It seems the forum now has a small population of budding photographers, and seeing as people appreciated my excessively long posts about their photography, I thought I'd put together a thread that contains the essential tips and information one should keep in mind when starting off in the world of photography.
Before I get started, I'd like to make one thing clear there are no rules to photography as with any form of art, all "rules" are merely suggestions and are there to be broken and twisted to fit the artist's vision. The only things that are set in stone about photography are the technical properties of photographic equipment. All composition rules are suggestions, always remember this. The reason why they are constantly cited is that they (usually) work, and are great fall-back points when you're stumped with how to capture something.
"There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs."
- Ansel Adams
This is the most important thing in photography, as it is what photography relies on. While many people may start of learning composition and get to lighting later, I think it is counterproductive to do so. Without good light, your subject, however interesting may look bland and flat.
Consider the time of day you shoot, and the effect it has upon the light. For example, midday sun gives harsh shadows, directly below the subject. This time of day is a no-no for portraiture, unless you can find some shade, or shade your subject with a diffuser. In fact, noon is generally a no-go for most photographers. Early morning gives nice, soft light, especially just before, during and after sunrise. This is the time all serious landscape photographers are out and about. The late afternoon and early morning gives dramatic long shadows. I prefer late afternoon because of the golden light you can get. Finally before, during and just after sunset are great times to get dramatic colors in the sky and to shoot cityscapes before the sky turns completely black.
Composition is the way one arranges and presents a shot. It is the most essential photographic skill to learn, as it is through composition, not technical mastery that a photographer shows their vision. One may have the most fascinating subject to shoot, but if not executed well, they may not capture its essence. I know this sounds very long-winded and stuff, but it's true.
There are many rules of composition, but I'll start with the most fundamental of them all.
The rule of thirds
Many budding photographers have the idea that the main subject should be placed in the center of the shot. This is usually not even a cognitive decision, they compose as such, as it is the way we see things.
However, after seeing thousands upon thousands of photos composed this way, things get boring. It has been a long-known concept among artists that it is (usually) more visually interesting if the subject is off-center, even by a little bit.
When photographing, consider your viewfinder split into thirds (most digital cameras have a grid overlay, use this if you have trouble visualizing this at first)
This shot is a great example of the rule of thirds and leading lines (which I will get to later). The subject matter is to the right of the center third and is emphasized by the lines and the contrast between the darkness of the left of the frame.
This rule works in portrait orientation too
Don't treat the thirds of the viewfinder as specific cells, it's just a loose guideline, things can spill into other thirds, as sometimes it may look a little extreme if you only use a corner third.
Sometimes shots work best with a center composition, symmetrical shots like streetscapes and architectural shots may look great with the subject in the middle.
Another instance when the rule of thirds comes in handy is when shooting landscapes. Each third should (ideally) contain a subject. Namely a foreground, middleground and background. Many photographers make the mistake of not including a foreground. This usually means the shot has no sense of depth. Additionally, the horizon line, while it is a good idea to keep straight, does not have to be in the center of the shot. Place it according to your subject matter. Say the sky is more interesting than the ground, place the horizon lower and vice-versa for the ground.
Consider the above when looking at this shot
For those interested in other ways of composing a shot, check this out, though the alternatives mentioned are pretty closely linked with my next point.
Another powerful compositional technique is the use of lines within a shot. Lines lead your eyes around a photo, be you consciously aware of it or not.
Lines allow one to be lead into the photo, to find the subject. They also can give a sense of depth, as one follows the lines until they reach the end. The most common type of leading line is (obviously) a straight line, or a group of straight lines, leading to the center, as thus
This composition works great for streets and architecture, but use it sparingly as it is also very overused.
A more natural, subtle use of leading lines is the "S curve". While it may not always be a full "S" shape, a curved line leads your around the photo more than a straight line, and in a more natural, scanning way.
Here's a blatantly obvious example, followed by two more natural and subtle ones
If you come across an S curve when shooting something, use it! It rarely fails to work well in a photo!
