modern cameras, photographers can cheat light over and over again. Entry level DSLRs usually offer a maximum ISO of 1600 or 3200, but more expensive cameras can do 6400, 12800 even up to 102400 ISO.

With an entry level DSLR, noise will start to become apparent around 800 ISO, but the higher end cameras can take pretty good shots with acceptable noise levels in the 1600 and 3200 range.

Below are pictures of the pear at 100% crop (actual image size) taken with a Canon Rebel XSi (450D)

100-200 iso100-400 ISO100-800 ISO100-1600 ISO

Please leave a comment and tell me what you like/dislike about this post and what photography tips you’d like to read more about…Thanks!

Related Photography Articles:

Understanding Depth of Field

Camera Settings – Mode Dial and ISO

Understanding Exposure

Understanding Stops

16 comments to Photography Basics

  • You explain things in a very good way – you keep it easy. Looking forward to your next posts on photography – there’s never enough of them! Thanx

  • Thanks so much! I’m really hoping to improve my photography skills. Love the tutorial.

  • My mom is planning on buying me an Xsi for Christmas, so I’m glad you used that camera. Thanks for the tutorial!

  • Thank you so much, I am so knew at all of this and do not know the first thing about all the technical stuff. My sweet husband was trying to teach me about apertures today and I just was not getting it. Alas I just needed some visuals. Your site is so user friendly please keep it up for people like me.

  • Camilla

    Those pears are so cute!

  • Thank you so much for this. Now I finally understand all the jargon and can start to improve my photos. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Thank you all for your replies. I have finally gotten around to writing a bit more. I hope this is useful info to someone. I know when I was first starting out in photography, it was hard to find much info for beginners!

  • For great sharp clear low-light macro food photos, what lens for my Canon EOS 550D?
    -I am seeking for a great solution (at good value $$$) for

    close-up food photography in low light conditions: for ie, at restaurant dinings with very weak light and yet get sharp clear close up detailed pics from such condition with no use of flash.I bought the 550D but now I am searching for the right lense to go with it: What do you think of a 60mm f2.8 paired with the 550D? Any better suggestion given what I want to do?

    Also: Would the 550D paired with a 60mm f2.8 make superior low light macro food dinner’s food pics than a Canon 350D paired with a Canon EF 50 mm f/1.4 lens?

    PS: I do understand the necessity of the tripod, but most restaurants will never accept that I get in with a Tripod. I haven’t yet used that Canon EOS 550 (just have the body and I am now planning for the Lens), but if this is going to be shaky enough to the point that taking photos without a tripod would be impossible, please let me know: I will return the digital SLR.
    Thanks to all for your replies.

  • Hi S Lloyd,
    It’s funny, I was just reading about the 550D. DPReview just put up a detailed review of the new camera. It sounds like a great camera.
    As far as lenses go, i’m no expert, but I can tell you my opinion. If you really need macro shots (like really close up) then you need a “macro” lens. If you want to be able to shoot in low light, you will want both a wide maximum aperture as well as some sort of Image Stabilization. As you said, a tripod is to cumbersome for restuarants, so you need IS in a Canon lens or some equivalent in a third-party lens. The 60mm 2.8 Macro doesn’t have IS as far as I know, but it does get great reviews. You could consider the new 100mm 2.8 Macro IS which also has great reviews, but it might be a bit large and too “zoomed-in” to work easily in a restaurant situation. I would think that in a restaurant you want a small lens with the ability to zoom. From what I have read, the Tamron 17-50mm 2.8 VR (Vibration Control – like IS) lens is supposed to yield great images and I think you could get “macro” enough, at least for me. It probably really depends on how close you are talking about.
    Good luck and let me know what you end up choosing.


  • I have been to your site half a dozen times now, and this time I am adding it to my bookmarks :) Your pages are always relevant, unlike the same-old stuff on other sites (which are coming off my bookmarks!) Two thumbs up!

  • Hi Chris!
    I’m so thrilled to stumble upon your blog and especially this great piece of article! I’ve been playing around with SLR since last year but still clueless when it comes to aperture and shutter speed. Most of the books and magazines out there are all words, words, words and words. A beginner like me appreciates these visual tutorials because it helps me to match it with what I’ve read. Now I’m so much clearer about the basics of photography. So thank you so much for writing them!

    Happy holidays!


  • Great to meet you! We’re putting together 99 links to help foodbloggers take better photos. I love your post and would like to add a URL link back to this specific post. We’d love your permission. Thank you again…



  • Camilla

    Sure, no problem.

  • Smitha

    Thank u for wonderful explanation with photos.

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