of J.B. TOLS.
I am an interior designer, photographer, blogger, advocate, adventurer, and mom to five boys. I love advocating for others and exploring new places--both near and far.

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January 30, 2022

Home » Blog » The Basics of Photography

Anyone with a camera phone can take a picture, but not everyone can take a good picture. Learning the basics of photography will help you take better pictures, whether you’re using your phone or a more advanced camera. In this post, we’ll go over the three main elements of photography; These are: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You will learn how you can apply those even if you are using an automatic camera. I will also discuss how to use them to get the results you want. By the end of this post, you’ll be able to start taking better pictures on your own!

I am going to organize this “map” based on camera type so that you can apply the tips to the camera type that you are currently creating with. The camera types that I will address are the following:

  • DSLR

MOST IMPORTANT TIP: If shooting anything digitally, you have the benefit of being able to save your files multiple times in various places so that you never lose those precious memories like many have who lost paper images in fires or floods.

So, do it! Save, save, save.

I will be spending the most time writing on smartphones and DSLR’s. So, hang with me through the first section on smartphones; it will be extensive.


A smartphone is pretty straightforward in its use. It is just an extension of the point and shoot camera. Some genius somewhere thought to combine a cellphone with a point and shoot camera–and voila–you have the smartphone camera of today!

It blows me away to think about the days when I would carry my huge DSLR camera around theme parks so that I could capture every special moment of my kids lives; my back aching from the weight; doing my best to keep it dry; having to skip riding certain rides because I wasn’t able to bring it along.

Now, you have an advanced camera right in the sliver of a front or back pocket!

Not only that, but you can share your moments with the world in a matter of minutes with the advancement of wifi/data and social media.


Todays smartphone cameras can capture images at a whopping 12-40 megapixels. That is as much as a lot of professional DSLR’s (or more). Honestly, I cannot rationalize any reason to carry both a point and shoot camera and a smartphone when you have specs like that.

So, how do you use a smartphone camera? What are the basics of photography when it comes to a smartphone?

To start, you have to get familiar with the apps and widgets within your phone. I have only ever used an Apple phone, but I would assume that any and all smartphones would make their ease of use pretty intuitive. On an iPhone, you would find the image of a camera and click on it. Then, point your camera and tap on the white shutter “button” at the bottom of the screen.

But, beyond the obvious point and tap, what can you do with your phone? Each phone has its own unique technology. And, because of this, there is no way for this blog post to comprehensively cover every smartphone and their unique features…and, honestly, by the time that you read this, my information would probably be outdated, anyway. Amiright?

Here are the basics from an iPhone user:

You have your smartphones dedicated camera. This camera does not require that you save images to a card. You will be saving all of your images to your camera, your camera’s cloud service or to a third party cloud like Dropbox, Google Drive or Creative Cloud.

To use the camera, you will probably find a few options. The options in my iphone are:

  • Pano
  • Portrait
  • Photo
  • Video
  • Slo-Mo
  • Time Lapse


This features allows you to create a panoramic image. You press the button and it, essentially, records as you pan your camera from side-to-side and then the cameras computer creates a panoramic image from it.

This is an image of my studio using the portrait mode. This is what a normal image would get of my space. Whereas, I used the pano mode to get the image below.

This is an image that I JUST created of my studio, saved it to Dropbox and then uploaded it to this blog within a 5 minute span!

You can do fun and interesting things using the pano mode and moving objects or people. I will try to catch our dog moving for you to see what I mean.

This was perfect. Just as I turned the phone around to where he was laying down, he got up and went in the direction that I had panned from. This created an effect where it cut off his body.


I remember when this “mode” on the phones camera came out. I was so excited to trade my phone in and get this new feature. Being a photographer, I thought that this was going to be a game-changer for me, social media wise.

But, I can tell you that I feel pretty mmhm (with a side of shoulder shrug) about it, now having used it. It is supposed to create dreamy silky bokeh (bokeh: the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens) like that of a portrait lens on a DSLR camera with a low aperature. However, I think that the separation between the background and the subject is muddy and the whole image just kind of looks smudged. *We will discuss bokeh more later, by the way.

My tip with this mode is that if you take an image in Portrait, you will need to make sure that you are in really good light and able to get good separation from the background and the foreground. If not, everything gets murky.


The remainder of the camera features apply to video. So, we will skip those.


My phone has an option for a standard photo that can be optically zoomed .5x , 1x and 2.5x.

At the .5x, it is simulating a 13mm lens (very wide lens). I find it fun to use this feature when exaggerating the foreground in my images. Give it a try.


