If you’ve just bought your first camera, you’re probably finding a bit of a learning curve in getting up to speed with all of its bells and whistles. There are a number of great beginner photography tutorials out there that can help you get to grips with all that functionality.
Before you get you get started, though, there are three fundamental concepts you need to understand: how your camera’s shutter speed scale works; how focal length affects your composition; and how your aperture controls what’s sharp.
We’ve explained each of these concepts below, and we’ve also compiled everything into a handy photography cheat sheet for you to download and save!
Camera Lesson No. 1: Get to know the shutter speed scale
Your shutter speed is one of the two ways of controlling the exposure (the other is the lens aperture). In normal, everyday photography, you might not have to worry too much about the shutter speed, as long as it’s fast enough to avoid camera-shake.
But when you’re shooting fast-moving objects, the shutter speed takes on a whole new role. The longer the shutter is open, the further your subject will move during the exposure.
To freeze your subject, you can simply use a fast shutter speed. What many sports photographers do, though, is set a slower shutter and ‘pan’ the shot, following the subject in the viewfinder as they press the shutter. This keeps the subject sharp but blurs the background, conveying motion.
Camera Lesson No. 2: How focal length affects a scene
Lenses are categorised according to their ‘focal length’. This is another way of describing their angle of view.
The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view – hence the term ‘wide-angle lenses’.
When you shoot with a wide-angle lens (such as a 10-18mm), you get more in the frame but objects look smaller.
The longer the focal length (such as 100-200mm), the narrower the angle of view. You get less in the frame, but subjects are magnified. This is what is meant by ‘telephoto’ lens.
Most lenses these days are zooms, which is convenient because they cover a range of focal lengths.
The 18-55mm lens that comes with many new cameras, for example, has a focal range of 18‑55mm, for wide-angle shots at one end of the range and modest telephoto ones at the other.
These kit lenses are a good all-rounder, but sooner or later you’ll want to expand your shooting options with extra lenses.
Camera Lesson No. 3: The relationship between focusing and aperture
The lens aperture is just one of the controls used to get the exposure right. It controls the amount of light hitting the sensor, while the shutter speed controls the length of the exposure.
The size of the lens aperture also affects the depth of field in the picture. Shallow depth of field is where only your main subject is sharp, and any objects in the background or nearer to the camera are out of focus. You get this from using wide lens apertures, eg f/4.
However, you can also increase the depth of field by using a narrower lens aperture (eg f/22), which makes objects at different distances look sharper.
It’s important to understand how your camera’s autofocus system works so you can ensure it’s focusing on the right part of your scene.
But it’s also important to take aperture and depth of field into account if you want to blur backgrounds or make your shots look perfectly sharp, from the foreground into the distance.
Depth of field explained
The aperture is the main factor in dictating how much of the scene appears pin-sharp. The narrower the aperture (larger f/number) the more of the image will be in focus; the wider the aperture, the less of the image will be in focus.
Common mistakes at every shutter speed (and the best settings you should use)
10 common exposure problems every photographer faces (and how to fix them)
How to take good photos: 10 simple ways to boost your hit rate
Exposure Triangle cheat sheet – understanding the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO