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.

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

  1. How are you able to create such amazing art here. I have a GoPro and although i don’t think that you have something posted with video altering, would you have blog posts about that later?


  2. Hi there I bought the photography start video series, and like to save it to my hard drive but I can not get it to work I have windows 10. I need some help please. Thank you Helena.

  3. Gretta phillips

    Your page is awesome, everything you need to know and more beginners and seasoned artists can benefit from your site. this is my go to page for all my needs, thank you so much!

  4. Louise Bradley

    Jim thank you for your amazing tutorials! You explain it in a clear concise manner. I look forward to learning more from you! Louise Bradley

  5. Madhu Asthana

    I am a photography enthusiast doing my basic course.I want to take it professionaly now. I have a Sony SLT-Y camera.I am confused about buying a new laptop. Should I invest in a hi-end laptop right now or should wait until I turn pro and use a cheaper version. , They all are heavy to carry around as camera and lenses are also heavy
    . Please suggest on th camera too. I can spend 75ooo INR on each one.

  6. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for this wonderful tutorial you’ve created.
    It would help me a lot as an amateur photographer.

  7. Hello! I’m a completely newbee and have no idea what type of camera to start off with. Any ideas? Please and thank you!

    1. I am by no means a pro or even a good photographer but I do know to answer your question properly you MUST give more information on what you will be using your camera for… racing cars, portraits, landscapes, etc…… there are cameras that are better than others for specific types of shooting, or do you need a general all around type and also should let the experts know what price range you were looking at….cameras for beginners should be good full function and not too expensive..(just in the case you find its not really your thing) Digital cameras are great in the fact you do not have to have film developed to find out too many shots were with the wrong settings! It is much quicker to learn if you can see the results of the changed settings right away!

  8. I will be shooting a school dance and the lighting is horrible. Last year when I shot this dance I was going through batteries like you wouldn’t believe. Camera is Nikon d-7100, lens 18-140 and 50 1.8. The flash is Nikon sb700. Any suggestions would be great. My shots last year were just okay, but iso was around 500 to 1250.

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