Photo 101: The Basics

Now that just about everyone has a camera in their pocket thanks to the prevalence of smartphones, we take more and more photographs than ever before. More than 100 million photos are uploaded to Instagram each day, and more than 350 million are uploaded to Facebook. Every. Single. Day.

With so many people taking so many photos, interest in photography has never been higher, but it’s not always easy to find information about photographic basics. With that in mind, I’ve decided to write a series of posts going over some of those basics so you’ll have a better idea of how to use your camera to take better pictures, whether they’re of books, people, or landscapes.

So where do we start?

What camera should I use?

The one you currently have will do just fine, whether it’s a smartphone camera, a little pocket camera, or an interchangeable lens model. These days, even smartphones are capable of taking great pictures, provided there is enough light for the camera to focus.

Is there a difference between phone cameras and their bigger cousins, the interchangeable lens cameras? Yes, there is. SLR cameras and the newer Mirrorless cameras (which allow you to change lenses) have, among other things, larger imaging sensors. This means that they are more sensitive in low light situations. They collect more light and work more efficiently, which means they create a cleaner, sharper picture.

For example, I took the first picture of my cat with my smartphone, an inexpensive Motorola Moto X4:



I shot this second photo (same cat) with my primary camera, which is a Sony A7 III with an 85mm f/1.8 lens. This camera has a larger, full frame sensor:


See the difference? Both photos are perfectly fine, but the second is sharper, has more detail, and more accurate color. That said, the phone’s camera is something you probably already have, while the equipment I use retails for about $2500 USD.

If you want to upgrade to a nicer camera than what your phone has, you don’t have to spend a few months’ rent on new gear. There are great interchangeable lens cameras starting for around $400. Or if you want a point and shoot pocket camera, you can get a good model for about $200. Used cameras are a perfectly viable option, too, allowing you to get a solid starter camera for a lot less money.

Or you can just use your phone’s camera and keep on keeping on.


Why Do My Pictures Keep Turning Out Blurry?

Stability, stability, stability.

But first, check and make sure your lens is clean. It’s easy to get dust and fingerprints all over and not realize it. If you have a point & shoot or interchangeable lens camera, use a microfiber cloth (like you might have for your glasses, if you wear glasses) or lens tissue. Make sure the cloth is free from any grit before you wipe down the lens. A microfiber cloth will clean off most dust and fingerprints, but if oil and water spots are persistent, you might need some sort of optical cleaning fluid to spray on the cloth to clean the lens. Anything you would use on eyeglasses will do the job. Do not use window cleaner on your camera.

Your phone’s camera lens has a scratch-resistant cover, so you can use the hem of your shirt in a pinch. Microfiber cloths and lens tissues are still the best means of cleaning a lens.

Once the lens is clean, then getting clear, sharp pictures is a matter of stability.

In bright light, the camera’s shutter speed will be fast enough to counteract your movement. But when the sun goes down or when you’re inside and there isn’t much light, the shutter speed will slow down to allow the camera to get enough light. When this happens, any movement that you or your subject makes will show up. For example:


My cat was trying to nap on his bed when I went to take his picture. The only light was a regular overhead light, so the shutter speed dropped to 1/15 of a second. Sure, that sounds fast, but to a camera, it’s pretty slow– enough to show my movement. It’s nothing crazy, just my normal shaky hands and my breathing. But my cat is obviously not clear.

You could use your flash:


This will make for a fast shutter speed, but the flash that is built into a camera is only strong enough to illuminate out to about ten or twelve feet. If your subject is farther away than that, they could end up being dark. And your cat might also close his eyes.

If you’re in low light and you don’t want to or you can’t use a flash, you can use a tripod or some other method of stabilizing the camera, whether you set it up on a table and set a self-timer or if you brace it against a railing or something like that. You can get a smartphone tripod like the Joby Gorillapod Mobile Mini for about $15.

Tripods give the camera a stable platform that takes your shakiness out of the equation. If you have a gentle touch, you can still tap the shutter button and get a steady picture. Or, if your hands are very shaky or you know you’re going to have a very long shutter speed, you can set a self-timer that allows you to trigger the camera and then get your hands away to prevent motion blur.

I used a tripod for this third shot:


In this shot, my cat’s eyes are open and he’s not blurry thanks to the tripod. It takes more time to set up a picture with a tripod, so if you’re on the go this might not be the best solution. But if you’re taking photos of, say, books or a patient pet (or friend or family member), then the extra time can be worth it to gain extra clarity.


Why do things keep getting cropped out of my pictures?

Smartphones and point & shoot cameras use ratios that don’t always correspond to the ways that we use and print photographs. What does this mean? Well, let’s say you and seven of your friends get together for a movie night. You all squeezed together and managed to get everyone’s faces visible on the screen for a picture, but later on, when you decide to get 4″x6″ prints for everyone, the person on either end always gets cut off.

Why does this keep happening? Does the printer not like your friends?

Nope. It has nothing to do with your friends and everything to do with ratios. Smartphone cameras usually default to a 16:9 ratio– the same ratio as most of our television screens. This is fine for videos, but if you want to make a standard print to have on your desk, it will cause a problem. Standard 4×6 prints are a 2:3 ratio, which is shorter than a 16:9. No matter what you do or where you take it, the printer will always cut the ends off your pictures unless you order a custom size or have them shrink the picture down so it will fit lengthwise and leave white space above and below the picture.

Or, you could go into your smartphone camera’s settings and adjust the ratio. Mine, for example, gives me three options:

  • 16:9
  • 4:3
  • 1:1

I usually leave mine set to 4:3. I often print photos, and while the 4:3 ratio is not quite the same as the 2:3, it’s close enough that I don’t crop out people.

If you often use Instagram, you’re familiar with the 1:1 square ratio. Sure, you can adjust the sizing to a degree on Instagram, but most people leave it as a square. This is perfectly fine, but you have to look at composition in a new way when working with squares.

Here is a sample of what the different ratios look like:









Notice how there is less and less of the yarn bowl and crochet project as the ratio changes? And then in the last photo, the 1:1 example, to ensure that the entire cover of Jane Eyre made it into the frame, I had to crop out the corner of the book on the bottom. None of these pictures is ‘wrong’ because of their cropping, the cropping just makes them look different as each one either adds or subtracts elements from the photo.

When you are taking pictures that you think you’ll want to print (and I recommend that you print your favorite photos for a variety of reasons), make sure you leave plenty of space around people to allow for cropping. It’s tempting to completely fill your screen with your friends, but it can result in awkward results or disappointment when your best friend gets cropped out of the photo you wanted to make for her birthday.


That’s the end of part one. I don’t want to throw too much information at you all at once, but don’t worry. More entries in this series are on the way! I will be touching on the three points of the Exposure Triangle: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. I will also write about lighting, color, and composition.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments section, and be sure to practice!

8 thoughts on “Photo 101: The Basics

  1. This was ridiculously helpful! And the self timer and tripod tip is fantastic. As you can imagine, since I spend a lot of time indoors or with lack of natural light here in Portland and deal with tremors, blurry photos are a constant battle. I think you jist made my day! Also changing my camera setting right now!

  2. This is fantastic! I look forward to learning more. 🙂 The tip on ratios is eye-opening — will have to go experiment with my phone settings!

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