Digital Photography For What It's Worth
Advice for first-time digital camera users—what
you'll need to know to get off to a smooth start
July 27, 2004
Harry Truman, 33rd president of the United States, who understood advice better than most, once said, "My
advice about giving advice to children is to find out what they want and advise
them to do it." Giving advice to adults seems to work pretty much the same
way in my
experience, but I hope to fare a little better here with a particularly motivated
audience—first-time digital camera users, many of whom have yet to settle on
how they want to handle their newest challenge.
The advice dispensed here may not help your particular situation, but it's
very unlikely to hurt. It's intended only to avert some of the more common false
starts in digital photography, as judged from years of exposure to newbie
posts on RPD. It can't possibly apply to every user
and every camera in every situation.
Be aware that behind every tip is a fair amount of detail, linked wherever
possible for easy access. In digital photography, the devil's very often in the
Off to a Smooth Start
Growing numbers of first-time digital camera users hit the scene every year
now, especially around the winter Holidays. Here are some valuable pointers for
those just getting started. These tips are by no means exhaustive, but they're a
good jumping-off point. We'll touch on
The links in the tips lead to potentially important details, for the most part within
The Digital Approach
Digital and film photography are far more alike than
they are different, but digital image recording opens up many new, valuable
and perhaps unanticipated opportunities.
For starters, assume that everything you already know
about getting good pictures still applies.
You won't find it in the box, but every digital
camera comes with a license to experiment, test, tweak and screw
up to your heart's content. With the marginal cost of another shot now
pegged at $0.00, why hold back? The pros typically take dozens of shots
to land a few keepers. Now you can do the same—and there's no better or
faster way to learn. Instant feedback is
one of digital photography's most powerful advantages.
Sit down with your camera's manual as soon as you
can. (Note that some cameras come with a basic "getting
started" printed manual and a much more extensive "complete"
manual on CD, probably in PDF format. If that's the case with your camera,
read both.) Digital cameras are sophisticated devices with capabilities you
might not anticipate from your film experience. You might be able to fake
some of the features some of the time, but you won't be able to take full
advantage of your investment without a read through the full version of the manual.
Think outside the box. Digital cameras have more
uses than you might have imagined.
Batteries for AA-Compatible Cameras
If your camera came with a proprietary
lithium ion rechargeable battery, read and follow the manufacturer's instructions
carefully, order an extra battery and a 12V car charger if you can afford it, and skip
the rest of this section. If it came with AAs or AA-equivalents like CR-V3
lithium disposables, read on.
AA batteries turn out to be a lot more complicated than anyone would have
wished, but they're easily managed with a little knowledge and the proper tools. You'll find a complete discussion of
batteries for AA-compatible digital cameras
elsewhere on this site, but here are the take-home points:
When in doubt, buy and carry additional
spare battery sets. Along with ample memory,
ample spares and a smart, fast charger with a 12V car
adapter are the keys to carefree digital photography.
If your camera takes AAs, don't even think
of using alkaline batteries—even
if you found alkalines in the camera box. (Yes, that includes
those pricey super-duper ultra titanium jobs.) If you don't have ready
access to NiMH rechargeable AAs, use disposable
lithium AAs or CR-V3s until the NiMH
AAs you've ordered (or will soon be ordering) arrive. Lots of chain
retailers carry disposable lithium AAs and NiMH AAs at reasonable prices nowadays.
Since NiMH batteries have no appreciable voltage
depression or "memory" effect,
feel free to charge them at your convenience. Be aware, however, that brand
new NiMH AAs will need to complete 3-4 charge-discharge cycles to hit full
stride. (Only rarely will they need conditioning
Speaking of conditioning, never
discharge an NiMH
AA below 1.0V. (Don't worry, your camera will die and stop drawing
your AAs down long before that happens, but a flashlight won't know when
If your camera came with disposable lithium CR-V3
batteries, and your NiMH AAs aren't yet ready for prime time, resist the
urge to shoot up the CR-V3s as they make ideal emergency and cold
weather back-ups for your camera bag.
I won't get into the AA vs. proprietary
lithium ion debate here. Suffice it to say that with the proper AAs, you'll
do fine either way.
Critical Camera Settings
You may never get to some of your new camera's
settings, but a few critical settings demand immediate attention, and they won't
necessarily be familiar
from your film experience.
If you haven't yet thought through the many
trade-offs surrounding resolution (the
number of pixels recorded) and JPEG
compression level (often referred to as "quality"), play it
safe: Set your camera for the highest available resolution and the highest
JPEG compression setting for now and work out the details later. For most
users, TIFF recording will be overkill, but
if your camera offers RAW recording, get up
to speed on it as soon as you can.
When in doubt, don't hesitate to take advantage
of auto-exposure and auto-focus (they're quite capable these days), but
avoid auto-ISO for anything other than
low-light action shots. Try the
lowest ISO setting your camera offers before
venturing higher. Higher ISO settings bring more image noise.
Many digital cameras behave like color slide
film—the best images are often slightly underexposed, particularly when
bright scene elements are involved. My C-2020Z tends to do its best work at EC
-0.3 or -0.7 (that is, 0.3 or 0.7 stops below the metered exposure) in
bright sunlight. Use exposure compensation
to feel out your own camera's exposure sweet spots, but count on some
variation with photographic conditions. When in doubt, bracket
Sooner or later, you'll have to deal with other
purely digital recording
mode issues like white balance and in-camera
sharpening, but it's usually safe to accept camera defaults on those fronts for
If you use your camera's macro focus setting for
a close-up, be sure to turn it off right away. Many a non-close-up's
been fatally blurred by a camera carelessly left in macro mode. (This is the
voice of experience speaking.)
