Photography is a complicated subject that can be a minefield for some, while to others it comes as naturally as eating a piece of cake.

If you sit in the first camp, where the idea of jumping out of a plane is more appealing than picking up a DSLR and moving it out of auto mode, then this is the feature for you.

Jessops runs a number of courses nationwide designed to help amateurs and professionals get a good understanding of photography, or develop existing skills, and we had a taster of the Level 1 course to find out what you learn and bring you a few of their photography tips for beginners.

Hold your camera properly

It might sound like teaching you how to suck eggs but to get a good picture, the camera needs to be as steady as possible and no matter how still you think you can hold it, a bit of extra support is always helpful.

Holding your left hand flat underneath will help keep it as still as possible without putting the camera on a tripod and it costs nothing. Using the viewfinder will also help improve stability, as well as avoid glare.

There is often a small dial to the side of the viewfinder that is useful to know about. It's called the dioptre control and it helps adjust the focus of the viewfinder itself, allowing you to change it to suit your eye.

An easy way to do this is look through the viewfinder and half-press the shutter button. When you have the numbers across the bottom of the display, move the dioptre control until they are sharp. 

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Use your dominant eye

Yes, you have a dominant eye and while it normally coincides with the hand you use most regularly, it doesn't always.

To determine which is your dominant eye, hold up your index finger to block something out in front of you. First close one eye, and then swap to the other. Through one eye your finger will be in the same place as when you look at it with both eyes. Through the other eye, your finger will appear to jump to one side. Your dominant eye is the one where you see your finger in the same place as when looking at it with both eyes.

If that test doesn't work for you though, there are a few others you can try but work out which eye is the dominant one before you start snapping.

Triangle of exposure

Exposure is all about the light balance of an image and there are three factors that will affect it.

Traditionally, when your camera is set to auto, the camera will be going for the perfect balance of light and dark, adjusting the three factors accordingly to try and achieve it.

For more powerful images though, you need to move away from auto and that means understanding aperture, ISO and shutter speed.

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Understanding aperture

In the words of Jessops, "aperture is just a posh word for a hole", which it essentially is, but of course nothing is as simple as that. If you want to control the aperture then you'll need to put your camera into AV or A mode on the dial, depending on what make of camera you have.

Aperture is measured in what is known as f stops, for example f/2.8 or f/16, and it relates to the amount of light being let through the lens and onto the sensor. The lower the number (e.g. f/2.8), the bigger the hole and therefore more light is let in and the opposite applies: the higher the number (f/16) the smaller the hole and less light hits the sensor.

Why would you want to change the aperture? Because it controls something called depth of field. Depth of field is how much of the image is in focus, from foreground to background.

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If you use a low f value (f/2.8) then you'll get the foreground in focus and a blurred background like the first image above. This is perfect for portraits, as it helps your subject stand out. On the other end of the scale, a high f value (f/16) is great for landscapes where you want all of the picture to be nice and sharp like the second image above.

You also need to consider that changing the aperture changes the amount of light that can get through and that will change the amount of time needed to capture the shot perfectly. At f/2.8, it's likely to be quick exposure, at f/16, it's almost certainly going to be long, so you might need extra support to keep the camera steady.

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Understanding shutter speed

The way Jessops explains shutter speed is by relating it to curtains, controlling the light that you're allowing in. You'll need to adjust the dial to S or TV, depending on your camera, if you want to control the shutter speed.

Controlling shutter speed comes in handy when you want to take a shot of fireworks or movement, such as someone jumping in the air, or sports.

It is measured in seconds so the fastest shutter speed on the camera we had with us on the taster course was 1/4000 for example, which means a 4000th of a second whereas the slowest shutter speed was 30", which means a 30-second gap between opening the curtains and closing them again, or the first and second click you hear after pushing the button.

The higher the speed, the less light that is let through, while the slower the speed, the more light is let through.

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If you want to capture movement on a sports field, a jump in the air, or wildlife, then the Jessops team recommend having your shutter speed set at 1/500 as a good starting point. We used 1/500 and continuous shooting to get a shot of a water balloon bursting.

If it is fireworks you are after then the team recommend counting how long it takes the firework to burst and setting your camera to the same so if it takes 2 seconds, then your camera should be set around 2", which should also be around the same speed for capturing a shot with blurred traffic in front of a building in focus, for example.

Simply put, fast shutters are for capturing fast movement in focus, slow shutters are for blurring that movement.

As the sensors in the camera are only receptive to light, you can do some pretty cool things if you know how. Setting our shutter speed to 4", we managed to capture a couple of great shots as the Jessops team used light to spell out words.

It's worth remembering that the slower the shutter speed, the more movement of the camera will be picked up: it's not recommended to hand-hold shots slower than 1/60sec.

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Understanding ISO

The ISO rating is a hangover from film, where film had different sensitivities. It's carried over into digital photography and allows the camera to artificially boost the light captured, as if using a more sensitive film.

It needs to be used with caution however. A high ISO setting can be used to get a shot on lower light, but it introduces grain or noise, so your image doesn't look as detailed or sharp. In some situations that's acceptable, in others, it will spoil your photo.

Using a lower ISO will mean that you preserve the detail captured, but it needs to be balanced against the shutter speed and aperture to make sure you get the best results. Auto mode does exactly this, but it's worth taking the same shot at different ISOs to see how the results come out and deciding how high you'll allow it to go.

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Once you understand how to use your camera, it's important to understand how to frame a shot and this is where the Rule of Thirds comes in.

Some cameras help you out here by showing you the grid on the display or viewfinder. The idea is to look at the image you are framing by splitting it into thirds both horizontally and vertically, giving you a total of nine smaller squares.

If you are shooting landscape shots, then the horizon should sit on either the bottom line of the top three squares, or the top line of the bottom three squares.

For portraits, the Jessops team say you should focus on the eyes and not the nose, while it is also worth experimenting by putting your subject off centre into the negative space or taking it from a different angle, such as from below.

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You could also try leading lines to get a more exciting shot like a pathway leading into the image but try not to forget the idea of lining the interesting things in your shot up with the cross points on the grid.

There is plenty you can do to get a great shot, whether its play with the aperture, shutter speed or composition and there is plenty left to learn. These are just a few of the tips we picked up from the taster beginner class so if you are new to photography, or you want to develop your existing understanding, then it's worth checking out if there is a course that appeals to you.

The Jessops Academy photography courses take place across the country and there are beginners courses, as well as specialist courses such as wedding photography and wildlife. For more information, visit the Jessops Academy website.

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