Basic Photography Concepts

While many of us know how to take pictures, fewer of us are familiar with the compositional aspects of photography. In fact, learning about and knowing how to manipulate compositional aspects of photography differentiates the amateurs from the professional photographers.

Keep in mind, however, that knowing the basic concepts of photography is just the start. The key to refining your skills is to know how the concepts of photography work together to produce a complete, finished looking shot.

Although you may not be an aspiring professional, understanding how to manipulate compositional aspects, especially when one aspect (such as lighting), is less than ideal can help you take better shots in nearly any situation.

Here is an outline of the basic concepts of photography:

  • camera angles
  • composition
  • exposure
  • lighting.

As you read, think about how you can incorporate our suggestions into your current practice to improve your shots. Remember, only by experimenting will you truly know what works best for you!


Focusing on the composition of the shot is important to making a picture extraordinary. Composition includes everything that contributes to in a photographic frame. This means that, along with your technique of setting up the shot, composition also refers to all elements that will ultimately be featured in the photo. For example, a tree in the background of a shot is just as much a part of your composition as the lens and filters you choose.

As a result, all of the other features of this article (camera angles, lighting and exposure) are all part of basic composition.

Camera Angles

Different camera angles produce dramatically different effects on a subject. Here is a general outline of the effects different camera angles produce in the resulting shots:

  • High Angle Shot: Place the camera above the subject and aim down to make the subject appear small, diminutive and weak.
  • Low Angle Shot: Place the camera below the subject and tilt up to make the subject appear tall, imposing and powerful.
  • Distance Shot: Stand a fair distance from the subject to make the subject appear mysterious, unassuming, less important or delicate.
  • Close-up Shot: Use a telephoto or zoom lens (or stand closer to the subject) to get a close-up shot that will make your subject appear bigger, more detailed, important, or more menacing.

Choose your camera angle based on your subject, the setting and the mood you want to create. For example, you may want to take a close-up, detailed shot of a drop of dew on a flower to display its delicacy. Alternatively, a picture of a The Empire State Building may require a low angle shot that portrays its towering magnificence.

Lighting and Exposure

Whether you are taking indoor or outdoor shots, the lighting you have within your frame is key to how your subject will appear in the final shot. This lighting, in turn, dictates the exposure you set on your camera.

Simply stated, exposure refers to the amount and intensity of light that is allowed to have contact with the film. As a result, you will need to know how to manipulate your camera”s exposure settings to accommodating different lighting in various settings. Although the user”s manual may seem daunting, it can be extremely useful in helping you learn how to manipulate exposure settings.

The most accurate way to determine how much light exists in your frame, as well as what corresponding exposure time you should set, is to use a light meter. Similarly, some photographers use a non-reflective gray card, placed in the intended light source, to get a sense of the intensity of color for the resulting picture. With this gray card, one can lock the exposure onto that card before taking a picture.

Here are some basic photography concepts regarding exposure and lighting based on whether you are taking pictures indoors or outdoors:

  • Indoor:With dimmers and bulbs of varying wattage, artificial lighting can be as varied as natural lighting. In general, a fairly dim to brightly lit setting will fair well with your camera”s automatic exposure setting. For darker indoor settings, use longer exposure times, as this allows light to hit the film for longer.However, if you prefer your indoor picture to turn out darker, then keep the automatic exposure setting.
  • Outdoor: When working with outdoor lighting, you”ll have to be careful to about the time of day you plan your shoot, as well as the forecasted weather conditions. Traditionally, the best times for outdoor photography are from sunrise to about 10:00 am and again later in the day, about two hours prior to sunset until sundown. Because the sun will be lower in the sky during these timeframes, your photographs will have a warmer sense of light. To maintain this warm sense of light, use short to medium exposure times, as these will sustain the feel of the setting and moment. However, if you are taking outdoor pictures at night (such as pictures of the stars or a lit cityscape), your subject is only going to be lit by ambient light, such as the moon, stars or street lamps. As a result, use longer exposure times so that the ambient light of the scene can adequately imprint your subject on the film.

As you learn how to coordinate these photography concepts, remember that experimenting with basic composition is the only way to learn how lighting and exposure work together.

More Advanced Photography Concepts

As you start to master the basic photography concepts, slowly incorporate the more advanced concepts of photography into your practice. Whether you teach yourself basic photography concepts through trial and error or you take a seminar, a greater understanding of the art of photography will greatly improve your pictures.