If your shots come out badly exposed, even
in auto mode, make sure that exposure compensation
hasn't been left at an untoward setting.
For more on exposure and other critical camera
settings, see the dpFWIW article Exposure
strategies for digital cameras with priority and fully manual exposure control.
Your digital may take movies, but it's still primarily a still camera,
and holding it still is still important.
If your camera has an optical viewfinder, resist
the urge to shoot through the LCD with the camera held out in front of you.
Bracing the camera firmly against your brow eliminates a lot of camera
shake. Check your exposure and fine-tune your framing via the LCD as
needed (and it will be needed for close-ups in particular), but shoot through the optical viewfinder whenever
Grab some camera support for long exposures.
(For most, the ability to handhold shots falls off dramatically below 1/30
sec, especially in the cold or after a trip to Starbuck's, but practice pays
here.) If you don't have a tripod or monopod
handy, brace yourself and the camera against something immovable—a
wall, post, tree, furniture, an uncle in front of the TV on Christmas Day.
Browsing through envelopes of prints fresh from
the drug store and then tossing them into a picture drawing isn't going to
work anymore, thank heavens.
As you begin to develop a strategy for culling,
editing, storing, organizing and most importantly enjoying the mountain of images you'll soon face, keep in mind that
the goal is to end up with an effective retrieval system,
not just a storage system.
Take the time to review the exposure information
and other camera settings your camera diligently records in the EXIF header
built into every image file. (Most decent photo editors and thumbnailers
allow this nowadays, but some make it a whole lot easier than others.)
You'll learn photography much faster this way.
Never, ever edit your original images. Always
work on copies. Archive the originals for safe keeping in their original
format. Absolutely nothing's gained by converting camera-fresh JPEGs
to a lossless format until you begin editing them.
Repeatedly saving JPEG
images in JPEG format results in a slow but sure accumulation of JPEG
artifacts. If your images need to be rotated by some multiple of 90°
(say, into vertical format), save yourself a quality hit by using your
editor's or thumbnailer's lossless JPEG rotation feature for that purpose.
If you modify an image and think you may edit it again later, save a copy in a
lossless format like PNG (my favorite), TIFF
image editor's proprietary
Most digital photographs deserve at least a
trial pass through your photo editor's "auto-balance",
"instant fix" or "general
enhancement" feature. If you're new to post-processing,
you can begin to get a feel for what works and what doesn't by noting what
adjustments your auto-balance made to the good, the bad and the ugly results. Even a
suboptimal auto-balance result can be a good starting point for your manual
It's worth repeating: Digital and film photography are far more alike than
they are different. Here are a few differences and similarities worth
keeping in mind at the outset.
like crazy for any factor you're unsure of, whether it be exposure
compensation, camera shake, white
balance or polarizer adjustment. With no
marginal cost for another shot, why not cover your bets?
If your camera accepts optical
filters, use them as you would with a film camera. Many important
optical filter effects can't be emulated effectively in post-processing, and
polarizers top that list. Note, however, that
since digital cameras tend to be a lot less UV-sensitive than
film, a UV filter's not likely to do you any good beyond lens
When faced with excess
contrast, expose for the highlights to avoid white-outs and plan to
bring up the shadows in post-processing as needed.
When in doubt, underexpose by 1/3 to 1/2 stops using exposure
compensation. Color slide film users will find this exposure strategy a
familiar one, but it runs counter to the
usual negative film approach.
For B&W photos,
record in color and convert to B&W in post-processing. You'll get more
conversion options, better results and a color version of your photo to
boot. Your camera's B&W recording mode serves best as a B&W field preview
via the LCD.
Where to Go for Further Help
To get the most out of the articles on dpFWIW, be sure to take
advantage of the keyword search page and the extensive home page links.
You'll also find a wealth of digital photography information on the Usenet
newsgroup rec.photo.digital (RPD for short),
especially if you take the time to look through the group's full FAQ
(frequently asked questions) and previous posts. Mining the gold in recent RPD posts is as easy as using your news reader's
find function. To search for posts that have already scrolled off your news
server, visit groups.google.com, a
powerful newsgroup archive search engine. If you're unfamiliar with Google,
see Todd Walker's very helpful "how
to use Google Groups" web page. To learn how to get the most out of RPD, click here.
Digital photography has inspired many a web site besides dpFWIW.
Many of my favorites are linked in the home page
references. Use your favorite search engine or your web browser's built-in search function
to drill down on your topic of interest. Search engines
supporting Boolean and phrase searches (like Altavista
and Google) are your quickest route to paydirt.
I'm still amazed at how many hits turn up on even the most arcane topics. Of
course, separating the wheat from the chaff is always a challenge on the wild,
wild Internet, but it usually takes only a little cross-checking to get an idea
for which is which.
References and Links
(See also the home page links.)
Landscape—Michael Reichmann's masterful site bills itself as "the
web's most comprehensive site devoted to the art of landscape and nature
photography using digital imaging techniques." I couldn't agree
more. There you'll find many valuable tutorials on all aspects of digital
imaging. The many PhotoShop tutorials can
usually be ported to any competent editor. Michael's Instant
PhotoShop tutorial is an invaluable leg-up for anyone contemplating digital
photo editing, but be sure to continue on to Miles Hecker's tone
Unless explicitly attributed to another contributor, all content on this
site © Jeremy McCreary
Comments and corrections to Jeremy McCreary at dpFWIW@cliffshade.com, but please see here