How to use your new digital camera
17th Jan 2013 | 08:00
Setting up and using a DSLR, CSC or compact camera
Getting started with your new camera
If you're lucky enough to have been bought a new camera as a gift, or splashed out on one yourself, you're no doubt itching to start taking pictures.
But whether you've got a Canon EOS 650D, a Nikon D3200, a Sony NEX-6, a Panasonic G5, an Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 or any other excellent DSLR or compact system camera (CSC) - or even a top compact camera such as a Canon G15, Fuji X10 or Fuji X100S - it pays to get a few things out of the way before you start shooting.
This guide to setting up your DSLR, CSC or compact camera examines all the things you should consider before you begin shooting, from charging your battery to ensuring your images have maximum detail and accurate colours.
Although it's designed to provide novice users with all the information you need to get started, if you just want the gist of each aspect, you can refer to our Quick Start points below each heading.
Of course, if you're getting ahead of yourself and you haven't actually bought a new camera yet, you might like to check out our buying guides:
- Best DSLR: top cameras by price and brand
- Best compact system camera (CSC)
- Best compact camera
- What camera should I buy? Your options explained
- Best camera accessories
Set up the battery, memory card and time
Quick start: Charge the battery, format the card and set the date and time
The first thing you want to do is set the battery to a full charge. Manufacturers often recommend you fully charge your battery for the first time, and subsequently only charge it when fully depleted, to help it maintain its performance.
Once the battery is charged and inserted into the camera, the next step will be to insert your memory card - either through a slot at the base of the model, or a door to its side.
Then follow the on-screen instructions for setting the date and time. Although you don't necessarily need to do this, it's a good idea to input this information now because the date and time will be stored alongside each image you take, which means at a later date you can find out exactly when you captured a particular image or video.
Finally, you should format the memory card - often an SD card - that you've just inserted. This introduces the card to the camera, and creates the necessary folders into which the camera records images and videos.
The card formatting option will be located either in a separate tools/maintenance menu (sometimes marked with a spanner symbol) or towards the end of a list of options. You may even need to switch your camera to its playback mode to access this option, so check your user manual to see how it can be found.
Once you've found it, follow the on-screen instructions and the camera should format the card within a few seconds. Be aware that this process deletes all the information on a card, so if the card contains anything you want to keep, make sure that you have a copy of it on your computer or elsewhere. Of course, this isn't an issue with new cards, which will be blank to begin with.
Choose a file format
Quick start: Choose the highest quality JPGs, here's it's JPEG fine.
One of your first decisions should be which format you want to use to record your images. All compact system cameras (CSC), DSLRs and some compact cameras - including top DSLRs such as the Canon 6D, Nikon D600, Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 - record images in JPG and raw formats.
And some (typically those from Nikon) add a further recording option known as TIFF.
A TIFF is similar to a JPG, in that it is a universal format so the image can be immediately viewed and used for display or printing. However, a TIFF has the upper hand in image quality for two reasons.
First, whereas JPG files are always compressed to some degree, which means that certain information is discarded. TIFF files can be saved in an uncompressed format. This enables them to retain all their original information.
Second, TIFFs may be saved in a higher bit depth than JPGs, which means they are capable of capturing a greater range of colour information. This is useful when the scene you're photographing contains smooth areas where the tones shift gradually, and also when editing images. This does, however, create larger files.
Above: On the Sony Alpha 65 the Quality option in the menu is used to set the file format.
Raw files contain more information than JPGs as standard, which makes them more suitable for post-capture processing, and they can be saved as high-quality uncompressed files. It is often possible to change many of the in-camera settings as a raw file is processed, so if you make a mistake with the white balance settings, for example, you can correct it very easily.
Although raw files are often referred to as digital negatives because they contain the maximum amount of data possible, they require conversion to another format (such as TIFF or JPEG) to make them universally viewable.
A disadvantage of raw files is that they need specific software for viewing and conversion - this is provided with your camera. Other software such as Photoshop and Photoshop Elements can be used, but it may need to be updated to make it compatible with your camera's raw files.
If you're unsure which mode you should be using, it's best to stick to JPG images only.
However, if you plan on learning about raw processing in the near future, try shooting simultaneous JPG and raw files - that way, you can use the JPG versions in the meantime, and revisit the raw files once you've gained a better understanding of what their use entails.
