Incredibly Simple 2-Step Program for Better Photos


Figuring It Out!!!See more from Bill Pevlor at Pops Digital Photography

I’ll be the first to concede, I am not a great photographer. The eternal optimist in me likes to think all things are possible. The pragmatist in me realizes I have a long way to go on my personal journey to photographic greatness. It may be a long way to go, but I’m on my way and serious about improving. I subscribe to photography magazines, glean articles and tutorials online and follow the work of some truly great photographers. All of that is valuable, but I’ve stumbled upon something that has dramatically improved my images more than everything else, combined.

I use an incredibly simple, two-step program. I revisit the plan every now and then and always gain something new. I believe it is essential for beginners, will advance the intermediate and can even boost top professionals a notch or two. As powerful as I believe this program is, it comes with a natural deterrent – its simplicity.

This program is so simple I’m afraid many will dismiss it without giving it a try. So, before I lay it out, take a moment to relax, inhale deeply, find your happy place and open your mind to a novel concept. Resist the urge to roll your eyes and scoff when you realize how simple it is. I guarantee, if you put it to the test and follow each step fully, your photos will immediately improve. (I’m already upgrading my account to handle all the flood of “Thank You” emails.)

Alright, enough of the sales pitch – let’s move on to my incredibly simple, two-step program for better photos. (Remember, no scoffing.)

Step One: Read the Manual

I’m talking about the operator’s manual for the camera you use. The most difficult part of this incredibly simple program may be locating your camera’s manual. Make the effort. Maybe, it’s a printed booklet, maybe is on CD, maybe you’ll have to go on line and download one.

If you’re like most people, when you first got your camera you couldn’t wait to flip the switch and start snapping. Today’s cameras are so easy to use, that’s about all you have to do – turn it on, push the shiny button and…voilà. That’s what I did. That’s what we all do. And maybe later you got around to reading the manual – at least certain parts.

Today’s digital cameras are easy to use but also very advanced. Even the least expensive point-and-shoot models are packed with incredible features. I’ll bet a majority of camera owners don’t know half of what their cameras are capable of. It’s a shame to let all those bells and whistles go to waste.

So, the first step is to read your camera’s manual, cover to cover. In fact, I suggest you do it with your camera in hand, experimenting with each setting; even the things you’re sure you’d never use. It’s funny how those obscure settings come in handy when you know they exist. You’ll soon be ready to move on to step two.

While you’re waiting, keep your camera busy. If you’ve faithfully performed step one, you’re already realizing the benefits. You are more aware of your camera’s abilities, you’re confidently moving through layers of menu items with ease, able to switch settings without ever taking your eyes of your subject. Your images will steadily improve as the relationship with your camera matures.

After approximately six months of this maturing process, you should be ready for my incredibly simple second step – where the greatest improvement is made.

Step Two: Read the Manual – Again. (Remember not to scoff.)

Yes, dig out that manual again and reread it. You can skim over the areas you’re familiar with, but take time to look, again, at the other settings and features that you’re not using on a regular basis. With the past six months of maturing under your belt you’ll begin to uncover possible solutions to situations you’ve experienced.

When I moved to step two, I discovered several settings I hadn’t used that would resolve problems I’ve been trying to overcome or had given up on. For example, I learned a default setting (D-Range) in certain situations could be causing some noise problems I occasionally have trouble with. Just last week, I took a nice photo of a bird. It was a rather bland cowbird but the setting and lighting was superb. I thought I had a real keeper until I looked closer and found the level of digital noise to be unacceptable.

Keep in mind, I had completely read the manual before. The D-Range setting issue didn’t register then. Today it’s an issue I’m dealing with and it practically jumped off the page at me. I’ve experienced the same kind of epiphany with auto-focus settings, flash intensity adjustments, histogram views, and countless others. Each discovery has helped improve my images.

Try my two-step program. Read your camera’s manual and let all that technical info ferment for about six months while you ply your craft. Then go back and read the manual again and discover all you overlooked or didn’t remember from the first time; the back room stuff that has suddenly moved to center stage. I know it’s incredibly simple, but it’s been incredibly productive for me.

