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You just got a shiny new digital (or film) camera. Of course, you can just pop the battery and a memory card or film in and start shooting, but there are some things you may want to consider before you head out into the world to make art.
1. Charge your battery. It is likely that the rechargeable battery that shipped with your camera is not fully charged. So, throw it on the charger and get it full so that when you head out on your first photo shoot you can take more than a handful of shots! Speaking of more shots, you may want to purchase a second battery, just in case. With electronic cameras, no charge means no photos.
2. Get a memory card. Your digital camera likely needs a memory card. If you didn’t get one with the camera, go to bhphotovideo.com and order one right now! A digital camera without digital media is a very expensive paperweight. Some cameras have built-in memory, but you’ll likely want a memory card so that you can keep shooting when the internal memory on those cameras fills up. Oh, and your film camera needs film!
3. Read the instruction manual. Yep, I said it. If your camera doesn’t have a paper manual, there is likely a .PDF available online. Do you have to read every word and hire a translator to read the foreign language sections? No. But, even if you are an experienced shooter, your new camera likely has some quirks and hidden functions that you might not otherwise be aware of. I leave the paper manual at home, but save the .PDF copy to my phone in case I need to reference the manual in the field.
4. Format the memory card. Using knowledge you just gained from the manual, format the card inside your camera before you start shooting. There are a couple of reasons for this. A) You want to have a full memory card to play with, B) sometimes a camera will not read or write to a memory card that has been formatted in another type of camera, and C) formatting resets the file structure and helps prevent data errors. NOTE: Double-check to make sure you have saved whatever images are on that card to another device before you format the card.
5. Update the camera’s firmware. There is a chance that your camera, right out of the box, is not running the latest programming from the manufacturer. Use that instruction manual and the Internet to determine if your firmware can be updated and, if it is not up to date, follow the procedures to update it. These updates usually give the camera more features and performance than you think would be possible with lines of code.
6. Attach the camera strap. There are a few schools of thought on camera straps. Some people use them, some don’t. For years, I was tempted to remove mine, as it always seemed to get in the way and I rarely carried the camera around my neck or shoulder with the strap. But then, one night, I carelessly failed to secure my camera’s quick-release plate onto a tripod head. During a long nighttime exposure, the camera fell off the top of the tripod. With gravity accelerating the camera and lens towards a certain death by concrete, the strap somehow snagged one of the tripod’s flip-locks and, the camera, its descent arrested by the strap, began to swing safely, but perilously, above the ground: true story. I won’t ever go strapless again.
7. Bag it. Depending on what kind of camera and accessories you have, you may want to look into getting a camera bag to transport it. Some folks prefer to travel light with only the camera, but if you have an interchangeable-lens camera, you might need something that carries your other lenses and gear. A camera bag might likely be your next purchase if you just got a new camera and there are a ton of options to explore based on the size of your camera, lenses, and gear.
8. Keep it clean. See how pristine the camera and lens are when they come out of the box? Take a good look and remember it, because your gear will likely never look that good again. Dust, smudges, and fingerprints are as excited about your newly acquired gear as you are. You’ll want to keep your stuff clean, so invest in a cleaning cloth for your lens and/or camera.
9. Set your settings. In the days of point-and-shoot film cameras, we would pretty much be finished with this conversation by now. However, in the digital world, we have a lot more to think about. It is intimidating. We aren’t going to get into too much detail here, but feel free to follow the hyperlinks on the following list for more information.
a. Set your diopter. Most viewfinders have an optical adjustment, called a diopter, which allows people with different visual acuity to see the viewfinder image clearly. If your viewfinder looks blurry, it is likely because you need to set your diopter to suit your eye, or have your vision checked. Every day, at camera stores around the world, people come in complaining about “broken” cameras due to blurry viewfinders.
b. Image quality. If you are planning on post-processing your images, you might want to set your camera to capture images in the RAW format. If you aren’t into post processing, or prefer smaller files, I recommend you set your camera to the highest-resolution JPEG that your camera can capture. One thing you do not want to do is go out on your first outing and take the greatest picture in the history of photography with your camera set to less-than-full resolution.
c. Familiarize yourself with your camera’s metering modes. This is how the camera measures the light coming into the frame.
d. Learn your camera’s shooting/exposure modes, as well. This tells you how much automation the camera is going to apply to your image taking.
e. The camera will likely default your white balance setting to “AUTO.” This is usually fine, but you should be familiar with white balance and how to adjust for different light sources if needed.
f. Autofocus makes things easy, but it can be fooled, and you might want to learn how to control and select focus points it to better achieve your goals by using different autofocus modes.
g. Many cameras have different “drive” modes. You will be surprised how many photos you can take and how fast your memory card fills up when shooting 14 frames per second! Unless your first outing with your new camera is a sports event, you might want to set your drive mode to single-shot.
h. An often-overlooked setting on digital cameras is Color Space. This discussion could devolve into a graduate-level thesis but, in general, if you are going to be post-processing your images, you might want to use “Adobe RGB” color space. If you are skipping the post-processing, you might leave your camera at “sRGB.”
i. A lot of newer cameras have specialty Picture Modes, such as Toy Mode, Macro Mode, and dozens more. Your camera likely does not default to these modes, but you’ll want to make sure you don’t accidently select one while you’re out shooting.
j. To beep or not to beep? Many of today’s digital cameras (and other electronics) sound like robots from your favorite sci-fi movie series; beeping when they are turned on, take a photo, or simply feel like beeping. If you want to be stealthy when shooting, find the needed menu option and silence your camera.
10. Time. When you turn your camera on for the first time, you’ll likely see a prompt that tells you to set the time and date on the camera, and an option to skip it. In the digital world, files are date/time stamped, including your photos. Even if you do not organize your images by date, you’ll want to tell your camera what time it is. When traveling, try to remember to update for time zone changes. What is my secret (never before shared publicly)? Set your camera for the Universal Time Coordinate time and date and don’t worry about silly things like Daylight Saving Time or crossing time zones.
11. Start saving. One of the great things about (and curses of) cameras is what is called “Gear Acquisition Syndrome,” or GAS. If you are one of those lucky souls who is content carrying a fixed focal length point-and-shoot camera around for all of your artistic needs, I am jealous! For the rest of us, we like to accessorize our cameras with some needed and not-so-needed gear. In my opinion, the following items lean toward the “required” category of GAS.
a. Post-processing software. The scourge of digital photography is that, to get the best image from your photographs, you’ll likely need to make digital adjustments to the file. Some cameras come with the company’s software or other commercial software bundled with the camera, so don’t ignore that CD/DVD or associated literature that was in the box.
b. Tripod. Depending on how and what you photograph, a tripod may be the quickest way for you to sharpen your images in-camera.
c. Remote release. If you are working on a tripod, or have your camera resting on a surface to steady it, you’ll want to trigger the camera with a wired or wireless remote trigger.
d. Flash. Built-in camera flashes aren’t known for their power or performance. Adding a dedicated flash to your camera might help you get the shot you want in less-than-desirable lighting situations.
e. UV Filter. Like straps, there are several schools of thought about using clear filters on your lens. I personally recommend them. They will not always save your lens if dropped, but they will protect your optics from fingerprints and dust.
f. Insurance. Even if you didn’t spend your hard-earned cash on your new camera, you should consider getting personal property insurance for your gear. If you have insurance, you might never need it. If you don’t have it, you will probably get to hear me say, “I told you so.”
12. Save the box. Folks used to hold onto film cameras for decades. With the fast turnover of today’s digital cameras, you might get a camera every few years. If you think you will eventually sell the one you just unpacked, having the box and original instructions and accessories can help with the resale value of the camera. Also, if there is any possibility at all of returning the camera to the store, you’ll be glad you saved the box.
13. Read the B&H blog! Have you finished thumbing through your manual but your battery is still charging? Well, feel free to spend a few more minutes here, at the B&H blog, and the learning portal to learn more about photography and cameras!
14. Last, but not least, get out and shoot! Battery charged? Card formatted? Time to get off the Internet and away from your computer and go out and make photographs! Oh, and don’t forget to have fun doing that!