Writing an introduction to photography is like writing an introduction to words. In today’s world, people take pictures to a degree which would have been unimaginable for most of history. Not all pictures, however, have the same impact. What separates inspiring photographs from ordinary ones, and how can you improve the quality of your own work? This introduction explains photography in an intuitive way for beginners, with several tips and suggestions to take your skills as far as possible.
What Is Photography?
Photography is the art of capturing light with a camera, usually via a digital sensor or film, to create an image. With the right camera equipment, you can photograph wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye, including UV, infrared, and radio.
The first permanent photograph was captured in 1826 (some sources say 1827) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in France. It shows the roof of a building lit by the sun. You can see it reproduced below:
We’ve come a long way since then.
The purpose of this article is to introduce the past and present worlds of photography. You will also find some important tips to help you take better photos along the way.
This article is part of our much larger online guide to photography – “Photography Basics” – intended to help photographers learn how to take amazing pictures from the ground up. Jump to the other chapters in this guide via the following menu:
- Chapter 1: Introduction to Photography (You are here)
- Chapter 2: Shutter Speed
- Chapter 3: Aperture
- Chapter 4: ISO
- Chapter 5: Composition
- Chapter 6: Metering
- Chapter 7: Camera Modes
- Chapter 8: Focusing
- Chapter 9: Flash
- Chapter 10: Camera Settings
- Chapter 11: How to Take Sharp Pictures
- Chapter 12: Photography Tips for Beginners
A Brief History of Photography and the People Who Made It Succeed
Color photography started to become popular and accessible with the release of Eastman Kodak’s “Kodachrome” film in the 1930s. Before that, almost all photos were monochromatic – although a handful of photographers, toeing the line between chemists and alchemists, had been using specialized techniques to capture color images for decades before. You’ll find some fascinating galleries of photos from the 1800s or early 1900s captured in full color, worth exploring if you have not seen them already.
These scientist-magicians, the first color photographers, are hardly alone in pushing the boundaries of one of the world’s newest art forms. The history of photography has always been a history of people – artists and inventors who steered the field into the modern era.
So, below, you’ll find a brief introduction to some of photography’s most important names. Their discoveries, creations, ideas, and photographs shape our own pictures to this day, subtly or not. Although this is just a brief bird’s-eye view, these nonetheless are people you should know before you step into the technical side of photography:
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
- Invention: The first permanent photograph (“View from the Window at Le Gras,” shown earlier)
- Where: France, 1826
- Impact: Cameras had already existed for centuries before this, but they had one major flaw: You couldn’t record a photo with them! They simply projected light onto a separate surface – one which artists used to create realistic paintings, but not strictly photographs. Niépce solved this problem by coating a pewter plate with, essentially, asphalt, which grew harder when exposed to light. By washing the plate with lavender oil, he was able to fix the hardened substance permanently to the plate.
- Quote: “The discovery I have made, and which I call Heliography, consists in reproducing spontaneously, by the action of light, with gradations of tints from black to white, the images received in the camera obscura.” Mic drop.
- Invention: The Daguerreotype (first commercial photographic material)
- Where: France, 1839
- Impact: Daguerreotypes are images fixed directly to a heavily polished sheet of silver-plated copper. This invention is what really made photography a practical reality – although it was still just an expensive curiosity to many people at this point. If you’ve never seen daguerreotypes in person, you might be surprised to know just how sharp they are.
- Quote: “I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.”
- Genre: Portraiture and documentary
- Where: United States, late 1800s through mid 1900s
- Impact: Alfred Stieglitz was a photographer, but, more importantly, he was one of the first influential members of the art community to take photography seriously as a creative medium. He believed that photographs could express the artist’s vision just as well as paintings or music – in other words, that photographers could be artists. Today’s perception of photography as an art form owes a lot to Stieglitz.
- Quote: “In photography, there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
- Genre: Portrait photography
- Where: United States, 1930s
- Impact: One of the most prominent documentary photographers of all time, and the photographer behind one of the most influential images of all time (shown below), is Dorothea Lange. If you’ve ever seen photos from the Great Depression, you most likely have seen some of her work. Her photos shaped the field of documentary photography and showed the camera’s potential for power more than almost anyone else in history.
- Quote: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
- Genre: Landscape photography
- Where: United States
- When: 1920s to 1960s (for most of his work)
- Impact: Ansel Adams is perhaps the most famous photographer in history, which is remarkable because he mainly took pictures of landscapes and natural scenes. (Typically, famous photographers have tended to photograph people instead.) Ansel Adams helped usher in an era of realism in landscape photography, and he was an early champion of the environmentalism and preservation movements in the United States.
- Quote: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
What camera do you need for photography?
Apple became the world’s first trillion dollar company in 2018 largely because of the iPhone – and what it replaced.
