The Ultimate Guide to Getting Started in Photography
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
In such a technologically savvy society and the prevalence of social media you may be thinking about flexing your digital muscles. A great skill I believe the majority of people can benefit from in 2020 is photography. Of course I am heavily biased as I’ve fallen in love with the art in the past couple of years but with the majority of human beings (in western society anyway) being active on social media platforms it helps to know how to take a decent photograph. I also think it’s a valuable skill for anyone in the arts/creative/marketing industries.
A lot of people feel as though you need years of practise and in depth knowledge of how a camera works in order to take a decent photograph. Of course, as you become a lot more experienced you will learn about techniques needed to achieve certain looks depending on what kind of photography you’re going into. But to get started, your knowledge can be minimal and you can find yourself taken top quality photos in no time.
In this post I will go over the fundamentals of photography and also give my recommendations for beginner cameras to look into if that is the route you choose to go down. I plan to keep this post as accessible as possible so even someone with 0 knowledge is able to understand and follow. I will try and limit my use of technical jargon and only give you the information you need to know. I will also cover tips for buying a camera aswell as some easy photo editing techniques.
The exposure triangle
Now if you want to carry on using the automatic settings in a camera you can pretty much skip this part as the camera will set all these values for you. But if you want to be able to use your camera in one of it’s other modes and have more control over the look and feel of your image then this is fundamental.
First things first. The term “Exposure” simply means how your camera is capturing the light in your image. Photography is all about light and the exposure triangle is made up of three different variables that will affect the amount of light your camera captures. People can sometimes get put off by this but when you dumb it down to the absolute basics it is actually pretty easy to understand. I will not get into the science of it all (simply because I don’t know all that much myself) but I will inform you of how each variable will affect the image you take.
This is simply how long the cameras shutter is opened for. When you take a photo, what the camera does is opens and closes the shutter for a predetermined amount of time and whatever is captured during this time will appear in the photo. Shutter speeds vary depending on your camera but they can range from as quick as 1/8000sec to as long as 30secs. You will use a quick shutter speed if you are capturing something moving fast. For example, sports. This will ensure your camera freezes the action and there is no motion blur. Longer shutter speeds are typically used if you want to show motion. This is normally the case for timelapses or capturing moving water.
However with each variable there are some trade offs that you need to be cautious of when you decide each value. For shutter speed specifically, the quicker the shutter speed the less light your camera will let in because it is opening and closing so fast. To rectify this you could of course increase the shutter speed or change one of the other variables. If you are in a controlled environment you can simply add more light into your scene. For longer shutter speeds you may have the opposite problem because the shutter is open for longer, letting in more light. Also, if you are using a longer shutter speed you may want to use a tripod otherwise the entire photograph will be blurry.
The fast shutter was used to freeze the motion of the girl on the bike eliminating any motion blur. The fast shutter was used to show the light moving across the frame leaving a trail.
Aperture is probably the variable that I like to have the most control over. You know how everyone wants that blurry background look? Well that is achieved with aperture. Aperture is much more geared towards lenses as opposed to the camera itself and it is measured in F stops. Don’t ask why, I really don’t know but to understand you don’t really need to know anyway. Every lens has a set of blades that open and close creating a circle towards the rear of the lens. Now stay with me here because it gets a bit backwards. The larger the hole, the smaller the F stop and the smaller the hole the larger the F stop. So for example, a lens that has an aperture of 1.4 is able to create a bigger hole than a lens that has an aperture of 2.8. Are you with me so far?
Because this hole can either be larger or smaller this will have an affect on the amount of light that is able to reach the camera’s sensor. So an aperture of 1.4 will be able to let in more light than an aperture of 2.8. This will therefore make your overall image brighter but will also have a drastic affect on the depth of field. Depth of field is essentially the ratio of how much of your image is in focus and how much is out of focus and it is how we achieve the blurry background look. Photographers will typically use a lower F stop if they want to isolate a subject from the background. This is commonly used in portrait photography. If you want more of the image to be in focus then this can be achieved by raising the F stop and this is common in landscape photography.