Check out this guide to shooting in raw format from our friends at Digital Camera World, when you are ready to give it a try.
Set image size and compression
Quick start: Set to the maximum size and lowest compression.
Today's digital cameras contain millions of pixels, far more than is required for most purposes. For this reason, some people prefer to capture their images at a lower resolution than the pixel count of their sensor, to produce smaller image files.
But advances in processing speed and the ever-decreasing price of memory cards means that most people can quickly capture hundreds of high-resolution images without hassle onto a single memory card.
For maximum flexibility you should choose the option that corresponds to the pixel count of your sensor, such as 16MP. This should be the first option you come to in the image size option of your camera's menu system.
This will ensure that whenever you want to enlarge or crop an image, your images will contain the highest level of detail to begin with.
As well as image size, you should be presented with options for compression, sometimes marked as 'Quality'. This enables you to set the compression of your images so that you can fit many onto your memory card.
Above: Use the Quality option in the menu to set image quality to the highest possible value.
How this is presented differs between cameras - some incorporate the option along with image size, while some list these options with star ratings (with a higher number of stars corresponding with the lowest compression, and thus the best image quality). Your camera may even have the choice of Superfine, Fine, Standard, or Best, Good and so on.
Some cameras show you how many images you may be able to take at a particular setting as you do this. The best-quality setting should show the smallest number of images (since it will be compressing the images by a lower amount, thus taking up more space on your memory card).
If your camera doesn't show this figure here, it will probably do so on the main shooting screen, which appears once you turn on the camera. You may need to press the Disp or Info button to see this information, since it may be hidden by default.
As a general rule, you should always pick the best quality or compression option, because this will give the best quality results.
Decide on an exposure mode
Quick start: Choose Program option.
Many cameras offer automatic, semi-manual and manual exposure options, together with a handful of preset options called scene modes, in order to cater for a range of photographer abilities. Whereas the automatic options leave everything to the camera, the presets can be chosen to suit a particular subject, such as a portrait or landscape scene.
Above: Exposure mode may be set using a dial on the top of the camera.
More recent DSLRs and CSCs have an option that combines automatic and preset modes into one, which instructs the camera to look for key elements in a scene and pick the most suitable scene mode to use.
Semi-manual options, meanwhile, are Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority (A and S) modes. In Aperture Priority mode you set the aperture, while the camera works out the shutter speed. In Shutter Priority mode, you select the shutter speed and the camera sets an appropriate aperture setting.
The Manual exposure option enables you to set the aperture and shutter speed to your liking, in addition to a range of other options such as whether to use the flash.
If you're just starting out and feel uncertain about venturing into manual shooting territory, you may wish to leave your camera on either the Auto or Program modes. The two are similar, although the latter affords more user control, typically by way of shifting the exposure one way or the other and whether to use the flash or not, along with a handful of less significant options.
So at what point should the novice user call upon the more manual exposure options?
Generally, Shutter Priority should be employed when there is movement in the scene to be captured sharply or blurred. Typical examples in the former category would be any kind of sports, where the shutter needs to be raised to freeze the action.
Any scene with moving traffic or flowing water that you want to blur is a candidate for a long exposure. In this case the shutter needs to be kept open for an extended period of time (for particularly long shutter speeds, a tripod may also be required).
Above: Canon uses the term Time Value (Tv) instead of Shutter Priority.
Aperture Priority, meanwhile, is best suited for scenes where control over depth of field is more crucial than the exact shutter speed. Wider apertures produce a shorter depth of field than smaller ones. So, you may choose to use a wide aperture for a portrait to blur the background, before switching to a smaller aperture to capture the full expanse of a landscape sharply.
Once you've mastered the Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority options, you may wish to explore the fully Manual option. Here you're responsible for setting both the aperture and shutter speed, although the camera's metering system will guide you with regards to correct exposure or multiple exposures.
This option is useful once you understand how your camera behaves in different situations, since you can instinctively adjust the settings to compensate for any very dark or light subjects. But bear in mind that the exposure compensation function found on all cameras can be used to achieve the same goal in one of the semi-manual modes too.
Select white balance
Quick start: Set AWB (Auto white balance) option.
All cameras have some way of assessing white balance, which is responsible for balancing the content in the scene with the lighting conditions under which you're shooting. Tungsten light, for example, is far warmer in appearance than daylight or flash lighting, and a camera's auto white balance system compensates for this.
Above: You can often access the white balance options via dedicated button.
The Auto White Balance systems of most compact cameras do a perfectly reasonable job of retaining the original colours in the scene, and so for the most part it's safe to leave it on this setting. But it's not always perfect.
Artificial lighting conditions in particular prove to be problematic for many AWB systems, and so in this case it may be a better idea to switch to one of the preset modes, such as Incandescent or Fluorescent. These have been designed to work specifically in these conditions, and may help to render the scene with more accurate colour than would be otherwise the case.
Most cameras also have one or more further white balance options. Some enable white balance to be adjusted using a coloured grid, so that the user can quickly bias it towards a certain hue. This can be useful if you can tell there is a colour cast - or, alternatively, if you want to apply a colour cast for any reason - but you're not sure of which preset to use.
Above: some cameras enable white balance to be adjusted using a coloured grid.
Most cameras also offer adjustment of colour temperature over the Kelvin scale, the unit measurement for colour temperature. This is no different from the preset options, since these are all essentially set to a point on this scale (daylight to 6500K, tungsten to 3000K, and so on).
As with the grid system, this is useful if you just want to notch the white balance up one way or the other, to produce a slightly cooler or warmer result.
The custom white balance system option enables the camera's white balance to be calibrated to the shooting conditions. This is easily done and simply requires a white or grey card or other neutral target to be photographed in the same light as the subject. This shot then used as a reference for all further images taken under the same light.Your camera will take you through the process.
This is often the most accurate option, although it also requires the most effort and only works for those particular conditions. For complete accuracy, it also requires a special target, which is designed to be spectrally neutral regardless of the scene's illumination.
Go for an ISO
Quick start: Set Auto ISO.
As a general rule, you should always use the lowest ISO setting in your camera's standard sensitivity range that you can get away with. For most cameras this will be ISO 100 or 200, although cameras such as the Canon G15, Pentax Optio RZ18 and Pentax K-5 II also offer ISO 80.
At low ISO settings, shots require more exposure than when a higher sensitivity such as ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 is set, and the resulting image will be purer with less noise.
Nevertheless, there will be occasions where you need to shoot at a higher ISO setting, simply because there won't be enough light in the scene to use a lower one. You may also need to increase sensitivity to achieve a particular shutter speed in order to freeze any action, such as when shooting a moving subject.
It may be awkward to have to constantly adjust the sensitivity to match the shooting conditions in which you're working, and most cameras offer an Auto option designed to do this for you. When set to this mode, the camera will automatically choose the lowest ISO setting possible for the scene being captured.
Some cameras enable the range over which this works to be specified by the user, so that particularly high sensitivities can either be avoided or included.
Above: The sensitivity (ISO) settings can often be reached via a dedicated button.
Setting a wide range (such as ISO 100-3200) is ideal when shooting under constantly varying lighting conditions, while a more restrictive option (such as ISO 100-400) means that you can be sure your camera will never go over this upper threshold, which in turn should help to control noise.
Above: It can be useful to use an Auto ISO option in changing light conditions.
Your DSLR or CSC is also likely to include options for image noise reduction, which is particularly important if you plan to use your images right away without any further processing.
These will be typically divided into two options, one for long exposures and the other for high sensitivities. For the latter you may be able to specify a particular strength of noise reduction, which is just as well, considering how aggressive some cameras' systems can be.
As a general rule, long exposure noise reduction is always a good idea, because most cameras do well to identify where noise has formed during an exposure and ensure that other details are preserved.
If you have separate options for high-sensitivity noise reduction, you may wish to experiment with the effects of each one because the strongest may be too strong for your liking, and may remove too many details.
If you shoot raw images you can always process out noise later in post-production, although this necessitates both time and skill to achieve an optimum result.
Set a colour mode
Quick start: Set Standard colour option and sRGB colour space.
Most cameras offer a handful of colour options that are designed to match different scenarios. When you capture a landscape, for example, you're likely to want the greens of the foliage and blues in the sky to turn out with greater vibrancy than when capturing a portrait or group shot, where there are more neutral skin tones to consider.
You may even want to capture your images straight into black and white or sepia, and most cameras have settings to do both.
For more general subjects, however, the Standard or Normal or Natural default setting should provide pleasing but neutral results, so it's best to stick to this. Bear in mind that other settings in your camera also affect how colour is recorded, such as white balance and colour space.
Above: Camera manufacturers uses terms like Photo Style and Picture Control to refer to their colour options.
Above: The colour options can often be adjusted to suit your preferences.
As a concept, colour space is frequently misunderstood. Some photographers only shoot in AdobeRGB because the colour gamut (the range of possible colours that may be specified) is broader than in the sRGB space.
But there are good reasons for using the sRGB space instead. sRGB was developed specifically for computer displays, scanners and for exchanging images online, and its narrower gamut means that certain colours are more concentrated, appearing more vibrant when viewed on a computer display. Because most displays can't reproduce all the colours in the AdobeRGB gamut, the same image in that colour mode may look flatter than in sRGB.
Nevertheless, if you intend on editing your images - and particularly if you want to print them - your best option is to use the AdobeRGB space, since this is specifically designed for this.
If you capture raw images, you don't necessarily need to make your decision as you shoot, since this can always be specified later on without the risk of image degradation. However, it may be easier to specify this as early on as possible to negate conversions further down the line.
Choose autofocus or manual focus
Quick start: Set default option.
There are two things to consider when setting the correct focus on your camera. One is the method by which the camera focuses, and the other is the area or points used for automatic focusing. Since the two are related, it's useful to understand the purpose of both, particularly because a setting on one may impose limitations on the other.
The default autofocusing option on most cameras instructs the camera to focus once when the shutter release button is half-depressed, and this is used for the subsequent exposure. This is fine for most static subjects, and should be left on for general use.
However, this focus mode will not take into consideration any subject movement following the initial focus, so it's best to switch to a continuous 'Servo' mode, which will follow the subject should it be moving.
Most DSLRs will be able to focus continuously as the subject moves provided there is enough light. On most CSCs and compact cameras, this mode is usually titled 'AF tracking', but because of their construction they tend to struggle a bit more with moving targets.
Above: Some cameras have a switch to set it to auto or manual focus.
Manual focus, meanwhile, disables autofocus and enables you to adjust it yourself. This is useful when the focusing system can't find focus for whatever reason, such as when it's too dark or when there's little contrast in the scene. It's also particularly useful for macro photography, where precise manual control over focusing is required.
The other side to focusing concerns which points or areas are used to achieve focus. This is less straightforward, since the options provided vary considerably between models.
Above: Even some compact cameras have a collection of focusing controls.
A camera will typically use an auto-area/all-points option by default. Using this method means the camera can easily and quickly adapt to different scenes, such as when there is a dominant subject in the frame one minute, and a more general scene the next.It's a useful option, but the camera often assumes the nearest object is your main subject.
On practically all models it's also possible to select a single focusing point that can be placed over the subject and used for more precise control, and your camera may also offer a face detection option that looks for faces and prioritises focus specifically on them.
Above: There are usually several methods of selecting the AF point to use.
Face detection is usually linked to other systems, such as metering, white balance and even flash, so it's a good idea to select this only when taking portraits and groups shots, although the effectiveness of different face detection systems varies between cameras.
Dial in metering
Quick start: Set to the default option, which should be titled 'Multi', 'Matrix' or 'Evaluative'.
Your camera's metering system is responsible for choosing the settings designed to give the best exposure for the scene being shot. It decides this by looking at separate parts of the scene and working out which combination of shutter speed and aperture will help to produce the most balanced result.
If shooting in a semi-manual mode such as Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, the camera will work around the aperture or shutter speed already specified in order to find the other, unspecified setting.
Since most scenes contain a range of tones, from dark shadows to bright highlights, the default evaluative pattern is ideal for general use, and most of the time, on most cameras, it gets it right. Sometimes, however, the evaluative metering system can become confused or give an inappropriate setting, particularly when capturing under awkward lighting conditions such as under bright sunlight.
When the main subject only occupies a small portion of the frame, using the evaluative pattern to balance for the scene as a whole may render the subject too light or dark. In this case, switching to one of the other patterns may be beneficial.
Most cameras offer at least two further patterns: centre-weighted and spot. The former takes the whole scene into consideration, but biases the exposure to the centre of the frame. As such, this is a good option when capturing portraits against a strongly-lit background, one that could easily sway an evaluative system into underexposure of the main subject.
Above: Some cameras have a graphic interface to help you adjust settings such as the metering mode.
