Getting started with photography

Mastering the basics of photography including exposure, colour and composition is easier than you think. Here's what you need to know.
A person holds up a Canon EOS R100 camera to photograph two family members seen from behind.

Moving from a smartphone to a dedicated camera is an exciting leap in any photographer's journey – learning about exposure and composition and discovering how small tweaks to your settings can have a significant impact on your final images.

In this photography for beginners guide, we'll bring together all the information you need to take attention-grabbing shots. We'll explore why Canon's user-friendly ecosystem of cameras, lenses and apps is ideal for beginners, and explain the fundamentals of photography to help you take your creations to the next level.

Cameras and lenses

A woman standing in a shopping street holds a Canon EOS R50 camera up to her face, looking through the viewfinder.

Upgrading from a smartphone to a camera with a large APS-C sensor such as the Canon EOS R50 unlocks a world of new creative and technical possibilities.

There are two options when it comes to upgrading from a smartphone to a dedicated camera. Compact cameras, such as the Canon PowerShot V10 vlogging camera, are light and portable and have a fixed lens, whereas interchangeable lens cameras, such as the EOS R100, EOS R50 and the EOS R10, give you the ability to expand your lens range. Most interchangeable lens cameras come bundled with a versatile kit lens, which is a great option for beginners, but also means you can add new lenses to your kitbag as you start experimenting and your skills grow. There are a range of lens options for different shooting scenarios, so find out which lens is best for your needs before buying, and also make sure the lens is compatible with your camera using Canon's lens compatibility guide.

Whether you want to shoot outdoors on a misty morning or in your bedroom, lighting is key to capturing quality results that match your vision. Cameras have larger sensors than smartphones, and this means they can capture less noise and better detail – especially in low light. Canon cameras use two sizes of sensor: APS-C and full-frame. Full-frame sensors are larger than APS-C sensors, but bigger isn't necessarily better. Because APS-C sensors are smaller, cameras can be made more compact and lighter, which is ideal for street and travel photography. The smaller sensor size also means more distant subjects appear larger in the frame, making APS-C cameras ideal for sports and wildlife photography. A full-frame sensor has a wider field of view, so a full-frame camera is ideal for sweeping landscapes, ultra-wide architectural interiors and astrophotography.

Entry-level Canon cameras house powerful features, but they also come with beginner-friendly tools to help you find the best settings in a host of different scenarios. Canon's popular Guided Mode interface shares on-screen explanations to help you quickly grasp the basics. Icons and pictures help you understand what a function will do, and you can easily navigate around the interface using a touch-sensitive screen or buttons. The entry-level Canon EOS R100 has a white menu with Mode guide and feature guide, which displays useful information about the mode or function being selected.

Visit Canon's product support page and search for your camera model to download manuals and user guides.

Exposure and camera modes

A graphic illustrating the exposure triangle, the three sides of which are shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

The guiding principle of the exposure triangle is that if you adjust one of the three core exposure settings – ISO (A), shutter speed (B) and aperture (C) – then you will need to adjust the others to compensate and retain an even exposure.

A close-up of the mode dial on a Canon EOS camera.

The camera's mode dial lets you choose between different shooting modes. A+ (Scene intelligent auto) or SCN (Scene) modes are a convenient way to get started.

In photography, there are three important factors that affect how a picture looks: the size of the opening in the lens (aperture), how long the shutter stays open (shutter speed) and how sensitive the sensor is to light (ISO). These make up three sides of what's referred to as the exposure triangle. Unless you want to make an image lighter or darker on purpose, the three sides need to be balanced – if you change one factor, you need to adjust the others to compensate.

With any new camera, it's a good idea to first familiarise yourself with the mode dial, found on the top plate, as this is where you can choose how to control exposure.

A+ (Scene intelligent auto) is a fully automatic mode that analyses the scene and chooses the optimum settings. SCN (Scene) mode automatically chooses exposure settings to suit a particular subject or scene, making it easy to shoot sports, people, fireworks, close-ups and more when you're still learning how everything fits together.