The aperture is what most photographers are concerned about when buying lenses. The more expensive lenses tend to have lower apertures or constant apertures. A constant aperture is a zoom lens that doesn’t change aperture even when you zoom. A cheaper zoom lens will typically increase in aperture the further you zoom in. These are the numbers that you can see on the front of a lens. Maybe you were like me and had no idea what the numbers meant.
Also, if someone says that a lens is “fast” it is referring to it’s aperture. A fast lens means it has a wide aperture. Something that took me a while to understand.
When the aperture increases the flower becomes less isolated from the background as more of the image is in focus.
This is the variable you will probably have to worry about the least as there is a drastic trade off depending on how you set it. ISO is essentially how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Think of it as artificial light. This is normally used as a last resort if a photographer wants more light in their image. Lower ISO means a darker image and a higher ISO is a brighter image. It is typically measured in the hundreds and doubles. A low ISO is 200 and a high ISO is considered to be around 3200/6400 and above depending on your camera.
The reason why it is usually a last resort is because the more you push the ISO the worse your image quality will be. ISO introduces “noise” into your image, which is essentially grain, decreasing the overall quality of the photo. Some cameras are able to handle higher ISOs better than others so are considered good low light cameras. Always adjust your aperture and shutter speed first before looking at your ISO. I typically leave my ISO in auto and allow the camera to set it for me. Newer cameras allow you to set a limit to your ISO. So if you know your camera does’t handle ISOs above 3200 very well you can set it so your camera will never automatically set the ISO above this value.
You will see degradation in your image the higher the ISO. You will always get a cleaner image at lower ISOs. Increased noise in an image is more noticeable in dimly lit photos.
Essentially all photography is, is trying to balance these 3 variables depending on your environment, the amount of light available to you and the type of photo you want to take. And because 90% of the time we can leave the camera to set the ISO for us we only have to worry about the other 2 values. Below is a diagram that really helped me when learning about what each exposure control did to the overall image.
Quickly though before I go on I should probably quickly go over sensor size. Different cameras will typically have sensors of varying sizes. Your smaller sensors will come in compact cameras but even then some compact cameras have bigger sensors than others. Now what is that you ask? What is a sensor? The sensor is basically what is capturing the light. So essentially the bigger sensor the more light being captured. Because of this many would argue that a bigger sensor is always best, but a bigger sensor means typically a bigger body and some people may value a camera that is easier to transport over it’s sensor size. You are still able to capture high quality photos no matter the sensor size. Bigger sensors are generally better at capturing the blurry background look because of it’s ability to capture more light.
The focal length of a lens determines the field of view for the image you are capturing. It is measured in millimetres. The smaller the number the wider the field of view. Also something crucial to remember is that the value relative to the field of view is dependent on the lens and camera you are using. By default we usually speak about focal lengths in Full Frame (FF) terms. A 24mm lens is considered wide and anything around 85mm and above is considered telephoto (in other words really zoomed in).
However because different camera systems have different sensor sizes this will impact the field of view because of its crop factor. For example, a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensor is half the size of a Full Frame sensor meaning a 24mm lens on a FF camera will act the same as a 12mm lens on a MFT camera. It’s important to remember this if you do decide to buy lenses for your camera. If you have a compact camera, the fixed lenses on those are already converted to their FF equivalent so there is no maths involved.
My camera has an MFT sensor so my lenses focal lengths are half of what they would be on a FF camera.
All that make a bit more sense to you? Great. Now, let’s dive into equipment.
I say “Equipment” but the only thing you need is a camera and a lens. If you’re just getting started, no matter how many blogs you read or YouTube videos you watch I guarantee, you do not need anything more than a camera. Once you start to take photos and discover what kind of photographer you are then you can decide what other equipment you need. A portrait photographer will need different equipment to a landscape photographer.
All the cameras I am going to recommend are either cameras I’ve used myself or cameras that I’ve done extensive research on. I would not recommend a camera I wouldn’t buy/use myself.
Before we get to that though I think it’s important to quickly talk about the different kinds of cameras that are available to you.
