Basics of Photography – Beginners Guide

Most of us either own or have used a D-SLR or use cameras which empower us with the ability to manually make changes to the camera settings, so it’s definitely useful to understand those setting and in time master them, while the “Auto” mode or built in presets could get you good results, learning and understanding how to use the manual functions effectively would yield you even better results and the satisfaction of being able to capture an image just the way you want it.

Let’s try and understand the three main functions Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed.

1) What is Aperture?

Aperture is the opening in the lens through which light passes and enters the body of the camera.  The larger the opening the more light gets in and inversely the smaller the opening the less light gets in.

Aperture is measured in F-Stops and determines the size of the aperture, for example f/1.4, f/2.0, f/2.8,f/4.0,f/5.6 etc.

It’s important to keep in mind that the small number f/1.4 is larger than f/2.8 and much larger than f/5.6.

The smaller the f-number the larger the opening the more light enters the camera body.

Your probably wondering this is good information but what about implementation, so let’s discuss that.

The size of the aperture has a direct impact on the depth of field, which is the area of the image that appears sharp. A small f-number such as f/1.4 (bigger aperture) will isolate the foreground from the background by making the foreground objects sharp and the background blurry, while a large f-number such as f/8.0, (smaller aperture) will bring all foreground and background objects in focus.

Every lens has a limit on how large or small the aperture can get.  This information is usually printed on the lens itself, for example on my Sony Nex-5 its 3.5-5.6/18-55, where 3.5 is the largest aperture and 5.6 is the smallest. 18-55 is the focal length of the lens (we could discuss the relation between aperture and focal length in another topic)

The largest aperture of the lens is much more important than the smallest, because it shows the speed of the lens. Larger maximum aperture means that the lens can pass through more light, and hence, can capture images faster in low-light situations.

Examples of apertures that is suitable for the respective kind of photography.

Landscape photographers usually use small aperture settings (large f-number) this ensures that from the foreground to the horizon the subject is relatively in focus.

Portrait photographers usually use large aperture settings (Small f-number) this insures that the subject is in focus while the rest is blurry, this emphases the subject while blurring and background distractions. 


High Aperture - f/2.8 or lower – Shallow depth of field – Ideal for Portraits
Low Aperture – f/8.0 or Higher - Extended depth of field – Ideal for Landscape Photography

Side note – The lens is sharpest at the centre of the aperture range, for example aperture range of f/1.4, f/2.0, f/2.8,f/4.0,f/5.6, the lens would yield the sharpest image at f/2.8 (other effecting factors - ISO, shutter speed).

2) What is ISO?

ISO is the sensitivity of the image sensor to light.  

The lower the number (e.g. 100,200) the less sensitive the camera is to light but it produces less noise (barely visible) which means high quality pictures.

The higher the number (e.g. 12,800,25,600) the more sensitive the camera is to light but it produces more noise and relatively low quality pictures with lot of noise (grains in the photograph)

So when would you use a low or a high ISO?

Since the  lower ISO gives the best image quality we would love to use it all the time, but  since the sensitivity of the sensor is relatively low with lower ISO it would make sense to use it in situations where there is ample light available (a bright sunny day, outdoors).

However in low light situations (indoors, evenings etc) because there is hardly any light to work with, the ISO would need to be increased so that the sensor can become more sensitive to the available low light and be able to capture the subject, bumping up the ISO enables us to capture images in relatively low light situations but at the expense of introducing noise and reducing the overall quality of photographs.

Typical ISO sequence
100 200 400 800 1,600 3,200 6,400 12,800

The important thing to understand is that with each stop (e.g. from 100 to 200) the sensitivity of the sensor to light is doubled. So at ISO 12,800 the senor is 8 times as sensitive which means the time required to capture the image is reduced by 8 times. (Higher Shutter Speeds)


As far as possible try to use the lowest ISO to yield the best image quality, try tweaking the Aperture and shutter speed accordingly, increase the ISO has a last resort.

Side note – Usually ISO up to the third last stop should yield decent workable photographs e.g.  In the above “Typical ISO sequence” ISO up to 3,200 would yield a decent photograph with some noise. (This might be different depending on the camera you use and is subjective to personal preference of image quality)

3) What is Shutter Speed?  

