Photography Basics

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640 Ever wonder why one picture looks so much "better" than another? Ever want to make your pictures look that good? It's definitely possible, and you don't even need a great camera to significantly improve the pictures you take.

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The first step in making a great picture is actually capturing the image. It's important to spend at least a little time thinking about the shot and planning what it will look like. This is called composing the shot. The thing you're taking the picture of is called the subject. There are several key elements to think about while you're composing your shot:

Filling the Frame

The edge of the photo is often referred to as the frame. The easiest thing to do to better your pictures is called filling the frame. Look around the edges of the picture before you take it and walk through this list:

  1. Do you have everything you're looking for? If not, re-compose the shot to include everything
  2. Is there something in the picture that you would rather leave out? If so, re-compose the picture to leave that thing out. It might take attention away from your subject.
  3. Make sure nothing is cut off, like a person's head, because that sort of thing instantly ruins a picture
  4. Make sure there isn't excessive space between the subject of the photo and the edge of the frame - extra space will take attention away from your subject and put it on the background
The subject of this picture does not fill the frame
The subject of this picture fills the frame nicely

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a way to divide your photo into segments. The segments and divisions between segments are "strong points" in the photo, or places where attention will be quickly and easily drawn. This is very hard to explain without an example, so I won't until I make an example. (yes, I know there are examples now, but it's late at night, and I'm tired. I'll explain it later.)

This landscape shot uses the rule of thirds
The same shot with a rule of thirds overlay

Leading Lines

The human eye tends to be attracted to long, obvious lines. Using long lines, say at least 1/3 the width or length of the frame, in photos are great ways to catch attention. It's important that lines in your photo lead to something important, like your subject, otherwise they could end up being a distraction.

The branches act as leading lines
The most prominant lines are highlighted here


Don't always shoot a subject from where you would normally view it. Try different angles, different heights, or different distances.


There are two major types of zoom setting, wide-angle equivalent to low zoom and telephoto equivalent to high zoom. Interesting things happen when you compose the same shot at different zoom levels. Wide angle zoom allows you to capture a wider section of the background in the shot, telephoto does the opposite.


Sharp contrasting colors usually makes for great pictures. If you see a color that really stands out among all the others, that is probably where attention will be drawn first.


The human eye is attracted to bright colors. If you're taking a picture and it has bright colored things in it, you can bet that's where attention will go first. This could be a great thing, or a bad thing depending on how you use it.

Camera Settings

Ever wonder what all those silly dials and buttons on your camera do? Here's the answer. You might not see options with these specific titles if you're using a point-and-shoot digital, but I assure you it works the same way. I'll also tell you what you point-and-shoot might say instead. In this article, I'll only tell you how it affects the picture. If you want to know more, see Photography Science.


This is the amount of light that is let into the camera. The more light you have, the faster shutter speed you can use. Aperture also affects your depth of field, which describes how large the range is in which things are in focus. Aperture is measured in f-stops. Lower f-stops are often called faster, as they let in more light and cause the film or CCD to react quicker. The faster the stop, the smaller your depth of field. If your camera doesn't have a specific setting for aperture try setting it to something like portrait mode or landscape mode. These usually put the camera into aperture priority mode with low and high f-stops respectively.

Shutter Speed

This is how long the camera will expose the film or CCD to light. The faster the shutter speed, the more light you need to take the picture. Faster shutter speeds allow you to take pictures of moving action without blur. Low shutter speeds will allow you to take pictures with less light, but are very prone to camera shake. Camera shake happens when the camera moves while the picture is being taken. This causes the entire picture to look blurred or doubled. The general rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that is the inverse of your current focal length, or zoom amount measured in mm. This doesn't really apply to point-and-shoot cameras, as you don't really know your focal length without doing some calculations. If your camera doesn't have a "shutter speed" setting, try action mode or night mode to get a fast or slow shutter speed, respectively.


Make sure you focus on the right thing!!! I can't tell you how many well composed pictures I've seen that are just focused on the wrong part of the picture... This usually happens when your camera has automatic focus and you weren't paying attention to what it picked to focus on. Look at the picture before and after you take it to make sure the camera focused on the subject you wanted, not some random boring rock in the background.

Photo Editing

Photo editing can really make the difference between a "good picture" and a "great picture". It takes some serious time, and a real lot of practice, but it's worth it when you're done. Keep in mind, photo editing can't fix everything. If your picture was bad to begin with, don't think that editing it will save it every time.


These are a few programs that I've used to edit pictures. There are tons of others which vary in cost and feature set. Generally, there's nothing wrong with using a software that's not listed here. It's important that you use the software that you are most comfortable with and most able to create the effects you like easily.

Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop is currently one of the most popular high-end photo editing systems on the market. It does everything you would ever want to do to a picture and then a whole bunch of other stuff. Unfortunately, because of its huge feature set, it is often very hard for people to learn how to get around the software to get things done. This is a good software to consider if you spend a lot of time doing really serious editing and don't need photo organization features. Photoshop packages start around $650.

Photoshop Elements

Photoshop Elements is basically a watered down version of Photoshop with some features aimed at the home user, such as special projects, built in connectivity to online print services, and so on. List price is about $150.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Lightroom is Adobe's new (released February 2007) digital darkroom software. It is amazing. List price is about $300, but if you're a student you can get a hefty discount through Adobe's educational program. Lightroom allows you to quickly and effectively crop, color correct, touch up, sort, and search all your photos. It's even possible to copy settings from one picture to another. It works especially well with RAW type digital photos (more on RAW on the Photography Science page). This is the software I use almost exclusively.


The GIMP is a free, open source software for photo editing. It currently runs on Linux, Windows, and MacOS X. I haven't used it in years, but when I did I found that most of its functionality was similar to Photoshop. There are some picky issues with color management, and some filters that are missing, but otherwise it's a pretty good product, especially for free.

The one that came with your camera...

I've seen mixed results on included software. Some of it is pretty good, some of it sucks pretty hard. If it has the features you need, and runs reliably, then go for it. If not, and you're spending a lot of time on getting things the way you want, it might be worth while to invest in some good software.


Contrast Correction

Brightness Correction

Color Correction

Exposure Correction

Photo Filters

Photo Effects