Photo Basics #1: Introduction and Exposure

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.

Here are some of our entry level DSLR options. The (with Accessories) link will show you a kit that comes with the camera, lens, case, extra battery, and a memory card:

Canon EOS Rebel T6 with 18-55mm and 75-300mm Lenses (with Accessories)

Nikon D5600 with 18-55mm and 70-300mm Lenses  (with Accessories)

Canon EOS Rebel T7i with 18-135mm Lens (with Accessories)

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.


To 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 shutter, aperture and ISO–which are the tools you need to control the exposure.  Soon you'll 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 deepen your knowledge of manual mode, get tack sharp focus, and master lighting, consider buying my Photography Start Course.  It's a series of 22 video tutorials where I walk you step-by-step through the things that it normally takes my photography students two years to learn.  Other photography websites sell a very similar course for $300. I've priced it at a REALLY reasonable price because I remember how tight money was when I was a beginner.

395 thoughts on “Photo Basics #1: Introduction and Exposure”

    1. Best free photography advice on the web – thanks Dan. Got my first real camera recently, so just learning. FYI it’s an Olympus OMD EMD 10 111 Mirrorless – I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I guess the results will be the judge. Comes with two great advantages, it’s small and light and also looks retro fantastic – so you can look good even if you’re not! Taken your advice and will try to master Aperture mode for the next 6 months, and will definitely take your on line course soon.

    2. Gaming has emerged as the most promising entertainment sector now. Myboy APK is the best resourced emulator out there in the market for users to play high end gaming.

  1. Hi,
    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,?

      1. the key to learning black n white photography is to listens to mjs black or white, then you go to mcads and get one of them kiddo cameras. Once u do that the put a piece of gray paper to the front of the camera and BAM. u now know what mc^2 is

    1. Brett Szczepanski

      In your case the ‘Exposure Compensation’ feature would be great for you to use. Dial it to the negative for less light or positive for more.

    2. hashan vishwapriya

      what is the camera, what is the lens its dont mean about photography… think if you have phone did you do your best with that??
      think what you have and what you do with it, photography is art. go for it. do your own. learn as much you can.

    3. Hi Jim, I purchased your tutorial in 2015. I am trying to access the tutorials again but I am unable to access. The transaction is of the the purchase is 7602203843. Is there way I can access the tutorial again

  2. 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.

    1. ozomoge victor

      the exposure is definately a fast shutter speed with a low iso and an aperture of 100 as your camera allows.

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

  5. 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. 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. 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!

  8. 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?


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

  10. 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.

  11. Hi,
    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.

  12. JIm,

    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?

  13. 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

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