Category Archives: Beginner

What Exposure Compensation Is – And How to Use It

To understand exposure compensation, it is useful to first understand how your camera thinks.

Your camera’s metering system: the intelligence that helps it decide how light or dark an image should be, looks at the scene and compares it to a medium (grey) tone. It then chooses the settings that will achieve that exposure.  Some parts of the image will be brighter and some will be darker, but the camera’s goal is average it to a medium overall brightness.  That works for many situations, but there are situations where it doesn’t.

Example 1: A dark street
When you take a picture of a dark street, you expect the image to be dark, not lit up like the same scene in the daylight, right? Left to his own choice, the camera would see this dark place and think “Whoa! Need to brighten that up!” and it would end up looking too bright.

In this example, I wanted this scene to be dark to match what I saw with my eyes, so I added -1 exposure compensation.

Exposure compensation night scene
Night scene set to -1 exposure compensation so that it would be darkl

Example 2: Beach and Snow
A snowy landscape or a beach is naturally a bright location. Usually, the camera will look at this and think that it’s too bright and try to adjust the aperture and/or shutter speed to darken this to a nice, medium tone.

To your eyes, snow is very bright.  While cameras are getting smarter ever year, it still doesn’t know that it’s looking at snow.  It just makes a computation based on light levels.

You need to tell it what to do. The following example uses +2 exposure compensation to have it look like I wanted.

Example plus exposure compensation
Example, Plus 2 exposure compensation

Finding the Exposure Compensation Setting

Exposure Compensation ButtonMost cameras have a button for this that require you to turn a knob, but it’ll look like this.  Consult your camera’s manual if it’s not immediately obvious.

Once you’ve figured out how to set the exposure compensation, you’ll not want to forget once you’ve set it.  There, all cameras have a display item that shows you how it’s set.  In this example, the camera is set to 1 stop over exposed, which means double as bright.

Exposure compensation (1 stop overexposed)
Exposure Compensation Display

Don’t worry if the plus is on the left or the right, different cameras show it differently, but plus always means “brighter” and minus means “darker”.

While it seems counterintuitive to make a bright scene (to your eyes) brighter in the camera, just remember how the camera works and you’ll have no problem using exposure compensation to help the camera decide on the right exposure to match how your eyes see it.

Best DSLR for an Amateur on a Budget

I get a lot of questions about a camera to really learn with, so I sat down and made a list of criteria that I thought would be good for a beginner/intermediate user who is looking for his first real DSLR, capable of advanced photography on a budget.

I came up with the following list:

  • Exceptional image quality
  • Two dials to learn shooting advanced modes
  • All the controls you need
  • A proper mirror
  • Access to a large range of accessories like lenses and flashes
  • Low price
  • The last camera I personally would ever sell

I’ve been through several iterations of buying and upgrading my cameras.  I’ve moved up to FX now, but when I think about the camera that I still shoot and love, it’s got to be the Nikon D7000.

I recommend this camera because I’ve really used it for thousands of photos, over a couple of years so, you know, I’m not talking out of my ass.  Notice that there are NO convenient links to buy any of this stuff.

Also, I’m sure that Sony, Pentax and Canon are all great, but I haven’t used them, so I can’t recommend them.  But if you take the above bullet points as a starter, you’ll be fine.

Image Quality
The D7000 is like a mini D800. Literally.


There are cases when I shoot both the D800 and D7000 side-by-side and to be honest, without zooming excessively, I can’t tell the difference.  When I switch my D800 to DX mode (where it only uses a smaller part of the sensor) there is NO difference – maybe even a slight advantage to the D7000.

Some users say that they even prefer the D7000 over the newer D7100.  I can’t say because I haven’t shot the D7100, but the images on sites like DPReview are razor sharp.

If you’re looking to take your photography to another level and want to learn how to shoot manual, and just basically know what you’re doing, the D7000 has both a command and subcommand dial so that you can set aperture and shutter speed independently.  It’s critical to have an actual dial for this without digging into a menu to find them.  It also has quick access to exposure compensation, ISO and its focusing system is still used by Nikon on much bigger and more expensive DSLRs.  If these aren’t so important to you, get a D5100.  It has the same, identical image quality but it’s smaller, cheaper and has a little bit less advanced focusing system.

Not Mirrorless
If you’re here, then you’ve probably also heard of mirrorless systems that are out there.  Maybe you’re even considering one of them.  I say don’t do it.

A mirror is a feature!
First off, mirrorless cameras use a lot of battery to keep the screen running instead of just reflecting the light through the lens up into the eyepiece.  You never have to turn a DSLR off to save battery.  NEVER.  As soon as you press the shutter button half way, it will wake up and take a shot in less than a fraction of a second – faster than the lens can focus!

Speaking of focus, mirrorless systems are slow to focus too.  I’ve used two mirrorless systems and neither performs the way I expect to shoot fast moving things.

These shots, made with my D7000, would have been basically impossible with a mirrorless system:

Bird in Flight
Sports and Fast Moving Subjects


Support for Accessories like Lenses and Flashes
I don’t necessarily recommend you get a flash right away, but you may want to. You will want to have additional lenses.  One lens does not fit all – even one of the new super zooms.

In fact, what I recommend is to find the best deal with the longest zoom lens you can find bundled to save a lot of money.

Then take it off!

Add a 35mm f/1.8G DX lens.  That lens is super cheap, awesomely sharp and lets you get those interesting effects like when you throw the background out of focus.

Save the long zoom for vacation or until you’ve learned to get great shots with the 35mm prime (non-zoom) lens.  The trick is to keep moving around to arrange things in the frame in an interesting way. If you’ve read my post on how to take better photos, you’ll understand that you have to move around to get things arranged in your viewfinder to make a great photo.

There is one other time you’ll want to use the zoom: portraits.  Step back and zoom as far as you can for portraits. Faces just look best that way. Here is another example with the D7000:

Zoom for portraits

There are a lot of accessories that you’ll want to think about getting when you start in photography like remote shutter releases, flashes and filters*.

*Don’t let the camera shop guy talk you in buying a “protective” filter.  It’s a trick to increase his margin: a scratched lens isn’t visible in the final photo and a filter does NOT protect against damage from dropping the camera.  I don’t baby my cameras; they work hard, get dirty and banged around. I rarely even use the lens cap.  You know how many scratches I have?  None.  Lenses have hard, tough, thick front elements.

Use, don’t baby your camera, and don’t buy a protective filter.

Since we’re talking about accessories, the battery grip for the D7000 series is really nice and recommended if you need that extra heft and place to put your hand when the camera is in portrait orientation.

One nice feature of the D7000 family is that it supports what Nikon calls CLS.  It means Creative Lighting System, but what it really does is allow that you to use the popup flash to control and trigger other Nikon flashes that are not on top of the camera.  This is usually the recommended way to use flash.  That’s an advanced subject, but you are looking at the D7000 to learn, right?  Check out this example below.  If you’re curious, everything you ever wanted to know on

Control flashes that are “off camera” with the D7000.

Low Price
At the time of this writing, you’ll find the D7000 with lens for around $1000 and the 35mm DX prime for under $200.  That’s all you need.

If you read this later, don’t worry, the D7x00 series is the one that you want because it’s the “lowest” in the series that has all the buttons, dials and advanced features.

Don’t feel the need to buy the latest version as you can often save a lot of cash by buying the previous generation either new or used. Basically, I say if the difference is less than $100-$200, get the newer one.

Again, if all the dials isn’t important to you because you don’t think you’ll ever want to learn shoot manual (you should!) then go with the D5x00 series.  I use A (aperture priority) mode 90% of the time but use manual and S (shutter priority) the rest of the time, but back to choosing a camera.

The Last Camera I Would Ever Sell
Yep, that’s right.  While the D7000 isn’t exactly my desert island camera (D800) if times were tough and I had to sell everything I had, it’s the camera they would pry out of my cold, dead, starved hands.

If I wasn’t dead yet, then I would have taken some of them out with me using my tripod.  Do get a tripod, you’ll need it.

The D7000 series is really something special.  I still use and love mine.

Here are some more images to attempt to convince you and because I just like showing off:

Pretty good in low light too.
Use of electronics is now allowed – but it wasn’t when I took this!
Seriously, get a good lens like the 35mm DX lens. It makes a difference. This shot was taken with the 17-55 f/2.8 (awesome, but heavy and expensive).
On the Street. The D7000 is just the right size, not too small, not too big as to be imposing.
Get close.
Mirrorless sucks
Mirrorless sucks at focusing.

How to Take Better Photos (Beginner)

Did you just get a new camera?  Have you been looking at your images and wondering how they could be better?  Something just not right?  Well, read on.

In this post, I’ll give a few tips on how to take better photos right away, and you don’t even have to know any technical stuff about your camera, how it works or any of that!

The most important thing about making better photos is composition.  Composition is just arranging the objects in the rectangular frame in a pleasing way.  Composition is a deep topic that even masters never stop learning and improving, but for now, I’ll just try explain these few simple compositional rules to follow:

  • Don’t photograph a thing, tell a story
  • Zoom for portraits
  • The rule of thirds
  • Keep the background clean

Please note, none of these images are especially good, but they’re pictures where I left some room to explain these simple, but important concepts.

First off, you’ll probably want to take a lot of photos, that’s ok!  That’s a benefit of digital cameras.  Delete the bad ones and keep only the best.

Delete.  The.  Bad.  Ones.
If you keep your memory card full of every image you take, you’ll never be able to find and enjoy the good ones!  So shoot a lot, experiment with angles and keep moving around and practicing these concepts that I explain here.

The first rule that I tell every new photographer is don’t try to photograph a thing, try to tell a story.  One of the ways to do this is to not put the person or thing you want to photograph in the middle of the image.  Use the “rule of thirds.”

I’ll say this very clearly: do not put your subject in the middle of the frame, not the thing, not a person’s head, nothing!

There are reasons to break this rule, but it’s an advanced topic.

Consider this simple, pleasant image:

Beginner Photography Rule of Thirds

The bee is obviously my subject.  Do you see how the bee is both about a third of the way down from the top, as well as a third of the way from the right edge of the frame?  That’s because I used the Rule of Thirds. The rest of the image is clean except for the yellow flower in the background which helps to tell a simple story: It’s spring and there are lots of flowers.

Every part of the frame is purposefully used, and there are no distractions.

Here is an example if I had put the bee in the middle of the frame:


Yuck! In this crop, there is way too much empty space at the top of the frame.  The background is ugly, useless and there is no balance to the photograph: an important concept and one benefit of using the rule of thirds.  It’s a more advanced topic that you get almost automatically by using the rule of thirds!

I’ll tell you a secret: I got these two nearly identical images  with a different framing because I cropped it.  You should always try to get it right the first time, which is why some of these images aren’t especially good – I didn’t. You can crop it in the camera or use a program like Adobe Lightroom or even your iPad.

Use the rule of thirds!
For example, if you want to take your kids picture in front of the Statue of Liberty,  by all means don’t put your kid in front of the statue of liberty.  Put him on one side and fill the other two-thirds of the picture with the story about being at the statue of liberty!

Here is another example of the rule of thirds.  See how I’ve placed the gentleman on the right side of the frame, and used the rest of the image?

Man in an Ally

Other than telling a story, and showing some interesting lines, the background is clean: just enough, not too much.

This story is simple: it’s a man in an alley that has something to do with bicycles.  The best stories are simple.  Leave the complex stories for when you’ve advanced more.  Take a look Joe McNally if you want to see examples of a master who tells interesting and complex stories using simple frames.

The concept of a clean background is an important concept of photography.  Keep the clutter to a minimum, and most importantly, don’t have a object, like pole jutting out of the subject.

Clean Background!

Last is another example that illustrates a tip that every new photographer should know: step back and zoom in for nice portraits.

The first reason to do this is because nearly everyone (except small babies) looks best when you step back and zoom.  Everybody.  I zoomed as far as my lens would go for this simple portrait:

Zoom for Portraits

The second reason is because the farther you zoom, the less in focus the background will be.  This is the same image as the one above, again just cropped differently.  It still follows the rule of thirds, but illustrates that zooming can make what would normally be a very distracting, ugly background (it was!) blur out into something kind of nice:

Zoom for Portraits II

As with any subject, don’t focus on photographing the thing, in this case, the girl, but tell a story.  They say that the eyes are the window of the soul, that’s why her eyes, in both cases are a third from one edge of the image, and they are the focus point.  You have to focus on the eyes to tell a story about the person’s soul.

If you follow these basic, simple practices, your photography will improve dramatically, and as I hope you’ve seen, these rules fit together:

  • The rule of thirds
  • Don’t photograph a thing, tell a story
  • Zoom for nice portraits
  • Keep the background clean

I hope you’ve learned enough to help you start making better photos right away!

These are just some basic tips.  If you want to dig deeper, I can recommend the following resource:

Digital Photography Composition Tips from Digital Photography School: