Photography 101: A Crash Course for Beginners

When I originally wrote this article, I had recently broken my favorite camera and was looking for a creative outlet that was photography related. This post is meant to be a concise introduction to photography that covers everything I feel you need to know—with no added filler.

Camera Types

  • DSLR – The DSLR is a type of ILC (interchangeable lens camera) with a high level of control and features and, generally, many lens options.
  • Mirrorless – The mirrorless camera is another type of ILC. They are like a smaller DSLR that relies on an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical viewfinder “powered” by a pentaprism mirror—hence the mirrorless.
  • Compact/point and shoot – As both names for this type of camera suggests, the compact/point and shoot is small and tends to be simpler than an ILC. These cameras are intended for casual shooters, but other people, such as travelers and street photographers, looking for a portable/discrete camera, may certainly enjoy one. The cell phone camera has been hurting the market for these cameras.
  • Bridge – The bridge camera is in between an ILC and a compact/point and shoot. I have little experience with these, but I don’t really see the point.
  • Phone camera – Phone cameras have come a long way and can provide excellent image quality in most settings. Their main disadvantages are a fixed focal length lens (usually around 28mm in 35mm terms—perfect if you really like that focal length), sub par low-light performance, and fewer manual controls than a standard ILC.

Sensor Size and Crop Factors

  • Sensor sizes other than the standard 35mm (aka full frame) have a crop factor. A common crop sensor is APS-C, which crops at a 1.5x ratio. This means, for example, a 50mm lens on a full frame camera works like a 50mm lens. A 50mm lens on an APS-C camera is cropped to 75mm.
  • Sensor sizes increase in size from compact, micro 4/3, APS-C (and similar), full frame, and, finally, medium format.
  • Newer/larger sensors provide better image quality.
  • Smaller sensors provide a larger apparent depth of field due to the cropped frame.
  • Cameras with larger sensors will overall be the most expensive cameras in any given camera manufacturer’s lineup.

Choosing a Camera

First, if you haven’t already, try using your phone’s camera as you intend to use your new camera. Unless you want quality bokeh, or background blur, you can really do a lot with a half-decent phone. Although, now the leading iPhone has a “portrait mode” which can replicate bokeh quite well. Anyway, basically, phones have cameras with small sensors that give a huge depth of field, which is why so much of the image stays sharp and you can’t get much background blur unless you are really close to your subject. If you feel you are ready to upgrade, then go to a camera/electronics store and try a bunch of cameras. If you can, try them all, even if only for a minute each. Get a feel for them. Choose the camera that both feels right and has the features that you want, but don’t forget the previous section and how sensor size affects image quality. Of course, keep it within your budget.

An extreme example of bokeh.

The Exposure Triangle

If you are using your phone, you can skip this section.

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO make up the exposure triangle. These three settings must be balanced for the desired exposure. I’ve highly simplified this section. I recommend further reading if you intend to get serious with photography.

  1. Aperture is the opening of the lens that can adjust in size to let more/less light in. A larger aperture allows more light, while also creating a smaller depth of field. Depth of field is the area of focus. (Narrower lenses also have a shorter depth of field.) When you see photos with a nicely blurred background, the photographer is utilizing a short depth of field.
  2. Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open. A longer shutter allows more light. A faster shutter speed will more easily “freeze” faster motion. Use a slower shutter to blur motion.
  3. ISO is how sensitive the sensor (or film) is to light. A higher ISO increases the light sensitivity, while also reducing image quality.

These three variables are measured in stops.

car suv passing motion blur line lights dark night nighttime black and white
An example of both a slow shutter speed and a high ISO, producing motion blur and grain/noise, respectively.

Shooting Modes

  • Aperture priority is for controlling depth of field. The camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to get the aperture you input. ISO can be controlled manually or put on Auto ISO if your camera supports it.
  • Shutter priority is for controlling motion blur. The camera will automatically adjust the aperture to get the shutter speed you input. ISO can be controlled manually or put on Auto ISO if your camera supports it.
  • Manual mode gives the most control by requiring camera settings to be entered manually. ISO can be controlled manually or put on Auto ISO if your camera supports it. Manual mode is especially helpful at night when your camera’s metering system is not as useful.
tree reflection on lake black and white fog night nighttime photography lights
Night landscapes are a great time to use manual mode!


  • RAW is a file format where the photo data is minimally processed from your camera and then saved. RAW files generally require post-processing, using software such as Adobe Lightroom. While RAW file sizes are much larger than JPEGs, they also retain more information and can provide a higher quality image. Further, an under/over-exposed photo saved in RAW can be better salvaged than a JPEG.
  • JPEG is best if you either don’t want to edit or prefer smaller file sizes, though JPEGs can absolutely still be edited.


Editing is an essential and in-depth process that I cannot cover in this post. All I can say is learn to edit and practice it! Even half-decent editing can completely transform your photography.


Composition uses design elements to create a stronger photograph. These elements include line, shape, tone, scale, repetition, color, balance, symmetry, asymmetry, the rule of thirds, and more. Study up on composition to become a better photographer. Don’t forget to break the rules too.

In Addition

  • Study other photographers/artists.
  • Photograph what interests you.
  • Not feeling up for taking pictures? Take a break, go through your old pics (and maybe edit/re-edit some), or buy a new piece of gear.
  • I favor build quality and camera feel over camera specifications.
  • Do not confuse a sharp image with a great image.
  • As with anything you wish to improve upon, photography requires practice.


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