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It’s been a long time, a very long time, since I was a digital photography beginner.  I’m so immersed in this wonderful world of dSLRs and instant sharing of photos that I forget how overwhelming those first few steps can be.

beginning canon

I visited my uncle over the holidays.  My sweet aunt bought him a brand new Nikon for Christmas – she put lots of research into it and found a model perfect for him.  My uncle is a great photographer, and he knows exactly what to do with a film camera.

However, even turning on the new Nikon and determining which button to press to release the shutter was a new experience for him.  Much less figuring out what to do with the images once they were on the camera. Now, some of you might be thinking that this is easy stuff, and it might be, for you.  However, many of us are digital natives.  We’ve used email, websites, computers, memory disks and cables most of our lives.  But think for a minute about people who lived most of their lives before all this amazing technology came into existence.  They don’t have the background that creates the intuitive knowledge of what to do with a new electronic sitting in your hand.


beginning nikon copy1

So, I’m going to step back and write a few articles, as best as I can, from the perspective of a digital foreigner.  Articles that will help my uncle and, I hope, many others out there. The good news is that this stuff isn’t rocket science.  Once you work through the routines involved with your new digital camera a few times, you will have them down pat. The bad news?  Once you realize that you CAN handle this stuff, you might become a technology junkie. And that, my friends, can be expensive. Let’s start at the beginning. What is a digital SLR?  Well, digital is the opposite of film.  Instead of recording your images on film that you have to develop, a digital camera records your images on a memory card. The SLR part of dSLR stands for Single Lens Reflex.  A hallmark of an SLR is that it uses a mirror to reflect what the photographer sees through the viewfinder.  In everyday terms, the big benefit of shooting with an SLR over a phone or point-and-shoot is SPEED.  If you don’t want to miss the adorable grin on the toddler’s face, you’ll be better off with an SLR.  SLRs can use film or be digital. Now that you know what you’re holding, let’s take the next step.

Turn your camera on.  You will most likely have an on/off switch.  It could be on the back of the camera or next to one of the main dials on the top.  If you need help finding it, open your manual.  Every camera manual I’ve ever seen has an illustration of the camera at the beginning, with a legend telling you what each switch and button does.  Also, look at the images in this article to see common on/off locations.beginning olympus back copy

Next, put your camera on Auto mode.  In Auto mode, your camera will make all decisions for you, such as which exposure to use and where to focus.  In most cases, you will have a dial on you camera where you can choose this mode.  One of the dial settings will say Auto or it will have a green box.  (The Olympus in the next screen shot isn’t actually an SLR – it doesn’t have a mirror.)

beginning olympus top

Finally, snap some photos.  If you need to look back at the camera map in your manual to find the shutter button, do so. Take the photos off your camera.  This can be the most intimidating step for some folks.  Luckily, you have a few options:

  • The easiest option might be to pop that memory card out of the camera and take it to a drugstore or super center that can print photos directly from the card.  In most cases, you can choose which are the best and only print those.
  • Import the photos from your camera to your computer.  There is most likely a cable that came with your camera that will do this.  It has a standard USB on one side – connect this end to the computer.  The other side is generally a mini USB, which attaches to your camera.  Turn the camera on and see what happens.beginning cable

If you’re lucky, your computer might take over at this point.  Most recent computers have some sort of Image Capture software that allows you to move photos from a camera to your hard drive. Also, most cameras come with software for you to install.  In addition to moving the photos from your camera to your computer, this software will probably give you some basic photo editing options. And you probably have heard about photography software like Lightroom or Photoshop Elements.  My guess is that if you are reading this article, you’re not quite ready for software like that yet.  But, for future reference, both Lightroom and Elements help you import your photos to your computer and then edit them. Once those photos are on your computer, you can do just about anything with them – share on Facebook, email to friends or family, print on your home printer, or upload them to a website that offers online printing services. I know that I’m skipping over lots of steps in this last section – this part of the process is going to be dependent on your camera and your computer.  Your camera manual should help.

What is the next step towards becoming a digital photographer?

If you are already an accomplished photographer, the journey will be much easier.  Think about the settings you used on your old camera.  Did you shoot in Manual mode?  Did you choose focal points manually?  Use your camera book to figure out how to configure your new camera similarly. However, if you are new to both photography and the digital world, you’ll need to learn about what your camera can do in order to know what to look at in your instructions book.  Analyze your photos, once you’ve printed them or imported to your computer.  Do you see any consistent problems?  For instance, is focus hitting something other than your subject in many photos? Target that as the next feature to learn. Focus on one area of improvement at a time, master it and move on.

What else can I help you with?

What are the biggest challenges you face as a brand new digital photographer?  Which plain English tutorials would help you the most?  Help me remember those first learning hurdles, and I’ll write tutorials about them. You’ll be a for real digital photographer in no time!