Spot metering, meanwhile, uses a much smaller area on which to base exposure (and, in contrast to centre-weighted, only uses this area). As such, it's useful when the subject also only occupies a small portion of the frame, such as a white flower surrounded by plenty of dark green foliage.
Some cameras also go on to offer partial metering, which is similar to spot metering but with a larger measuring area, and also options specifically designed to preserve shadows or highlights. If unsure, and for general use, stick to the default evaluative option.
Capture a video mode
Quick start: Set to the default progressive option, and capture at 30fps.
Although compact cameras have long offered basic video recording functionality, high-definition recording on DSLRs and CSCs, and the various issues to consider when filming, are still all relatively new.
Most cameras now offer HD recording in one or more flavours, such as 720p, 1080i and 1080p. The figure refers to the resolution; 720p equates to a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, for example, while 1080p, also known as Full HD, equates to 1920 x 1080 pixels.
The letter after the number refers to whether the scanning is progressive or interlaced. The former records the entire frame in one go, while the latter combines the odd lines of one frame with the even lines of the next.
Above: The movie shooting button is often red.
Manufacturers may also combine frame rate with scanning method into a single figure, such as 24p (24 progressive frames per second), or 50i (50 interlaced frames per second).
For most subjects the progressive option is a better choice, and some manufacturers even go as far as only including progressive recording in their cameras.
The interlaced format may be preferred for static subjects, but when displaying moving subjects it can introduce an unsightly banding effect. This can be offset by de-interlacing the footage, although the effectiveness of this varies between different displays.
A capture rate of 24fps is often used to create a more cinematic effect, since this is the same rate used by the film industry. However, 30fps capture is also typically offered by cameras as this can help maintain image stability as the camera moves around a scene.
Other video options may include wind cancellation for sound recording, wind being particularly problematic for the small microphones integrated into DSLR and CSC bodies.
You may also have different focusing options for face detection, and most cameras also enable you to vary the colour and effects options so that footage may be treated instantly in the effect of your choosing.
Because this varies between models, it's best to consult your camera's manual to get a better understanding of what your particular model offers and what limitations certain options may impose.
Other things to check on your camera
Quick start: Check your image stabilisation system is on, familiarise yourself with sensor cleaning and check what custom options are on offer.
Today's cameras are incredibly sophisticated, and even after you're comfortable with all of the previous settings there will be many further options at your disposal. For novice users this may seem daunting, but it's well worth understanding the main ones. Doing so will enable operation more to your choosing, and your images will probably be a higher standard.
Setting the right image stabilisation option is important, since this can make a significant difference to the sharpness of your images at lower shutter speeds. There should be a standard mode that can be left on at all times, although further options may help you out when you're panning by disabling stabilisation over one axis only.
If you own a Canon or Nikon DSLR, optical stabilisation will be selected through the lens. For other DSLRs and CSCs, you are likely to need to set this through the camera body.
Above: Check for a switch on the side of your camera's lens to activate the stabilisation system.
Your sensor may also need to be cleaned at some point, particularly if you frequently changes lenses. Practically all of today's cameras have a vibrating filter in front of your sensor to shake off any dust, and if left to default settings this is likely to be performed regularly without you knowing it (such as when powering your camera up and down).
Sometimes, however, it may be necessary to clean the sensor manually, using a rocket blower or a similar device, because this will help you to clear any more stubborn particles.
If you have a DSLR there should be an option somewhere that raises your camera's mirror, so that the filter in front of the sensor is exposed for cleaning.
Compact system cameras, which don't have a mirror, may simply be cleaned upon the removal of the lens. This varies between models, so you should check your camera's manual for the correct procedure for your specific model.
Whether you're using a DSLR or a CSC, you may wish to turn off the camera's operational sounds, which can be distracting in certain shooting environments.
You may also have the option to display a grid over the LCD screen, which can help you to keep framing straight.
Other useful options include the length of time that images are displayed on the screen after you've captured them, or whether you want the camera to rotate images shot in the portrait format, so that you can view them along with landscape-orientation images without turning the camera around each time.
Above: Specifying the time that you want images to be displayed after capture and turning down any beeps can make your camera more pleasant to use.
You won't need to adjust the majority of these right away, and most will be set to the most popular choices at default. Nevertheless, it pays to familiarise yourself with what's available, so that you can make the most of what your camera offers from the off, and start shooting great photos now.