See more from Bill Pevlor at Pops Digital Photography. Also connect with him on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook

Read more from our category

Guest Contributor This post was written by a guest contributor to dPS.
Please see their details in the post above.

Become a Contributor: Check out Write for DPS page for details about how YOU can share your photography tips with the DPS community.

  • I did do visualization and shadow practice but didn’t read the manual. Ten thousand shots and five months later, I should now read the manual

  • mansor mama-0

    Download the nikon pdf manual
    apps.its more complete in relation to descriptions of camera button functions,etc., than the actual manual included in our thumbs up for this simple article..

  • Robin Martin-Penrose

    @ mansor mama-0 – that is an excellent tip – Thank you!

  • Robin Martin-Penrose

    Great advice! I’m on camera #4 and this is the first time I’ve read the manual within a week of owning the camera. (OK I should have read it immediately but I’m doing a 365 – had to start shooting.) I’ve re-read several sections of the manual again with camera in hand and purchased and read the magic lantern genie guide. Each time I pick up the manual or the guide I get new out of them.

  • bob davies

    I am an amateur photographer, always have been and always will be. I purchased my Canon 7D about 5 years ago, came with a printed manual that fits perfectly in my gadget bag and I still dig it out from time to time to read a section or two when I need a refresher. This is a great 2 step plan for anyone that wants to unleash the camera’s potential and make your photos really pop.

  • Outa-orderly Blessed Regis

    They say IT professionals don’t read manuals, but I’ve ALWAYS read them on any piece of tech I own or can get my hands on, so I totally agree with you. Plus, it can come in handy monetarily, while assisting other people who neglect to read theirs ?

  • David Jackson

    Maybe I am stupid (but I know plenty others feel the same) but the manual for my Canon EOS 750D is close to incomprehensible. Fortunately there is a Canon Rebel T6i (US version of same camera) which I have read cover to cover and is nearly always at hand for quick reference. Why can’t manufacturers make manuals more user friendly?

Some Older Comments

  • Simon` July 11, 2012 07:14 pm

    Great, I am not the only one that keeps going back to that War and Peace of a manual!

    Thoroughly recomended, all that is needed is a little self dicipline to READ not skip what you think you know!



  • Nikhil Rawal July 8, 2012 09:57 pm

    Cannot agree more with you on this task of reading manuals. I safely keep all manuals in one place and hence easy to find when required. I did not know that my D7000 can shoot pics at a given interval of time automatically - particularly good when you are shooting an eclipse or a Venus in transition kind of an event (see Though I must admit that this event was shot by me on a D90.

  • Sergio July 8, 2012 01:33 am

    I totally agree...I read the manual, got a book and a DVD from my camera... read and watch item by item with the camera in hand. You must know your gear deeply to get the most of it , and when you are out in the field you can't struggle with your camera, you have to concentrate in your shooting, you can't miss the unique moments trying to know how to use your camera.

  • DLin July 8, 2012 12:50 am

    Funny enough, I did just this about 3 weeks ago. I pulled out the manual and read it section by section - cover to cover. I found many functions that I just did not know existed! Great article!

  • Brian in Whitby July 7, 2012 10:05 am

    I just have to comment on this Two step process.
    I have followed it for years and not just with cameras.
    For almost any piece of technology or computer software, automobile, tool, or whatever, I always read the manual once before I even touch the technology. That way I know what the technology can do. I know I won't remember how to do everything but just knowing its capabilities inspires me to figure it out or to dig out the manual and get instructions.
    After using the camera or other technology for a while I read the manual again. This second reading usually makes a lot more sense than the first one did.
    I keep a copy of my camera manual in a zip lock bag in my camera case just in case I need it. The zip lock bag keeps the manual in good shape and it is always there if I need it. Of course in some cases looking up a procedure in the manual will not work especially in photography. For example I would not have time to read how to decrease the exposure by 1.5 stops when photographing a deer running through a summ6y clearing. I just shoot and hope for the best. Of course knowing how to do that should be a part of the preparation for the excursion. On the other hand when photographing wild orchids, I do have the time. Those orchids do not move very far or very fast; they are about as mobile3 as a three toed sloth.

