Tricks and Tips for the Photography Beginner

February 12, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

"Chance favors the prepared mind." - Ansel Adams

I've had a couple of people come to me recently asking for some tips and tricks of the trade. Now I don't claim to be a professional or an expert, am self-taught, and am still learning myself. Nonetheless, I know full well how steep the learning curve can be whenever you pick up a new trade. Obviously, the more advanced in your foundation of photographic knowledge, the more fun you can have. It seems like there is a never ending supply of "cool tricks" that you can do with your camera. I thought I'd share a few and try to update this post as more come to mind. Although this post is geared mostly toward DSLR cameras, some of the tips can be useful for any type of photographic equipment. Please feel free to share your own in the comments section below!!!

Photography 101: Knowing Your Equipment:

  • The term 'Exposure' is recognized as the total amount of light permitted to enter a camera and received by the image sensor and may refer to a number of settings including your Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO setting (as well as Exposure Mode, Metering Mode, and Exposure Compensation). A 'Stop" is simply a unit of measurement relating to light, equating to a doubling or halving of quality of light (lens aperture), duration of exposure (shutter speed), or film/sensor sensitivity (ISO).
    • Aperture: aperture is an adjustable opening inside your lens that changes depending on your setting which usually noted as a fraction with "f" being the numerator and ## being the denominator (also called your 'f-stop'). The fraction dictates the amount the aperture hole is open. Most lenses range between f/2.8 (the largest aperture allowing the most light) to f/32 (the smallest aperture allowing in the least amount of light)
      • Aperture Stops: f/2.8 > f/4 > f/5.6 > f/8 > f/11 > f/16 > f/22 
    • Shutter Speed: represented as whole seconds to fractions of a second. This is how long your shutter stays open to capture the image. Most cameras range from 1/4000 (or 1/8000) to 30 seconds.
      • Shutter Speed Stops: 30 > 15 > 8 >4 > 2 > 1 > 1/2 >1/4 > 1/8 > 1/16 > 1/30 > 1/60 > 1/125 > 1/250 > 1/500 > 1/1000
    • ISO is the sensor's sensitivity to light. Lower ISO (e.g. 50 or 100) will have less sensitivity to light and higher ISO (e.g. 3200 or 6400) will be more sensitive to light. (See below for ISO influences on images)
      • ISO Stops: 50 > 100 > 200 > 400 > 800 > 1600 > 3200 > 6400 > 12800
  • You can effect the camera's response to various color shifts by changing the camera's "White Balance" setting. The color shifts come from a change in the balance of white light - which is controlled by the three primary colors of red, green, and blue - whose combination creates neutral white. Whenever one of the primary colors is more dominant, a color shift occurs. You can use your in-camera White Balance settings to counteract these color shifts. In photography, all light sources are known as having a certain color temperature, measured and placed in a Kelvin (K) temperature scale. The Kelvin scale ranges from 1000 to 10000 with the lower end adding more blues to your image and the higher end adding more reds. Your camera often has a variety of White Balance settings (other than Auto) which can not only correct for shifts in color but also add cool effects to your images
    • Tungsten/Incandescent (3000K): Adds a blue and is good for household, candlelight, or other inside settings
    • Fluorescent (4000-4500K): Adds a blue to correct for fluorescent lighting
    • Direct Sunlight (5000-5500K): Used for most general settings. Really good for sunrises/sunsets
    • Flash (5400K): Good for when using your flash
    • Cloudy (7500K): Adds a warming hue to correct for overcast conditions