Alarm clocks. Flashlights. Calculators. MP3 players. Landline phones. GPSs. Audio recorders.
Many people today believe that their phone is good enough for most photography, and they have no need to buy a separate camera. And you know what? They’re not wrong. For most people out there, a dedicated camera is overkill.
Phones are better than dedicated cameras for most people’s needs. They’re quicker and easier to use, not to mention their seamless integration with social media services. It only makes sense to get a dedicated camera if your phone isn’t good enough for the photos you want (like photographing sports or low-light environments) or if you’re specifically interested in photography as a hobby.
That advice may sound crazy coming from a photographer, but it’s true. If you have any camera at all, especially a cell phone camera, you have what you need in order to take great photos. And if you have a more advanced camera, like a DSLR or mirrorless camera, what more is there to say? This is the guide for you – it’s time to learn photography.
At this point, what other camera gear and accessories do you need?
Camera. If you buy a dedicated camera (rather than a phone), pick one with interchangeable lenses so that you can try out different types of photography more easily. Read reviews, but don’t obsess over them, because everything available today is pretty much equally good as its competition. Find a nice deal and move on.
Lenses. This is where it counts. For everyday photography, start with a standard zoom lens like a 24-70mm or 18-55mm. For portrait photography, pick a prime lens (one that doesn’t zoom) at 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm. For sports, go with a telephoto lens. For macro photography, get a dedicated macro lens. And so on. Lenses matter more than any other piece of equipment because they determine what photos you can take in the first place.
Post-processing software. One way or another, you need to edit your photos. It’s ok to start with software already on your computer, or software that comes with your camera. But in the long run, a dedicated program will do a better job. Adobe sells Lightroom and Photoshop as a bundle for $10/month, or you can buy standalone software from another company if you prefer; there are tons of options. Whatever you pick, stick with it for a while, and you’ll learn it quite well.
Everything else is optional, but can be very helpful:
- A tripod. A landscape photographer’s best friend. See our comprehensive tripod article.
- Bags. Get a shoulder bag for street photography, a rolling bag for studio photography, a technical hiking backpack for landscape photography, and so on.
- Memory cards. Choose something in the 32-64 GB range to start. Get a fast card (measured in MB/second) if you shoot bursts of photos, since your camera’s memory will clear faster.
- Extra Batteries. Get at least one spare battery to start, preferably two. Off-brand batteries are usually cheaper, although they may not last as long or maintain compatibility with future cameras.
- Polarizing filter. This is a big one, especially for landscape photographers. Don’t get a cheap polarizer or it will harm your image quality. We recommend the B+W Kaesemann filter (of the same thread size as your lens). See our polarizing filter article too.
- Flash. Flashes can be expensive, and you might need to buy a separate transmitter and receiver if you want to use your flash off-camera.
- Better computer monitor. Ideally, you’d get an IPS monitor for editing photos (which we’ve also written an article about).
- Cleaning kit. The top item is a microfiber cloth to keep the front of your lens clean. Also get a rocket blower to remove dust from your camera sensor more easily.
- Other equipment. There are countless photography accessories available, from remote shutter releases to GPS attachments to printers and more. Don’t worry about these at first; you’ll realize over time if you need one.
The Three Fundamental Camera Settings You Should Know
Your camera has dozens of buttons and menu options. If you pick the wrong camera settings, it’s possible that your photo won’t turn out the way you want. How do you make sense of all these options? And how do you do it quickly in the field?
It’s not easy, but it’s easier than you might think. In fact, most of the menu options are things you’ll only set one time, then rarely or never touch again. Only a handful of settings need to be changed frequently, and that’s what the rest of this Photography Basics guide covers.
The three most important settings are called shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. All three of them control the brightness of your photo, although they do so in different ways. In other words, each brings its own “side effects” to an image. So, it’s a bit of an art to know exactly how to balance all three for a given photo.
- Shutter speed: The amount of time your camera sensor is exposed to the world while taking a picture. Chapter 2: Shutter Speed
- Aperture: Represents a “pupil” in your lens that can open and close to let in different amounts of light. Chapter 3: Aperture
- ISO: Technically a bit more complex, but similar to the sensitivity of film for taking pictures in different lighting conditions. Chapter 4: ISO
The First Steps on Your Photographic Journey
In photography, the technical and the creative go hand in hand.
Remember the Ansel Adams quote from earlier? There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept. If the idea behind a photo is weak, using the right camera settings won’t make it better.
At the same time, camera settings are some of the most important tools you have at your disposal. In a way, every technical choice is really an artistic choice in disguise. These settings are worth learning. Your understanding of photography will improve tenfold when you understand how camera settings work.
So, the next few chapters of this guide will cover the most important camera settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Then, we’ll dive into the deep end of composition. This is how photos are made.