How to Take a Good Photo by Geoff

My basic DSLR guide for beginners to taking a good shot.

What you Need:

  • A DSLR camera (plus memory card, plus battery, plus appropriate lens)
  • A tripod
  • A remote shutter release
  • A subject
  • An interesting background
  • An interesting foreground
  • Nothing distracting from your subject
  • Image Editing Software - I suggest Adobe Lightroom and/or Photoshop Elements
  • Switch your camera`s settings to save your shots in RAW format.  You can also save as a JPEG is you choose, but RAW is very important.

The first three items are obvious and the last is probably pretty obvious as well.  The guts in the middle are a large part of what makes a shot "good".  Choosing your subject is easy - it could be a person, an animal, a sunset, a rocket on a launchpad or a million other things.  But once you have decided what you want to shoot, making it stand above a hundred photos of the same thing depends greatly on what else is in the shot.

Actually, I'll touch on the tripod and shutter release quickly.  A shot will never be good if it isn't sharp.  A tripod will always be far steadier than the steadiest of hands.  A shutter release is just as helpful because when the photographer presses the button, it is easy to shake the camera slightly with that small amount of pressure.  The remote will press the button for you without your touching the camera.


A number of photographers will say that a good shot is built from the background forward.  That is probably very good advice and I certainly wouldn't argue it.  Unfortunately there are many occasions where you cannot control it entirely.  What you can often control though is the angle in which you shoot your subject.  This means either walking or driving around and seeing which direction gives you your best background.  Ideally it should have no distractions or things that might make the viewer question what the subject truly is.


While you're doing your walk-around, it is important to be aware of what would be in your foreground.  At times, you need to weigh which is more important, or which is more interesting.  Just remember, you can control much of these two things by your choice of equipment and choice of settings.  


You've chosen your background and foreground, and that's fantastic.  But one other thing to consider: How is the light? Would it be better if you had been there at sunrise? Early morning? Late afternoon? After dark? Are there clouds in the sky? Do you have shadows? You want a good shot remember, not just a shot.  Be prepared to return to this place another time.  You may even return several times.


Now that you've chosen your subject, your background, your foreground and hopefully the light, you have no doubt noticed there are probably several buttons and maybe a few wheels on your camera.  What are they? What do they do?

Focusing on Canon because that's what I know, I'm going to get into the modes that I use because for me, they make the most sense to commonly use.


You would like to think this is a video mode, but it isn't.  This setting is one of the somewhat Auto modes that gives you some control of the type of action you are shooting.  If you use this setting, chances are either you are moving, or your subject is.  Therefore, what you are truly controlling is your shutter speed.  If you or your subject are moving quickly or erratically, you will want to use a shutter speed that is higher.  Maybe 1/400th of a second, maybe 1/1000th, possibly higher.  If you want to freeze the wings of a hummingbird, you will want to shoot at very high shutter speed.  

When you choose your shutter speed, your camera will adjust the other settings all by itself to give you what it believes is a good exposure.


AV is a setting which controls the Aperture of your lens.  It is also another somewhat Auto mode.  Aperture's function is how much of your shot (from what is nearest your focus point to the farthest item away from it) is in focus.  

Let that sink in for a moment.  If you choose a low number like f. 2.8 (a wide open aperture), less of your shot will be in focus.  If you shoot something at a very close distance to you with a background that is a significant distance away, all of that "stuff" behind it will be blurred to some degree, or even totally.  The "stuff" in front of it will as well.  This is an excellent way to ensure that your subject is defined clearly and there is no mistaking what your subject is.  With this setting, you can take a cluttery background, and either make it blurry and irrelevent, or possibly even make it an interesting, but non-distracting pattern.

Conversely, if you choose a larger aperture number (like f. 22), a lot more will be in clearer focus.  This is an important thing when shooting a beautiful landscape.


M is the scary, forboding, intimidating MANUAL mode.  Yes, I wrote that in caps.  It's very scary to use Manual mode because you have to make all of the decisions yourself.  

Truth be told, I shoot manual mode nearly all the time.  Not because I'm amazing, but because it is the only mode that truly lets you decide how the shot will look.  Lets get a bit deeper.

I've talked about the benefits of controlling your shutter speed and why choosing your aperture can be beneficial.  Well, with Manual mode, you can have your cake and eat it too.  That is to say, you can control both.

Suppose you want to shoot a cyclist riding past, but you don't want the "stuff" behind him or her to be cluttering your shot.  Well, it's actually quite easy.  Set your shutter speed to a number you would expect would be reasonable for a moving target, and an aperture that would blur your background.  I would likely go with 1/1000th shutter speed or perhaps higher, and an aperture of around 5.6.  If you have left your ISO setting on Automatic, it will evaluate your settings and set an ISO number automatically that will give you what it thinks is an appropriate exposure.  Now your cyclist has been frozen, is sharp and you have a background which is blurred, making your cyclist the obvious subject.


What is ISO you might ask? ISO is the third part of the Exposure Triangle (1: Shutter Speed, 2: Aperture, 3: ISO).  It can be described as how sensitive your camera's sensor is to light.  With high sensitivity (a high ISO number), you are telling your camera that it is probably very dark out, and it needs to suck in as much light as it can when you push the button.  With low sensitivity (a low ISO number), you tell your camera that it is generally very bright outside and it won't need to work hard to get enough light for the shot.  

When you leave your camera on Automatic ISO, before you even press the button, your camera evaluates for itself how bright your scene is and how sensitive your sensor needs to be based on the settings you have programmed in for your next shot.  Quite ingenious really.

I`ll note here that it is not cheating to let your camera decide your ISO, but there are most definitely times where you need to set it yourself.


This is the important part.  For you to truly take a good quality photo based on the settings you have programmed, it can be crucial that you use as low of an ISO value as possible.  With high ISO numbers comes image noise.  This might not be as crucial depending on what you are shooting, but if you have a minimalistic type of scene, any image noise will seriously detract from your shot.  

Note: If the scene you are shooting is something completely still, remember that you can have a slower shutter speed to increase how much light is reaching your sensor.  By doing this, you can have a lower ISO value and achieve much less image noise.  


After talking about image noise, this is where software comes in.  Sometimes you simply cannot avoid noise because you might be shooting an action scene in low light.  

After you have imported your shots from your camera to your computer, load up Lightroom or Photoshop Elements and now you can play with your noise reduction options.  

At the onset of this guide, I made a mention of shooting in the RAW format.  Without getting into great detail, the reason you would do this is because it will save your shot in the highest quality, with no automatic modifications, and no compression.  Compression degrades both the quality of the shot along with your ability to edit it later.  Always shoot RAW.

When you edit a RAW file, both Lightroom and Photoshop Elements allow you to easily adjust the most important parts of a photo that could be better.  You can make the darks darker and the brights brighter.  You can make the darks brighter and the brights darker.  Sound confusing? It won't after you play with the sliders.  

You can also adjust things like the saturation of your colours, the overall tint, the warmness of your shot, or even some settings to make your image "pop".  Finish up with a little sharpening if it is needed.  

If you're happy with it, crop it if necessary, then save it.  

Remember though, there is such a thing as too much editing.  Try not to overdo your editing, especially your sharpening and saturating of colours.


With practice, all of these things should take you out of the novice category and make you much more confident in what you are able to do with your DSLR camera.  

This guide is by no means a definitive, all-encompasing writeup, but the basics of getting you going.  If you are interesting in learning more, check your area to see what seminars and courses are available.  They are worth every penny.

If you have any comments, I'd love to hear them.  Feel free to post below or contact me by email.  I would be happy to answer any questions.