    • Shade (10,000K): Adds a warming hue to correct for heavy blue shifts
  • Auto Focus (AF) Modes: One Shot, Al Servo, Al Focus. Use One Shot when focussing on objects that are not moving. Use Al Servo when objects may be moving (like the photo above). I personally never use Al Focus.
  • Color Space: (This one is confusing and for the more advanced photographer.) There are a number of options here but the main two color spaces found in most cameras are 'Adobe RGB' and 'sRGB'. Each color space establishes the gamut of colors available for viewing or reproduction in your image file and basically determines how much color each image will hold. The least amount of color space is offered by sRGB, whereas Adobe RGB offers a slightly wider gamut. 'ProPhoto RGB' is an option that you have when opening .RAW files in computer software. ProPhoto RGB offers the largest color space coverage.
    • Adobe RGB is best for viewing on computers and technology
    • ProPhoto RGB is best for printing 
  • Many DSLR (and some high end PowerShots like the Canon G15) allow you the option of choosing which file format to record your image in either .JPEG, .RAW, or both. Determining which format to shoot can go a long way in your image quality. (Personally, I exclusively shoot in .RAW format.)
    • .RAW format can be defined as "unprocessed data". In .RAW format, no original information is lost. It is the format that obtains the most data and captures the highest quality in areas such as color range, detail, and contrast ratio. Since .RAW format is unprocessed, it allows you the most flexibility when preparing your final image. The downsides of .RAW file format includes: larger file size (occupying more disc space) and the extra computer time you have to spend manipulating the image. You also have to have a program that is capable of opening and editing a .RAW image.
    • .JPEG format is a file format that is compressed by your camera's built-in .RAW converter. In other words, the camera does the photo editing. The .JPEG format is smaller and can be opened by most computer programs which handle pictures; however, .JPEG format files are not as susceptible to editing later on the computer and contain less original information than the .RAW format.
  • There are various types of lenses and each one has its very own niche
    • Wide Angle: cover a field of view from around 110 degrees (or more) to about 60 degrees
      • Anything 35mm or smaller could be considered a wide angle lens
      • Wide Angle lenses are especially good for landscape photography or large group shots "Hanauma" - Hanauma Bay, Oahu"Hanauma" - Hanauma Bay, Oahu
    • Normal: cover a field of view of about 45 degrees; roughly the same as the human eye
      • Anything from about 35mm to about 60mm would be considered a normal lens
      • Normal lenses are useful for photographing people, architecture, and most other general photographic needs
    • Telephoto: cover a field of view of about 35 degrees and smaller.
      • Can range from length of about 60mm and above
      • Useful for magnifying a scene, capturing details, sports photography, and any other situation where you need to get closer to a subject KetosKetos
    • Macro: Gold DustGold Dust
    • Fisheye:
      • Enormous distortion but work extremely well underwater or when the horizon line splits the image
    • Zoom: lenses with variable focal lengths. 
    • Prime:
    • Lens Hood: Although not a lens at all, the Lens hood is a valuable tool that can be placed on your lens to shade or block unwanted light from striking the lens. Even if the sun is not in your viewfinder, all the sun has to do is strike the front of the glass of the lens to make lens flare a problem. A Lens Hood acts as a shade, or block, from the sun's rays hitting the front element of the lens glass. 
  • Filters can be placed on your lens to help manipulate the image exposure:

    • UV Filters: #######
    • Polarizing filters are one of the most popular and most useful filters you can own. They have a variety of uses including reducing atmospheric haze, adding saturation to skies, providing contrast to scenes, and cutting reflections on a variety of shiny or reflective surfaces. (At high altitudes, a polarizing filter can actually cause a blue sky to look more black.) The subject should be side lit (or you should be shooting at an angle 90 degrees to the sun) for the polarizer to have the greatest effect. Polarizers also cut an exposure by one to two stops of light so you'll need to change your settings to compensate and allow more light to enter your camera. Note: it is nearly impossible to mimic the effects of a polarizing filter using post-processing software.
    • Neutral Density Filters: Entirely grey filters which are used to slow shutter speed for coastal scenes, streams, and waterfalls. They can vary in strength from 1 stop to 10 stops.  ExtravaganzaExtravaganza
    • Graduated Neutral Density Filters are clear on one side and darker on the other. They enable you to balance out a darker foreground with a brighter sky, for example.
    • Split Toning: may be a post-processing filtering technique. It involves adding extra visual interest to a black and white image by adding one color tint to the highlights and another to the shadow areas.  

General Rules:

  • A note about composition. There is a general order in which we look at elements in a photograph. The first is the brightness. Th eye wants to travel to the brightest object within a scene. The second order of attention is sharpness. Sharp, detailed elements will get more attention than soft, blurry areas. Finally, the eye will move to vivid colors while leaving the dull, flat colors for last. Use these notes as a way to keep and direct an observer's attention to your image and direct them through the frame. 
  • "Rule of Thirds". As a general understanding, a photo is more pleasing when the focal point (or point of interest) is placed in one of the intersecting lines of the "Rule of Thirds". Going along with that, try to avoid placing your focal point directly in the center of the image. The Rule of Thirds is basically a tic-tac-toe board or a 3x3 grid where the four intersecting points are where the lines intersect. Sometimes, the Rule of Thirds should be broken, but as a general rule it works for most images.
  • "Sunny 16" Rule. The Sunny 16 rules provides a general exposure setting you can use on bright sunny days or a clear, full moon night. First, set your camera to f/16. Next, determine your shutter speed by adding a 1 over your ISO number. For example, if you are using ISO 100, then you would use a shutter speed of 1/100.  
  • Hyper Focal Distance (HFD): the point of focus that will give you the greatest acceptable sharpness from a point near your camera all the way to infinity.
    • Easiest way to use HFD to get sharp photos: Place your camera's focus on an object that is about 1/3 of a distance into your frame. 
    • Note: as your lens gets wider in focal length, your HFD will be closer to the camera position. This is because the wider the lens, the greater depth of field you can achieve. 
  • When photographic birds and other animals in motion, place your subject so that is moving into the frame rather than exiting it. Grizzly Bear IIGrizzly Bear II
  • Fill the Frame!!! Don't have the object you are photographing very small in your final image (unless you want the background included as a point of interest). Zoom in or walk closer to make the object bigger. In other words, fill the frame!
  • Use naturally occurring lines to draw your viewers eye to the focal point. In the following image, I used the naturally occurring walkway to draw my viewers eyes to the Temple

Byudo-In TempleByudo-In Temple

  • "Golden Hour". Learn it. Live by it. Love it. The best time to take photos with the most beautiful color and least-harsh light are within an hour or so of both sunrise and sunset. When doing portrait photography, try to avoid 10:00am-3:00pm because the sun likely will cast harsh shadows on your image.
  • The pink afterglow in sunsets usually come from high clouds, the feathery ones, called Cirrus. To be a good landscape photographer, you also have to become a geographer or a meteorologist. Weather is your friend. Learn about it and you can predict your setting. You can visualize your image before you even turn on your camera.
  • Clouds are a good thing!!!!! There is a famous quote stating "Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”- Rabindranath TagoreStray Birds
  • It often helps images to have something in the foreground (close to the camera) if you have something in the background. The foreground allows the viewer to see perspective and to provide visual acquaintance. The barn in the foreground gives perspective to the mountains in the background. The weeds/field also gives foreground perspective to the barn in its background.
  • When shooting landscape, sometimes people in your image can be a good thing. In the following image, the people walking on the boardwalk give scale perspective to the Grand Prismatic spring in Yellowstone. "Grand Prismatic" - Yellowstone NP"Grand Prismatic" - Yellowstone NP
  • Color Wheel and Complimentary Colors: Complimentary colors are two colors that lie directly opposite each other on the color wheel. When placed next to each other they compliment each other aiding in the impact of the composition. Orange/Blue. Red/Green. Yellow/Purple.