At 1x, it is simulating a 26mm lens. Your camera is set to this standard zoom when opened. Typically, you would want a 35mm, which mimics what our eye sees, naturally. It can be assumed that since a smartphone has such a small sensor (where the information is recorded) that 26mm actually reads more closely to 35mm, in the end.

Does that make sense? If not, please read about crop sensors.

As far as telephoto goes, I believe in using any telephoto capabilities very sparingly. If you are not zooming in with a zoom lens, you are just “blowing up” your image and will degrade the quality of the final image capture. To get the best quality image, move your body closer to the subject, always.


You can absolutely take creative and beautiful images with a smartphone. There’s no doubt. A lot of what you get out of any camera has to do with the light that you work in. But, aside from lighting, I have found that taking your smartphone photography one step higher requires an app or two and some smartphone lenses.

Yep, that’s right! You can buy lenses to attach to your phone!! How fun is that!?

I have been using Sandmarc lenses and truly find them to be great lenses.

The various app’s that I like to use for taking photos are:


Photo by Zach Wiley on Unsplash

This is the easiest and most straightforward of all of the camera options. There are no apps to add, dials to turn or settings to program.

You load your film, point the camera and click the button.

However, there are a few suggestions that I would make to get your very best image from this camera.

  • Make sure that you always have sufficient light. It can be a spotlight of light, but your subject needs to be well lit so that the film will be fully exposed.
  • A steady hand…or table is necessary so that the image does not get motion blur (a blurred image from a moving subject).
  • Buy different types of film to add variety to your images. My film is framed in black, but you can get white, as well.
  • Holding the camera for a selfie does distort the shape of the face. To get a more complimentary image of oneself, it is best to ask someone to take the image for you.


The basics of using a point and shoot camera are pretty simple; however, it is progressively harder than the Instant Polaroid camera.

When you do photography with a Point and Shoot camera, you are given some creative leeway in that you can zoom some of the lenses (depending on which model camera you purchase), and choose pre-programmed “automatic” settings.

On the point and shoot, you will have a dial or buttons that program the camera for the particular environment that you are in. The tricky thing is that you have to understand those different functions to even use them. And, I find that people really rarely take advantage of their use and potential.


This is an image that I found online of a point and shoot cameras dial. Keep in mind that current P&S cameras will probably have more video options, but this will do for this blog post.

The icons and meanings are:

  • Video Camera: Video
  • Flower: Macro Photography
  • Mountain: Landscape Photography
  • Runner: Action or Sport Photography
  • Face: Portrait Photography
  • SCN: Unsure
  • Auto: Automatic Settings
  • Off: Power Off
  • Heart: I assume this is for image playback (view your images) or so that you can go in and favorite them, maybe?
  • One that I just realized that this dial does not have is Night Photography
image borrowed from: blog post


This is where it is important to have some understanding of the basics of photography so that you will know which of the above options to choose. Most people who owned one of these cameras, many years ago now, would either leave the settings on AUTO or the FACE options. While doing this is fine, you are not getting the full use of your cameras capabilities. It is like owning a 4-wheel drive vehicle and never putting the car into 4WD.


The first option of MACRO allows you to get up close to your subject. Most lenses bought for a 35mm or DSLR camera cannot focus within a certain distance to the subject. I have some lenses that I have to back up to about 3 feet from my subject before the lens can lock into focus. But, with my macro lens, I am able to get inches away from my subject and still lock focus.

This option is useful when photographing bugs, gems, eyelashes, etc. Anything that you would like to get super close up to! Also, it will give a very shallow depth of field (small aperture) so that your subject is in focus while the background blurs out of focus.


LANDSCAPE mode is nice because here, your whole scene will be in focus. It gives a very deep depth of field and your camera can focus to infinity. This is nice when you want to get an image of mountains and would like the foreground and the background all in focus.


This mode is pretty self explanatory. The ACTION mode will program your camera to have a very fast shutter speed so that it can catch any action that occurs in front of the cameras lens.


The PORTRAIT mode has to differ from the macro mode, but I have to believe that their settings are very similar. Either way, this mode offers a shallow–but not as shallow as the macro–depth of field with a lower aperture.


This mode is not present on this dial, but oftentimes the NIGHT mode will have an object with a moon or star in the sky as the icon representing nighttime. It allows for a slower shutter speed so that more light reaches the sensor and the image can be better exposed despite the low light. You can use this mode anytime you are in a low light situation; it does not have to be nighttime.


Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

This is where it gets exciting…and confusing. But, oh the fun that can be had with this camera!

When dealing with a DSLR, you have to keep in mind that this is a small compact, but very advanced computer. Just as you probably do not use half of the features on your home computer, this camera has so many possibilities that you may never touch on.

