Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Camera For Christmas? Now What?

Sept. 23, 2012 With Panasonic DMC -FH27 (a real cheap Point 'n' Shoot)

If you're brand new to photography because somebody real nice gave you a digital camera for Christmas, then this is for you. I'm going to make a few assumptions on your behalf, like, you've not really taken photography seriously before, but thinking maybe it's time, and knowing this, it was a cheap "point and shoot digital compact" that you got for Christmas, on sale it was, maybe around $100? Great! Ideal actually - the very best way to get started. I'm one of the few who believes it's better to start with a cheap digital instead of film, which can, and should, come later. With digital, learning is immediate, because the pictures are viewable immediately.

So, what to do? All these instructions, scene modes, optical and digital zooms, setting the damn thing up with tiny push-buttons and cryptic menus - your head's just spinning already. I'm here to make it easy for you, with some first timer tips.

First - charge the battery, and while that's happening, read the "Introduction" and "Getting Started" parts of the manual. Also, make sure you've got a memory card - if the nice person who bought you the camera was really thinking, (S)he would've bought one to go with it. 

Now, once the battery is fully charged, and in the camera, along with the new memory card, there are only two things you have to do before you start taking pictures -  1)  Set the date and time and 2) Format the memory card in the camera.

Now you're ready. Set the camera to it's most fully automatic mode (often it's on a main dial as a green square, or a green "something". But not the green arrow - that's "Playback".) If your camera has no main dial, and it's a "touch screen" model, well I pity you - you'll probably have to get the booklet out again and read about how to find "shooting modes" via the touch screen. So, it's the fully automatic "beginners mode" you're looking for - go do that, and then come back here.

The beginners mode is really all you'll be needing for quite awhile. Trust me. It allows the camera itself to make all the decisions about all this stuff I've been talking about lately - the ISO, White Balance, Aperture, Shutter Speed, Exposure Compensation - forget it! Put the camera manual back in the box and safely on a closet shelf, because you need to learn the simple art of taking good pictures first.

So now you're left with the most simple bits that are all you'll ever need - the viewing screen, the shutter button, the built in flash and the zoom lever. Go ahead - play with the zoom lever first while watching the screen. You'll see how it makes you closer and further away. Use it to compose a decent shot from where you're comfortably sitting or standing. Now, gently press the shutter button, but STOP HERE MOMENTARILY - THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!! You'll notice that the shutter button has two stops - halfway down you should feel the resistance increase before you press it all the way. Here's why. The button's first stop is where the camera figures everything out - it measures the light, and sets the ISO, White Balance, Shutter and Aperture for the best combination in the given light that it measured. Also, it allows the lens to autofocus and it will decide whether it needs to turn on the flash or not. All this happens very quickly, but you need to stop here for a split second at least to make sure you don't get ahead of the camera - hold it down halfway for a second or two. Now, if you're still happy with what you see on the screen, push the shutter the rest of the way down. You should here the "click" (usually a fake shutter-like sound that comes out of the camera's internal speaker), and the flash might go off. Keep looking at the screen - you'll briefly see a replay of the picture you took, then it will disappear. If you want to see it again, press the green arrow "playback" button. Keep on taking pictures this way, all the while concentrating on the composition of the picture - nothing else. You can use the zoom to help with the composition, but this quickly leads to bad habits, because "zooming" is not all it's cracked up to be. If you want to get real good at taking pictures, try it another way - 

As you zoom in and out, there should be a little bar slider thingy appear on your screen, along with some numbers. Preset your zoom to something on the wide (left) side of centre. Hopefully the numbers look something like this sequence - "28, 35, 50, 85, 100, 135..." - go with something 50 or lower. If there are no numbers, or if it's something like "1X, 2X, 3X, 4X...", that sucks - you'll never learn anything this way! But go with what you've got - stick with 1X or 2X. Now, having preset your zoom, get up off your butt and reposition yourself closer to the subject. Get in real close, but also adjust the composition by moving yourself around - lower, higher, back a bit, etc.. This is the way that proper pictures are taken, and I want you to practice this as much as you can. Keep going back to your initial zoom value and use it exclusively for awhile, as if it's a fixed lens and not a zoom. But don't let this make you miss opportunities - if you have a really long zoom (30X) type camera, and you spot an eagle going into her nest, then by all means use your zoom to the max... this is what zoom lenses are intended for - not to make you lazy, but rather to allow you to capture fa away things when you really can't physically place yourself close to them. Otherwise, keep your camera on the wide side and "zoom with your feet" as they say.

Now, once you've gotten your first batch of pictures, transfer them to your computer, so you can see them on a big screen. If you don't have a computer, go get the camera box ff the closet shelf and take out the cord that connects your camera to a TV set. How do they look? Inspect each photo and see if there is some kind of trend - fuzzy, blurry, too dark, washed out, etc. If most f your shots look bad in the same way, then you are doing something wrong. But seeing as you've been using the fully automatic mode all this time it could only be one of two or three things. 

  1. You are not holding the shutter halfway, or not for long enough, as I explained above.
  2. You are shooting in a situation that exceeds your camera's limits, although in this case, the camera should give some kind of a red light warning, and/or not take the picture - most commonly, it's probably that you're too close to the subject and you need to be shooting in "macro" mode which is enabled by a little "tulip" icon somewhere
  3. The flash isn't firing when it should - again, "auto-flash-on" is the default mode for the full automatic setting, but perhaps you, or a previous owner, or somebody at the camera store somehow set the flash to "off at all times". 
Another common problem is that what you intended, or hoped would be in focus, looks a little blurry compared to the rest of the picture. This is invariably true if the subject is not in the centre of the frame - so here's what you need to be doing - point the camera so the subject is in the centre, press the shutter halfway so the camera will focus on it, and then WHILE STILL HOLDING THE SHUTTER HALFWAY - recompose your shot, then press the shutter the rest of the way. That halfway shutter button feature is extremely important.

Are you ready to get more creative? It's easy! DO NOT BOTHER WITH TRYING TO USE THE CAMERA MANUALLY. Instead, get the booklet out of the box and read up on the various "Scene Modes". Small point 'n' shoot cameras don't do manual or semi-automatic "pro" functions very well anyway, so don't bother with them. These things are built in "enhanced automations", that are extremely useful. Are you outdoors in bright snow or sand? There's a Scene Mode for that. Is your subject "back-lit" because they're sitting on the couch with a bright window behind them? There's a Scene Mode for that. Are you trying to shoot a fast moving object? There's a Scene Mode for that. Candlelight? There's a Scene Mode for that. Firework displays? There's a Scene Mode for that. Night time on the streets? There's a Scene Mode for that. And they're coming up with more and more Scene Modes all the time - like "in-camera panoramas", or "High Dynamic Range" - the list gets longer every year. Instead of trying to do this stuff by fiddling with the controls manually- which only works with DSLR's and other large sensor cameras, put the camera's built in automation to work for you. Take note that some of these Scene Modes require that the camera be mounted on a tripod. Read the book!

Although  they're not "the cat's meow", the cheaper point 'n' shoot models are very rewarding nonetheless, and may well be the only camera you'll ever need.

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