Camera Settings Tips:

  • Learn how to shoot in Manual mode. It will open up TONS of new photographic opportunities and you will understand photography better.
  • Bulb Mode: Bulb Mode allows you to have the shutter open for more than 30 seconds. This is especially helpful in night photography.
  • Keep your ISO as low as possible. ISO can affect the exposure, grain, detail, and color of your image. ISO should be a last resort for adding more light to your image (unless you are going for the 'grainy' look).  ISO may need to be changed if you want your depth of field (f-stop) and shutter speed to be exact but the lighting conditions have changed.
    • Higher ISO may cause Noise (i.e. color speckles or unwanted grain) in your image
    • Higher ISO may result in loss of detail in an image
    • Higher ISO may impact the color and lead to loss of saturation in your image
  • When using a tripod, turn OFF image stabilization (IS) mode. Also, to help prevent the slight vibration that can be caused but the reflex mirror operation, the mirror can be locked us by enabling Mirror Lock-Up. When using a Tripod, always try to use a remote shutter release. If no remote shutter release is available, try setting the camera to a 2-second or 10-second timer. 
  • For full frame cameras: to avoid blur or motion in your photo, never use a slower shutter speed than 1/(Focal Length). For example, if you are shooting at 55mm, do not try to handhold a shot with a slower shutter speed than 1/60 second. For crop frame cameras, use this formula: 1/(2*Focal Length).
  • Depth of Field relates to the range from which various subjects, as various distances, are in focus. Depth of Field is controlled by your aperture, or f/stop settings. Larger apertures (i.e. larger open hole, or aperture) maximize depth of field and isolate the subject, smaller numbers minimize depth of field and bring entire scene into focus. Think of a football field and you are standing at one goal line looking at the other. For a smaller aperture (i.e. f/16), about 80 yards are going to be in focus. For a smaller aperture (i.e. f/4) about 10 yards are going to be in focus. When photographing, to get the background blur - aka Bokeh - use a larger aperture. For example, use f/5.6. To avoid blur and to get more of the picture in focus - use a smaller aperture. For example, use f/13 or f/16.
    • Note: Whenever you look through your camera's viewfinder, regardless of where your aperture is set, you will always see through your camera at the largest aperture setting. It is purposely set this way so that you can see through your camera with the most light possible - thus the largest aperture. You can use your camera's Depth of Field preview button (see camera manual) to check your current setting's depth of field.
  • The following Exposure Value chart is a helpful tool for exposing common measurements of light. All shutter speeds are listed in seconds unless otherwise noted with an 'm' for minutes.


Exposure Value Chart
EV 2.8 4.0 5.6 8.0 11 16 22
-6 8m 16m 32m 64m 128m 256m 512m
-5 4m 8m 16m 32m 64m 128m 256m
-4 2m 4m 8m 16m 32m 64m 128m
-3 60 2m 4m 8m 16m 32m 64m
-2 30 60 2m 4m 8m 16m 32m
-1 15 30 60 2m 4m 8m 16m
0 8 15 30 60 2m 4m 8m
1 4 8 15 30 60 2m 4m
2 2 4 8 15 30 60 2m
3 1 2 4 8 15 30 60
4 1/2 1 2 4 8 15 30
5 1/4 1/2 1 2 4 8 15
6 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2 4 8
7 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2 4
8 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2
9 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1
10 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2
11 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4
12 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8
13 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15
14 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30
15 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60
16 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125
  • Here are some common lighting types and their corresponding EV (Note: this is a starting point and adjustments are likely depending on conditions and are subject to change as you change your ISO from 100)
    • Full Moon: 15
    • Crescent Moon: 12
    • Full Moon Moonlit Scenes: -2
    • Half Moon Moonlit Scenes: -6
    • Auroras (Northern Lights): -4 to -6 
    • Distant view of a city skyline at night: 1
    • Fireworks: 3
    • Lightning: 2
    • Christmas lights or lit  monuments: 4 to 5
    • Stars (w/no moonlight): -6 to -5
    • Stars (w/moonlight): -5 to -3
  • More on exposure: If you desire lighter, washed-out colors, slightly overexpose your scene. If you want stronger, saturated colors, slightly underexpose it. Reds turn pink with overexposure, bright yellowish-orange changes to a tawny hue with underexposure. 


