Digital Cameras for Beginners

Digital Cameras for Beginners

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  1. Learners will know how to use important parts of a digital camera and how to change beginner settings
  2. Learners will understand the meaning of common photography terms
  3. Learners will be able to apply their knowledge of lighting, shutter speed, focus, and composition to take a variety of photos

You can do a lot with the camera on a smartphone, but it’s hard to beat a dedicated digital camera if you’re interested in photography. While learning all the parts, terms, and settings can feel overwhelming, you don’t need to be an expert to take stunning photos. You just need to learn your way around a camera and start exploring what it can do.

This course will walk you through the parts of a digital camera and some beginner settings, teach you commonly used camera terms, and help you compose beautiful pictures.

Parts of the Camera

There are many different brands and styles of digital cameras, but you can count on a few basic parts to be the same no matter what model you have. Let’s review what those parts do.

Lens/Shutter: The lens manipulates and focuses light for your camera’s sensor. Lenses are often interchangeable, so you can switch between lenses to fit the type of pictures you want to take. Whatever lens you’re using will be covered by a shutter, which opens to let light in when you take a picture. The width of the shutter opening (the aperture) and its speed influence the outcome of the photo.

Viewfinder: The viewfinder is a small opening at the back of the camera; look through it to set up your shot before taking a picture.

Battery Compartment: The battery compartment usually opens at the bottom of the camera. Only use the types of batteries suggested by the manufacturer.

Memory Card Compartment: The memory card compartment is a small slot often located on the bottom or side of the camera. You’ll need a memory card that fits your camera to save your pictures. The area around the compartment will usually be labeled with the type of card you need; in most cases, this will be an SD memory card.

Shutter Release: The shutter release opens the camera’s shutter, which remains closed until you’re ready to take a picture. The shutter release is usually found on the top of the camera and to the right of the viewfinder.

Flash: The flash is built into the top of the camera to provide extra light in your shot. The flash can be set manually or enabled to activate automatically when more light is required, which can be a big help for beginners.

Mode Dial: The mode dial is a round spinner on the camera used to change how your camera takes pictures. Some modes are pre-programmed for different types of photography, while others let you adjust settings to your needs. We’ll cover the most common modes in the next section of this course.

Hot Shoe Mount: The hot shoe mount is a point of attachment on the camera to connect electronic accessories, such as powerful external flashes or microphones. These accessories can be expensive and require practice to use effectively, so it’s a good idea to get comfortable with your camera’s built-in features before purchasing add-ons.

Carefully review the slides below to see each part of the camera.

Beginner Camera Settings

Now that you’ve learned about the most important parts of the camera, you’re ready to learn about the basic functions you’ll use to start taking different kinds of pictures. View the video below to learn about these settings and where to find them.

Now that you know where to begin, let's take a closer look at each of these settings.

Zoom: Most digital cameras come with a zoom lens, which you can adjust by turning one of the two rings around the lens. Zoom in to get a closer look at your subject and zoom out for a wider view. If your subject appears too distant when you’ve fully zoomed in, consider changing to a lens marked with a longer focal length (measured in millimeters). You can see the difference focal length makes on a photo in the examples below.

Focus: Focus refers to the clearest part of your photo. Digital cameras give you a choice between manual focus and autofocus. When you set your camera to focus manually, you can adjust the second ring (the non-zoom ring) on the lens to change your focus distance. Manual focus can help you get the details just the way you want them, but when you’re starting, you'll probably have more luck with the autofocus setting, which lets the camera make adjustments for you. Many digital cameras have a few kinds of auto-focus, which you can learn about below.

  • Autofocus Single Shot/Servo (AF-S): This mode is better for subjects that aren’t moving. Your camera will lock onto what it detects is most important in your picture and adjust the clarity to fit. 
  • Autofocus Continuous (AF-C): This mode is better for moving objects because the camera will keep changing the focus to keep your subject clear as it moves.
  • Autofocus Automatic (AF-A): This setting is a good choice if you’re unsure which autofocus style you should use. The camera will calculate the best option.

You can usually find an autofocus switch near the lens, on the back of the camera, or in the digital menu.

Modes: Digital cameras come programmed with different modes for different situations. You can adjust the mode dial to toggle through your options. The available modes will vary from camera to camera, but you can review the list below to learn about the most common camera modes, how they are usually marked on the dial, and what they do.

