A Debate on What are The Fundamental Things You Must Learn About Photography

I was at a birthday party a few days ago, and one of there was this guy who just recently bought a DSLR and started to learn about photography. A friend of mine, who is a very good advanced photographer was giving tips to this guy on learning about photography. He was telling the guy that basically he should just concentrate on learning about composition and did not have to worry too much about other aspect of photography. I just suggested that other than composition, the new guy should learn about camera control as well, like shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings. Well, my advanced photographer friend was quite agitated by my suggestion. He dismissed what I said and told the guy that he could learn all that in one day and not to waste time and just concentrate on learning about composition. Basically he just continued talking to the guy about his point and I did not get a chance to have another word with the guy anymore.

Well, I absolutely agree that composition is an important part of fundamentals on photography. However, I have to strongly disagree with my friend that camera control is not important and easy to learn in a short time. While it is true that you can easily learn what is shutter speed, aperture and ISO all in a day, being able to use these effectively in real life is another matter.

Camera control is not a problem for any advanced, well experienced photographer. In fact setting the appropriate shutter speed, aperture and ISO becomes an innate action. My advanced photographer friend, and any other advanced photographer for that matter, does not have to spend a lot of time thinking about what settings to use for a particular shot, it would just come to him like a reflex. However, I think that is what made him forget that beginners and inexperienced photographers need time to learn and practice on camera control. It is not something that you can learn to do completely in a day.

It is just like you can learn all about how a gearbox, steering, brakes and gas pedal work in a day, but that does not mean you will know how to control a car effectively and become a good driver in one day.

When I pick up my camera and looking at a particular scene or subject to shoot, I will almost instant know what settings to use. Whether to use aperture or shutter priority mode, set the appropriate aperture or shutter speed and ISO. But that is not something I could do from day one. It was a long process of learning and practicing before I could achieve that. I still maintain that leaning about these basic camera control is elementary and is something that anyone who is serious about learning photography must learn and have total confidence in controlling them effectively.

Of course cameras nowadays are fairly smart with all kinds of auto mode and function and in fact might do a reasonable job under many situation. However, there is no camera that is smart enough to set the appropriate setting for every situation. Not knowing how to control the camera settings effectively is the primary reason why many beginners in photography often find their shots incorrectly exposed or blurry. For example, there are often situations where the camera metering would not give the most ideal exposure. If you do not adjust the camera settings accordingly, the shot will turn out under or over exposed. The common reason why many shots are blurry is because shutter speed was set too slow by the camera, which is too slow to freeze a moving subject or may be too slow to allow hand holding without getting a blurry shot.

The shot at the top was taken one night after having dinner with some friends. It was shot with Canon EOS 5D Mark II with EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. The camera settings were ISO 3200, aperture priority mode, aperture f/2.8, shutter speed 1/30 seconds and +2/3EV exposure compensation. How did I know those settings would work? From experience of course.

I cannot stress this enough. If you are a beginner of photography and you are serious about learning and improving your photography, you must learn about camera control. Not just what they are, but you must learn how to control them effectively to give you the photos that you want under any situation.


14 thoughts on “A Debate on What are The Fundamental Things You Must Learn About Photography

  1. Just walk by and read this article. 😀

    I am camera beginner and eager to learn taking photos in every chances.

    I am so frustrated taking photos even I have read through camera manuals and taking many photography courses. My wife and friends just find my photos not interesting and I almost want to give up.

    After reading your article, I think your friend must be a very artistic and experience photographer or art worker. His idea is inspiring and now I know why my photos are so boring. I think I should realign my point of focus in taking photos in near future.

    Thanks for posting this article. Love it!


  2. Hi Teletubbies,

    It takes a lot more than just picking up a good camera and lens to be able to shoot a good photo. Basics like camera control I talked about above, composition, subject matter, lighting, artistic sense, creativity etc, all contributes to the ability to be able to shoot a good photo.

  3. Hi Roland,

    I so glad to have your reply so quick. 😀

    In the past, I just spend too much time on camera knobs and dials and end up with tones of digital garbages.

    At last, I know my main problem is poor sense of art appreciation rather than familiarity of camera control.

    Thanks Roland, your friend ring my bell.

    • Hi Teletubbies,

      If you have mastered camera control already and have no problem with this, then of course you should spend more time and effort in exploring other aspect on improving your photography like composition and subject choice. It’s good that you have found the answer to how you may move forward after reading this article, but I don’t want to send the wrong message to other readers.

      The intention of this article was to explain to beginners that camera control is an elementary part of photography that is a fundamental to being able to take good photos. Of course there is nothing wrong with learning about camera control and other aspect of photography like composition together, but too many people seemed to think camera control is not important and dismissed it to lightly. You can have the best artistic sense in the world and the ability to achieve perfect composition, but if you cannot control the camera effectively, you will still not be able to take a good photo. A photo with the most artistic composition which is blurry due setting shutter speed too slow or underexposed because of inappropriate exposure would still not be a good photo.

  4. I agree that camera controls are a very important aspect of photography, but learning about f-stops before you understand how DOF plays into your images may not help a beginner.

