One of the most common complaints I hear from new digital photographers is that they have this fancy new camera, but that it’s hard to use to its full potential.  T camera manual contains every last detail about the camera, written in quasi-jibberish.  Not only do you have to filter what’s important to you at this stage of your photography journey, but you also have to decode the language.

beginning nikon

In this blog post, I’m going to tell you what some of the key jibberish terms mean in plain English, and then suggest a few ways to read the manual to get what you need out of it.  I’ll also tell you about a couple of manual alternatives that are easier to read.

First off, when you flip through the pages of that manual for the first time, which topics and words should you linger on?  These are the topics that are important for you to understand about your camera.  Keeping them in the back of your mind as possible settings to change will help ring that bell in your mind when you realize you can do something to improve your photos.  Canon terms are listed first and Nikon terms, if different, are listed second.

  • Mode – The shooting mode is generally accessed by a dial on your camera.  Depending on the mode you select, you are giving your camera more or less control over shooting decisions.  In Auto, for example, the camera makes all decisions about exposure, focus, etc.  In Manual mode, on the other hand, the shooter makes those decisions.  The other modes give you varying levels of control in between the two extremes.  Absolute beginners to digital photography should choose Auto Mode.  Those who are ready to take control of decisions like Focus Points can move to Program mode.
  • Picture Style/Picture Control – every time your camera creates a JPG (photo file), it applies some amount of processing to the photo.  That means it could take the basic data supplied by the lens and apply extra sharpening or saturation to it.  Dive into these settings when you are ready to change the overall appearance of your photos.  You can optimize this processing for the type of photo you take more often, whether its landscape, portrait or anything else.
  • White Balance – Different types of light have different colors.  For instance, sunlight at high noon is not the same color as the tungsten lights in your home. This is particularly noticeable when your image has white in it.  If you take a photo of yourself in a white shirt outside at noon and inside your house at night, your camera will interpret the white shirt as different colors in each photo.  White balance allows you to make the white its true color in both images.  This adjustment will affect all colors besides white as well.
  • AF Point/Focus Point – Allows you to tell the camera which part of your image to focus on.  Read this article for more help.
  • Drive Mode/Release Mode – When you’re ready, this allows you to set your camera to burst mode (to take lots of photos in a row at the soccer game, for example) or to set up a timer for photos that you’d like to be in.
  • Metering Mode/Metering Method – Governs where a camera looks in your photo to set exposure.  When you find, for example, that your photos are underexposed because the camera is exposing for the sky rather than the faces in the photo, you’ll be ready to explore metering modes.

If you shoot on Auto, note that you can’t change any of the above settings. You have to mode your shooting mode to Program, at least, in order to make any of these changes. Also, you can keep all of these settings at their defaults until you are ready to change.

So, those are the key terms to keep in the back of your mind.  Once you’ve shot for a while and start noticing areas for improvement, try improving one issue at a time with one new setting.  Master it, and then move on when you’re ready for the next.

When I first started shooting, I read the manual through from cover to cover.  I absorbed about 5% of it.  A lot of it just doesn’t make sense until you have the file cabinet of experience and perspective to sort the information into. I got better results by reading just a topic at a time, and only when I felt a need to learn that topic.  That’s what I recommend to all new shooters today.

Also, there are more plain English camera manuals available.

The Lantern Guides are a good series of easier-to-digest books about specific cameras.

lantern guide

David Busch also has a good series of guides to various cameras.  And finally, there’s always the good ole “For Dummies” series.  That last recommendation is by no means a reflection of what I think of my readers. 😉

Any of these books will give you a more goal-oriented outlook toward running your camera.  Instead of talking about the Drive Mode, for instance, it will tell how how to set the timer on your camera.  Amazing concept, right?

So, here’s what you should take with you from this tutorial. Don’t feel the need to understand your camera inside and out.  Read the camera manual in search of specific help. Keep important camera features in the back of your mind, so that you’ll know what to change when you feel the need.  And, if you’d like to dive in deeper, buy a camera guide written with the user beginning user in mind.