  • Auto (AUTO or A+): The camera automatically controls all the settings to fit the picture you’re taking.
  • Scene (SCN): The camera controls the settings to fit a certain type of photography. Most cameras come with several scene modes. Some cameras will have scenes on the mode dial, but for others, you’ll need to choose SCN and select an option on the screen. Below are some examples of standard scene modes.
  • Sport (SCN Sprinter Icon): The camera adjusts the settings to take shots of subjects in motion.
  • Landscape (SCN Mountain Icon): The camera adjusts the settings to take pictures of wide space.
  • Portrait (SCN Face Icon): The camera adjusts the settings to take pictures of people.
  • Macro (Flower Icon): The camera adjusts the settings to take close-up pictures of smaller subjects.
  • Shutter Priority (S or Tv): The camera controls the aperture (f-stop) while you manually adjust the shutter speed.
  • Aperture Priority (A or Av): The camera controls the shutter speed while you manually adjust the aperture (f-stop) and depth of field.
  • Manual (M): You control all of the camera’s settings.
  • Program (P): The camera controls the aperture and shutter speed, but you can adjust other settings.
  • Custom (C1, C2, etc.): You can save specific settings to reuse later. These modes may be found in the settings menu instead of on the mode dial.

      Photography Terms

      With the basics you’ve learned so far, you could get a good start on your photography journey, but you may encounter challenges or realize that your photos aren’t coming out the way you imagined. Many great photography resources online can help you reach your goals, but it’s easy to get lost or confused if you don’t understand common photography terms. Learning the concepts below will prepare you to keep learning and improving.

      ISO: You’ll often see this term when reading about light settings on your camera. ISO is a setting that changes the brightness of your picture. The lower the ISO number is, the darker the picture will be. Setting the ISO number higher will brighten the picture, but the extra light will also cause blurriness and grainy speckles. These blurs and spots are called “noise.” To avoid noise ruining your images, set your ISO number low or set your camera to choose the ISO automatically. You can see the effects of ISO in the examples below. The first picture was taken with good lighting, so the photographer kept the ISO low. The second picture had worse lighting, so the photographer increased ISO to increase the brightness. You can see the drop in image quality between low ISO photos (clear) and high ISO photos (grainy and “noisy”).

      Many times, you won’t see the effects of ISO until you review, edit, or print your files. Below are the original images for the ISO examples you just saw. On a camera’s screen, you could barely tell the difference, but the end result can spoil a great picture. All cameras have different ISO capabilities, so test yours at different ISO settings to find the upper limit for clear photos.
      ISO Contrast Image

      Shutter Speed: You’ll often find this term when reading about brightness and motion blur. As you’ve already learned, cameras take photos by opening the shutter to let in light. If the shutter opens and closes slowly, it will let in lots of light, but moving subjects will be blurry. If the shutter opens and closes very quickly, it won’t let in much light, but you’ll be able to get clear, crisp images of moving subjects.

      You can adjust your camera’s shutter speed by choosing the Shutter Priority or Manual mode. 

      Experiment with the shutter speed to control the brightness of your pictures and explore the different ways to capture motion, but be careful with slower shutter speeds. When the shutter is open for an extended period, tiny movements in your hand can create blurring in your images, so you may need a tripod or other equipment to steady the camera.

      Check out the difference that shutter speed makes in the images below. In each example, the pinwheel was spinning quickly, but as the shutter speed increased, the motion blur decreased until the wheel looked completely still. To keep the brightness consistent, though, the photographer had to increase the ISO as the shutter speed increased.

      Spinning Pinwheel at Multiple Shutter Speeds

      On a very slow shutter speed, you can play with light to take very memorable "long-exposure" photos. The example below used a tripod to keep the camera steady and used a 30-second shutter speed to show a plane streaking across the sky.

      Long Exposure Plane Against Night Sky
      If you're interested in trying long-exposure photography, make sure you've tested your camera's ISO settings in advance. You want to pick an ISO that is bright enough to capture light without hurting the image quality of the final product.

      F-stop and Depth of Field: These two terms are closely related, and you can expect to find them when reading about camera focus. The f-stop or f-number measures the aperture (the space where light travels through the lens). The diagram below shows the size of the aperture for six different f-stops.

      Six aperture examples

      Changing the f-stop changes the depth of field. Depth of field means the distance between the closest and farthest clear images in your photo. For example, imagine a picture of a row of trees stretching off into the distance. If the picture only clearly shows the first and second trees, it has a shallow depth of field. If all of the trees are clear, it has a deep depth of field. In the examples below, see how changing the f-stop increases the depth of field.

