I recently purchased a new camera and the process of learning to use it has been a good reminder of just how long the process can take. My new Fujifilm X-Pro 1 is a very different machine from the Canon EOS digital SLRs I’m accustomed to using, and it’s taken me a while to find my way around the layout and menu.
Based on my experience, here are some tips for getting to know your new camera. Most of these will apply if your new camera is from the same manufacturer as one you already own.
Read the manual
This one’s fairly basic – you can learn a lot about your camera from its manual. Even if your approach is to learn by using the camera, there are still times when you need to look up things you can’t figure out yourself. You could also buy a book or ebook about your specific camera. These are usually written by photographers who know the camera well and give plenty of tips for getting the most from it, including things not mentioned in the manual.
Shoot at high ISOs
Newer cameras have fantastic high ISO performance and it’s worth spending some time shooting in low light at your new camera’s high ISO settings. Then look at the results on your computer to determine the highest ISO setting you are happy to use. Remember, the amount of noise you will see depends as much upon your subject as the camera. If your subject contains lots of textured surfaces or light tones you’ll see less noise than if it contains dark tones or large areas of sky.
Shoot in tricky lighting situations
The aim of this exercise is to learn how your camera’s meter reacts in different lighting situations. While metering modes such as centre-weighted and spot metering should work in much the same way on most cameras, you may find a larger difference in the way that evaluative metering* modes work.
Evaluative metering is where your camera takes exposure readings from multiple areas of the frame (usually weighted in priority towards the active autofocus point) and then decides on the appropriate exposure according to a formula known only to the manufacturer. If the maker of your new camera uses a different formula to the maker of your old one, then both cameras may give different exposure readings for the same subject. Therefore it’s helpful to take some photos in tricky lighting situations to learn how your new camera copes with each of them.
*Evaluative metering is the term used by Canon and Sigma. The same mode is called Matrix metering by Nikon, Multi segment metering by Sony and Pentax, Multi metering by Fujifilm and digital ESP metering by Olympus.
There are three basic scenarios that can give your camera problems:
Backlighting: With backlit photos, you need to decide whether you want to expose for the subject (burning out the background), the background (turning the subject dark) or somewhere in between. Only you can decide, and your camera’s evaluative metering may be weighted towards one option or the other. Test your camera with some backlit subjects to see how it reacts. Another function of this test is to learn how well your camera’s sensor renders blown out highlights.
Subjects with predominantly light tones: Cameras tend to underexpose this type of subject. Experiment with exposure compensation to see how much you need to increase the exposure when taking photos of light toned subjects.
Subjects with predominantly dark tones: Cameras tend to overexpose this type of subject. While this type of subject isn’t as common as light toned subjects, if you come across one you can experiment to see just how much you need to adjust the exposure compensation dial to make up for the camera’s tendency to underexpose.
These last two concepts are explained in more detail in my article Why Your Camera’s Meter Gets Exposure Wrong.
Find the limits of your camera’s autofocus
One of the biggest differences between various cameras is autofocus. Every manufacturer approaches autofocus differently. Some cameras are designed to focus accurately on fast moving subjects, some are not. Some cameras have more autofocus points than others. Some cameras use phase detection autofocus, some use contrast autofocus, some use a combination of both.
The best way to learn about the autofocus system on your camera is to start by reading the manual, then searching online for good articles written by photographers using your specific model.
Then test your camera. How do you switch between autofocus modes? How do you move from one autofocus point to the other? How reliable is your camera when taking photos of moving subjects? You will only learn these things by testing and using your camera.
Get to know your camera’s menu
If your new camera is made by a different manufacturer than your old one, the menu system will be different. You need to spend time familiarizing yourself with the menu, and the functions that are relevant to the types of photography you do. Otherwise you may find yourself in the field searching for a certain setting and missing the opportunity to take a photo as a result.
Familiarize yourself with your camera’s layout
Take some time to learn where all the buttons are on your camera. Do any of them have functions that are not immediately obvious? For example, on my X-Pro 1 it took me ages to work out how to activate Live View (there isn’t a button labelled Live View). Ideally, you should be able to find your way around all the important buttons and dials with your eyes closed, so you can use your camera without thinking when you take photos. Naturally, this level of familiarity takes time.
By the way, if you bought a new lens with your new camera, you may also find my article Getting to Know Your Lenses useful.
This is not an exhaustive list of ways to get to know a new camera, but it’s a good start. What other suggestions can you make, based on your own experience? Please let us know in the comments.
My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.