Basics of learning photography

  • Start observing
  • Forget about the fancy gear
  • Start with the cheapest and push limits with it
  • Understand your gear and it’s potential (smartphone or a digital camera)
  • Start black and white, it helps you see light better than in color.
  • See alot of work, take inspiration from the internet, photography books and magazines
  • If you havn’t found your favorite subject yet, give yourself assignments. Work on series.
  • Gear, Technical knowledge and technique.

1826, the earliest surviving photograph was made. After years, till today photography is one of the few skills (or hobby) that has not been replaced and probably will not be for coming decades. Reason being, humans love to keep memories and emotions as tangible objects with them forever. Be it in a form or print or on our smartphones, we love to keep memories saved with us.

This brings many of us to a common interest, how to start with taking good photographs for commercial purpose or personal interest. There are thousands of technically detailed tutorials on how to start with your first DSLR, which photography gear to start your photography journey with and so on. But what is essential is understanding the basics of “Taking a good photograph”. The technical aspect is definitely important to understand however in my personal opinion is secondary. What is more important is to understand the basics, taking inspiration from how and why photography started which can help understand what makes it so interesting and long-lasting skill/hobby and how to achieve those interesting results by ourselves using our cameras.

Keeping all that in mind, I decided to jot down a few essential points I recommend everyone (who wants to sharpen their photography skills or want to learn it, get better at it) to keep as their check-list.

The following points are not rules from the Bible but just the basics which I personally learned during my academic education in photography and with time I realized how important are they to start with and how all the technical talks come much later.

So here we go,

  • Start observing: around you, regardless of wherever you are. Observe people, human behaviors, facial expressions. The ambiance of a coffee shop, a mall. Architecture, look up from where you stand, look at how people are reacting to weather, architecture, other people. The more you observe, the more you train your eyes to see things in detail. You can simply observe a sun flare, how it lights up a specific space or someone’s face, how the light draws over someone’s cheekbones or in their eyes or observe people walking by the seashore at a sunset scene. It can be anything and everything, just start observing and think about what does it make you feel, try to connect and understand the ambiance and what that particular scene has to say to you.
  • Forget about the fancy DSLRs and fancy cameras: This might sound a bit shocking to many but really, the best camera you can have is the one you have at the moment. How will your photos start looking better just if have 20 megapixels more? Sometimes capturing good light has a lot to do with your camera’s sensor I understand, but more importantly at this stage what is more important is for us to learn how to see the good light. That comes with practice, training your eye and observing. A high-end camera won’t bring a good light for you out of no-where, you have to learn to chase it. At a beginner level, a lot of times students make it a block in their mind, “I can only take good photos when I have that specific camera” this limits their creativity and abilities to see. The brain stops making effort to see good photos, limiting itself and waiting for that next level of DSLR. For the beginning, I recommend read this line a few times and remember it: An expensive camera has nothing to do with a beautiful photograph. Start with what you have. I started off with an old Nokia camera phone and later a film-roll camera which is so far my favorite camera I have ever shot with. Some of the photos I did with Nokia phone (2MP or something as far as I remember) were on some magazine covers and they worked fine. Limits are only in your mind not in your gear. Try and make the most out of what you have rather than banking on your next purchase.
  • Start with what you have: I hear this a lot, which camera do you use? It doesn’t matter. Like in the point above, don’t wait till you purchase the next high-end equipment, start with what you have. Push the limits. If you see some inspiration on the internet or a photography book, try to understand the lighting or how it is done (rather than seeing the filters and edits) focus on the angle, expression or light. Try to achieve the same with the gear you have in hand.
  • Understand your gear and it’s potential: You have to build a strong connection with your camera. It is a your tool it should become a part of you, naturally. Understand what all it can do. Understand the full potential of your camera. If you use a phone camera, find out the apps that can push the limits of your phone camera. Some of the iOS apps that can make great results using your phone camerea are: Manual and Focus. Manual is for people using any phone with single camera however focus utilizes the two lens technology of your phone and helps you select manual focusing. These apps can often add more sharpness to your images (in certain lighting situations) For instance, with nightlight, it might be not as easy to capture objects with your normal camera app, using manual you can brighten the image (with decreasing the shutter speed setting) or using Manual you can select the focus points.
  • Start with black and white photography: Not necessary but it’s one of the tips I find worth mentioning. While photographing black and white, you learn to see light much quicker than you learn using color modes. Also at times B&W photography is more of reality check, if you are photographing in bad lighting or doing bad framing, it will look crappy in a black and white photograph. That pushes you to think of what you can do to make it look good. In color you might often get distracted with the color so much that you might endup ignoring, aesthetics and rules of a good composition in a photograph.
  • Get Inspired: Photography has alot to do with practice and taking inspiration from the right artists. You can take inspiration from photographers, painters, designers and other form of art and artists. Internet is an amazing place and we are lucky to be living in an era where everything is available (mostly for free) on the a click. Use it for your advantage and see alot of good work from around the world. You can see some good photography on, and so many other websites and photography magazines and books. Keep an eye on what’s trending in style and technique. Always step up your game, try new things (during your learning phase, its very important that you try everything).
  • Seek what you love: I find it important to fall in love with your subject, be it a sunset or a pretty face, you have to first find it beautiful before you make it look beautiful to others. Understand your subject, the mood and if you’re in love with a genre already (sunsets for instance) start photographing it. If you love tea / coffee, your next assignment could be just photographing different coffee mugs, or cafés. However if you are not sure of what you want to shoot at the moment, then give yourself assignments. Start taking photos as a series. Look at it as a photo album or as a music video where all frames are different yet come together, and threading by one single thread, connecting the story. I personally love “Print” it’s not important but I’d recommend to print your photos (the series) even in smallest possible size and see if they go along together, if they are from the same “movie”
  • Gear and Techinical knowledge: Once you have the hand of the above points, especially mastering what you have (as gear) step into upgrade. Understand how the mechanism inside the cameras work, what is aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, etc (if you are a beginner). How different lenses and focal length (and distortion) works. How filters (not the intagram ones) work and so on.

Remember it’s a journey that you must enjoy. Always strive for getting better, learning more and never think that you know everything. Have fun with it and do not make it a burden on you.

Take inspiration but do not compare yourself with others too much. Ask questions (in the comments below) or on my Instagram @mustafa_sheikh

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4 thoughts on “Basics of learning photography”

  1. Hello Mustufa,

    Thank you for this wonderful informative Article!

    Photography always inspired me but I never knew I would be interested in experimenting this myself but now that I’m so excited to take the initiative from basic photography.

    This article is a great help for me being a beginner 🙂 ?


    1. Hello Ayesha, Thats great to hear, sorry for the late reply but i am glad that the article helped you step into the world of photography. It’s not that rocket science, you just have to keep practicing and you’ll get better every day.
      Best of luck 🙂

  2. Hi Mustafa,

    Thanks for this amazing blogpost!
    I hope to also see your youtube series soon. So we can learn about building a portfolio and how to get your photo’s copyrighted/license, build a website etc. Also how to deliver high quality pictures like yours.
    Eventually i would also like to photograph for company’s but i don’t know where to start.

    If you can teach through youtube that would be totally awesome!

    1. Thankyou Saba. I am glad I could help. I’m in thoughts of starting youtube to help my friends and readers throughout the process from where to start the photography journey, build a portfolio, website, get into business. I’ll keep you posted about it.

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