10 things you should know about your camera (and your smartphone)!

10 things you should know about your camera (and your smartphone)!

I get asked all the time to give advice about what camera someone should buy. Far less often I sometimes get asked a much more important question – “What do I need to learn how to do with my new camera before I take it on my vacation, or to some special event, and try to use it effectively?” Modern cameras (even many of those found in smartphones) have way too many features for anyone to master them all. But there are 10 basic skills you should learn. If you purchase your camera at a camera store with actual human salespeople (there are still a few), you can probably have them show you most or all of them before you walk out with your new kit:

  1. We’ll start with what should be pretty obvious: Learn how to turn the camera on & off, capture an image, and record a video, including how to use the viewfinder. Yes, I’ve run into people on trips who weren’t quite sure how to do any of these things.
  2. Learn how to use the Autofocus and how to zoom the lens. If your camera has a touch screen, you may be able to focus using it. Otherwise you may be able to set it to lock onto faces, or use a ring or small rocker to move the focus around. Zooms are typically either physical (usually a ring on the lens), or electronic (usually a rocker-style switch). If the zoom is controlled with a virtual slider, like on most smartphones, then it may be strictly a digital zoom, that basically pre-crops your image without actually changing the focal length of the lens.
  3. Learn how to set the image quality and recording format. Many cameras come preset for a low-quality image, to maximize the number of images that can be recorded on a card. You’ll probably want to bump the camera up to something equivalent to JPEG format with Fine (or SuperFine if available) quality. Similarly, if you want to view your videos on TV, you’ll want to bump the recording resolution up to 1080p (full HD) if possible.
  4. Learn how to replace the SD card and recharge your battery. Very importantly, get enough cards for your needs. Remember that if you increase the image quality setting, the number of images you can get on a card decreases. Most camera kits ship with a pathetically small card, and cards can break. So stock up.

  1. Learn how to transfer images from your camera to your computer and view them there. Alternatively, if you are traveling with only a smartphone or tablet and want to look at your images immediately, make sure you know how to do that. If you’re relying on a cloud backup for your photos, make sure you know how it works.
  2. Learn how to turn your flash on, and how to turn it off. It’s obvious why turning flash on is important, but many people don’t realize the downside of not knowing how to turn it off. Using flash when it isn’t needed not only burns up your battery faster, but it usually slows your recycle time greatly, so you can’t shoot nearly as fast.
  3. Learn how to change the ISO setting. The darker it is, the higher the ISO you’ll need. If you see a flashing red hand on your LCD, that’s always a good warning that your shutter speed is getting too low.
  4. Learn how to use the meter, and set Exposure Compensation. Your camera will try to expose (make the image brighter or darker) to make what it thinks is your subject look good. Unfortunately, it can’t read your mind as to what is the subject, so you may need to learn to use Exposure Compensation (+ for brighter / – for darker) to tweak the exposure to what you want. With electronic viewfinders you can often preview the effect of your adjustment in advance. With other cameras you may need to experiment or see if it has a Histogram you can examine.
  5. Learn whichever scene modes you think will be important to you. Examples include: for scenes with both very bright and very dark areas, , Sports for capturing action, Portrait for image processing settings suitable for people pictures, and Macro for small, close-up objects. 
  6. For extra credit, Learn how to use your camera’s more advanced modes. For example, you can use your camera’s Aperture-priority mode – where you control the depth of field by setting the aperture and the camera picks the correct shutter speed, or Shutter-priority mode – where you pick the shutter speed to freeze or blur action, and the camera selects the correct aperture. Note that some camera makers call Shutter-priority mode T for Time-priority.

Tablets are great for showing images during a trip --
like these we’re viewing in Cambodia – but it can be tricky
to get your images onto them, so practice in advance!

Not every camera has all of these capabilities (smartphone cameras seldom have a real zoom, for example), but most cameras have most of them. If you know how to do these 10 things, then you’ll at least feel confident you can adequately master getting the camera to do what you want – when you know what you want. In a future article we’ll give you a list of the 10 “must-know” tips to check and possibly improve your knowledge of when to use each of these techniques.

One more tip that’ll help: Almost all camera makers provide electronic (usually PDF) versions of their manuals. Download the one for your camera and take it with you! Nikon even provides a cute that makes the process painless.