The new camera.

You were standing idly around in the electrical goods department one Saturday morning and before you knew what was happening, the shop assistant had engaged you in conversation and started demonstrating a lovely modern camera to you.

Wow, this thing really seemed to do everything you ever wanted from a camera, ten minutes later and wholly convinced by the sales assistant’s patter, you headed off towards the checkout clutching a red-hot credit card and a small cardboard box that contained the secret to the new creative you.

And yet when you arrived home and broke out this modern technological wonder, it didn’t seem quite as easy as you were led to believe, particularly as the instruction manual appears to be written in a curious mixture of ancient Greek interspersed with Egyptian hieroglyphics . . . WTF.

How do you even turn it on?

I own a Panasonic Lumix G70 and the main menus contain 180 different items and some of those have up to 8 sub-menus each, there must be getting on for about 1000 different settings in total to play around with, so where do you even start?

Mission control, we have a problem

It’s not a joke, any reasonable camera today probably has more onboard computing power than the mainframe computers that guided the Apollo missions to the moon.

In other words, that’s an almighty powerful piece of equipment you hold in your hand there, it’s not so much a camera, something to capture light with, but an extremely sophisticated light measuring device.

The camera’s internal programming is so advanced that it can already make a very good educated guess as to what you are trying to take a picture of, and so most of the time the camera is quite able to set itself up adequately for a multitude of lighting conditions, just as well as most knowledgable camera geeks, and it’s only really when you want to start practicing more complex techniques such as low-light photography or shortened depth of field lens effects that you have to start using one of the semi-automatic modes (P, A, S or M).
How to deal with all this then and use it to take good photos now, this minute, without having to enrol at the nearest technical college?

First things first

Unfortunately there’s no way around it, if you want to master the camera, you will eventually have to become familiar with the settings menu on the camera’s display screen, there’s no secret method, that screen is already the secret, and although it all looks frightening now, with a little perseverance and the courage to learn from a few mistakes, you can soon start feeling more comfortable with it all.

We’ll take it all step by step, so download an electronic version of the basic user manual (I’ve include links at the bottom of this page to all the major manufacturers) because it’s far easier to use, it’s searchable.
Even if you have already done it, do the following: turn the camera on, and using the manual find the date and clock menus and check that all the main user settings are correct.

You may be tempted to skip this step, but I advise everyone to do it, because repetitive viewing and setting of even the most basic functions breeds a familiarity with the camera and its settings menu, and this is invaluable when learning to set the more advanced features.

Still not sure? Then turn the camera off, and turn it on again and repeat as necessary.

Automatic

You wouldn’t expect to learn to play the piano in an afternoon would you?

No, so don’t believe anyone who tells you that they can teach you to set this thing manually in just 2 or 3 hours, it’s impossible, think about it:

3 hours x 60 mins x 60 secs = 10,800 seconds / 1000 settings = 10,8 seconds per setting . . .

“Mmmmmhhh . . . thanks, interesting, but I’ll get back to you on that.”

. . . they just want your money, because just as you have to practice playing the piano, so you do too with the camera, and you can’t rush it, but just because it’s practice, that doesn’t invalidate anything you do with it, because actually everything is practice, all the time, it never stops, there’s always something new to learn.

So where shall we start?

At the beginning: Automatic mode.

Don’t knock it, even the most hardened professional photographers sometimes fall back on the automatic setting, especially when they needs the picture and there’s no time to set the camera up, the difference is, that they know where this magic setting is, and you the total beginner doesn’t.

Look for the automatic setting, it’s usually marked “Auto” on one of the camera’s main setting dials, and set the camera to it, and look it up preferably in the manual if possible too, and then go off and have some fun with the thing, that’s what you bought it for.

At some point you’ll want to see the pictures you’ve been taking, unfortunately now is the time to look in the manual again and discover how to playback the images you’ve captured on the display screen, it’s usually just a button or switch on the back of the camera – commit this to memory, you’ll be needing this all the time.

Filters

Tired of that already? Ready for a new task? Good, now get out the manual again and search for the filters setting, because almost all modern digital cameras come with built-in filters: black and white, sepia, bleach bypass, cross process etc, each will give the image a different colour and/or tone effect, even professional photographers use them, because not only are they also usually fully automatic, but they are also an easy way to get a fresh perspective on a scene when looking through the viewfinder.

For example, something in colour may look extremely uninteresting, but in black and white suddenly look edgy and moody, filters are a creative tool, so use them, have fun with them.

Again it’s usually a setting on the camera main settings dial, where often a “Scenery” mode can often also be found, whereby the camera sets itself up for different types of photography: portrait, landscape, food, sports etc.

If possible read up about them in the manual, discover what the all do, familiarise yourself with them.

Composition

It’s very important to remember that a well composed photograph that has been technically badly taken: a beautiful portrait that was unfortunately slightly over/under exposed etc; will always look far better than a badly composed photo, but which was technically perfectly taken: the same portrait but with a background tree growing out of an ear, and who honestly cares for example if the backgrounds are a little blown out (over exposed), quite often these technical mistakes: lens-flair, grain etc. even add to the mood of the picture when the moment was caught perfectly.

But what is a well composed photo?

Who knows? But there are certain rules that ensure that certain positions of subject against a background are aesthetically more pleasing to the eye than others, and one of these is the “rule of thirds”.

Again, open the user manual and look for where the camera display settings are kept, there should be a sub-menu called something like “guidelines”, go into it and turn them on and if possible set them to “the rule of thirds”.

And now search the internet for advice about “the rule of thirds” :

and spend some time taking pictures according to those guidelines, you haven’t even got to go out to do this, you can do it sitting in your most comfortable chair at home, set up a couple of objects on the coffee table and snap away, and see how most pictures are usually just more pleasing if the subject is aligned off-centre.

Learning to compose a well-balance photograph is the cheapest and most rewarding method there is to improve your photography.

Still here?

Good, if you’ve understood everything so far, you are well on your way to learning even more, but the secret, if there is one, is just to take things easy, step by step, build a good foundation of basic knowledge first, and then slowly build on top of that, layer by layer, but you should already be able to take some pretty nifty stills.

Still interested in what those other modes do, P, A, S and M?

Some other time.

Camera Owner Manuals

Canon

Fujifilm

Nikon

Olympus

Panasonic

Sony

© Andrew James Kirkwood – 2016