  • To get the cool "star" effect, use an aperture of f/16 or smaller. Hawaiian Picket FenceHawaiian Picket Fence
  • To get the silky look of running water, use a slower shutter speed and a tripod. Waihe'e FallsWaihe'e Falls
  • For shooting waves, whales, birds, or other fast moving objects: use as fast a shutter speed as possible to "freeze" motion. 1/1000 or faster is usually good.  ShearwaterShearwater
  • High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography is a post processing technique that allows you to combine multiple - variously exposed - photos together to give it a "comic book" like look. The human eye can see about 18-20 stops of light (this is why we can see shadows and see highlights). However a camera can typically only see 10-12 stops of light (ever take a sunset picture and your sunset is blown out or you can see what is in the shadows?). HDR allows you to expand the stops (or aka range) to plus or minus 1 or more stops. Its very technical and I won't explain it here, but the following image is an HDR image Notice how you can see the sun and the sky but also a lot of the shadows in the land. This was a +/- 2 stop HDR image at Haleakala National Park in Maui.
  • To get a little "wave action" as I like to call it, for shoreline photos, I like to set my shutter speed to between 1/3 and .6 seconds. (See below image). Also, try mixing it up with waves coming into shore and waves rushing out to sea. Often the glistening beach left after waves rush back to sea can really provide a dramatic effect to your image. SecretsSecrets   
  • To get the cool human trail (think "The Flash") look, try setting your camera's flash mode to "Rear Sync" (aka 2nd Curtain Sync). Rear Sync is the process in which the flash fires at the end of an exposure. It's useful to illustrate the forward motion of a moving object (like a cool human trail a la "The Flash")
  • Flash through glass: Ever shoot in a museum or on an airplane when the flash takes up most of the image? Try positioning yourself right against the glass so that the reflection of the flash won't be visible in your image.
  • Shooting Panoramas: There are multiple ways to shoot panorama shots. If you have the proper computer equipment, you can stitch 2 or more photographs together. The key to shooting multiple image panos is to overlap your shots by about 30% from one frame to the next. You should use a tripod when shooting panos. You can also create a "fake panorama" by cropping the original 2x3 image down to a 1x3 or 1x2. The corresponding image - when cropped - can give more of a dynamic expression of size. Shhh, don't tell my secret ;-) "Snakes" - Canyonlands NP"Snakes" - Canyonlands NP

Night Photography:

  • Many people put their cameras away once the sun sets. However, the night sky offers a plethora of beautiful opportunities to capture striking images.
    • Car lights: At exposure times of longer than 4 seconds, moving car lights become lines Anahulu Stream BridgeAnahulu Stream Bridge
    • Waves: At exposure times in the minutes, pounding surf becomes soft and soup like. See the image of Waimea Bay below...there were 15-20 foot waves on this morning which was rendered souplike or foggy by the long exposure. Also, there is some movement in the clouds which enhance the dreamlike look I was going for. BaySoupBaySoupBeautiful sunrise from the shores of Waimea Bay on Oahu
    • Milky Way Photography: You're going to need a tripod. Use manual focus to set the focus on infinity. Use Live View mode to zoom in on a star and make sure focus is correct. Set camera in Bulb mode (Manual may work). Set your aperture to wide open (f/smallest number). Depending on your camera, you'll probably have an ISO around 1600-6400. Leave shutter open for approximately 30 seconds (any longer then you can see star "trails" or movement). (See picture). Note: Milky Way is best visible during your summer months. Milky Way, August 2013Milky Way, August 2013
    • Speaking of Star Trails.
      • To get nice, identifiable star trails: Set your camera on a tripod and compose, then leave the shutter open for at least 4 minutes. You'll see start movement in the resulting image. In the northern hemisphere, star trails are more noticeably curved the more your camera faces due north and visa versa in the southern hemisphere. The wider the angle of your lens, the more curved the lines will be. 
      • To get the stars to look like pinpoints with no movement: Divide the number "500" by the lens millimeter length. This equals the shutter speed in seconds, using ISO 1600 and a wide-open aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4. In equation form: 500/lens=seconds at ISO 1600 at maximum aperture. 
    • City Views: You typically want to use between 4 and 30 seconds for your shutter speed. Also, Winter tends to have less pollution and atmospheric haze than summer offering better - albeit colder - conditions.
    • Cloud Movement: Although you can obtain the same result during the day using a neutral density filter, you can set long exposure to show the clouds moving across your image. Try to arrange your camera's position so it is pointed at an angle to the movement. You want the clouds to move almost perpendicular to the camera. Try experimenting with different angles and speeds. 
    • Fireworks? Set up similar to the Milky way, but with lower ISO and a smaller aperture. Make sure to use a tripod! You should set the shutter between .5 seconds and 5 seconds. Try experimenting with your settings!