      A high f-stop number means a deep depth of field, so most of the image will be clear. A low f-stop number means that much of the picture will be blurry. If your f-stop is too low, you won’t be able to keep your entire subject in focus. In the example below, the depth of field is too shallow to keep all of the flowers clear, no matter where the photographer sets the focus.

      If you choose Aperture Priority or Manual mode, you can adjust the f-stop number to get the depth of field that you want for your picture. 

      Bokeh: This is a term for a type of photo background blur that’s visually pleasing. "Visually pleasing" is a matter of personal preference, but most photographers agree that a picture with good bokeh will have a background full of round blots of light and color that create a soft, fuzzy look. Adjusting your f-stop and creating a shallow depth of field will help you capture bokeh in your pictures and add a little extra style to your work. To get started, you can include bokeh in your photography by capturing images of background light shining through other subjects, like curtains or trees. This trick helps enhance bokeh in many photos, as it does in the examples below.

      Ready to learn more? Adobe has free resource guides about ISO, shutter speed, f-stop, and bokeh.

      Now that you’re familiar with these terms, you're ready to see how they all interact. Click the link below to explore a photography simulation. See how adjusting the lighting, ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop affects the quality of the picture.


      Rule of Thirds Example

      Composition is a term for how you’ve set up all the visual elements in your picture. You can learn all about your camera and its settings, but to take beautiful, memorable photos, you’ll need to think about composition, too. Here are a few simple guidelines you can follow to start composing terrific pictures.

      Frame Your Subject: Framing means surrounding the subject of a picture to make it stand out. It draws the viewer's eyes by putting the most important part of your picture inside a “frame” (for example, windows, doorways, or the space between trees). You can use the frames in the environment around you (like in the examples below) or add objects to your shot to create your own.

      Include Symmetry: If you’re looking for an easy way to start taking beautiful pictures, finding symmetry is a great place to start. This will help balance your photos and make them look well-planned. Just like frames, you can find symmetry in your environment, like a butterfly's wings (vertical symmetry), the reflections of a landscape in water (horizontal symmetry), or oranges sliced in half at the middle (radial symmetry). You can also create symmetry in your compositions by moving objects or changing perspectives to make parts of your photo reflect each other: like arranging a group photo so that the tallest subjects are in the middle and the shortest are at either end. There’s symmetry all around you; it only takes a little practice to recognize and use it in your photography.

      Follow the Rule of Thirds: This rule provides a good foundation for most types of photography, and it’s based on the idea of using lines to divide your picture into nine equally-sized panels. There are two guidelines to follow when using this method. First, you should try to have your subject take up about a third of the shot away from the center to create contrast. For example, if you’re taking a picture of a tall building against the sky, the building would take up one-third of the image (three panels), and the sky would take up the other two-thirds (six panels). This contrast makes for memorable photos. The second guideline is to place interesting elements of your picture on the parts of the grid where the gridlines meet (the corners of the middle panel). These spots naturally draw the eye, so using this method draws attention to the most engaging details of your picture.

      To help understand the rule of thirds' effect on photos, look carefully at the examples below.

      The first example uses a simple placement; the leaf is centered in the middle panel of the grid. In the second example, the leaf is kept to the left third of the shot and placed on an interest point at the bottom-left corner of the middle panel. This placement attracts attention to the leaf, while the empty area (sometimes called “negative space”) provides a more striking contrast.

      With practice, you’ll get used to picturing the grid when composing a photo, but most cameras can also show you the grid on the screen or through the viewfinder. You can usually find this feature in the settings menu under “Grid Display” or “Grid Lines.” You should also know that you don’t need to use the rule of thirds to take great pictures, but it can help you jumpstart your compositions and plan great photos.

      Want to learn more about the rule of thirds? Adobe’s video introduction is a great guide for how and when to use this technique.

      You’ve learned a lot, and now it’s time to start putting your lessons into action. You can use the document below as a guided photography practice to put together everything you’ve learned. While your first pictures may not look like you imagined, your work will improve if you keep it up. Don’t be afraid to take a chance and see what you can do!

      Like any art, there’s always something new to learn in photography. But now that you’ve picked up the basics, it’s time for the fun part. Get your camera ready and experiment with new styles and subjects. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you'll build your skills.

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