Every year, without fail, I’ll get a handful of emails and Facebook messages from friends and family asking me how to use the new camera they got for Christmas. While I’m always happy to help, I have to assume there are other people out there that may not have a photographer friend to reach out to. So with that, here is a quick list of things you should do with that new camera.
Read the Manual
I know. Not the most exciting of steps. But reading the manual is one of the best ways to learn what your camera can do. Every camera manufacturer has different features as well as different ways to access these features. So even if you have a friend that can help you get started using your new toy, they most likely won't be able to help you with the actual setup unless they have the same camera. Because this is all new to you, everything you read might not make total sense, but as you use your camera, you will recall reading something that you can later go back and reference. Since you will need to reference your manual from time to time, I also recommend that you download the PDF version right to your phone from the manufacturer's website. This way you can access the manual without having to carry it around in your camera bag or pocket.
Learn the Basics
While photography is a very scientific and technical art, you can be very proficient if you understand the exposure triangle. The foundation of photography lies within three aspects: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The trick is that these three things work hand in hand. If you camera is set to capture the correct exposure and you adjust your shutter speed, you then have to make an adjustment to your aperture or ISO in order to equal out the change you made to the shutter speed. Learning how these three settings work together as well as how they can artistically affect your final image will make your photography experience more enjoyable.
Once you learn what the exposure triangle is and how it works, make yourself use it by forcing yourself to use the camera in manual mode. To do this, go out for an hour and just take images. Shoot at a lower shutter speed and see what happens. Shoot at a faster shutter speed and see what that does, same for the other variables in the exposure triangle. This is also a good way to practice changing these three settings quickly and precisely so that you can make on-the-fly adjustments when you are out shooting images that you care about capturing.
Search for What You Want
Photography is a very popular and well-documented craft. Because of this, most anything you want to learn how to do can be found with a simple Google or YouTube search. This is even more apparent when dealing with the beginning aspects of photography. So, if you want to learn about a specific feature of your camera (maybe the different metering modes and how they affect exposure) or how to do long-exposure night photography, simply search for what you want to learn and chances are that you will find multiple options.
Invest in Education
While a lot of things can be found for free, it’s still extremely beneficial to invest in some proper education from experienced professionals. This can be books, online training, or in-person workshops. While understanding the exposure triangle and metering modes are a great start, there are still a lot of other things to learn about photography as well as how to edit the images you take. It would be worth the time and money to invest in a class that walked you through the process from start to finish. Things like white balance, the lens you use, and even the file type your camera is shooting can have a large effect on your final image.
Don't Get Caught up in Gear
While learning how to use your camera, it’s inevitable that you will come across something that can only be done with a certain type of gear that you don't have. This can lead to you searching for new lenses, flashes, and accessories, which can be a quick way to get swallowed by the Internet. You will learn all the things you think you need without actually shooting, which can lead to spending tons of money on things you don't actually need. To avoid this, practice and use what you have until you know what you need and why you need it. While there is no way around needing a flash to get started in flash photography, you don't necessarily need the latest and greatest. Buy cheap and buy used until you know for certain it’s something you want to pursue further.
Follow and Emulate
There are many different types of photography. You can shoot landscapes, macro, portraits, etc. Within these fields, there are tons of different styles. You can shoot portraits like Dani Diamond or you can shoot them like Dan Winters. You can shoot landscapes like Elia Locardi or you can shoot them like Ryan Longnecker. One of the quickest ways to improve is to find what you like, try to duplicate it, then try to put your own spin on the style to make it your own.
Get out and Shoot
While sitting down and reading your manual, reading articles, and watching tutorials are all very helpful, nothing will replace the act of shooting. But don’t go out and just shoot to shoot. Go out and shoot with a purpose. Practice the basics of exposure until you have all the details locked in. Shoot an entire hour where all you do is play with the aperture and see how it changes your final image. Then, play with your shutter speed and see what shooting with slower speeds does. How slowly can you go without using a tripod? Once you learn some new techniques, head out and practice them. Practice shooting portraits, your animals playing, or maybe macro images of things around the house. You will quickly learn what things you enjoy shooting and what things you don't.
As always, feel free to ask any questions in the comments. If you are not new to photography but still reading this article, share some things that you wish you would have known when starting out.