December 26, 2009

New Camera? Now What?

Montana Winter 2008
Did you get a new digital camera for Christmas? If so, you might be wondering where to start. Here are a couple suggestions to get you taking pictures in no time!

The first thing you need is power for the camera. It may come with some alkaline AA batteries in the box. If so, open the battery compartment (usually on the bottom of the camera) and insert them in the correct orientation.

If your camera came with a rechargeable battery, you need to charge the battery first before putting it in the camera. There's probably an included battery charger for you to plug into the wall. This will take a couple hours and then you'll be ready to go.

Note that alkaline batteries don't let you take many photos before they run out. You might want to experiment with the new lithium AA batteries made for hand-held devices of all kinds, or try some rechargeable AA batteries called Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH). The rechargeables will be "dead" when you buy them so plan on some charging time before use.

While you're waiting for the battery to charge, locate the memory card. A memory card saves your photos as you take them. Your camera may have come with a small capacity card (16MB or 32MB). Or Santa may have included a higher capacity card (2GB or 4GB) for you.

In either case, insert the memory card in the camera. In a compact camera, the slot  is often in the same compartment as the batteries. In an SLR camera, the memory card slot may be behind a door on the side. In both cases, the card only fits in the slot in one direction. If the card doesn't go in smoothly, try turning it over.

CAUTION: If you already have pictures on your memory card, skip this next step! Otherwise, you will erase all your photos!

Once the memory card is in the camera, it's a good idea to format the card. This prepares it to work optimally with your camera (though it will work without this step). Get out the instruction book that came with the camera and look up Format in the index. Follow the directions listed there.

Instruction Manual

The batteries may still be charging, so while you wait, take the time to read through the manual's introduction to using your camera. This section, sometimes called "Getting Started" or "Basic Operation", includes directions on loading batteries and memory cards and attaching the camera strap. Then it explains basic picture taking and picture reviewing techniques as well as how to delete any photo you don't like.

Note: Some camera manufacturers supply only a very small, incomplete printed manual. The complete manual is on the CD that is also in the camera box. If you take the CD to any copy shop, they can print and bind it for you. I highly recommend you do this.

By now the batteries should be charged, so you can install them in the camera. Find the power switch and turn on the camera. Set the camera to automatic picture taking, usually a red camera or green square icon or even the word AUTO. Following the guidelines given in the manual, frame a photo using either the screen on the back or the viewfinder. Try moving closer or zooming in on your subject to eliminate unnecessary information. Focus by pressing the shutter button halfway. Then take the photo by pressing the shutter button all the way.

Automatic Picture Taking Icon

The photo you just made should instantly appear on the back of the camera. If it doesn't stay visible long enough for you to check the results, you can call up the picture manually. Press the playback or Review button. The playback button looks like a right-pointing triangle inside a rectangle, much like the play button on your DVD player.

Playback Icon

If the picture isn't framed exactly the way you wanted or the exposure doesn't seem right, adjust your camera angle and try again. Check the results of the second photo and see if you like it better. This instant feedback on whether or not you got the shot is a great teaching tool. Make use of it!

If you take a bad picture by accident (maybe you photographed your toes and the carpet), you can delete it. First, press the Playback button and use the arrow keys to display the photo you want to erase.

Then look for a trash can or Delete button on the back of the camera. When you press it, the camera asks you if you're sure you want to erase the photo. You need to press the OK or Delete button again to confirm this action.

Delete Icon

IMPORTANT: When you send a photo to the trashcan on your camera, it is not the same as the trashcan on your computer or under the kitchen sink. You can retrieve something from your computer or kitchen trash if you haven't emptied it yet. But the trash can on your camera is more like the landfill. If you put a picture in the landfill, it's going to be pretty hard to get it back again! So be sure you really don't want the photo before you hit the delete button.

That's it! You've just taken your first photos with your new camera. Repeat the shooting, reviewing and erasing steps as much as you want! Enjoy your new digital camera!

Montana Winter 2008

December 25, 2009

Holiday Greetings

Wherever you are in the world, may your celebrations of the return of the light be joyous! And may 2010 bring you the best of what you wish for!

Thanks for reading my blog! Stay tuned for more great articles in the coming year!

December 13, 2009

Three Best Digital Camera Accessories

Shopping time for holiday gifts is winding down. If you are still wondering what to give the photography fanatic in your family or circle of friends, consider these three very helpful camera accessories.

#1 Tripod
Whether the photographer has a compact digital camera or a full-featured digital SLR (a camera with interchangeable lenses), a tripod is the one single accessory that can improve anyone's pictures. Because the tripod holds the camera, it stays completely still during the exposure. This helps produce the sharpest possible photograph of a stationary subject. There is no motion blur that softens details from the person holding the camera. As a result, the quality of the photographs from any digital camera go up, sometimes exponentially!

Tripods for compact digital cameras
There are a variety of camera supports available, everything from professional carbon fiber models from Gitzo to traditional aluminum units from Manfrotto to innovations like the GorillaPod and The Pod beanbag. So you have lots of choices for a tripod to fit any budget. Just be sure the model you buy is sturdy enough to hold the person's camera. An SLR with a long zoom lens needs a stronger tripod than a simple compact digital camera.

Indoor Photo without Tripod

Indoor Photo with Tripod

#2 Polarizing Filter
If your photographer already owns a tripod, the next most useful accessory is a polarizing filter, or polarizer for short. This filter acts like a pair of Polaroid sunglasses for the camera, removing glare and reflections to produce richer colors in skies and foliage. There are two styles of polarizer, round and rectangular. Round filters screw onto the front of the lens. Rectangular filters can be held in front of the lens (if the camera is on a tripod) or slid into a special holder that attaches to the lens.

There are also two kinds of polarizer, linear and circular. All digital cameras require a circular polarizer to ensure that the filter lets enough light through the lens so the autoexposure and autofocus features still work.

To be sure you purchase the right size filter, you need to know the lens diameter. Most SLR lenses publish this information on the lens itself or you can look on the inside of the lens cap for the number. The lens (or filter) diameter is always given in millimeters, such as 58mm.

If your favorite photographer uses a compact digital camera instead of an SLR, the lens on the camera probably does not accept the round, screw-on filter. So the rectangular variety (such as those made by Cokin) would be best.

Before Polarizer

After Polarizer

#3 Memory Card Reader
If your photographer already has a tripod and a polarizer, then the next most useful accessory is a memory card reader. When it is time to download pictures from the camera, instead of attaching the camera directly to the computer, use the memory card reader to transfer pictures to the hard drive. The card reader attaches to the USB outlet on any computer (Mac or PC). Then you remove the memory card from the camera and insert the card in the reader. From there the transfer process works as it does from the camera. But it is often much faster and more reliable than using the camera itself.

Memory card readers come in single or multi-card formats. Single card readers have a slot for just one type of memory card, like compact flash (CF) or secure digital (SD). Multi-card readers have slots for all types of memory cards: memory sticks, xD picture cards as well as CF and SD cards. If the household has numerous cameras all using different kinds of memory cards, then the multi-card reader is a good choice. Otherwise, you can save a few dollars and buy a model dedicated to the memory card your camera uses.

You can leave the card reader permanently attached to your computer, so it's always ready when you are. Some computers even have memory card slots built in!

Multi-Slot Memory Card Reader

So make your photographer friend or family member happy and help them take better photos this holiday season by giving them one or more of these accessories. In no time at all, they will wonder how they ever got along without them!

December 6, 2009

Choosing a Digital Camera

This is a popular subject this time of year! Just yesterday someone telephoned me and asked for suggestions on buying a new digital camera. So I took the opportunity to revise my "Choosing a Digital Camera" article. You can read my answers to the following questions:
  • What kind of digital cameras are there?
  • What features should I look for in a digital camera?
  • How much control do I want over my picture taking?
  • What are some useful camera controls?
  • Where can I find more information?
The whole article is too long for a blog entry! So visit my web site to read the details. You'll need a copy of Adobe Reader (available free here) to see the file. Happy shopping!

December 2, 2009

Photographing Holiday Lights

When I was a kid, my parents used to bundle up me, my sister and my brother, stick us in the car and drive into town to look at holiday lights. The place where my dad worked always had an elaborate set-up on the front lawn, complete with sound. (But we had to roll down the windows to hear it! Brrrrrr!) If you like to photograph holiday lights, whether indoors or outside, here are some suggestions for better results.

Inside Lights
Indoor photos can be challenging because there is not much light for your camera to make a picture. Usually the camera uses the flash, which gives you a picture but not necessarily the look you wanted. If you want your photo of the decorated tree or holiday dinner table to look as it does when you turn off the room lights, your first step is to turn off the flash.

Indoor photo with flash

With the flash turned off, your camera will take extra long to make the photo. If you are holding the camera, this usually means you get a blurry image. To have a sharp picture without the flash, set your camera on a small tripod or some other sturdy surface during the exposure. Then no matter how long the camera takes to record the scene, it will be sharp.

Indoor photo without flash hand-held

In addition, sometimes when you press the shutter button to take the photo, you wiggle the camera just enough to cause a bit of blur. All cameras have a self-timer feature which creates a delay (usually 10 seconds) between the time you press the button and when the camera actually takes the photo. If you turn on this control, the delay lets the camera stop moving before it takes the image and you get a sharper picture.

Indoor photo without flash, self-timer on, camera on a chair

Outside Lights
These same suggestions apply to taking photos of outside lighting displays.
  1. Flash off.
  2. Camera on a tripod or other support.
  3. Self-timer activated.

Outdoor photo without flash, self-timer on, camera on a tripod

Batteries in the Cold
In addition, the cold weather affects your camera's battery, making it appear to go dead before very long at all. The battery is not really expired; it's just too cold to operate. The solution is to carry a spare battery inside your coat, next to your body, to keep it warm. When the first battery quits, swap it for the warm spare battery and keep shooting. Eventually the second battery will quit too, but by that time the original battery should have warmed up. Just exchange the batteries again and keep working. This can go on at least until you get too cold!

Outdoor photo without flash, self-timer on, camera on a tripod
So be adventurous this holiday season! Turn off the flash on your camera and make memorable pictures of the pretty lights whether indoors or out!