These are your small cameras that are perfect for travelling. They will also generally be the cheapest option although an advanced compact camera could cost you well up to £1000. Compact cameras are great if you want more functionality than your mobile phone but don’t want to fully invest in something more advanced. If you’re a keen traveller, they won’t take up much space, most of them will be able to fit in your pocket. The downside of compact cameras is that they generally have small sensors meaning they are not the best for low light situations and also have a fixed lens, meaning you will not be able to change it a later date. The one you have is the one you’re stuck with.
Mirrorless cameras have become a lot more popular in the last decade because of their smaller form factor compared to a DSLR. They can be just as capable as a DSLR but can be a fraction of the weight and a lot more transportable. Because of the smaller size, lenses are also usually smaller than their DSLR counterparts. Because it has no mirror the viewfinder will always be electronic as opposed to a DSLR that uses a mirror to give you realtime feedback on what your camera is seeing. Mirrorless cameras are becoming more popular, with Canon and Nikon recently jumping on the bandwagon and may be the future of the photography industry. Mirrorless cameras are however often less rugged than DSLR’s and their handling may suffer as a result.
The OG if you will. The most common type of professional camera, but have now become a lot more user friendly in recent years with plenty of beginner options. DSLR’s will typically have the biggest sensor sizes which many would argue give you the best image quality but they also come at a premium price so I may not be recommending any of them today. (I am currently proof reading and I can tell you that I have actually recommended multiple DSLRs) However smaller sensor DSLRs are capable of producing amazing results and are very easy to use. These cameras are generally the biggest and tend to be more expensive than compact and mirrorless cameras. They tend to be very well built and ergonomically designed. Their size however don’t make them the best travel cameras.
Alright let’s get into the camera recommendations. I will try and recommend cameras of varying budgets but I will try and stick to the cheaper side as I imagine as a beginner you won’t have a ton to spend and also the less expensive cameras tend to be the easiest to use. I have included Amazon links to all the cameras but also check out eBay and you may be able to save some money on a used camera.
Compact Camera Recommendations
CANON POWERSHOT SX620
The cheapest camera I will recommend and is a great starter for anyone wanting to ditch their phone camera. Incredibly easy to use with a 25x zoom so can be used in a multitude of different situations. The definition of “point and shoot”. Will not give you amazing image quality due to the small sensor so if you want to make a bigger jump from your phone this may not be the option for you.
This camera has a 30x optical zoom meaning it is highly versatile. It is incredibly affordable and has a viewfinder which is uncommon for compact cameras. If you wanted to delve into video at some point it is also able to record in 4K. If you want slightly more be sure to check out the TZ100 and TZ200 which improve on some of the features but at a steeper price point.
Small form factor and sleek design the G9 X can be seen as an upgrade from the SX620. It does not have as big a zoom range but it’s lens is able to stop down to as wide as F/2 when at it’s widest. With the Canon badge you know it is going to be easy to use and also includes image stabilisation to counteract a shaky hand.
Sony RX100 III
The Sony RX100 line is known for being one of the most premium compact cameras money can buy. Now in it’s 7th iteration which will set you back around £1200 I can recommend one of it’s predecessors. Still in 2020 it has some top features and will still be a capable camera once you become more experienced in photography. It has a flip up screen for selfies as well as a viewfinder which stores nicely inside the camera body. Probably not the ideal camera for a beginner, Sony’s tend to be tricky to use but the functionality and amazing images you will be producing will make up for that.
Panasonic is held in high regard in the photography world. The LX15 is an example of a truly luxurious compact camera. With a fixed lens of an aperture of 1.4-2.8 it is more or less unrivalled in it’s class. The Leica branding also ensures exceptional image quality. It only has a 3x zoom meaning the lens isn’t as versatile as others in the list but if you are planning to always be close to your subjects then this may be the option for you.
Canon G7x Mark II
Perhaps the most popular camera amongst content creators and YouTubers, with good reason. A highly usable camera with a lens with a fast aperture of 1.8-2.8 you can’t really go wrong. If you watch any video of what camera to get as a starter or for vlogging 9 times out of 10 it will be this one. There is now a Mark III which is over £100 more expensive but I believe you can save on the money and stick with this earlier reiteration.
Mirrorless Camera Recommendations
Canon EOS M100
My first camera was a Canon EOS M10, a predecessor to this version and it kickstarted my love for photography so I will always have a special place in my heart for it. The Canon EOS M100 builds off of the M10 with is small form factor and smart design. It is made as a beginner camera and is a good way to get started with an interchangeable lens camera. This camera is in fact cheaper than some of the compact cameras listed and gives you a massive APS-C size sensor. The only downside is that if you do want to buy more lenses in the future, the EOS M mount doesn’t offer you as much as it’s competitors.
The Sony A6000 series is very popular amongst content creators with good reason. The A6000 was the camera that started it off but now we also have the A6300, A6400 and A6500. The Sony E-mount is a good eco-system to buy into and you will have multiple options if you ever decide to upgrade your kit. Built with an electronic viewfinder the A6000 has high functionality but does lack in the usability department. There is a steep learning curve for a beginner photographer.
The Panasonic G80 was the camera I bought after my Canon M10 and I instantly fell in love with it. Panasonic probably has the highest usability after Canon and the G80 gives you so many features at an affordable price. Now a few years old it can be found used for an absolute steal and is the perfect hybrid camera to get you started meaning it is capable of high quality photos and video. Able to shoot 4k and useful features such as Post Focus Mode it is the perfect companion for any budding content creator. With its Micro Four Thirds sensor which is smaller than APS-C it isn’t the best in low light and isn’t capable of producing high quality images at higher ISOs.
Olympus E-M10 MArk II
The Olympus EM-10 has a cool retro look so if you want to take photographs in style this is perhaps the best looking camera from my recommendations. It also sports a Micro Four Thirds sensor and it’s lenses are interchangeable with that of Panasonic giving you a whole host of upgrade options in the future. It has amazing image stabilisation and has Face detection focusing meaning the faces of your subject will never be blurry. However the viewfinder is on the small side and it is not environmentally sealed so will need to be weary when using it in slightly wetter conditions.
Canon EOS M50
The Canon M50 is a more advanced Canon M100. It has a slightly bigger body to host an electronic viewfinder. Like most Canon cameras it is very user friendly and you should be fine using it straight out of the box. It has a fully articulating screen which means it folds out aswell as up. This is highly desirable when out in the field as you can make use of the screen from multiple different angles. It also has stabilisation, albeit digital which isn’t as useful as optical but better to have nonetheless. If you want to eventually start shooting video it is capable of 4K. However the camera does have poor battery life so be sure to grab yourself some extra batteries if you do decide to buy it.
This is probably the most expensive camera I will recommend. It can be purchased for around £800 and even cheaper if it’s used. This is the cheapest Full Frame camera you can probably buy which is why I included it on the list. If the idea of going straight to full frame appeals to you but you don’t want to break the bank this might be the option for you. Keep in mind that the Sony A7 was first released back in 2014 so it is a bit outdated by todays standards but it is still able to produce amazing images. It isn’t a typical camera for a beginner but if you are willing to commit and learn your craft this will be a handy tool.
DSLR Camera recommendations
I will typically recommend Canon cameras to beginners, especially if you do want to go down the DSLR route. The 4000D is perhaps Canon’s cheapest offering to date. The camera itself will not blow you away, it has no touch screen or articulating screen. But if you need something to get you started and want that DSLR feel I strongly suggest you take a look at this offering.
This camera is often regarded as the best beginner DSLR on the market. There are no bells and whistles but it is extremely easy to capture your images. If you see yourself wanting to buy into the Nikon ecosystem, which have some amazing higher end cameras, this is a good place to start. It can be picked up for an absolute bargain.
If you want to go with a Canon DSLR but have slightly more to spend then I strongly suggest taking a look at the 2000D. It has a 24 megapixel sensor trumping the 4000D’s 18 meaning more resolution. It also has a better LCD giving you a better look at your photos in the field. However both body’s are very similar and if the 4000D’s improvements don’t mean much to you then you may be better off saving some money and sticking with the 4000D.