Photographing People:

  • Don't cut them off at the knees. When photographing people, try to avoid cropping a picture at a joint. This means do not crop at the ankles or knees. If you need to crop at the legs, the proper place would  be the mid-shin or mid-thigh.
  • Also when photographing people, keep an eye on the background. Try to avoid having unwanted objects popping out of your subjects head (figuratively). 
  • Try to have a subjects eyes be the point of focus.
  • Portrait work looks best when shot at the subjects eye level
  • Get close!!! Eliminate space between the subjects.
  • If you have to shoot during the midday sun, try shooting in shade to provide a natural sun-block from harsh shadows
  • Don't be afraid to get close and fill the frame.


  • Better camera does not necessarily equal better photo. You, the photographer, make the image. One of my most popular images (Black Sand Breather, below) was taken with a Canon Powershot G11. Its all about being prepared and having a vision. Remember that an image doesn't start with the camera, it ends there. Black Sand BreatherBlack Sand Breather
  • Don't waste your money on more Megapixels. More megapixels literally means that you can then print your images bigger. The real difference is in the Sensor size. The larger the sensor size, the less noise you obtain at higher ISO settings because on a larger sensor, the pixels are bigger and able to receive more light , creating a greater signal to noise (S/N) ratio. Put your money into glass (aka Lenses).
  • As for Lenses, the prices on lenses are usually directly correlated with their quality. When it comes to glass, you definitely get what you paid for.
  • EXIF, or Exchangeable Image File Format, is the most common type of metadata used in photography. EXIF data is the record of the settings used to take the photo. The settings recorded in the EXIF varies but may include: Date and Time, Exposure, Resolution, Lens, Color Information and White Balance settings, Orientation, Flash, and other Camera Information. EXIF data is an invaluable very good tool for reviewing your old photos and learning from experience. A lot of images on line will also contain EXIF information to which you can learn from others. 
  • Read the manual!!! I've learned more from reading my manual than almost all other books combined!
  • Practice, Evaluate, Practice some more. Trial and error can teach you so much about how the camera "sees" the world and how you can see the world through your camera.
  • Dare to be different! Always look for different angles, exposures, and other ways to think outside the box and be different.
  • Draw on other photographer's work for inspiration. Its very difficult to copy an image exactly, but its okay to try to replicate it your own way. However, it is not okay to steal images or ideas and pass off as your own. 
  • Going on a cool new vacation or new place to shoot? Try Google the name of the place and look at Images to get a pre-vision for your own photograph. Also, brochures and travel pamphlets are usually helpful!
  • Shoot more than you need. Its digital, you can always erase later. Its better to have more images than not have enough!!!
  • Have Fun!!!!!!!! "Paradise" - Haleiwa, Oahu"Paradise" - Haleiwa, Oahu


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