To start, this camera will hold one or two different memory cards. You will use these cards for all images and videos, which will be ejected from the camera and then put into a card reader attached to your computer to view, save and edit your files.


Choices, choices…that will be the name of the game with these cameras. You will have so many choices and options. Just expect that. If you are a very visual person, you may need to make yourself a word map to begin with.

One of the first choices that you will need to make is whether or not to shoot in jpeg or raw or both; and, whatever you choose to shoot in, you have to decide if those files are large or small.

My camera has a slot for two separate cards. And, I am able to shoot to each card independently. So, I choose to shoot RAW on one card and JPEG on the other as a back up;. And, I shoot with the largest file size that I can possibly get. I want to have as much information with each file in case I decide to print anything larger than 16×20.

This is an image of the back of one of my cameras. This is for card 1, which is a CF Card (card 2 is an SD card). This is where I save my JPEG files; and you can see that I have it programmed to save the largest JPEG file that my camera offers.

This is so that if I am in a situation where card 2 fails and I have to use the JPEG’s o finish a project for my client, I will have the best file possible to edit.

What is a RAW file?

Raw files are files generated by a digital camera. This file contains the uncompressed image data, along with information on copyright, make and model of the camera and all camera settings (called metadata). This file is a very large file with all information generated by the camera sensor, however it is “unprocessed” information much like an old negative is not processed into an actual image yet.

A note on RAW files is that they will take up a very large amount of space on a camera card, whereas a JPEG does not. So, if you do intend to shoot RAW, you will need a very large camera card. I shoot with no less than 128 GB of card space for each shoot.

One must take a RAW file and “process” it in a program like Lightroom, Adobe Camera RAW, Capture One, etc.

For one who may be intimidated by this or who has no need for a very large file, a JPEG file format is the alternative.

What is a JPEG file?

JPEG file is a compressed image format, an acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group. This file format is of an image that is processed by the cameras in-camera photo style information and compressed to a much smaller file size than a RAW file.

The benefit of a JPEG is that it can be automatically uploaded and viewed on tablets, smartphones and on social media. The downsize is that if you want to do any creative processing to this file, you are losing information with each edit and degrading the quality of the final image.

I do all of my work on RAW files and reserve those back up JPEGS for emergencies only.


All three of these elements of photography have directly to do with how much light is allowed to either expose the film of a film camera or how much light is allowed to reach the sensor of a digital camera.


ISO in photography stands for your camera’s sensitivity to light, both for digital and film cameras, and is shown in number form, like ISO 64, ISO 100 or ISO 200 and up. The higher the number, the more sensitive your camera is to light, so that photos taken at the same shutter speed and aperture will appear brighter. Higher end digital cameras can reach enormous ISO numbers. My camera goes as high as 32,000. Whereas, when I was doing film and using film cameras, I only remember film going up to 1,200 or 1,600, I think.

Imagine a sheet of paper towel and think about how absorbent it is. Now, imagine you are tasked with absorbing up as much water (light) as you possibly can. They goal is to completely fill the towel with water. Lower ISO numbers are used when you have more light because they tasked with a very easy job–or have need to absorb less light–because there is more than sufficient available. Now, a higher ISO number would be represented by a much more absorbent paper towel. It would need to suck up as much light as possible, not because there is more light, but because there is very little light. So, it has to get it ALL.

I hope that makes some sense. I am not very good with analogies, sorry.


Personally, I find numbers higher than about 6,400 unusable for me. However, I know other photographers who work in very high numbers and seem to like it. The higher the ISO, the grainier the images become. I do not like to see any grain in my images unless I am purposefully doing some emotional black and white work.

I establish my lighting such that I can keep my ISO at 100–no higher than 200, if I can–when working in the studio or with sufficient outdoor light. If I am going to be outside, I am willing to go as high as 800, but I don’t want to go higher than that if at all possible.

When shooting weddings and in a dark indoor location, I will push my camera to 6,400. But, beyond that, I try to change my lighting scenario to not go any higher.

Photo by ShareGrid on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


Okay, so we had the paper towel analogy above. Now, we will have the water faucet analogy. Where is the water coming from that the paper towel is collecting?

You have the water faucet diameter, which would be aperture; and, the speed at which the water is coming out would be the shutter speed.

Imagine that you want more light: you will turn the handle on the water faucet to have more water come out of the faucet faster. If you want the water to trickle out, you will turn the handle to slow the water from coming out.

The shutter is similar.

The longer the shutter is open, the more light will be allowed into the camera. And conversely, the faster the shutter opens and then closes, the less light will be allowed in.

