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Learn Photography in 20% of the Time With the Pareto Principle

Learning photography using Pareto principle 20/80 rule

Learning photography might seem overwhelming with its technicalities and numerous skills to master. You might think it’s too hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

By applying the Pareto Principle, you can cut through the complexity and learn the core photography fundamentals quickly, even in just a day.

This article offers a concise, step-by-step guide to efficiently mastering photography, the kind of instruction I wished for when starting out.

1. Exposure Triangle 101: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

At the heart of photography lies the Exposure Triangle, a fundamental concept that governs every photograph you take. Understanding the Exposure Triangle is like mastering the ingredients of a recipe; it’s about balancing three crucial settings: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO. Each of these settings influences the final image in unique ways, and learning each of these settings is essential to mastering photography.

exposure triangle diagram

Aperture: The Eye of Your Camera

Think of the aperture as the eye of your camera, with the pupil adjusting in size to control the amount of light entering. It’s measured in f-stops, such as f/2.8 or f/16.

The aperture directly affects the depth of field, which is how much of your photo is in sharp focus. A lower f-stop like f/2.8 opens the aperture wide, letting in more light and creating a shallower depth of field. This makes the background blur (bokeh), a popular effect in portraits to highlight the subject.

Portrait photo of a young boy sitting on his scooter in the park
Portrait photo of my son, Nikita sitting on his scooter. Camera settings: f/2.8, 1/320sec, ISO 200

Conversely, a higher f-stop like f/16 narrows the aperture, increases the depth of field, and keeps more of the scene in focus, ideal for landscapes.

Example of a landscape photo taken with narrow depth of field
f/16.0, 10sec, ISO 50

Imagine the aperture as the size of a window; a larger window (lower f-stop) floods the room with light and narrows the area in sharp focus, while a smaller window (higher f-stop) dims the room but broadens the sharp focus area.

For a hands-on approach to mastering aperture and its effects on your photography, check out my in-depth article: “7 Exercises to Master Aperture in Photography for Beginners”. This comprehensive guide offers beginner-friendly exercises to help you quickly grasp the concept of aperture.

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Shutter Speed: Capturing Moments in Time

Shutter speed is the camera’s way of controlling time, determining how long the camera’s shutter is open to expose the sensor to light.

Fast shutter speeds, like 1/1000th of a second, act like a quick snapshot. They are perfect for freezing fast-moving scenes with crisp clarity, such as a bird zipping through the air or a tennis player hitting the ball.

tennis player hitting the ball
f/1.8, 1/4000sec, ISO 160

Slow shutter speeds, such as 1 second, are like a prolonged gaze. They allow more light to enter and capture the blur of motion, ideal for creating that dreamy effect in waterfall shots or the light trails of a bustling city at night.

Photo of car trail lights taken during late evening with slow shutter speed
Slow shutter speed example: f/20, 30sec, ISO 100

However, when using slow shutter speeds, it’s essential to have a tripod on hand. Without it, even the slightest hand movement can introduce blur, turning what could be a stunning photo into a fuzzy disappointment. If you don’t have a tripod, you can purchase an affordable yet reasonably good camera tripod from Amazon Basics:

Amazon Basics 50-inch Lightweight Camera Mount Tripod

Amazon rating: 4.5 out of 5, based on  100,714 individual reviews

For a hands-on approach to learning about shutter speed and its impact on photography, check out my comprehensive article, “6 Exercises to Master Shutter Speed in Photography for Beginners.” This beginner-friendly guide will teach you everything you need to know about shutter speed through engaging and practical photography exercises.

ISO: Sensitivity to Light

ISO measures the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. Low ISO values, like 100, mean less sensitivity, which is great for bright conditions and results in crisp, clear images with minimal grain. High ISO values, such as 6400, boost the sensor’s sensitivity, allowing you to shoot in darker environments without needing a flash. However, this increased sensitivity comes at a cost: it can introduce noise or grain into your images, affecting their quality.

A screenshot from Adobe Lightroom of a zoomed in black and white photo with a lot of grain because of a high ISO settings and low light conditions.
Here's an example of a photo taken with a high ISO, resulting in a significant amount of grain in the image.

The impact of high ISO settings on image quality varies significantly between camera models. Higher-end cameras are equipped with advanced sensors that handle high ISO levels much better, often producing usable images at ISO 6400 and beyond with relatively little noise. 