    For myself, I find learning while doing is the best way to learn. We all have different learning styles so what works for me might not work for you but sooner or later, we all have to read the manual if we want to progress.

  • Colin Burt July 7, 2012 09:41 am

    Entirely agree with the concept - there was a paint company some years ago that printed on the can lid "As a last reort, read the directions" . But my nice shiny new first DSLR came with a hopelessly elementary primitive printed manual . One of the 'big three' brands too. The CD was excellent but who wants to lug around a computer to use it on a bush walk ? Or print out hundreds of pages ? I was brought up on books. Portable. Can be pored over at leisure. Lasting, if looked after, and invaluable, if well indexed. So I found one, on the internet, from Amazon, specific to my camera. Inaccurately named 'For Dummies' , written by a very good photographer who can also teach, it was exactly what should have been in the box with the camera. For a whole $30 delivered internationally. The author's name is Julie Adair King and she has written a few books for different cameras. If you are sweating over a Chinglish 70 page abomination, try her 350 page proper manual. (I have no business or financial conection with her !)

  • Peter Kovak July 7, 2012 03:13 am

    Yeah, well, this guy might be right, but you know, on one hand is quite easy to say "read the manual", and, on the other hand, I'd like to see who has the patience to do it! With Sony it's easy, we have the excellent user's books from Gary Friedman, but what about the others? These user's manuals are so dry, with no salt or little pepper added, that becomes almost impossible to read them. Anyway, I wish good luck and courage to everyone who is ready to do it!

  • Sabina Lorkin July 6, 2012 04:38 pm

    Just the two headings made me smile :-) I scanned the article first and have stayed because of those two headings. Why, because you're right! So simple and yet so true. I've been using my 20D for years now and only recently decided to read the manual from cover to cover and wished I'd done it earlier.

    My new 5D mkII arrived yesterday and so your article is timely and I promise to you and to myself that I will read the manual.

    Thanks for the article :-)

  • Peter Styles July 6, 2012 09:29 am

    G'day Bill, I am in full agreement Mate. We are so impatient when we get a new camera, that we do not take the time to stop and digest the manual. It is only human nature to want to go clicking about all over the shop. I know I do. However when the excitement settles down and the hands stop shaking and the heart ceases to flutter, that is the time to sit and read the manual with your camera by your side and experiment with all those knobs and dials. It's great fun, and on the third or fourth reading you will find, as I do, more features that you never even knew existed.I even take the manual with me in my camera bag when when out taking photographs. Cheers Mate..

  • Tom July 6, 2012 09:11 am

    I agree. I keep the manual on my tablet for easy reference.

    I just re-discovered how to to do flash exposure lock by skimming the manual. I should re-read it or part of it, at least, every month or two.


  • Henri6th July 6, 2012 07:54 am

    Sure! Who could disagree with your advice?

    However, talking of a "simple two step program" is a joke! Indeed it's a 100000 steps journey, which you are rightly advised to travel twice (or more, depending on your memory skills). Moreover, take for instance a camera like (mine) the D300s: Nikon's 400 pages user guide is OK, but you'd be better off reading David Bush's 520+ pages guide –not to mention one or two books specifically dedicated to the use of the flashes and the CLS (Creativ Lighting System).

    This is definitely no one-lazy-afternoon reading!

    Besides, all the comments above do justice to this view. (Probably people who consider reading manuals as a waste of time don't bother to write comments on a blog like this either!)

  • Felipe Fragoso July 6, 2012 04:43 am

    It´s true!!! Not everyone reads the manual of their camera! So many mistakes... Lots of "clicks" but nothing really good! So friends, let´s do this two step guide! And let´s have fun!

