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Digital photography: a beginner’s guide

Self portrait taken with a DSLR

A few of you have asked me to write a post about photography, how I configure my camera, and how I take my photos. It goes without saying that I’m no professional photographer, but I will do my best to write this little beginner’s guide.

I bought my DSLR, a Canon 450D, in the summer of 2008. It is regarded as an amateur/enthusiast DSLR, and for me it was a great beginner’s camera. I was already a little bit familiar with settings like ISO and shutter speed from my point-and-shoot, but I had no idea how these things related to each other and had to learn pretty much from scratch. I started out shooting in auto mode as most people do, but after a while I started working my way through the other settings one by one in order to learn what they did. My tip would be to do the same: Go through the settings, play around with them, and learn what they do. Trying to get to grips with all the settings at once might be a bit daunting, but learning them one by done is totally doable.

Here’s my quick little explanation of what the different settings mean.


This setting has to do with light, or light sensitivity to be exact. If you are outside on a sunny day you can use a low ISO setting, while if you are inside at a candle-lit dinner party you will have to turn the ISO up high. A high ISO gives you grainy pictures compared to a lower setting, which is why we love daylight!

P (Program) mode on your camera lets you manually adjust the ISO while the camera handles the other settings automatically.



This setting is symbolized by an F on the camera, and if you remember that F equals focus you are pretty much all set. How much of your photo do you want to be in focus? A smaller f-stop number means a larger aperture. This ensures that what you focus on remains in focus while the rest of the photo is blurred, which is nice if you want to make your subject stand out from the background. A larger f-stop means a smaller aperture, which is great for photos where you want everything to be in focus, like in landscape photography.

A/Av/F (Aperture priority) mode on your camera lets you manually set the aperture and ISO while the camera decides the appropriate shutter speed.

Large aperture VS small aperture example example

Shutter Speed

How much time do you want your camera to spend snapping this photo? Think of it this way: If you want to photograph a leopard you want to be quick before the bastard runs away, so here you will want a fast shutter speed. If you want to capture the trajectory and movement of light, say, the movement of a ferry, you want a longer shutter speed. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second, and the higher the denominator the faster the speed – for example, 1/50 is slower than 1/300. When photographing people it is good to have a relatively high shutter speed, as most of us tend to twitch and move around a bit (which is highly impractical, if you ask me. Freeze rays can not be invented quickly enough).

S/Tv (Shutter priority) mode enables manual control of the shutter speed and ISO while the aperture is calculated by the camera for proper exposure.


Remember to adjust as you go

Play around and learn about how these settings relate to each other – a small aperture will let in more light than a large one, which again means that you might have to adjust your ISO to keep the photo from getting too light. A high shutter speed will let in less light than a low shutter speed, which means that you’re probably best off shooting those leopards outdoors in daylight instead of inside your candle-lit living room. Also, the slow shutter speed that you need to capture photos like the one of the ferry above demands a completely steady camera, seeing as it spends more time gathering information for your photo. A tripod is pretty much mandatory for these. Play around, you’ll be able to control all these settings yourself using manual mode (M) in no time.


Speaking of tripods, I’d say a tripod and a remote are the first accessories you should buy. As a blogger they are invaluable for things like outfit photos, but they also allow you to be a part of group photos, and they will let you to take several photos from exactly the same spot. This allows you to get pretty creative, like in the photo below:

Photo of Maja floating in mid-air

This photo was created using the combination of a tripod, a remote and a tiny bit of Photoshop magic. I first took one photo of just my living room, then another photo (from exactly the same spot) where I am in my living room, in front of the camera, standing on a chair. I layered the two photos on top of each other in Photoshop, erased the chair from the last image, and voila! Invisible chair! Pretty cool, huh?

Tripods are also invaluable for these kinds of photos:


I have tried to recruit the boyfriend as my photography assistant plenty of times, but I always end up yelling at the poor guy for, I don’t know, standing ten feet away and focusing on the wrong things or taking too long before pressing the damn shutter, so these days I just do everything myself. At least I’ll know exactly when to smile. The poor bastard gets a look of dread on his face if I as much as ask him to take a picture of me for Instagram, I swear, but I can’t help that I’m a perfectionist! Anyway, the point I am trying to make is: Tripods and remotes are a godsend.

Shoot in RAW if you can

As I mentioned earlier I always shoot in manual mode these days, and I choose the file format RAW over .jpg. A raw file is basically an image containing unprocessed data, and can’t be printed or uploaded as an image as-is. Think of RAW as the digital equivalent to a photo negative, and you get the idea – it can’t be used for anything until I have processed it in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop Camera Raw. There I will tweak the lighting and colors until I am pleased with them and save the image as a .jpg. Important side note: even though I can tweak these things on my Macbook I still need to do my best to get the desired result before pressing the shutter on my camera. You can do a lot of fun things in Photoshop, but if your photo is bad to begin with it will be like putting lipstick on a pig. Photoshop is pretty great, but it ain’t magic!

Further reading

I hope this was at least a little bit helpful! But if you are reading this and are still feeling super-confused, do not worry. I gathered this little collection of links for you!

What is ISO in photography

Shutter speed

DSLR Photography: Understanding Aperture

Understanding Aperture – A Beginner’s Guide

A Quick Guide to Understanding Your DSLR Camera

The Beauty Department: Tricks of the Trade: Beauty Basics

Learn How To Use Your DSLR Camera

Learn How To Use Manual Mode On A DSLR Camera

Where I Go to Learn About Photography

I also own a grand total of ONE photography book: Michael Freeman’s 101 Top Digital Photography Tips. It is quite good, I gladly recommend it.


16 thoughts on “Digital photography: a beginner’s guide

  1. This is a very timely post, as I have been forming the idea of learning photography more into deep lately, thank you so much!!

    I have already created a small portfolio thanks to the free and easy to use Dunked (that I recommend you if you want to have a nice and neat little portfolio of your work), but I am actually looking into buying a proper camera (I confess I shoot my photos on iPhone these days).

    I didn’t know where to start, now I do! Thanks so much :)

    • I’m so happy you found it useful, Kali! That is terrific! I just signed up to 500px myself, I have heard great things about the community and thought I’d try it. Dunked looks good too! Would you mind sharing your portfolio link? I’d love to see it!

  2. I really needed this post. I was getting quite frustrated trying to take some pictures of some bracelets this weekend and I can’t get the clarity and depth I want to some of the shots and part of it is the limitations of my little happy snaps camera but it’s the only one I’ve got but I’ve also always been too lazy to read up properly and it kind of goes in and leaves my brain pretty quick. The Grumps has said to think about what kind of camera I might want to move on to (possible Crimbo present) but I have a feeling that I am one of those persons who ends up shooting on auto all the time. I’m going to re-read your tips here again and hope something sinks in. In the meantime, any thoughts about what kind of camera I could be looking at (not too big and not too scary (technically and money wise)?

  3. Love all your accompanying photos! That one of you floating is so cool, I am having to resist the temptation to set up and do the same thing tomorrow! My husband is actually a director of photography, so you’d think I’d make more use of him, but I rarely do, mostly because I get a little shy in front of the camera, so it’s easier for me to fool around with just my friendly tripod. Silly, but true. He has given me some great tips though, and helped me improved my own photography so much. Plus I get to borrow his awesome lenses :)

    • A director of Photography, huh? That is so cool! I would pester the life out of him I’m sure :D I’m nowhere near being anything else than a enthusiastic amateur, but I love it nonetheless. In fact, I might treat myself to a new camera when I visit the states!

      • I pester him sometimes, but once he gets going explaining stuff he really gets going, so when I just want a tiny tidbit I get loads and loads of super technical information. I’m not complaining, like I said I’ve learned so much from him, but I don’t pester him nearly as much as you’d think.

        A new camera, huh? That’s exciting! Which one are you thinking of?

        • I’m almost decided in the Canon 700D. I’m a Canon girl through-and-through. I was looking at the 100D for a while, because it is teeny weeny and would be a little more handbag friendly, but once you plop a proper lens on it it will be heavy and take up space all the same. The 700D has a flip-screen, which is cool if I should decide to start filming things in the future :)

    • Thank you so much for the comment Joy! It makes me so happy to hear that you guys found this understandable, as I know how confusing all the terms, numbers, switches, buttons and abbreviations can be :)

  4. I’m glad I’m not the only who yells at the other half when taking photos. When I’m swatching I try to get him to help me but we always end up bickering for the same reasons.

    This is a really good guide, I don’t care if my photos don’t win prizes but I’m all for taking better photos.

    • The poor poor man. I always feel bad, but it just blows my mind how it can make sense to a person to stand tn feet away from your subject! It makes no sense!

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