Design, Photography, & Fashion

7 Essential Technical and Compositional Tips for Beginner Photographers

Written by MasterClass

Aug 31, 2019 • 6 min read

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Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Whether you’re learning photography as a hobby or dreaming of becoming a professional, there are a number of essential technical and compositional basics you should keep in mind.

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Annie Leibovitz Teaches PhotographyAnnie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Annie brings you into her studio and onto her shoots to teach you everything she knows about portraiture and telling stories through images.

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What Is Photography?

Photography is the practice of using a camera to capture light into an image, called a photograph.

The word “photography” comes from the Greek “phōtos,” meaning light, and “graphé,” meaning drawing—so in a literal sense, photography is all about drawing with light.

The two basic pillars of photography are technical skills and compositional skills. With knowledge of their camera settings and a basic understanding of how to frame photos, a new photographer can grow to become a professional photographer.

Tip 1: How to Use the Exposure Triangle

Since photography is all about light, a good photographer will first need to know how to control the light for every shot. In digital photography, there are three ways for a DSLR camera to control the amount of light that reaches the film or the image sensor.

These three things together constitute what is known as the exposure triangle:

  1. Shutter speed. This is how long the shutter is open, expressed as a measurement of time. For example, 1/100 means that your shutter is open for 1/100th of a second after you press the shutter button. The longer the shutter is open, the brighter the photograph will be, as there was more time to let in the light—but you’ll also run the risk of motion blur from camera shake if you’re not using a tripod. Learn more about shutter speed here.
  2. Aperture. This is how big the opening is that lets light in, expressed in f-stops. F-stops are counterintuitive, because the larger the number, the smaller the opening. For example, f/2.8 allows twice as much light into the camera as f4, and 16 times as much light as f11. Aperture affects the depth of field: A wide aperture creates a shallow depth of field, while small apertures make more of the image in focus. Aperture can be adjusted either in a camera’s “manual mode” or “aperture priority mode.” Learn more about aperture here.
  3. ISO. The ISO setting is how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light, expressed in a number. A higher ISO number will make your camera more sensitive to light, meaning it needs less light to get a good photo—useful in low-light situations. A low ISO means your camera will be less sensitive to light, or it will need more light in order to get a good photo. Learn more about high ISO and low ISO here.

In order to get a properly exposed photo, all three elements must work in harmony. If one part of the exposure triangle changes, the other two need to change as well. It’s all about practice—once you get a feel for the exposure triangle, you’ll be able to better predict what settings will be best for each situation.

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Tip 2: How to Use Manual Mode

You can adjust the settings in the exposure triangle on your digital camera by switching to “manual mode,” written as “M” on most cameras.

This is set via the setting dial on top of the camera or within the settings on the viewfinder. This takes your camera out of automatic mode, in which the camera tries to select the settings for you based on its sensor readings of the light.

Tip 3: How to Use the Rule of Thirds

Photography composition is knowing how to frame a photo for the best dramatic effect, and the Rule of Thirds is one of the easiest and most common compositional techniques.

  • The Rule of Thirds divides your frame into an equal, three-by-three grid with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines that intersect at four points.
  • The Rule of Thirds places your subject on the left-third or right-third of the frame, creating a pleasing composition.
  • Each intersection point is a potential point of interest; align your main subject along with other elements of the frame along these points to create a balanced, or visually interesting image.

The Rule of Thirds works because the human eye naturally gravitates toward points just beyond the center of an image. These points are the intersecting points on a Rule of Thirds grid. In cultures where people read text from left to right, they also read images in the same way. As a result, the bottom right portion of an image is the most visually arresting while the upper left portion is most likely to be overlooked.

You can also apply the Rule of Thirds during post-processing (also called photo editing) to help you decide how to crop or reframe your photo. Simply turn the Rule of Thirds grid on in your editing software, adjust the horizontal and vertical skew of your image so that the lines align with the grid, and hit save.

Learn more about the Rule of Thirds here.

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Tip 4: Pay Attention to Lighting Conditions

Photography is all about light, and your lighting conditions will determine what kind of camera settings you use—there’s no one set of perfect settings that will take a great photo every time.

  • Consider the time of day you’re shooting when using natural light: high noon is considered a bad time to take photos because of the static light and harsh shadows, while just after sunrise or before sunset is considered “golden hour” because the lighting is dynamic and the shadows softer.
  • Be aware of the color of your light, too—overly blue light can throw off the white balance of your photos, causing an undesirable color cast.

Learn more about shooting with natural light here.

Tip 5: Experiment With All Types of Photography

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Annie brings you into her studio and onto her shoots to teach you everything she knows about portraiture and telling stories through images.

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There are many types of photography. Among the most common are:

  • Portrait photography
  • Landscape photography
  • Street photography
  • Night photography
  • Black-and-white photography

Experimenting with each type can help beginner photographers learn even more about their camera and about composition. Even if you know you want to be a portrait photographer, going out and shooting some landscapes may teach you a lot about the Rule of Thirds that you can apply in your portraits.

Learn more about street photography here.

Tip 6: Record Your Photography Ideas

If you’re out walking and stumble upon a great photography spot without your camera, don’t just walk away! If you have a smartphone camera, take a few photos as notes to record good angles for composition or the direction of the light. That way, when you come back with your DSLR camera and photography gear, you’ll be better prepared to take great photos.

Tip 7: Practice With What You Have

Editors Pick

You don’t need the best camera in the world to start honing your photography skills; most photographers start with a simple point-and-shoot camera. In fact, in beginner photography, improving your composition is something you can do without any camera at all—simply look at what you’d like to photograph and frame the shot in your mind or with your hands.

That way, when you start using a camera, you’ll already know some of the basics of photography and you’ll take better photos with your new camera. Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has spent decades mastering her craft. In her first online class, Annie reveals how she works to tell a story through her images. She also provides insight into how photographers should develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Jimmy Chin.

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