    I somewhat agree with your friend, in that the content of the image should be your first and foremost concern. I see tons of people in the forums and all over the internet that have tons of nice gear, like 5dIIs and L glass, but their pictures just aren’t very good. Now of course there are plenty of shooters with this caliber of equipment that produce good results. People buy a couple 580exII’s, but they have no clue how to light.

    In the end it’s about what you do with your creativity that makes a photo, not necessarily the equipment. Of course some images require strobes, or a certain lens, but I think you learn more when you decide you want to make an image, and then figure out what equipment you need to get there.

    @Teletubbies, you should find some photographers that you admire and try to figure out how they made their images. There are tons of behind-the-scenes videos and lots of inspirational work out there that can help you ignite your creativity.

  5. I think at the end of the day no one is denying that both are just as important. Composition comes from one’s ability to see the picture in one’s mind and then compose that in our viewfinder. The composition is what makes the picture work or become more interesting so I’m sure there are folks with point and shoot cameras that are taking better photos than others with expensive DSLRs.

    However, to deliver the pictures we see in our head is not so simple. We take the complex intricacies of how an image is seen in our head for granted. Some times we compose the shot as we see it in our head but the photo comes nowhere near to what we actually see. Our brain is automatically compensating for the different variables such as light and so on. The camera can’t do that (well at least not to the extent we like it). Here the technical part of your camera handling comes in. Knowing where to meter, the appropriate f-stop to get the DOF, the correct shutter speed to avoid hand shake. So to say that a good photo is all about composition would be to tell half the story.

    I’ll give you an anecdotal example. Friend of my mine shoots with a 7D. Has fantastic composition but has no idea how being able to change the focus point would give her the picture that she really wants. So everything is left to the camera and it is hit and miss because the camera has to guess what she’s trying to focus on. This is especially when you use a lens with f-stops from 1.2-1.8. So are the images nice, maybe because there’s good composition but is it what you wanted? No, because you don’t know how to get the camera to do what you want it to do when you want it.

    Which to learn first? Both. Some will always be technically better while others will have a better eye.

    • Hi Paul,

      Of course both composition and camera controls are important and I absolutely agree with that. There is also nothing with learning both at the same time.

      The point of my article is really about some people lightly dismissing camera control as not important. As you have pointed out in your example, a person with fantastic ability with composition, but no idea with how to control the camera will always be hit or miss when taking a photo.

  6. Personally I don’t think that either composition or control are what really matters. They are useful tools but if you have nothing to say then they won’t help you in any significant way.

    The internet is full of millions of well composed, technically competent photographs. Even if you spent your whole life looking at them no man could possibly hope to see them all. It seems to me that there is very little point in adding to this virtually infinite pool of pretty photos.

    It’s only when you have something meaningful to say and are prepared to put the work in to realise it that the composition, creativity and technique have any purpose.

    Take a photographer like Mary Ellen Mark, for example. Her photographs of Seattle street kids, taken several decades ago, changed the way people saw American society. Of course she has technique in spades but what made that project happen was the fact that she was prepared to spend months getting to know the street kids, gaining their trust, finally building enough mutual respect for them to show here the disused building where they lived etc. Only then was she able to take photos that were important and use her compositional skills and technique.

    That doesn’t mean the only important thing is social documentary, it’s just an example.

    My ranking for what’s important in photography would be this:

    1) Having something to say
    2) Putting the work in to enable you to say it
    3) Creativity
    4) Composition and camera control

    • Hi David,

      While I would agree that it would be great to have something to say in a photo, but to say that only photo with an important message or something to say is important and photos with no particular message as unimportant is putting it a bit too far.

      It would certainly be good if all photos are shot with an important message behind it, but I would personally disagree that only photos with a message is worthwhile. Photogrpahy can be about a lot of things, and I think you are putting photography on too much of a moral high ground.

      There are lot of good photos shot by good photographers without any specific message. Many landscape, still life photos have no specific message, but to say they are are unimportant or insignificant just because they have no message behind them is really unfair.

      The majority of photographers around the world are not professional photographers with a mission to and messages to propagate around the world. Most are just amateurs. Even a good family photo or a nice holiday shot can be significant as far as that person is concerned.

      Be that as it may, what you said in your 3rd paragraph basically told us about the relevance to my original article:-

      It’s only when you have something meaningful to say and are prepared to put the work in to realise it that the composition, creativity and technique have any purpose.

      So even by your own standard, a photographer with an important message to say still need the basic skill and technique (like camera controls and composition skills) before he or she can put that message into a meaningful photo.

  7. I agree, the mechanics are relativly simple to start with, dont take long to learn and are quite applicable in situ when taking shots. Photography is about timing, exposure and framing, not one or two.

  8. Hi Roland,
    Your explanation and analogy with respect to driving was most appropriate. I’ll provide another: Weaving. In weaving, one can have a brilliant designer who conjures up a fantastic design and then the weaver weaves it into a superb piece of cloth. But, in photography, one cannot separate the two functions. In order to capture the special image one needs to be able to compose it (be able to visualise it) and also be able to execute it (know how to work the camera to deliver the image in mind). It is absolutely essential to know and be able to use the camera settings/controls to translate what is on one’s mind to a camera picture.

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