On the other hand, entry-level cameras, which are more budget-friendly, may start showing considerable noise at these higher ISO values. This difference is crucial to consider when pushing your camera’s ISO settings, especially in low-light situations where you need to balance the need for light with the desire for a clear, noise-free image.

In bright daylight, a simple rule of thumb is to set your ISO to 100. This low setting ensures your photos are as clear and grain-free as possible, making the most of the abundant light.

Portrait photo of a young woman with a sea at the background
f/2.8, 1/4000sec, ISO 100

However, when you move indoors or find yourself in less ideal lighting conditions, you’ll need to adjust. In these scenarios, bumping your ISO to 400 or higher can help you capture well-exposed photos without resorting to flash, which can sometimes create harsh lighting in your images. 

Photo of a small kid playing with toys indoor
f/1.8, 1/160sec, ISO 1000

Remember, the goal is to find the sweet spot where your photos are well-lit without introducing too much noise. It’s always a balance, but these guidelines can serve as a starting point to tweak your settings based on the specific conditions and the capabilities of your camera.

2. Balancing the Exposure Triangle

After diving into the core settings of photography—Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO—it’s crucial to understand how these elements interact. Each setting influences the others, and together they form the Exposure Triangle, the foundation of every well-exposed photograph.

For beginners, a great way to start mastering your camera is by using semi-automatic modes like Aperture Priority (Av or A) and Shutter Priority (Tv or S). 

Aperture priority mode on a Sony A7III mirrorless camera
Aperture priority mode on Sony A7III

In these modes, you select either the aperture or shutter speed and the camera automatically adjusts the other settings to achieve a balanced exposure. Observing these automatic adjustments can provide valuable insights into how each element of the Exposure Triangle affects the overall image.

When you’re ready to take full creative control, switching to Manual mode (M) allows you to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO independently. But with great power comes great responsibility—balancing these settings becomes your task.

How the Settings Interact:

  • Aperture and Shutter Speed: Adjusting the aperture to a wider setting (decreasing the f-stop number, for example, to f/2.8) increases the amount of light that enters the camera, which can lead to overexposure, resulting in excessively bright photos. To counteract this effect and maintain a balanced exposure, it is necessary to increase the shutter speed, thereby reducing the time the camera’s sensor is exposed to light.
  • Aperture and ISO: A wider aperture allows more light, potentially enabling you to lower the ISO and reduce image noise. Conversely, if you narrow the aperture, you might need to increase ISO to maintain the exposure, which could introduce more noise.
  • Shutter Speed and ISO: If you use a faster shutter speed to freeze motion, less light is captured. To compensate, you might need to increase the ISO to keep the image well-exposed, mindful that a higher ISO can increase noise in your photos.

Balancing these settings involves understanding the trade-offs. For instance, increasing ISO to compensate for a fast shutter speed might lead to grainier images. Or, opening the aperture for more light might reduce the depth of field, creating a shallower depth of field (blurry background):

Portrait photo of a young boy with a shallow depth of field
Portrait photo of my son Nikita taken with a shallow dept of field

Tips for Balancing the Exposure Triangle:

  • Start with Priority Modes: Use Aperture or Shutter Priority modes to see how changing one setting affects the others. This hands-on experience is invaluable for understanding the balance.
  • Watch the Light Meter: Most cameras feature a built-in light meter that indicates whether your settings will lead to an underexposed, overexposed, or correctly exposed image. Use this as a guide when adjusting your settings.
  • Practice in Different Lighting: Experiment with your settings in various lighting conditions. Bright sunlight, overcast days, and indoor settings each pose unique challenges and learning opportunities.
  • Review and Adjust: Take a photo, review it, and adjust your settings as needed. Digital photography allows for immediate feedback, making it easier to learn from your attempts.

By starting with semi-automatic modes and gradually moving to Manual mode (M), you’ll develop a deep understanding of how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together. This knowledge is key to taking creative control of your photography and capturing images exactly as you envision them.

3. Get Familiar With The Rule of Thirds

With a solid understanding of the Exposure Triangle under your belt, it’s time to turn your attention to another pivotal aspect of photography: Composition. 

Composition is all about how elements are arranged in your frame, and it plays a crucial role in turning ordinary shots into captivating images. 

A fundamental principle that can instantly elevate your compositions is the Rule of Thirds.

Understanding the Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a simple yet powerful guideline that suggests dividing your image into nine equal parts using two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, similar to a tic-tac-toe board.

