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How to Use a Digital Camera

How to Use a Digital Camera
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  • Beach/Snow mode brightens the exposure so your winter shots won’t look gray (my favorite).
  • Flower mode gives a narrow zone of sharp focus on a very close subject, with a narrow depth-of-field for a blurry background. Use this setting for close-up shots including jewelry, bugs, food, and artistic renderings of your cat’s profile.
  • Landscape mode gives sharp focus on everything from foreground to background with a wide depth-of-field. Use it for brightly-lit landscapes or for darker scenes with a tripod to offset the slower shutter speed.
  • Here are some more scene modes that your camera may have: Indoor, Party, Sports, Portrait, Sunset, Starry sky, Fireworks, Aerial, HDR, Underwater, Panorama assist, Night portrait, Night scenery, Food, Candle light…The manufacturers have gotten really creative.
  • You can also create your own custom scene modes, for situations you encounter frequently.

You don’t have to memorize all this information. Just remember this: When you photograph, be aware of the situation and set the camera accordingly. Don’t always let your camera decide how to take the picture. Take control of your camera and practice, and your images will improve. Photography is like any other skill: the more you practice, the better you get.

By now, if you’re still reading, your eyes have glazed over and your brain is saying, “This is as bad as reading the manual”. Yes, technical stuff is boring. But like any other technique, once you learn it you know it. Practice one technique at a time. Take your camera to the playground with your kids. Stop on the way home from work and shoot the sunset. Experiment with different settings. Make a portrait with the portrait setting, and then take the same picture with the landscape setting. Look at both carefully on the computer. Can you see any difference? The portrait setting should give you a pleasing portrait with a soft, non-distracting background. The landscape setting should give you a sharp person, with sharp blemishes, as well as a sharp background which might distract from the person. How does your person look with sunset mode?

And here’s the important question: How do you like it? Once you understand the effects of the different settings, you can mix them up to produce some really cool stuff. On a cloudy day, shoot a lighthouse in Indoor mode. It will look blue! You can really have fun and develop a personal style by playing with the settings on your compact camera.

RESOURCES FOR USING YOUR CAMERA — Here are some ideas for further reading:

How to compose a good picture — All the technical gizmos in the universe won’t make a beautiful picture if you don’t understand composition, lighting, and timing. There are great courses online, but they’re not necessarily free. Here are some online photography courses. Note, I’m not endorsing everything, just jumpstarting your search.

  • — free topics including composition, lighting, contests, and fixing common problems. A good starting point to get basic concepts that you can expand upon later.
  • The New York Institute of Photography is one of many online photo schools. Take a look at NYIP as well as BetterPhoto and others. Even looking at their course outlines is instructive. But they are not free!
  • Maine Media Workshops is an accredited, on-site school near Camden, Maine which offers weeklong summertime workshops. The experience is immersive and can be transformative. I took their beginner course years ago and got hooked. Since then, I have taken several of their master classes, and have always found the experience to be worth the cost. Not only do you learn photography, but you also develop contacts and see how other people use it. This is my only endorsement.

How to use a digital camera — There’s plenty of free information about the technical aspects of photography.

  • Your camera’s user manual! After you know what you want to do, the manual should tell you how to do it.
  • —The On-line Library of Digital Photography
  • How Stuff Works — a technical view of digital photography
  • Digital Photography School — I love the article on how to choose a photography class.

How to buy a digital camera — Google this topic, as there are many approaches. Even if you already own a camera, it’s good information. And this year’s models have so many more functions than a 3-year-old camera that it might be time to upgrade anyway.

  • CNET advises to think first about how you’ll use your camera — good idea!
  • Crutchfield has a good description of megapixels, stabilization, and scene modes
  • PC World with video and a discussion of camera types and functions

The Top 8 Digital Camera Newbie Mistakes to Avoid — Not just for newbies!!! This article also has some great links to subjects such as cameras for dads and travel security.

All photos © Susan Cole Kelly.

Susan Cole Kelly is a compulsive shutterbug based in Boston and downeast Maine. You can see more of her work at

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