I’m so glad you found your way onto my Photography Basics series.  I have taught the basics of photography to millions of photographers around the world through Improve Photography, so I know just exactly how difficult it can seem to learn the basics of photography.

My goal is to make this Photography Basics series the absolute simplest way to learn the basics of photography.

I hope you’ll love this series because of what you learn here, and I hope you’ll join the Improve Photography community after you get your feet wet with the photo basics.  Let’s get going.

Basic Equipment You’ll Need

You can do photography with even the simplest of cameras, but the principles that I’d like to teach are for people who want to learn to use a DSLR camera, a micro four-thirds camera, or at least a camera that allows the photographer to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  Even some pocket cameras have this functionality.

Now that you have your camera, it is time to learn exposure.

Exposure–the most basic element of photography

When photographers talk about “exposure,” we simply mean the brightness or darkness of a photo.  It seems simple enough to take a photo that is correctly exposed (has the proper brightness or darkness), but in reality it can be quite the trick.

PhotoCheatSheetTo help get the right exposure with your camera settings – you can download this Camera Settings Cheat Sheet guide.

If you’re reading this Photo Basics series, it probably means that you currently shoot on the “Green mode” of your camera–or the automatic setting.  That means the camera entirely controls the exposure of the picture.  When you shoot on automatic mode, your camera selects an aperture setting, an ISO setting, a shutter speed, and a host of other settings for you.

Automatic can be handy, but it also seriously limits your creative ability to make a beautiful picture.

Want proof that automatic isn’t the best way to shoot?  Check out the picture below.  On the left, the picture was taken entirely in automatic mode on a Canon Rebel DSLR.  That might look okay to you… until you see the picture on the right.  Same sunset.  Same camera.  The pictures were taken only seconds apart.  The difference?  The picture on the right was taken using manual exposure.

exposure example

The only difference between these two pictures is that one was shot with automatic exposure, and the other was shot using creative exposure.

Which photo do you prefer?  Probably the picture on the right!  By choosing a creatively dark exposure, the rich colors in the sunset were allowed to shine through.

However, technically, the photo on the left is “correct,” and the photo on the right is “incorrect.”  The camera saw through the lens and tried to expose the bird so that it wouldn’t become a shadow.  To me, the photo was not about exposing the bird properly, but exposing the sunset properly.  The bird was just a nice shape to include in the foreground.  This is exactly why you must learn exposure–because sometimes the “scientifically correct” exposure is not the best exposure to make the photo look how you want it to.

What’s next?

Now that you understand why it is so important to take control over the exposure, let’s move on to lesson #2 where we’ll learn all about shutter, aperture and ISO–which are the tools you need to control the exposure.  Keep reading for the next 10 or 15 minutes and you’ll already understand the basics of how to shoot in manual mode on your camera.  I promise shooting in manual mode isn’t nearly as scary as you might think.

Once you’re ready to learn to shoot in manual mode, get tack sharp focus, and master lighting, please consider buying my Photography Start video series, which has received rave reviews.  People pay $90 for it all the time, but with coupon code BASICS, you’ll get $40 off and have everything you need to really master photography.

Go to Page 2 of the Tutorial


  1. cyril

    I have a nikon d3100 camera, would it be possible to photo a scene similar to the one using
    a creative exposure, and if so, could you please point me in the right direction. It would have been helpful to show the settings to the photo on the left,?

  2. Alex

    Hi Cyril, I think the scene on the left is shot in fully automatic mode, against the sun light.
    So, the exposure is automatically done based on the Sun (which is many times brighter than the other objects), thus the entire schen is over-lightened.
    In my opinion, the right direction would be switching to the Manual mode, setting the right ISO first, and then, finding manually the most appropriate A/S pair. Of cource NEF is compulsury, because it gives you more possibilities to adjust the under- or over- exposed shot into something good.

    Good luck!

    P.S.: By the way, I have the same camera too.. Nikon d3100 which is really great for the money it costs.

  3. cyril

    Thanx Alex for your reply great we are on the same wavelength regarding nikon D3100 camera,very pleased with it so far, I have a lot to learn.


  4. Mike MacDonald

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas about photography.This is really very informative and helpful for me.

  5. Chrys Marty

    Thanks for the cheat sheet. Have been trying to put one together for myself to carry, you saved me so much work. Love this site.

  6. ReGina

    Your cheat sheet is INVALUABLE!!! It saves me a lot of time and simplifies the thought process about what settings to use, etc. I printed and laminated it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  7. Christina

    Just want to thank you for building such a great website! There is so much helpful information here-

  8. Travel Brainstorm

    I’ve been listening to your podcast in the car on the way to work and now I’m finally getting a chance to check out your web site. It’s all great information for all levels of photographers, thanks!