The magic happens at the four points where these lines intersect. Placing your subject or important compositional elements at these intersections or along the lines makes your photo more balanced, dynamic, and visually appealing.

black and white portrait photo with the rule of thirds grid showing
Example of a photo taken using the rule-of-thirds composition technique.

Moving Beyond Centered Subjects

Many beginners tend to place their subjects right in the center of the frame, leading to static and predictable compositions. 

While centered compositions can be powerful in the right context, they often lack the interest and balance that the Rule of Thirds can provide. 

By positioning your subject off-center, in alignment with the Rule of Thirds, you introduce a natural sense of harmony and interest to your shots.

rule of thirds composition
Rule of Thirds: Notice how the subject is placed along the right vertical line.

Applying the Rule of Thirds

Implementing the Rule of Thirds is incredibly straightforward, especially with the help of modern cameras. Most cameras and even smartphones come with an option to display a grid overlay on the LCD screen or viewfinder

This grid directly maps to the Rule of Thirds, serving as an easy reference for placing your subject during composition.

Photo of a Fujifilm x100v digital camera with rule of thirds grid enabled
Most modern digital cameras come equipped with a Rule of Thirds grid

Sidenote: If you are unsure how to activate the Rule of Thirds grid on your digital camera, simply google it using the following query: “how to activate grid on + [your camera model]”. For example: how to activate the grid on Fujifilm X100V.

When you’re framing a shot, activate the grid feature and look for opportunities to align your subject with the grid lines or intersections. 

This might mean shifting your perspective, changing your angle, or simply adjusting your framing until the composition feels right. 

Whether you’re capturing landscapes, portraits, or everyday moments, the Rule of Thirds can be applied to add depth, balance, and interest to your photos.

Practice Makes Perfect

Like any rule in photography, the Rule of Thirds is a guideline, not a strict law. It’s a tool to enhance your compositions, but breaking this rule can also lead to stunning results once you understand the basics

The key is to practice with intention, experiment with different compositions, and see how the Rule of Thirds can transform your photography.

By incorporating the Rule of Thirds into your compositional toolkit, you’ll quickly notice an improvement in the visual appeal of your photos.

Portrait photo of a young man standing next to a library full of books, looking down and smiling.
An example of the Rule of Thirds composition technique applied in photography

4. Learn to Understand Light

Lighting is the lifeblood of photography, with the word itself deriving from the Greek ‘photo’ for light and ‘graph’ meaning to draw. It’s not just about brightness and darkness; lighting shapes the mood, texture, and depth of your photos, making it arguably the most critical element in photography.

Natural vs. Artificial Light

Understanding the types of light you’re working with is crucial. Natural light, provided by the sun, varies in quality and intensity throughout the day and can add a soft, organic quality to your photos. 

Artificial light, from sources like lamps and flashes, offers more control but requires understanding to use effectively without creating harsh shadows or an unnatural feel.

Light Direction Matters

The direction of light has a profound impact on your photos. Indoor lighting often comes from above, creating shadows under the eyes or nose, which can give subjects a tired look:

Portrait photo of young male sitting in a hotel loby
Indoor lighting: Notice the unflattering shadows in the eye sockets and beneath the nose, which are caused by the light source being positioned above the subject.

Contrastingly, positioning your subject by a window allows side lighting to sculpt the face, adding depth and dimension. This side lighting accentuates features and avoids the flat, lifeless look of even lighting.

Portrait photo of a young male sitting in a train near the window
The light, coming from the side through the window, adds depth and a three-dimensional quality to the photo.

Harnessing Natural Light

To make the most of natural light, timing is everything. The golden hours, just after sunrise or before sunset, provide a warm, diffused light that flatters subjects and adds a magical glow to landscapes. 

Two portraits of a boy taken at different ages during the golden hour time
Examples of portraits taken during the golden hour, featuring soft and very pleasing light.

Midday light, with the sun overhead, can be harsh and unforgiving, casting strong shadows and creating a contrast that’s difficult to manage.

Portrait taken during middy with a lot of harsh shadows
Midday harsh sunlight: notice the hard shadows around the eyes

Actionable Lighting Tips

  • Chase the Golden Hours: Plan shoots during the early morning or late afternoon for that soft, golden light that makes everything look better.
  • Use Shadows Creatively: Instead of avoiding shadows, use them to add depth or mood to your photos. Side lighting can reveal textures and contours, enhancing the 3D effect in your images.
  • Reflect and Diffuse: Use reflectors to bounce natural light onto your subject, softening shadows. Diffusers can also soften harsh artificial light, making it more flattering.
  • Experiment with Angles: Move around your subject to see how different angles change the lighting effect. Sometimes, a slight adjustment can dramatically improve the shot.
  • Observe and Learn: Pay attention to how light interacts with subjects in everyday life. Notice how the quality of light changes with the time of day and weather, and use these observations to inform your photography.