Not only does this effect the amount of light goes into the camera (or reaches the sensor), if the light is balanced through the ISO and/or aperture, you can manipulate the shutter to either stop motion (like in the image of the person stomping the water) or catch movement in the frame (like the image of the people walking through the frame).


BUT! You have to balance the light by working in tandem with the aperture and ISO to use these creative techniques while also properly exposing your image.

Photo by Dimitri Bong on Unsplash

It is important to note that the ISO has to do with film or a cameras sensor sensitivity and shutter has to do with the speed at which the shutter opens and closes, but both are addressing functions found within the body of the camera. The aperture is the only function that is set or programmed in the camera but, is not a function found within the camera body; rather, it is a function of the lens.


The aperture refers to the opening of a lens’s diaphragm through which light passes and is indicated in f-stops, as they call it. The f-stops are listed on the outside of the lens. A more expensive lens will have much lower f-stops, while a cheaper lens will not. For example, I just bought a nearly $1,000.00 lens that had the lowest f-stop at f1.4. I have an older, very cheap lens, as well, that has the lowest f-stop at f5.6

What does this mean? Well, let me assure you that this is the section of basic photography that always gets me all jacked up, turned upside down and facing the wrong direction.

First off, the f-stop represents the hole or opening that you see in that image below on the righthand side.

Okay, now listen closely: the BIGGER the number = the SMALLER that hole is.

Conversely, the SMALLER the f-stop number = the BIGGER that hole is.

Why, right?

There has to be some scientific reason, but you’d think they could have modified things to make them just a little bit more intuitive for the majority of people who don’t give a flip about the mechanics of the camera, really.

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash
Photo by ShareGrid on Unsplash


Okay, so remember that a small f-stop number = a bigger “hole” in the lens, right? Well, this means that the hole is allowing more light in. So, if I need more light (as in, if I was shooting at night or in a dark space), I could just program my camera to use a smaller f-stop and allow more light into my camera to hit the sensor.

Another aspect of a small f-stop that photographers love is that it produces a very shallow depth of field. As you can see in the image below, just a very small section of the image is in focus. This can really create beautiful images.

Photo by Flo Karr on Unsplash

However, it does have some disadvantages. View the next image, where I was using my newest lens that has a f-stop 1.4 over Christmas. I was using it in a very low light situation and testing it out. I forgot that I had it at f1.4 and took this group image:


As you can see, only my son Tad (who is in the middle) was in focus. That is the one danger of using these small apertures.

Another thing to keep in mind is that small number = big hole = a lot of light. So, if you want to get that nice bokeh (blurriness), it will be impossible to do when your light is bright, such as a midday photo outdoors; your image would be very over exposed! It would flood your camera with way too much light to get an usable image.

The way that some photographers get around this is that they will add filters that are screwed onto the front of their lenses that darken their lenses. Think of it like adding sunglasses to your camera!


Okay, now that I have explained each one, it is time to understand how the three work together. Granted, I think you may have already gotten it, but lets just explain it a bit more.

Did you take physics in school? In physics they would make you create a hanging mobile, like one that would be over a baby’s bed. You would have to create an evenly balanced mobile using objects of differing materials, sizes and weights. Know what I mean?

That is kind of how the exposure triangle works.

ISO, Shutter speed and aperture all work together to create a properly exposed image. If you change one, you have to compensate by changing the others, as well.

I was not able to find an image to add to this section, but in my search, I found an amazing post on the exposure triangle here.


Okay, now that you have a good understanding of the Exposure Triangle, we can go into the automated modes on the DSLR, as they should make more sense now.


This mode is a fully automated mode. You turn the dial to this mode when you want the camera to make all of the decisions for you


This mode allows you to select the shutter speed that you would like and it will then program the remainder of the camera around that shutter speed to get a perfect exposure. This is a nice mode to use when doing action photos. Oftentimes, you need to keep the shutter very fast to catch the action and you want to focus on what is going on in front of your camera versus dealing with camera settings. Set your shutter speed and let the camera do the rest!


M Mode is fully manual. You make every single decision and tell the camera what you want–even if it produces a bad exposure. I use this mode 90% of the time.



Photography is a complex subject. There are so many different settings, modes and features to consider when you’re taking your camera out for an adventure or trying to capture the perfect moment with family and friends. In this blog post we have taken some of these complexities away from you by exploring how understanding the basics of photography will help you take better pictures. From understanding aperture to knowing what shutter speed does; I hope that my posts can be a resource for those who want their photos to look as good as possible without having all the technical knowledge first hand! If there is anything else about photography that you would like me to cover in my future blogs then please let me know by leaving comments below. I would love hearing from you.

And, if you are in the market to buy a new camera, check out my post YOUR BEST CAMERA BUYING GUIDE.

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