It’s been a week since many photographers unwrapped shiny new cameras, and if you were one of them you may be in the process of getting to know your new best mechanical friend. Whether you’ve just received a DSLR, mirrorless camera, or point and shoot here are some tried and true ways to get under its skin, so to speak, so you can get down to business creating fabulous images.
Push all the buttons
As a hands-on learner, this is my first stop and if your preferred method of information intake is similar, start here. A great way to get acquainted with a new camera is to play around and see what it has to offer. Some features may not be obvious without looking deeper (more on that later,) but this is a great preliminary way to figure out what functions are most intuitive.
Try out the white balance settings
One aspect that can be nuanced from brand to brand and model to model is how a camera handles white balance. This is a good one to figure out because as soon as you’re in a tricky white balance scenario you’ll be glad to have a little extra insight into achieving the best in-camera results. Some cameras have incredible auto white balance while others struggle, and some will yield exceptional results in a specific preset, say Tungsten, while others will still need tweaking. It’s also helpful to know to which side your camera leans.
Check out skin tones
Similar to white balance, different cameras will render skin tones differently. It’s useful to figure out what yours will do to speed up your post processing workflow. If you know, for example, that with your particular camera the skin tends to lean a bit orange, you have a great starting point for post processing and you could even create a preset designed for your camera in particular situations to speed things along. Side note, it’s good to be aware of how your brand of camera plays with whatever post processing software you’re using. Canon cameras tend to play well with Lightroom than many others, but you’ll get better tones out of Capture One with pretty much anything.
Shoot in low light
Perhaps one of the widest performance gaps between camera models lies here. Of course, the lens will play a huge role with its maximum aperture, whether it be interchangeable or fixed. High ISO noise varies widely and it’s good to know your camera’s limits in usability when you need to crank up the ISO to get the shot.
Pixel peep and play with the RAWs
For day to day applications, I’m not a huge pixel peeper. Yes, check your focus but don’t fixate on minuscule details if you’d never see them from the viewing size and distance your work will be shown. However, when you’re getting to know your new camera, it’s nice to see just what kind of resolution, sharpness, and down and dirty image quality you’re getting, even if it will be largely irrelevant for most practical purposes. It’s ok to nerd out sometimes.
Test the limits of what you can do with highlight and shadow recovery. Lightroom is a good program for this, Capture One is even better (though it’s generally a more advanced program to use and isn’t yet as well integrated with Photoshop for things like round trip edits.) If you’re starting out and don’t have processing software yet, check out Adobe’s cheap photographer bundle – Lightroom and Photoshop for $9.99 per month.
Get to know custom settings
As you use your camera for day-to-day tasks, you’ll find which functions you use the most and would like to access more easily. Many cameras have custom user menus where you can put all your favorite settings in the same menu tab for easy access, and frankly, if you do not take advantage of these you are letting some of the best about these cameras pass you by. Camera handling can improve an absurd amount by understanding how to set the camera up just as you like, and it personalizes the camera for you.
Manuals tend to be quite dry and thus difficult to hold a person’s attention in this age of Facebook scrolling and 30 second videos. However, there is often very important and valuable information stashed away in there that you might never discover on your own. If you just can’t get into manual reading mode, fear not because there are other ways to get the info.
YouTube is a great free resource with tutorials on just about every photographic topic including camera specific instructions. There are paid online classes as well, like Creative Live’s collection of fast-start camera courses. Pro tip – check out their app if you have an iOS device for a free lesson every day, and if you’re lucky enough to catch the course you want when it’s streaming you can watch it in its entirety free of charge. If you prefer to read but want something more palatable than the manual your camera came with, there are books written in plain, regular people’s terminology. Rocky Nook has published a ton of these, but they’re far from the only alternative manual resource.
Put it all in action
Now that you know what your tool can do – where it excels and where it may lag – it’s time to get out there and play! Take a lot of photos, make a lot of photos, however you like to shoot – go do it! Do it a lot. Rinse, repeat.