So you got a new camera for Christmas…Now what?

In Gear by Rusty Parkhurst

If you happen to be reading this on the day it is published, then Merry Christmas! We are fully engulfed in the holiday season and hopefully you have found some new photography gear and gadgets under the tree or in your stocking. On the other hand, maybe all you've found is a lump of coal, or maybe some new socks or a necktie (need to get off that naughty list). In that case, I'll apologize in advance for this article and hope that next year works out better for you.

If you are lucky enough to have received a new camera this holiday season, then congratulations! Whether it was left for you by jolly old Saint Nick, given to you by family or friend, or even if you purchased it yourself (kind of a reward for being good all year long), getting a new camera is always so exciting. If this is your first camera, then you are probably overwhelmed and wondering what to do first in your journey toward learning how to use your new toy.

Like a kid on Christmas Morning

I remember my first DSLR well. It was December 17, 2011, and I had decided to buy myself an early Christmas present. That Nikon D7000 was my first ‘real' camera. I didn't realize it at the time, but that camera would begin my fun and exhilarating journey into photography. Heck, I just wanted a good camera to take better pictures of my kids and our family events. It turned out to be that and so much more.

Getting a new camera is so exciting. Bringing it home for the first time; opening the box to find the shiny new gear inside; the tactile feel of it as you heft it in your hands; the new camera smell. (Ok, maybe I went a bit too far there, but you get the point). Admit it, you felt the same way when you opened your new camera on Christmas morning. It's thrilling as you imagine what can be accomplished with such a supreme piece of technology. Like a magic carpet, it can take you to beautiful new places and open your eyes to scenes that you never would have noticed otherwise. But first, there's the small task of figuring out where to start and just how to learn to use it.

Read the manual

You probably thought I was going to say to grab the new camera and run outside to start making amazing images. Don't worry, that's coming, but there's a few mundane tasks to take care of first.

I know you are excited to use your new camera, but it's a good idea to learn a little bit about it first. Reading the owner's manual isn't the funnest (is that even a word?) thing you'll ever do. Frankly, it's about as exciting to me as watching grass grow. However, the manual will help you to understand some basic information about your new camera. Things such as features, how to customize buttons and dials, what the different mode settings are, where to find things in the menus, are all important. At least do a quick read-through. You have some time while the battery is charging anyway.

Charge batteries and get some extras

The battery that came with your new camera is likely not fully charged. Go ahead and throw it on the charger to top it off while you read through the manual. While you're at it, look up “Charging the Battery” in the manual to find out any pertinent details about doing that.

Trust me, you're going to want at least one, if not two or three, extra batteries for your camera. Batteries always die at the most inopportune moments. It's much better to have a spare to use than to end the shoot and possibly miss some great photographs while the battery is charging. By the way, I've had good luck with off-brand, third-party batteries in all my cameras for years. They are much less expensive than the ones from the manufacturer, too, so that's a plus. Wasabi has been my brand of choice and they have served me well, but YMMV.

Stock up on cards / format cards

Hopefully your camera came with a memory card or you already have one to use. Although a few cameras have some internal memory, most will need a card before you can take any pictures. Install the memory card and format it in the camera. The manual will help you know how to do that (see, it is useful for something). Formatting the card in-camera will reset the proper file structure and help prevent read and write errors. By the way, always format the card in the camera. Just be sure to save any images you want from it first.

Update firmware

Again with the mundane details! Look in the manual to see how to check the firmware on your camera, then check on-line to see if there are any updates. It may not be imperative that you do this right away, but firmware updates typically fix any known ‘bugs' and can even improve the performance of the camera. It's best to just go ahead and get this done now before you forget. It is usually a pretty simple process that doesn't take very long.

Now get out and shoot

Finally, the moment you've been waiting for! Battery is charged, you have a freshly formatted memory card in the camera, and all firmware is up to date. Now the fun begins, and you will really start to learn how awesome your new camera is. Explore the menus, press every button, and try every shooting mode. Practice changing the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO and see how your images are impacted by the changes. Don't worry about “messing up”. You most certainly will, but digital ‘film' is cheap (read: free).

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier Bresson

It is very likely that you will determine that there is a lot more to learn, not only about the camera, but about photography in general. Just to let you in on a little secret: your first images aren't going to be cover-of-National Geographic quality images. Don't be discouraged; mine (and the majority of other photographer's) aren't either.

Have fun with this and really enjoy the experience of shooting. Go with the mindset that you are not just taking pictures, you are making photographs. Embrace the challenge of learning a complex piece of gear and the intricacies of the art of photography. It won't happen overnight. In fact, it is an ongoing process of learning and improving that never really ends.

Really get to know your camera

After spending a bit of time with your new camera, it's time to really get down to brass tacks. The more familiar you are with the camera, the more efficient you will be and better images will be the result. That means you need to spend a lot of time with your new toy. You need to learn all the menus inside and out, become proficient at changing settings quickly, and develop a good understanding of all the features. There are a few things you can do, besides reading the manual, to become acquainted with your new camera.

Youtube

If you are looking for some help to learn something, it's likely there's a Youtube video about it. After getting my first (and second, and third) camera, I pored through countless videos to learn as much as I could about it. You can do the same by searching the model of your camera. Just keep in mind that it is the world wide web and you'll need to sift through some junk to find good tutorials.

On-line training

There's lots of good stuff on Youtube, but you may want to search for other on-line training sources that dig deeper into your specific camera model. There are a few different options – Kelby One and Lynda.com come to mind – that may have very detailed and very good quality training for you. Although there may a cost to use these services, they do typically have a free trial period so you can try them first. I have free access to Lynda.com through my local library, so you may want to check and see if that is an option for you.

“Couch” training

You can learn a lot in the warmth and comfort of your own home. I call it “couch” training, even though you don't have to be sitting on the couch to do this. You can do this in the comfort of your living room or home office while watching television, a movie, or some of the aforementioned Youtube videos. The idea is to grab your new camera and fiddle with it while you relax. Let's face it, most of what is on the tube doesn't require a whole lot of concentration to follow, so multitasking is certainly manageable.

Here's how it works. While you are relaxing in your easy chair, turn on the camera and practice going through the menus. Become intimately familiar with where to find the most common settings. Manipulate the buttons and dials and customize function buttons to fit the way you work. Just to be clear, you're not actually taking any pictures, but rather only doing a ‘dry run' to be better prepared for when you are out shooting. Do this over and over until making adjustments become second nature. This is especially useful if you ever intend to shoot at night when you may not be able to see buttons and dials at all.

Learn basic settings

When first starting out, all the different camera settings can be daunting. You will hear differing opinions on which mode to shoot in, whether to shoot JPEG or RAW, how to focus, or whether to shoot with auto or custom white balance, among other things. Don't let the technical details take the fun out of shooting for you.

If shooting in full auto is easiest for you, then start there to see what the camera can do. Just don't get stuck there. Slowly work your way into the semi-auto modes (aperture or shutter priority) where you determine one of the exposure settings and let the camera take care of the rest. When you are up for the challenge, switch over to manual mode and make all the exposure decisions yourself. It can be a lot to take in all at once, so master one setting at a time, then move on to something else.

Become a student of photography

My hope for you is that, much like what happened with me, your new camera is just the beginning of a long and pleasurable photography journey. It takes a lot of effort, but it's all worth it. Much like anything else, the more you put into photography, the more you'll get out of it. That takes time and a commitment to study photography.

Becoming a student of photography can take on many forms. There is tons of free and paid on-line content to help you learn and improve. There is also a plethora of books that contain useful information to help you grow and provide inspiration. Choose the medium that works best for you and the way you learn. There is no shortage of information and the learning should never cease.

Another thing you should eventually do is follow the work of other photographers. There are so many amazing photographers out there that you won't have any trouble finding several to follow. Search on Instagram or other social media platforms, bookmark and follow their websites, and peruse their published works in books and magazines. Study the images and determine what it is that you like about them. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Although your goal should not be to just copy someone's work, it can be very inspiring and provide a basis for the images that you want to create.

Invest in a workshop

I know this may sound crazy right now, especially if you are just starting out with your first camera. However, as you progress and have more and more of a desire to get better, keep the investment in a photography workshop at the top of your list of things to do. In my opinion, there is no better or faster way to improve your photography than to attend a workshop.

It was almost two years after getting my first camera that I went on a week-long photography workshop. Oh how hesitant I was, and oh how silly that seems now. That's a week I'll never forget. The learning experience was amazing and my desire for photography increased exponentially. The knowledge obtained was great, but even more important was the friendships that developed. I wrote more about the workshop experience in this article. Photography workshops are not inexpensive when you figure in the workshop fees, travel to and from the location, lodging, and food. However, it's money well spent and your photography will improve.

Get more gear, but only what you need for now

This is kind of a touchy subject. Don't misinterpret this to say that you need all the latest and greatest gear in order to become a better photographer. That's not how it works. You have a camera and I presume at least one lens to go with it. There are a few other things that could help you improve, depending on the type of photography you do, but it will still take effort and a lot of practice.

One thing to consider is a tripod. This is particular true if you shoot landscapes/nature, macro, or night photography, but a tripod can be a great addition to your photography toolbox regardless of what you shoot. A tripod is absolutely necessary in some cases where slow shutter speeds are used. A tripod also slows you down. Wait, what!? Why would slowing you down be a good thing? I'm glad you asked. It forces you to put more thought into the composition instead of just ‘spraying and praying' and hoping you stumble across a good image. Check out this article for some things to think about when shopping for a tripod.

If you like to shoot portraits, another piece of gear to think about is a flash (aka, speedlight). What's more, you'll want to shoot with the flash off-camera, so a trigger will also be a good idea. The awesome thing is you don't have to break the bank to get into a good flash and trigger system. Check out the products from Yongnuo. They cost a fraction of the big-name manufacturers and word just fine for most scenarios. This article provides more information on the use of flash in your photography as well as settings.

Shoot lots!

This is perhaps the one tip I would stress the most for all beginning photographers. The fancy new camera you found under the Christmas tree is great, but that alone is not going to make you a better (or even good) photographer. It might make it easier to create good photos, but in the end, the most important piece of the equation is you.

Simply put, you are only going to improve and continue to grow as a photographer if you shoot a lot of pictures. I've seen a lot of people who get a nice camera, but never get off ‘Auto' because they don't put in the time it takes to do so. Perhaps they are content with just taking snapshots and that's fine. If you want to go beyond the snapshot and create great images, then it's going to take more effort. Try to shoot daily, if possible. Carry your camera with you when you can. Memory cards are cheap and it costs nothing but time to shoot with digital cameras. Work toward your first 10,000 images, then keep on snapping away toward the next 10,000 and beyond.


About the Author

Rusty Parkhurst

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Rusty has been passionate about learning photography and creating great images since picking up his first 'real' camera 5 years ago. He works in the environmental consulting industry by day, spends evenings and weekends trying to keep up with 3 growing boys, and squeezes in as much photography time as possible. He loves talking photography and welcomes any questions you may have. More of his work can be found on his website.