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Light is super important. Nothing beats sunlight for accurate colors, so even if you're indoors try getting some light through a window. Midday sun outside creates harsh [private]s, though. Early and late sun are best. Indoors you may need a flash, but most built-in flashes give bad results. It's important to think about how the light is hitting your subject, what [private]s it creates, etc.
Understanding exposure seems complicated at first, but it's basically just a combination of how wide your lens opens up (aperture) and how long the shutter stays open. They go inverse to each other, so if you want a wider aperture (more light in) you'll need a faster shutter speed (less light in) to balance out. If you allow too much light in, your photo gets washed out. Not enough light and it's all dark.
Ideal exposure usually means the brightest parts of your photo are not washed out while the darkest parts are not so dark as to hide their detail. This can be difficult to achieve because even a good camera's sensor is actually quite shitty at capturing a full range of light to dark. One way to get around it is to take multiple shots of the same image at different exposures (can be automated on some cameras) and combine them via software. This is called HDR photography.
Why would you want to adjust the aperture anyway? There are multiple reasons, but the biggest thing is controlling so-called depth of field. That's how much of the image is in focus. The wider the aperture, the narrower the depth of field, which can give you images of sharp focus on a particular spot with everything in front and behind it being out of focus.
Why would you want to adjust the shutter speed? A fast speed means your camera only records the tiniest instant of time. So if your subject is a running dog, he'll be a blur unless your shutter speed is really fast. Or you might want to slow the speed down to capture motion blur on purpose. That's how you can get photos of water that appear really smooth.
There's one other variable to exposure, which is called ISO. Oftentimes a good aperture and shutter speed combo just don't let in enough light to get a good photo. (This applies mostly to indoor or night shots.) In this case, you can increase the ISO number from the standard 100 to something higher, like 400 or 800. This tells the camera to boost the weakened signal its sensor receives. The downside is that higher ISOs result in more "noise" in your photos, which you want to avoid.
Here (pdf) is an exposure calculator thing you can print, cut out, and mess around with to help undertand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
How about some general photography tips:
- Zoom in on your subject more than you typically do. People tend to capture too wide a scene. Try zooming way in!
- Try to avoid photos from the same height and angle an adult-height person sees the world from. Get down below, get up above, try all different things.
- Don't always have your subject right in the middle of the frame. Try instead for the subject to be in the first or last third of the frame. If it's a photo of a person looking to the left, put them on the right-most third (and vice versa).
- Take multiple pics of the same subject so that later you can review them and pick out the best. This is particularly important for fast-moving subjects. If your camera has a mode that takes pictures in rapid succession, that will help.
- Even the steadiest hands introduce some blur in a photo below a certain shutter speed. A tripod is ideal for keeping the camera still, but barring that, try to steady your arm or the camera itself by leaning on a railing, a wall, or other fixed surface.
- If your camera can save photos in raw format, and you don't mind learning some image editing software, then you probably will want to save those raw files. The reason is that they give you the greatest freedom over how your image turns out.