Canon EOS 250D
The 250D also known as the SL3 is a great option because it was just released last year meaning you are getting some of Canon’s latest features. Unlike the other two Canon DSLR offerings it has an articulating screen so if selfies are important to you then this should probably be your camera of choice. The screen is also touch enabled giving you better handling and has both WiFi and bluetooth connectivity resulting in easy transfers between your camera and your phone. If you may be interested in video at a later date the 250D is also capable of shooting in 4K.
If the D5300 didn’t do it for you the D5600 is simply an upgraded version. It has a fully articulating screen and in camera creative controls. So if you want more control over the image in-camera, the creative features can assist with this. It is a really helpful feature for any beginner. Also, if time-lapses are something you may be interested in, this camera has that functionality built in.
Camera Buying Advice
Buying a camera isn’t like buying a new pair of trainers. It is a tool and needs to be right for you so there are some important things to remember when you do take the plunge and decide to invest one.
Do you need a camera?
Think to yourself if you even need a camera. A camera recommendation that I didn’t put is just to use your phone. Your phone, a lot of the times, can be more than enough depending on how deep into photography you want to go. Figure out where you want to go with photography first as this will heavily influence the camera you buy or if you even need one in the first place. At the end of the day it is an investment so you need to make sure you are making an informed decision.
Do your research
Always read articles and watch videos about the camera you are looking to buy. No matter what camera you are interested in, there will always be something out there that will aid you in your decision. Use this blog post as a starting point to look at a camera in more depth. I have only given quick snapshots (pardon the pun) of my recommendations. There is a lot more to be said about them and there are more knowledgeable people than me out there that can do that for you. My favourite YouTube channel for camera reviews is DPReview.
Consider buying used
Always look at how much money you can save if you buy used. You may discover that you can get a better camera that is used for the same price as a lesser camera that is new. If this is the case I will always say to go used and get the better camera. eBay is a great source for used cameras but if you do not feel comfortable buying from private sellers consider looking at Jessops, MPB and Camera World who all have their own preowned camera selections. If you buy from a store you also have peace of mind that the camera will be in good condition and you will have some sort of warranty on it. However if you do decide to buy private be sure to know the “shutter count” of the camera as this will give you a clear indication of how used it is. Your typical camera is good for around 150,000 shutter actuations.
Bodies and Lenses
If you do decide to buy a mirrorless camera or DSLR always try and buy a camera body with a lens included. It is generally more expensive to buy them separately. “Kit Lenses” are generally the lenses sold with a new camera. I strongly recommend buying this option if buying new. Kit lenses aren’t the best lenses but they are good enough to get you started. They are also typically zoom lenses giving you a wide set of focal ranges. Once you become more experienced you can then sell your kit lens and put the money towards a better one. Also buying a body and lens means that you can start taking photos as soon as possible. It won’t be useful to have a camera body sitting there with no lenses.
Consider the eco-system you’re buying into
By this I am referring to the lens options available to you once you do ditch the kit lens. Know what your upgrade path looks like and consider the lens range of the camera you’re buying and any accessories that may be of use to you in the years ahead. You will thank yourself in the future when you do decide to branch out and buy more kit.
Photo Taking Tips
Everyone thinks they’re a photographer these days. And even though there are a ton of photography courses out there there is something about taking photos that can’t be taught. Like any art form really, some people will be able to grab a camera with no prior knowledge and just know how to create a good photo. The great and bad thing is that there is no science to it. There’s no formula. It is all subjective, and if you’re just taking photos for you and you like them, then that’s all that matters. I can however, give you some tips and things to consider when taking photos.
As a beginner always use the light available to you. I wouldn’t suggest buying flashes just yet and honestly you really don’t need to. You can get some stunning shots from the sun or a desk lamp. When thinking about light though always try and get a soft light. What this means is that the light isn’t harsh as this will create some hard shadows and won’t be flattering on your subject. Ways to achieve this is to shoot outside during dawn or dusk or when it is overcast. Clouds make great diffusers. If you’re indoors and using a lamp. Trying covering your light source with a paper towel. Don’t leave it there too long though as you might just burn your house down.
Forgive me, I look a mess. This was a very rudimentary test. But you can see the difference. The first was a harsh light with no diffusion, the second was a softer diffused light. You can see how the light is a lot more even.
