Camera manuals are notoriously difficult to read and understand. Often they are not read as much, or as well, as they should be. You need to read your camera manual because it contains vital information that will help you to become a better photographer.
Just as we need to learn the alphabet before we can learn to read and write, we must learn the basics of operating our cameras in order to take the best photos we can.
Reading it from cover to cover is not necessary. There will not be a test on how much you can remember.
The best way to use your camera manual
Begin to skim with your camera in your hands. Look through the contents and take note of what’s covered. Mark which items you think may be of particular interest to you. Some you will be able to just glance over. Others may be just painfully obvious, like this from the Nikon D800 manual;
“When operating the viewfinder diopter adjustment control with your eye to the viewfinder, care should be taken not to put your finger in your eye accidentally.”
I would add that it’s always a good idea not to put your finger in your eye, even when you are not adjusting your diopter.
If you’ve just bought a new camera and it’s a model you’re not familiar with, you’ll need to pay more attention to the manual. For camera users who are upgrading you will be best to scan the book for what’s been upgraded since your previous model. Sometimes these may be highlighted.
Break your reading down into bite-size chunks. Don’t attempt to read and understand everything you need to know about your camera in one sitting. It’s a complex piece of equipment. Spread your reading out over a few days or a week.
Give yourself time to practice what you are reading about. Getting hands-on experience will help you retain what you’re learning about and make it much more relatable.
Do not read it all
Choose to learn the essentials first. Find out how to focus it and set the exposure well. There will be various options available to you. Start reading about the ones most applicable to the way you like to photograph.
If you are completely new to photography and not yet sure which exposure mode you prefer, take some time to read through all the options.
Getting a good start by understanding the basics of your camera leaves you freer to concentrate on photography. Don’t be filling your mind with more than you need to know. At the start you are not likely to need information about producing video, making multiple exposures or how to adjust the customs settings on your camera. These things can wait until you can find your way around your camera comfortably.
Carry your manual with you
Download a PDF of your camera manual to your phone. Take it with you everywhere so you can refer to it when you get stuck with a camera setting.
Practical application of the information contained in this little book will help you get to know your camera better. But only if you use it well. Hands on is best.
Once it’s on your phone you can take a few minutes to read a little more on the bus or train or whenever you have a few minutes to spare.
Consider buying a book specifically about your camera (that’s not the manual)
I have purchased books and resources about cameras I own by Thom Hogan. Thom is well known for his incredibly detailed writing about Nikon cameras. I find he’s much easier to read than the camera manuals.
His books are well laid out and the information is broken down so it’s readily consumed.
This may be beyond the needs or wants of many photographers, but for those who have the time and want the resources, picking up a book, other than your camera manual will help advance you towards better picture taking.
Aim to be able to forget it all
As you become more confident and competent with your camera, you will have little need for your camera manual. Well, I would hope that before long you have put what you’ve read to good use and can remember it effortlessly.
Having the ability to pick up your camera and have it ready to take photos in any situation is well worth aiming for. The more you can concentrate on what’s happening in front of you the better photos you’ll obtain.
Gazing down at the camera in your hands as you try and figure out which settings you want to use leads to you missing out. You may be able to take your best photos when you are focused more on what you are making photographs about than what you are making them with.