Shutter Speed is the length of time the camera shutter is left open to allow light to expose the camera sensor.  

Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fraction of seconds where 1/250 is faster than 1/15 while 1” is much slower then both.  Seconds are usually denoted by the symbol “.

Higher Shutter speeds are ideal for capturing still images of “motion” for example 1/500 would be fast enough to capture still images of most humans in action.  

While a Slow shutter speed of 1” would create a blurring effect, it would make flowing water look like milk. 

Some cameras also have a “bulb” mode where the shutter is left open for has long as you keep the shutter button pressed this mode makes for some interesting light painting photographs.

While choosing the shutter speed it’s important to know that anything slower that 1/60 would introduce blur in your photographs due to hand shake. The immediate solution would be to use a Tripod of use a lens or camera with image stabilization.

The safe shutter speed for hand-holding the camera would be to choose a shutter speed with a denominator that is larger than the focal length of the lens.

For example if you use a lens with a focal length of 55 mm a shutter speed of 1/60, 1/125 or higher would be ideal.


Higher shutter speeds 1/250 and above are ideal for capturing still pictures of motion (humans, birds, objects etc)

Shutter speeds between 1/125 and 1/60 would best for capturing regular human movement and would not require a tripod.

Slower shutter speeds of 1/15 and below would introduce motion blur and would require a tripod.

Side note – When the shutter speed is changed, you would also need to pay attention to the Aperture and ISO. Let’s say the shutter speed is changed from 1/60 to 1/125 this would result in half has much light entering the camera, so to compensate you would either need to increase the ISO (e.g. from 100 to 200) or increase the Aperture (e.g. f/4.0 to f/8.0)

Summary - Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed

Changing Aperture changes depth of field.

Changing ISO changes the image noise

Changing Shutter Speed changes how motion is captured

Taking a Great picture is a balancing act between these three elements of photography.  

The best way to learn and get better at photography would be to master the basics and then combine that knowledge with your Artistic side.  Just keep on exploring the world around you and your camera and take great pictures J   


  1. In aperture section-
    " A small f-number such as f/1.4 (bigger aperture) will isolate the foreground from the background by making the foreground objects sharp and the background blurry"
    Actually- low aperture wont isolate the foreground. It would isolate your subject from the rest of the frame. Even If your subject is in the foreground, a small aperture number would blur everything in the foreground as well as the background except the subject.

    Second important factor in DOF is focal length. wide angle lens on f/1.4 would have lesser or almost no bokeh (blur) effect. Focus point will remain sharpest but background and foreground blurs are less prominent, also larger area remains sharp. But f/1.4 with a higher focal length (55mm, 70mm etc( would have purely the subject in focus and rest of the frame would appear totally blurred.

    Lastly- aperture is an important factor while buying a new lens. The lower the aperture number, the better the ability of the lens to shoot in low light conditions. Also called a faster lens or faster aperture. Such lenses would reduce your dependence on the ISO which might cause your pics to appear grainy at high ISO numbers.
    It is possible to compare two lenses on the same.
    Lens A has focal length from 18mm to 140mm min aperture is f/1.8 - f/5.6
    This means the lowest aperture number possible at 18mm is 1.4 and at 105mm is 5.6
    Lens B has focal length from 17mm to 130mm min aperture is f/1.8 - f/5.6

    How much light enters each lens at their lowest and highest focal lengths can be estimated by applying a calculation as follows:
    f= focal length
    Light that enters the lens at min aperture on Lens A at 18mm (f/1.8) = 18/1.8 = 10
    Light that enters the lens at min aperture on Lens B at 17mm = 17/1.8 = 9.44
    So at the lowest focal length Lens A allows more light so is considered a lens with faster aperture or better in low light.
    Light that enters the lens at min aperture on Lens A at 140mm = 140/5.6 = 25
    Light that enters the lens at min aperture on Lens A at 130mm = 130/5.6 = 23.21
    Lens A is faster at the highest focal length as well.

    Assuming both lenses are made of similar components, Lens A would be considered a faster lens.


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