Take Control of Your New Camera

So, you got a new camera, maybe even a fancy DSLR, and the first thing you see is all the dials and buttons. Don’t be afraid. This article will explain how to take control of your new camera and start taking better pictures right away.

One of the first things you will want to do is read the manual cover to cover. Yes, this is boring, and you won’t understand or absorb most of it, but as you get more familiar, things will begin to resonate, and the manual will become your friend. You don’t need to memorize the whole thing but become familiar with it so that you will be able to find the settings or instructions you need later. As you become more familiar with the camera, re-read the manual from time to time.

Full Auto Mode

You got a new camera because you wanted to upgrade from a point-and-shoot or cellphone pictures, so why set it to full auto mode? You have a lot to learn, so you need to take it one step at a time. Ignore the people who try to tell you have to use manual mode to be a real photographer. Learn each function slowly and fully to master your new camera.

So, set your camera to full auto and go out and take pictures, lots of pictures. Then load them onto your computer and study them. Don’t just browse through and admire them, but really study them, especially the ones that aren’t very good.

  • What is wrong with them?
  • Are they too dark or bright?
  • Are things fuzzy or out of focus?

Please take note of the settings used on all of them, good and bad. What aperture, shutter speed, and ISO did the camera choose for your images. These numbers won’t mean much to you now, but as you progress, they will. Learning to look at them now is a good habit to learn.

Auto mode will work for a lot of your pictures, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you leave it there. The problem with this mode is the camera doesn’t know what you are taking a picture of or how you wanted it to look. It is just taking its best guess. Most of the time, it guesses correctly, but not all of the time. It can be fooled into over or underexposing your images, shooting with a shutter speed that is too slow for you or the action, or choosing an ISO that introduces too much noise.

Creative Modes

These may be named differently on your camera, or may not exist at all. But if they do, it is a good starting point for learning how to take control of your camera. These modes are generally represented by little icons of a person’s face, a mountain, a running person, and a flower. These represent portrait, landscape, sports, and macro modes, respectively. Each of these will make subtle changes to your settings, depending on what you are trying to capture. Using these and noting what changes were made are your first steps in taking control.

Portrait mode will use a larger aperture (smaller number) to blur the background. Landscape mode will use a smaller aperture to try and get everything in focus. Sports mode will use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion. Macro mode will use a combination of aperture and shutter speed to allow you to focus close and retain maximum depth-of-field.

Using each of these modes, go out and re-shoot some of the images you took before, especially the bad ones. For each image, decide what type of photo it is and select one or more of the modes before taking the shot. Now go back and look at them again. Which ones improved and which ones didn’t. What are the differences in the three settings, known as the exposure triangle, and how did they affect the picture?

Aperture Priority

Despite what you may have heard, a lot of great photographers shoot in aperture priority most of the time. This mode gives them control over the depth-of-field and lets the camera choose the shutter speed. They may set the ISO themselves, or use auto-ISO.

What aperture you choose will depend on a lot of variables, but for now, set your camera to aperture priority and set the aperture to f8. Now repeat the exercise again and note the changes in the images. F8 is a good all-around, general-purpose aperture. You will want to change it to a smaller number (larger aperture) if you want the background out of focus, or a larger number for landscapes where you want everything in focus.

As with all modes, as you shoot, pay attention to the shutter speed. You don’t want it to drop too slow that your handshake introduces noise. As you look back at your pictures, you will see which images are blurry and determine the slowest shutter speed with which you are comfortable. For most people, this will be in the 1/60th range.

There is a rule you can follow to help with this. Don’t go slower than the focal length of your lens. If you are shooting with a 50mm lens, then 1/60th is a good minimum shutter speed. If you have a long zoom and are shooting at 200mm, then keep the shutter speed at 1/250th or faster.

Shutter Priority

Shutter priority is a good choice when you are shooting action or anything moving. This mode allows you creative control over how you want the scene captured. Do you want to freeze the action, or let it blur to show motion? For most people, the former is a good choice.

Look back at the pictures you took using sports mode. The shutter speed was probably 1/1000th or faster. A fast shutter speed not only freezes the motion and gives you a good sharp shot of your subject but also eliminates camera shake from the equation.

But there are times when you might want a slower shutter speed. Shooting flowing water or waterfalls are a favorite choice for a slower shutter speed to make the water look smooth and cottony. Shooting a race track while the cars speed by in a blur is another time you will want a slower shutter speed.

How slow? Only experimentation will tell you for sure. One thing you will need for a slow shutter speed is a tripod or a stable surface to avoid camera shake. Blurring your subject on purpose is good; accidentally blurring it because of a slow shutter speed handheld is a mistake.

Your new camera is a complicated tool, but it is just a tool. Learn how to use it slowly and carefully. Take a step by step approach and take control of your new camera.

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