Something I think a lot of people don’t consider when taking a photo. This is clear as day when you ask a stranger to take a photo of you and they just find a way to take it at some impossible angle whilst getting some random crap in the background in the frame. Be intentional about what you are capturing. Where is your subject in relation to their surroundings. Is there anything that may be distracting that you can get rid of by simply adjusting your zoom or the pan of your camera? I strongly suggest looking up simple photo composition guides such as the rule of thirds to get a better understanding of this. Also check out this video I did a while back where I go into slightly more detail about it. Please note the video actually may be of no use to you at all and may leave you more confused than before you started watching it, if so, I apologise.
To add another dimension to photos consider not taking a photo from your own eye line. This is how the majority of people see the world so instead maybe think about getting closer to the ground or elevating your camera somehow. discover new ways you can give a different perspective to a mundane scene. A good trick is also to shoot through an object or have something in the foreground.
Candids vs Posed
You’re not a model are you? Your friends are likely not models. Staring into a camera and smiling is so old school. The best kind of photos are always candids. I guarantee you. You can tell a forced smile from a natural one. And a natural one always makes a better photo. It is not within our nature to look into a camera and smile. Think about whipping out your camera at any opportunity and not just when you intend to take photos. Your friends don’t have to pose for you, instead make them laugh naturally then take your shot. Also think about taking photos of actions. It makes for a much more interesting image and adds a sense of narrative to the photo. This isn’t to say that posed can’t work. I have plenty of posed photos I’ve taken that I love but they often lack a sense of depth that a candid can give you.
I won’t spend too long talking about this as photo editing can get real confusing real quick. Also it isn’t always necessary to edit your photos. A lot of the time you will be happy with the image your camera captures and can post it straight away. However photo editing will be essential when you become more experienced and what to really push your creativity.
JPEG vs RAW
I am sure you are well aware of these terms. I think we should all know what a Jpeg is. This is simply the file type that most images hosted on the web are. It is low in size and easy to manage. Every camera should be able to output a Jpeg file that is ready to be posted to your blog or social media page. However if you decide to experiment with photo editing you will need to start shooting in your cameras raw format. All this means is that the file keeps all the information of the photo that a jpeg would ditch to keep the file size down. Raw is considered a “lossless” fie type whereas a Jpeg is a “lossy” file type. Because all this information is kept it gives you much more latitude when it comes to editing. It is possible to edit a jpeg image but if you push it too hard you will see a loss of quality in your image. With a raw image you are able to edit it in many different ways and still keep a clean image. Raw files are however bigger than Jpegs and sometimes hard to manage. It is sometimes a good idea as a beginner to shoot in raw because if you mess up your settings in camera you are then able to change it after the fact. For example if you realise that a photo you have taken is too dark. A raw file will allow you to boost the images exposure and introduce more light without a loss in quality. A jpeg would likely becoming grainy if you did this.
In Canon cameras these are the symbols for taking photos in both Raw and Jpeg format. You are able to select the size of the Jpeg you want to save also. Other camera manufacturers will have similar symbols.
We are all aware of Adobe Photoshop and what it can do. You may not be too familiar with Lightroom however. As a beginner you probably do not need photoshop and it comes at a more premium price than Lightroom. Some people often don’t know what the difference is but essentially, Photoshop is more for image manipulation whereas Lightroom is more for retouching. If I want to change some colours and add contrast this can be done in Lightroom but if I wanted to change a photo of me and my Ford Fiesta into a photo of me and a Lamborghini then I would need Photoshop. There is however some crossover with the software. If you’re just getting started Lightroom is definitely the one to get if you’re able to spare £10 a month. If you do want some photoshop functionality but don’t want to spend the extra bucks, consider downloading GIMP which is completely free and gives you a lot of the tools that photoshop offers.
You may not want to edit on a desktop or laptop and may want to do it all from your phone. If so you’re in luck because there are some great free phone editing tools available to you. Actually, I say some. I can just recommend 1 and that is Adobe Lightroom which is totally free for mobile use. So if you don’t mind editing all your photos from your phone then there is no question, Lightroom is the way to go. If for whatever reason Lightroom doesn’t work for you then check out Snapseed which may be a bit more user friendly.