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Digital Photography For What It's Worth

Formal gardens at Washington Park, Denver, CO; R72 IR filter with monopod support. Click for 800x600 version. [C-2020Z]

Marks content from authoritative sources or confirmed by my own personal experience Advice for first-time digital camera userswhat you'll need to know to get off to a smooth start

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Last updated October 22, 2009

Editor's Note

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 details.


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 dpFWIW.


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. You won't regret it.

  • 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 after that.)

  • 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 to quit.)

  • 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 your exposures.

  • 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 starters.

  • 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.


Motion 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 you can.

  • 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.


Image Management

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 or your image editor's proprietary format.

  • 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 adjustments.


Digital Techniques

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.

  • Bracket 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 protection.

  • 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.)

Marks areas under contruction--stay tuned. Click to review Limited Warranty section on the home page. Under construction...

Luminous 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 curves tutorial.


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 first.

URL: http://www.cliffshade.com/dpfwiw/advice.htm