I highly recommend watching the following video, which covers the most fundamental principles of understanding light in photography:

Play Video about YouTube video thumbnail - understanding light in photography

Remember, photography is essentially ‘drawing with light’. Mastering lighting doesn’t just mean knowing how to add light to your subjects but understanding how to sculpt and shape the light to create the photos you envision. 

It’s about seeing the potential in every lighting situation and using it to your advantage.

5. Storytelling and Emotion in Photography

While mastering the technical aspects of photography is crucial, infusing your photos with emotion and narrative can elevate them from mere snapshots to compelling stories. 

Photography, at its core, is a powerful medium for storytelling, capable of evoking deep emotions and capturing the essence of a moment.

Anticipating the Moment

Great photography often lies in anticipation—being ready to capture a fleeting smile, a burst of laughter, or a tender glance

This requires patience, observation, and an understanding of human behavior.

As a photographer, learning to anticipate and recognize these fleeting moments can make the difference between a good photo and a great one.

Portrait photo of a child eating ice cream and laughing.

The Power of Storytelling

Every photo tells a story, whether it’s a single image that encapsulates an entire narrative or a series of photos that weave together to form a visual journey.

When creating vacation photo books or documenting life’s everyday moments, consider what story you want to tell. 

Is it one of adventure, tranquility, joy, or perhaps nostalgia? Your choice of subjects, composition, and even lighting can help narrate this story.

Black and white portrait photo of a young boy sitting alone in a playground

Notice the difference between this photo and the one above, where my son Nikita is smiling. In this photo, you can see how Nikita was sitting alone on the playground, waiting for other children to come and play with him.

I really love this photo because it captures a quiet, introspective moment that contrasts sharply with the joyful expression in the previous image. It’s a poignant reminder of the simple yet profound experiences of childhood.

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Tips for Emotional and Narrative Photography

  • Look for Details: Sometimes, the smallest details can tell the most profound stories. A worn-out pair of shoes, a hand gently resting on a shoulder, or a solitary figure in a vast landscape can all convey powerful emotions and narratives.
  • Consider the Environment: The setting of your photo can add layers to your story. A bustling city street, a serene countryside, or a chaotic festival—all provide context that enriches the narrative.
  • Sequence Your Shots: When creating a photo book or a series, think about how each photo flows into the next. The order can significantly impact the storytelling, guiding the viewer through the narrative you wish to convey.
  • Capture a Range of Emotions: Life is not just about happiness or sadness. Don’t shy away from capturing a range of emotions in your photos—joy, contemplation, determination, solitude, and everything in between.
Triplex of black and white photos of a small child showing different emotions
Capture different emotions in your photography

Remember, the most memorable photos are those that resonate emotionally with the viewer. 

They transport us back in time, remind us of forgotten feelings, and connect us to experiences and stories beyond our own. 

By focusing on emotion and storytelling in your photography, you not only preserve memories but also create art that touches the hearts of those who encounter it.

Play Video about YouTube video thumbnail for the video about emotion in photography

Conclusion: Learning Photography Quickly by Applying the Pareto 80/20 Principle

As we’ve explored the multifaceted world of photography, from the technicalities of the Exposure Triangle and the Rule of Thirds to the nuances of lighting and the depth of storytelling and emotion, it’s evident that learning photography is an ongoing process filled with discovery and growth

Each aspect we’ve delved into serves as a building block in your development as a photographer, enabling you to capture more than just images, but moments filled with meaning and beauty.

In your pursuit of learning how to take better photos, remember that practice, curiosity, and a willingness to experiment are your greatest allies. Whether it’s mastering camera settings, playing with light, or infusing your shots with emotion, every step you take enriches your journey in photography.

To conclude, learning photography is about continually evolving your skills and artistic vision. Embrace the lessons each photo teaches you, and let your unique perspective shine through your work. With each click of the shutter, you’re not just taking a picture; you’re crafting a visual story that speaks volumes.


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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author


Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author


Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Discover Why 2,367 Photographers Love This Free eBook!

Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements.