The Basics of Digital Photography - A Quick Rundown

The Basics of Digital Photography

Quick aside: If you are looking for a super comprehensive beginner’s guide which lays it all out in a way which is easy to digest, hop on over to my friends at Hobby Help and check out The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Photography


Now that you have a digital camera or two in your pockets, and with a good DSLR is available at an affordable rate these days, digital photography is everywhere and available to so many people - more than ever before - and it pays to know the basics if you want your snaps to stand out from the crowd.

I’m assuming you have a fairly modern DSLR or Mirrorless camera with a decent lens attached here, but the tips in this guide are applicable to any kind of digital photography, be it on your phone or point-and-click holiday snapper.

How a Digital Camera Works

Old-school cameras used a chemical reaction to capture a negative image of whatever the film was exposed to, meaning you got one shot per exposure. With a modern CMOS or CCD image sensor, a photon (a particle of light) hits a charged photodiode on the plate and induces a current in the electrical field. The strength of this current corresponds to the wavelength, or colour, of the photon that hit it and can therefore be read and stored digitally as a code, giving you a stream of information you can turn back into an image.

The rest of the camera is basically the same.

Camera Parts

The first part to look at is the camera itself. Familiarise yourself with where the controls are, the manual (downloadable from the manufacturer website if you've lost it) will have a guide to which buttons are which, so have a look. You should find the following on your camera:

  • Shutter switch – this opens the shutter and lets light in for your photo.

  • Mode dial – this changes the settings and presets, we'll look at this in more detail later.

  • Flash – pop up or built-in

  • Lens release - don't touch this unless you want to change the lens, you risk getting dust in the workings

  • The lens itself – motorized or manual

  • Hot shoe – for flashes and light meters

  • Viewfinder

  • Screen – all the settings and pictures should be accessible from here

  • SD card slot and USB connector

  • Battery slot

There are probably a bunch of buttons you're looking at that aren't in the list, but don't panic, we're coming to that.

Camera Lenses

The lens on your camera is a series of very precisely shaped glass, ceramic or plastic ovoid discs that focus the light that falls onto them into a smaller space. Each lens does this in turn and the distance between them changes what light gets focussed onto the sensor, enabling the cameraperson to alter what the camera is focussing on. When you twist the lens (don't force a motorised one!) the lenses get further apart or closer together, shifting the focus.

For beginners, a 50mm lens will cover both close-up’s, mid distance shots and give a good stab at landscape and distance photography. It's worth getting to grips with a simple lens before spending lots of money on different ones.

Camera Terms You Need to Know & Love


The amount of light per unit area. Changed by aperture size, shutter speed and the brightness of the scene. I have found Sean Tucker’s videos on exposure relevant for beginners and explained in a very human, complicated way, and presented by a true professional of the craft.

Shutter Speed

The length of time the sensor is exposed to the light. Fast shutter speed for moving images and action, slower shutter speed for dark and detailed scenes. For handheld shooting, generally 1/60th of a second or faster will prevent blurring.


The size of the hole the light gets in through, given in f/stops, for example f/1.4 (a wide aperture letting in lots of light) or f/16 (a narrow aperture that lets in less light). Affects "depth of field", or the area front to back that is in sharp focus. The lower the f/stop (and the more light let in), the blurrier the background and a lower depth of field. The higher the f/stop, the more that is in sharp focus and a higher depth of field


How much light is needed to get a good exposure, also called sensitivity. The higher the ISO, the brighter the image and vice versa. A high ISO has more "noise", or interference on the sensor, leading to grainy images.


Measuring the brightness of the scene or object. Using your light meter is super helpful in terms of judging if your final image will turn out under or over-exposed. Some digital camera screens and viewfinders are either too bright or too dim, and using the light meter means you can be sure of what the final image will turn out like with much greater accuracy.

Camera Modes

The mode dial on the top of your DSLR will let you change between the pre-sets and different shooting modes. Within each pre-set and mode you can change the settings, but even cheap DSLR's offer great shooting modes straight out of the box.

Get Out and Shoot Stuff

If you're new to your camera, take it out and take a bunch of shots with it on automatic “Auto” mode, and see how it does. Don't worry at this point if none of them look good, that's why you're going to learn how to get the best out of your camera, but it will get you more familiar and comfortable with the camera as a whole.

The best way to learn how to use the different modes on your camera is to experiment and not be afraid of failure. You can take tens of thousands of photos before your camera will die, by which point you'll be a pro, so take loads of different ones and compare the settings. If the pictures are rubbish, take a look at the settings you used to take it (these are saved in the picture file itself) and then delete it!  No worries.

Auto Mode

It’s pretty self explanatory. Some cameras are way better than others in auto mode. My suggestion? After a bit of shooting in Auto, use either of the modes listed below instead - it will help you improve ten-fold when compared to learning in solely Auto Mode. Don’t be afraid, just do it.

Program Mode

Most cameras have a Program mode, this is where the camera sets the exposure and you alter the ISO, metering, focus and white balance. Have a play, it's a good way of seeing the effect those settings have without having to worry about exposure or shutter speed.

Priority Modes

Shutter priority and aperture priority modes let you set those features while the program sorts the rest out, very useful for changing conditions.


For good composition, there are a few tips that should get you on your way:

  1. Practice – shoot anything and everything and review the results

  2. Level horizons

  3. Use the grid setting to employ the rule of thirds. Get the important part of the shot where the lines meet.

  4. Lines draw the eye across a picture

  5. Symmetry is pleasing

  6. Line up patterns

  7. Take your time and think it through