• Sophie Smith

10 Basic Photography Tips for Beginners

I’ve shared a long post about my long term love affair (and working relationship) with photography which you can read here, but do you know what I love almost as much as taking great photos? Teaching people how to take great photos. I lectured photojournalism at Rhodes for two years, and loved it.

Although I’m only doing my professional photography on the side and don’t teach anymore, I have recently had the fun job of teaching 40 young men a crash course in photography, with ten simple tips to improve your photos, so I thought I would share it with you too because I often get asked for tips. These are of course the basic rules, and can always be broken once you have the hang of them.

So here goes…


This is the one thing that will help you think about your photos differently. If the next ten tips are your tools, this is the toolbox - you have the power to choose what is in your photo, how people look at it, and what they see. You create a photo, a story, a message with each image, it doesn’t just create itself. You can make creative choices that make your photo great. The next 10 tips are ways to draw people’s eye and attention to what you are saying in your photo.


First things first, but one that a lot of people mess up - the photo needs to be in focus. It doesn’t all need to be in focus, but there needs to be something sharp (sharp is when it is crispy clear, not blurry). And whatever is sharp, becomes the focus of the image. In this example you can see that the frame is the same, but the focus is different and changes where you look. The photo on the left is of the bride, and her happy smile. The photo on the right is of the groom and the way he is looking at his bride. Just changing the focus, can change the meaning and point of the photo.

When photographing people or animals, the rule of thumb is that their eyes, or at least one eye, needs to be sharp and in focus.

The reason your photos may not be sharp is because your autofocus settings are wrong, or you didn’t chose a focal point, or because it is a low light situation and the whole photo is blurry because it’s just to dark for a sharp, hand held photo. Using a professional camera, I never use manual focus, but rather autofocus set to the middle point.

So the first way that you control what people look at in your photo, is by having the subject in focus.


Do you know why drone photography is such a craze? Because it shows us our world from a new and unusual perspective that we aren’t used to seeing. If you can show something in a new and different light to how it is usually seen, you’ll always grab a viewer’s attention.

But sometimes it’s not so much about getting a drone shot, as it is about moving around to find a better way to shoot the same thing. You should try it. Get a person or a large object and plonk them on the verandah or at a window. And then see how many different ways you can find the photograph that person or thing. Start with the obvious shots and then try and get a little more interesting. Shoot through the window, shoot into the light, shoot from above.


This is the classic photography rule, so much so that you will probably find a grid on your phone or camera to assist you with the perfect thirds in your photos.

There are two ways to use the rule of thirds:

1. Line up your subject, or your horizon, on the lines of the thirds

2. The main point of the picture should be on the point where the lines intersect. like the elephant's head in the example below.

Traditionally, placing the subject or the horizon in the centre of the frame is not the best practise, but this rule can always be broken, especially when symmetry comes into play, and with Instagram’s square images.


This relates to the rule of thirds, as can make or break a photo. Often the subjects of your photos need space - space to move into, space to look into or point into. Giving this space gives the picture the balance it needs and draws the eye to the subject, and then through the rest of the frame.

Sometimes negative space (space with nothing in it), is more powerful that positive, busy space.


If you have ever studied art, you will know the power of lines to draw the eye goes way back to ancient art. Lines lead the eye of the viewer through the picture to a visual point and are a great way to tell your visual story.


Frames are another way to draw attention directly to where you want the viewer to look. Frames can be subtle or obvious, natural or man-made. Even a vignette in the editing process can act as a bit of a frame to draw the eye in.


I don’t know how this point only got in at number seven because it is the key to great photography. All the previous tips can make your photos good, but when you learn to really work with light and shadows, then you are winning. Probably my biggest photographic breakthrough came when I stopped being afraid to shoot into the light.

It takes years to learn the subtleties of light, and did you know that it is different all over the world? The light in Europe, or in Canada is so different to the light here in South Africa. Our midday light is harsh and horrible, but our golden light is oh so magical. There’s bright lovely full shade where the sun is perfectly difffused, or magical golden sunset light, or even better, that tiny window of warm soft light just after the sun has gone. There’s window light, and midday light, and dappled light. And if you are trying to capture everyday moments and real life, you need to learn it all. I think I probably need to do a whole blog post just on light because I love it so much and I so strongly believe it is the key to great photos.


Colour is a simple and effective way of drawing the eye to a certain place or balancing a photo with complimentary colours, like blue and orange.

You may also feel like you images need to be slightly desaturated, or edited in black and white because sometimes the colour can distract from the message.


You can crop when you edit, but first prize is to shoot it right. Sometimes a photo needs lots of space (as discussed above), but other times a tight, clean crop can be really powerful.

There are a few simple rules that can also help with choosing your crop.

- Try and get your horizons straight

- Don’t crop people’s feet or hands off. The rule is generally that if it bends, don’t crop it, so don’t cut people off that the ankles, knees or elbows.

- It’s generally good to crop photos to set ratios - either 2:3, or 3:4, or 1:1 for Instagram.


This comes in last, simply because it is the last step in the process, and it’s good to try and get the best shot possible in camera. Having said that, if you want to take photography seriously and improve your photos, editing is a non-negotiable. When friends come to me and ask advice about buying a new camera, I tell them to allocate part of their budget to software, because there is no point in having a lovely camera with great glass, and no editing software. There are some purists who say that film photographers didn’t edit but actually most professional photographers spent hours in the dark room editing their images, in fact, many of the Photoshop terms we use today come from dark room terms, like dodging and burning.

There are free apps and software, but I can only recommend Adobe products because that it all I have used. They are expensive but they are the industry standard and they are the best. If you are starting out, and you are going for a more realistic style of photography, I would definitely recommend Lightroom.


My last tip is a simple one, that goes for any skill you want to master - practise and practise some more. You’ll never get it perfect, at least I never feel like I've fully mastered the art of photography, but you will keep improving and learning and growing, and capturing magical memories along the way.

Please feel free to ask any questions or add your favourite tips if you think I have forgotten any essentials.

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© 2019 Sophie Smith