How to be a Better Photographer: Camera User Manual University

How to be a Better Photographer: Camera User Manual University



Let me guess; you got a brand new camera, you don’t know how to use it, and you have no idea where to start – about right? Let me introduce you to one of the best ways to get to know your camera inside and out, backward and forward. It’s included with your camera, so there is no extra cost! It’s at your fingertips 24 hours a day. It’s patient, and never gets frustrated if you ask it the same questions over and over again. Welcome to:

Camera User Manual University!


For many of us, getting a brand new camera is beyond exciting. We start trying to use it right away, throwing the manual back in the box, forgotten forever. The problem is, we soon run into frustrations and questions, and end up just putting the camera aside, or searching and asking for the answers one at a time, learning slowly and with difficulty. Or maybe we have even had our camera for ages, and just barely discovered something amazing that it can do.

If I can convince you to actually USE that camera manual, you will start out with much more knowledge than the average camera owner, and you will discover lots of cool stuff that your camera can do, that your seasoned photographer friends may not even know!

I am going to share my first camera manual and how I made it useful for me. These tips might help you transform your boring manual, into something that can actually help you become a better photographer.

Protect Your Manual


The covers on camera manuals are usually very flimsy, and easily torn or bent. The first thing to do is laminate your cover, so it’s more durable and stays nicer. I did this by simply covering the front and back covers with packaging tape. I made the pieces of tape slightly bigger than the book, and folded them under so the edges were protected also. Take your time with this, and make sure you use a clean surface to avoid bubbles and dirt stuck underneath the tape.

Add Divider Tabs


I went through the book and labeled and divided each section, so I could find them at a glance. Not only does this make finding things easier later on, but labelling the tabs and sticking them in each section, gets you familiar with the manual even before you start digging in deeper. You will know what your manual has to offer, and what kind of things you are going to be learning very soon.

I used removable tabs that I bought from an office supply store. They have a slight plastic feel to them, and are very sturdy. I like using removable ones, because you can move them later if you don’t need one of the labels in there.

Start at the Beginning


With your camera in your hands, go through the manual from the very beginning. Look at the diagrams, and find each item on your camera body. Even if you don’t understand what something is yet, find it on your camera. Later, as you read more detail, everything will start to come together. Read every page, even if it doesn’t make sense at first. Getting a nice camera is a big investment, so wouldn’t you want to know what it can do?

Camera manuals usually have very basic instructions near the beginning of the manual to get you shooting, almost right out of the box. Feel free to read that part, and begin using your camera right away, but don’t stop there! As you work your way through the manual, you will discover the reason you wanted a DSLR in the first place.

Try Everything


As you read and find each dial, button, and menu item on your own camera, give everything a try. If the manual is talking about different shooting modes, dial your camera in to each one, follow the instructions, and try a few test shots. Reading about things is good, but reading and then getting hands-on experience is infinitely better. You will understand what the manual is talking about with more clarity if you try things out for yourself.

Keep in mind that not everything will make sense the first time through, that’s okay. After you’ve practiced awhile, try going back through the manual page by page again. You’ll find that much of what confused you initially, has now become clear.

Once you’ve tried something, you may realize that it isn’t a feature that you will ever use. If that’s the case, just move on, and know that you at least tried it. You may end up wanting to use that feature in the future, and now you know that it exists.

Underline the Key Words


As you are reading through and learning, have a pen handy. Underline (or highlight if that’s your thing) key words that will help you focus on what is most important. Sometimes manuals can be wordy, and hard to understand. If you can zone in on the most important words, it will become more clear. Later, when you are trying to find something, those underlined words will pop out and make it easier to find.

Take notes in the margins if you try something, love it, and know that you will want to remember that in the future. Add an extra tab or sticky note there, or put a star next to it. It’s hard to remember everything you read after one read-through, but if you can quickly go back to your starred items and practice those often, you’ll be well on your way to mastering your camera.


All of this might seem a little obsessive, and maybe it is for some. However, I have taught many photography classes, and had many one-on-one mentoring sessions with new photographers, and almost every question they ask me about their camera can be found in the manual. Some people learn better from a live teacher, but the great thing about the manual is that you can refer back to it as many times as you need to, and you don’t have to pay anything extra to learn.

Have you attended Camera Manual University? Do you have any tips for making your camera user manual easier to use? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Melinda Smith was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.

  • J. Ross

    Okay so maybe I am not purchasing the correct camera, but the last camera I bought did not have a manual. It had a quick start guide and DVD and let me just say that a DVD is not a convenient way to read about a new camera. I have done it, but it is far from user-friendly. Camera mfgs need to charge a few $$ more an include a printed manual (IMHO)

  • Really?? That makes me sad. 🙁 I agree, it would be much easier for me to learn with a book than a DVD. I hope that your experience isn’t the case for most new cameras. Can you find a manual for your camera online? I would definitely pay a few more dollars to get a printed manual!

  • pat bowne

    My camera came with a pdf manual – unusable, unless I want to pull my kindle out and search for it every time I have a question. The store tells me that unless you buy a high-end camera, you will not get a paper manual. I did better photography with my older, less expensive camera because I could read the manual.

    There’s an opening out there for print-on-demand camera manuals!

  • Fantastic article Melinda. I am always preaching to my photography students to read their camera manuals and keep them handy at all times. I do have a couple of additional comments though.

    First, I transitioned from Nikon DSLRs to Sony Mirrorless over a year ago. And while I love Sony Mirrorless cameras, their user manuals aren’t the best. Luckily, there are some really good aftermarket manuals available. So, if someone out there is using a camera system with lackluster user manuals, do a Google search or ask around about after market manuals.

    Second, what I’ve been doing for years is to download PDF versions of not only my manuals, but also the manuals for all cameras used by my photo students. Then I import those manuals into Evernote. That gives me the ability to access manuals from my computers, iPad, and my cell phone. One less thing to carry in my camera bag, and Evernote makes those manuals easily searchable.

  • MJ

    Just a few days ago I pulled out my Cannon DSLR camera manual. First I bookmarked the topics that I knew I wanted more information about. Then I copied those pages with our printer. And then I highlighted the topic of each page and put the pages into a see-though folder. I put the folder by my light tent; where I can refer to the pages as needed. Also, I tried out the directions for each topic I had copied so that I am more familiar with them and did some tests with my camera in order to choose how I wanted my settings according to what I had learned and what I use my camera for most often. It is a huge relief to feel more confident with my camera and to know I can quickly grab the folder to refer to if I have forgotten something!

  • Lorri AnnaBananna Carter

    You are so right about really getting into the manual and trying things – it makes you more familiar and comfortable with your new camera. I always go to the support page and download the full PDF version of my new camera manual and put it on both my iPad and iPhone in the iBooks app. From there I can search, highlight passages, add notes, and read. I always have my manual with me and it never wears out. You can find PDF manuals of almost any used camera online – I still shoot some film and found both my Rolleiflex and Leica manuals online as images. Not searchable but still very handy to have.

  • Karen Filo

    The manuals that come with cameras these days are ridiculous! The poor excuse of a manual with my new camera is just plain disappointing (it really is just a quick start guide). Yes, I’ve downloaded the 450-odd page PDF of the entire manual, but would prefer printed version – much easier to flip through! I think the camera manufacturers need to rethink this.

  • When I got my D7000 from a friend who came from Japan I became so frustrated because the manual was entirely in F**ckin’ Japanese.

    (yeah, I know I can download it, but I couldn’t miss the joke)

  • andyrays

    I spent my first evening with my camera just reading the manual. And then read some more online.
    After a while I saw a good deal on a one-day basic photography class, where I learned absolutely nothing new, since it was what you could learn by reading the manual and a few searches on key words like ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
    So definitely worth reading!

  • I agree! I wasn’t aware that manuals were so poor in recent years. I hope camera manufacturers listen and produce more helpful manuals in the future!

  • So true! Most of what you will learn in classes is in the manual. Glad you cracked it open and educated yourself! 🙂

  • LOL! That wouldn’t be of much help to me either. 🙂

  • Great tips!! Thank you!

  • Great idea! You’ve found a way to really make the manual work for you. Way to go!

  • Fantastic tips, Wes. If you had your manual(s) on your cellphone, they’d be at your fingertips at any given time. Great idea!

  • I do a lot better with printed instructions vs. electronic. I’m afraid my method of learning might be phasing out, unfortunately. I wish someone would come up with printed manuals you could order, at the very least. Thanks for your comment!

  • lilong

    For Nikon users
    Let s Pinout

  • Pete Mueller

    In reviewing the comments thus far it appears that there’s a consistent thread concerning people’s use of hard-copy manuals and the human learning style. I don’t think that it is generational at all, as suggested by one writer.

    Hopefully manufacturer reps also read along on DPS and similar websites… there’s a great insight available here for them.

    I myself am a very linear thinker and am also one that would follow many of the processes suggested by the author; and a good point was made about not spending any additional $$ to accomplish this readily available learning.

    In my opinion however, reading documentation/manuals cover to cover like a book equals frustration and is a struggle, because it is NOT a book. It is a reference. To me it is akin to “reading ” a dictionary.

    I know that my learning style is stimulated by a better form of writing that what is available in documentation, and in the case of learning DSLR I have been helped enormously by purchasing and reading one of the many available (camera specific) “XXX for Dummies” books. Very much worth the additional $20.

  • walwit

    Talking about manuals, timing and printer versions I’d like to ask why I just received this post today with comments from 4 days ago.

  • Kathy Broad

    Because I’ve read the manuals of my cameras (and have certain pages with sticky notes attached) I’ve been able to show many “professional” and amateur photographers settings and features about their Nikon cameras and flashes, such as how to set up off-camera flash and custom white balance. I also have downloaded the PDFs and have them in my Dropbox and on my tablet, but I do find the paper copy much easier to use, just as I find paper copies of any reference materials or indexes easier to use in the print format (I’m a librarian).

    Though I did find some settings just by pressing buttons just recently and I’ve had my D7000 for over 5 years!

  • Dude II

    I have both the paper manual and the PDF. When I need to go “old school” I dig out the paper version, otherwise I am using the PDF on my Kindle e-reader. I could put the PDF on my phone, but the screen is too small and if I really need to read the manual while in the “field” just shows my ignorance in the capabilities of the camera(s).
    However, I am really old school for the most part, I still have the manuals for my 35mm SLR’s I bought in the 70’s. As a habit, I always read the manual for any device I have purchased before first use especially cameras. Manuals are best read during the batteries are being charged. First subjects are: turn off the focus beep (I hate the beep), enable back button focus, turn off the instant review of images (I shoot in dark theaters – having the image show up on the LCD will get me kicked out) and turn on both histogram and “blinkies” so when I do chimp I get all the information I need.

  • My Nikon d5100 came with an owner’s manual. But easily found online is a “reference manual” by Nikon that is 3x longer and explains things better, even for beginners like me.

  • Great tip! Thanks. 🙂

  • Thanks for the tips. 🙂

  • Glad to hear that you’ve really made the manual work for you!

  • Thanks for your comment! It’s great to get ideas for every type of learner. 🙂

  • Paul McKelvey

    This is a good ideal It helps to reinforce the pages with tabs with a strip of see-through tape over the adhesive of the tab. That will keep those pages from tearing.

  • Paul McKelvey

    You may be able to get the digital version printed at a copy shop. My students get student guides printed from an electronic document.

  • vivek

    This is a good ideal It helps to reinforce the pages with tabs with a strip of see-through tape over the adhesive of the tab.

    Nice article

  • Thanks for the tip!

  • Vijay Ghate

    I always read a user manual, whatever gadget it maybe. My kids make fun of me saying dad looks for user manual of a pen before using it! I found it best to download pdf user manual of my Nikon D 7000 and keep it on my iPhone.

  • Michael

    Oh yes, you have to read your manual first to get familiar with your new DSLR. I have read mine for Canon EOS 6D at least 2 times while holding my camera and confirming the operations of all control buttons. In addition, you can download PDF edition too. However, if you really want to get the most out of your new camera, invest into David Busch’s series of books for digital photography. I bought Canon EOS 6D digital photography by David Busch. This is 471 pages long detail explanation for not only the functionalities of each and every control of your new camera, but the professional suggesting of how, why and when to use it. You really learn how to shoot professionally using your camera. This book became my camera bible and I never reference this entry level little user manual that came with my camera any more. But remember, it’s wonderful to know the theory, but nothing makes your better photographer than continues practice and using your camera in the field.

  • Thanks for the suggestion!

  • editor_crmirror

    This is awesome. I always go through my camera manuals (and any other electronic gear) when I buy them. I thought I was the only one and a little bit odd for doing do. It’s a habit I got into a few years ago. But these ideas (laminating the cover!) take it to another level. Thanks.

  • Maria R

    I have my dslr manual (Nikon D5300) in PDF format on my iPhone and iPad mini. Easier to read on the iPad of course but at least I know where my manual is. No need to protect the hardcover manual 🙂 Great tips though – read then apply. I’m a visual learner

  • Thank you for your comment!

  • You’re welcome! I guess we’re a little bit odd together. 😉

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