P (Program) mode is also perfect for beginners, as the camera will set the aperture and shutter speed but leave other settings up to you. The semi-automatic modes Tv (Shutter priority) and Av (Aperture priority) give you more creative control. As the names suggest, with Shutter priority, you select the shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the rest, which is useful for sports and wildlife; with Aperture priority you choose the aperture, which makes it ideal for portraits and landscape shots. M (Manual) mode will give you complete control over the camera settings, which is something to try out when you have a better understanding of the exposure triangle.

Settings and techniques

A screenshot from a Canon camera showing a photograph of daffodils surrounded by its settings information and a histogram.

After you've taken a photo, the Playback Mode on a Canon camera will display the settings, date and time information, and a histogram graph to show you the spread of tones between shadows, midtones and highlights.

It's easy to adapt your exposure settings for different scenarios, but the key is to think about what you want to achieve. For wildlife and portrait photography, a common technique is to use a wide aperture (a low f-stop number such as f/1.8) to create a shallow depth of field, blurring the background and producing bokeh (out of focus areas).

For sports and action photography, setting a fast shutter speed freezes action, while panning with a slow shutter speed can be used to blur subjects and add drama. When it comes to the ISO, a higher sensitivity might be ideal for photographing the night sky – while a low ISO might be chosen to keep noise levels down in a sunrise landscape.

White balance (WB) is another setting that you can tweak in your images. It dictates the colour temperature – how warm or cool the ambient light appears. The Auto WB setting in Canon EOS R System cameras will usually do a fantastic job of capturing accurate colours.

You can also choose between manual (MF) and autofocus (AF). Canon's AF systems are so easy to use, many photographers rarely switch to MF. Manual focus can be useful, though, if you want to start experimenting with focus peaking – a visual aid that places a coloured highlight on in-focus edges – for macro photography or shooting images at night.

If you shoot your images in RAW format, you don't need to worry about getting everything perfect in-camera as you can edit them later. This requires dedicated software, such as Canon's free Digital Photo Professional, so is something to work towards as your skills develop.

Apps, software and printers

A hand holds a smartphone showing the Canon Camera Connect app. Next to it on a mossy rock is a Canon EOS camera with the touchscreen folded out.

Sometimes, you'll want to send images to friends or upload to social media instantly. It's easy to connect your Canon camera to an Apple (iOS) or Android (Google Play) device using the Canon Camera Connect app for sharing and remote shooting.

A man sits at a desk in front of a smartphone and a laptop, both displaying the app. A Canon camera and a SELPHY Square QX10 are also on the desk.

The app is a cloud based service for Canon cameras, used by professionals and beginners alike for an easier workflow. Upload full-size images and videos over Wi-Fi and access them anywhere from the app or a web browser.

Canon EOS R System cameras are also well connected with Bluetooth, built-in Wi-Fi and Canon's suite of apps. You can send images and clips straight to a smartphone or tablet with the Canon Camera Connect app, as well as shoot remotely, and geotag photos so you can remember exactly where they were taken. The app is designed to transfer your photos and videos from the camera to your favourite cloud storage services, a computer or even Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

The Canon ecosystem also includes the best photo printers to create beautiful physical prints at home or on the go, a selection of paper types for photos and creative projects, plus software to help your bring your photos to life.

So why not have a go at shooting a self-portrait, using the Canon Camera Connect app to shoot remotely. Discover how autofocus works and experiment with different apertures to see how it affects your background. Capture your child or pet running about in the garden and play around with motion photography. The Sports scene mode is a good starting point for capturing fast action – switch to Tv mode to create motion blur or try panning for blurred backgrounds. Test your new-found skills by shooting at night in Night scene or P mode, and adjust the ISO to see the difference it makes. Once you've grasped the basics, the creative opportunities are endless.

Lauren Scott & Andrea Ball
  1. Adobe, Lightroom and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

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