  9. Drew Vella

    JIm, I really enjoy your site and podcasts. Thank you for your devotion to the art. After over 45 years of being an avid photographer, this attached url of photos from Google’s robot camera has me very depressed. Note the excellent exposure, interesting subject matter, and composition of many of these “non-composed” photos. What hope do we mere mortals have against the machines like Big Blue, Watson and now Google the professional photographer?

  10. Lisa

    Could I have a phone number I am interested in taking your classes…the one on the web page is too small. Thank you

  11. perry

    im so glad i found my way here. being an idiot to photography this site taught me a lot and now im starting to love shooting on manual settings as i’ve produced great photos from what i have learned from here. thank you very much for sharing your knowledge for free.

    1. M D Sony(

      Awesome development of thought. It must serve great purpose. I do highly recommend this tutorial for the ultimate improvement. Clipping Mask Asia can help you in this regard for further improvement of your photos in editing stage.

  12. Technology Gala

    Good tutorial.. i liked it very much and useful for beginners.

  13. Al

    I watched your flash photography video learning flash in 10 minutes. Nicely informative.
    So I bought what I thought I needed for my specific needs.
    I want to have two off camera flashes firing simultaneously, because I shoot my artwork for portfolio purposes and want to light up two sides (left and right).
    I have a new D3200 Nikon, I bought 2 of the Yongnuo YN560-111 flashes which is supposed to have a built in trigger. I also bought Yongnuo Transceiver YN-622N-TX. I thought they were comparable, but I can’t get them to work at all.
    Can you help me solve this?
    I think I need a different transceiver, but don’t know which to buy or if I just don’t know what I am doing.
    If you can I would appreciate it.

  14. Brantley Thomas


    I listened to your podcast today and am left confused over the DOF issue. It has to do with your first comment that full frame cameras have more limited DOF than DX camera. I thought the opposite and checked DOFMaster online to confirm. I used the parameters of a D700, f16, 24mm and 10 feet from the subject. I then switched to the same parameters except changed the camera to a D7000. The DOF was significantly less. A better test was changing the distance from the subject to 4 feet. You are the second pro to tell me this so am I missing something?

  15. Dawa jangbu

    Wow I am a beginner and this is really really helpful …

  16. Dawa jangbu

    Namaste there
    .I m new at this .but I use the EF 70 -300 is USM …

    When doesn’t the lens or the camera auto focus even if its turned to AF….what settings in the menu does this ….I had this problem …but as I set the menu .it was fine .but what does that really

  17. Amy Maurer

    Hi. Is there any way to get the Cheat Sheet as a pdf link? I could not print out the image that comes up on the link. I just got the upper right corner. Thanks!

  18. Gaganpreet

    Hello sir ..
    My self Gaganpreet singh from punjab (india) & m passionate about wild life & Nature photography. please guide me .. what should i do . i hv done in media &film technology.. knwldge about photography . Yet i hv canon powershot which in.unprofessional camera… plz read n reply me.


    Gaganpreet singh
    (lndia) punjab.

  19. John M Bonn


    Your website is fantastic; what a learning experience!

    Your podcasts have completely changed my photo-taking perspective –I am now into this and have become a convert: I really want to become a good photographer. As a retired lad, I now have this goal to work towards. I will be signing up for your classes.

    One question: In episode 72 on Action Photography, you discussed setting the camera to 9 Auto-focus points. In the discussion, you indicated the Nikon D7100 was not a camera to do this in. I was wondering why.

    It has Dynamic-Area AF which can be set to 9, 21 or 51 AF points (for ƒ5.6 or larger)- and even has a 3D-Tracking mode. I have used the latter to good effect with the CH-release mode and continuous-servo AF (AF-C) in capturing birds in flight.

    Could the 3D mode be used to advantage in capturing high speed action shots?



  20. Mai Abdelsalam

    Great tutorial thank you. as a newbie in photography many of these terms was difficult for me to understand your way of explaining is the best i could find. it’s really simple so thank you again.

  21. Patrick Cesar

    Great information! Very applicable and easy for the beginners to understand the basic concepts of photography. Thanks for this great information and sharing it to everyone.

  22. ashwani yadav

    I am just a beginner in photography world and luckily come across your blog which is very useful for me to understand the basic tips for taking good photography.

  23. Jijesh Kumar

    Thank you very much for this blog…!! It helped me alot…

  24. Bristol Teresa

    Finally … My new Favorite website. I have been hunting high and low trying to find a site that explains the art of photography and unravels the complexity of Manuel. I have a bit of add, ocd and am a visual Learner. With that being said, you are talking my language on this website. Thank you SO VERY MUCH.

  25. Zack

    I love this blog. Thanks so much for taking the time! I had learned all of this stuff a long time ago and had completely lost it. This is the only blog that kept me from getting more confused. I was wondering if you remembered what the different settings were that you used for the picture on the right on the first page?

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