Lines don't always have to lead to the subject at the end, following a line may lead one to the subject and beyond, as seen in this simple diagonal transect.
This concept is quite simple, while a photo is already framed within the viewfinder, find an additional frame within the shot to emphasize your subject, and sometimes depth.
More ideas for framing can be found here
I think that I've covered the essentials of composition, mostly composition should be intuitive. Don't constantly think of these rules, you'll find them ditracting; rather, keep them in mind and use them as you see fit.
Here's a quick run-through of the technicalities of photography. There are three main areas in which you can control your camera. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO sensitivity (be it film or digital).
Aperture and depth of field
While many think the aperture size merely limits the amount of light falling onto the sensor/film, it has more of an effect on photos than you'd think. The aperture size also controls depth of field.
Depth of field is the distance of sharpness before and after the point at which you focused on. Low depth of field is usually used in portraiture, where the face is focused on, while the background (and foreground) is out of focus. A large depth of field is (usually) desirable for landscape photography, as one wants the whole scene to be in focus.
Depth of field is controlled by the size of the aperture. The smaller the aperture, the more depth of field. The larger the aperture, the less depth of field.
The aperture size is represented by the f-number. I'm sure many of you have seen a number like f/8 on your camera display. This is the aperture size. Aperture sizes are counter-intuitive in that the larger the number, the smaller the aperture. f/1.4 is huge and f/22 is tiny.
Depth of field decreases as the focal length (the amount you zoom in) gets longer. It also decreases the closer you focus on something.
Aperture size also affects the appearance of the out of focus shapes you see in macro and portrait shots. Such shapes are called bokeh. I absolutely love bokeh, and if you've ever wanted to know how to achieve it, the easiest way is to zoom in as far as you can and use a large aperture. The results may vary, compact cameras rarely get as nice bokeh as an SLR, due to the effect that the smaller sensor size has upon depth of field - compacts have an insanely high depth of field! The larger the sensor/film, the narrower the depth of field. This is why large format camera lenses can usually stop down to minuscule apertures like f/64 to compensate for their lower depth of field as compared to a 35mm format lens.
Shutter speed is self-explanatory. It is the period of time that the shutter remains open. The shutter speed required for a correct exposure is affected by the amount of light let in by the aperture and the aperture size may be limited by the maximum shutter speed of the camera (you may not be able to use f/1.4 in the middle of a bright summer day, since most cameras can't shoot faster than 1/4000th)
Fast shutter speeds freeze motion, slow shutter speeds record motion. Light trails and silky smooth rivers are captured via slow shutter speeds or long exposures as they can also be referred to.
The longer the shutter remains open, the more light is let in, so the lower the light, the longer the shutter must remain open. As shutter speeds reach lower than 1/30th of a second, shots become increasingly harder to handhold. This is when a tripod or a solid place to rest your camera comes in handy.
Sensitivity, once referred to as ASA is now referred to as ISO, ASA/ISO values are exactly the same. When shooting in low light, or when trying to obtain a high shutter speed, one may up the sensitivity of their camera or use a higher speed film. The higher the sensitivity, the less light is required to obtain a correct exposure. This may sound all well and good, however as one increases sensitivity, one will see an increase in noise. This may not always be a desired feature of photos, so use high ISOs only when they're needed. Otherwise, keep your camera in a low ISO, such as 100 for general purpose use.
Generally high ISO shots on compact cameras look like mush, due to the combination of a small sensor and extreme noise reduction. DSLR users, especially those rich bastards who have full-frame cameras, can get away with using higher ISOs with much less noise. This is due to a much lower pixel density, and therefore less electronic interference - the cause of digital noise.
Well, I hope I covered everything needed for the essentials. If not, feel free to ask me questions via this thread, PMs, user profile notes, whatever. I hope this has been of use to you.
There is much more to photography, but in the beginning you don't want to be overwhelmed with technicalities. In the end, photography is meant to be an enjoyable way of expressing yourself, not some cold, technical medium.