  • Nancy July 6, 2012 04:42 am

    How did you know I was rolling my eyes? LOL...yes, very valuable information. I drag it out every now and then but it could also be 3, 4, or 5-step program for better photos.

  • Dearge July 6, 2012 03:19 am

    The very first computer class I ever took gave out 10 tips to being a "Power User." I don't remember all 10, but I do remember the first 4: 1) Back up everything. 2) Back u- everything again. 3) Read the book 4) RTFB again.

  • Heather July 6, 2012 02:45 am

    I think this is excellent advice and definitely needed saying. RTFM is a concept I’m well aware of but often forget to do.

  • James Gonneau July 6, 2012 02:44 am

    Great advice (I still have the little brochure my camera came with tucked into my photobag for reference), but it comes with a caveat: some manuals are better than others.

    Writing and editing technical manuals is very much like writing fiction for children: everyone assumes it is easy until they try it. Part of my job is to edit technical data manuals, and getting a balance between ease of use and providing relevant details is as much an artful science as photography is itself.

    While camera makers are large enough companies to have excellently written manuals, some of the smaller brands for accessories...can be a bit trying. I followed the setup instructions for some lights I bought, and still almost lost a finger trying to open the legs correctly.

    Another things about manuals: they don't always tell you everything, which makes forums like this a great place to learn those tips, tricks and hacks that often remain, for whatever reason, undocumented.

    Thanks again

  • Susan July 6, 2012 02:32 am

    This is such good advice. I have three manuals on my camera and read thru all of them quite often.
    I do have a question .... are most pictures "posed"? I don't seem to "see" what other people see and am wondering if they get people to pose in some of the pictures. I am not saying that is bad ... I am just wondering if I am missing something.


  • andy July 6, 2012 01:45 am

    Awesome two step guide! When people start over complimenting my work, all I say with modesty is that I've taken the time to learn how to use my camera. Let me say that I am happy with my camera and have avoided new camera reviews since I got it... but camera lust plagued me badly this past few months and I purchased 3 cameras and returned two. After each order I downloaded the manual and eased my anticipation by reading them religiously until the camera arrived.

  • Hangar 217 June 30, 2012 07:50 am

    This is something I do once a year since my first Minolta X-700, bought in 1995! Yep, once a year I read the manual. And still doing it for my Bronica and Mamiya. And each year I go: «geee, I forgot about this!».


  • JacksonG June 30, 2012 06:45 am

    Great advice. I take it a step further and purchase David Buschs' excellent manuals for specific cameras I use.

  • Sam Docker June 29, 2012 08:57 pm

    I very much doubt that anyone will have read one of these manuals from cover to cover, however, the point your trying to make is spot on, understand your gear. That comes with time though, and plenty of practice and experimenting, NOT just from reading a manual!! I read shakespeare at school, but I can't remember any of it!!!

  • Debbie Maddalena June 29, 2012 06:47 pm

    It's often the simple things that make the most sense. I think it's a brilliant tip and one (or I should say two) that I'll use. I've checked through the manual and know there's a lot more to learn in there.

  • Fuzzypiggy June 29, 2012 05:55 pm

    Couldn't agree more! Everyone, especially us blokes, just buys gadget X and scoffs at the manual, usually while having heaps of derision from wife/girlfriend! I AM MAN! MAN NO NEED FOR MANUAL!

    I work with commerical database systems as day job and one of the most respected pro's who works for the company that produces the database system I work on, is a walking encyclopedia and the one piece of advice he always gives is RTFM ( Read The Flipping Manual, polite version ).

    He says, "Our company consumes thousands of man-hours to produce these extremely detailed software manuals, they have everything you need and everything I've learned, I learned from those manuals and then went and tested the ideas for myself. Don't ask me questions until you don't understand something in the manuals, as you never know, you might just surprise yourself at what you can do!"

  • Xipha June 29, 2012 04:13 am

    Am I the only weird one who when I got my very first DSLR about 8 months ago (after outgrowing my high end point and shoot in about 6 months) pulled the camera out of the box, set it down, then pulled out the manual and read every word? I was so in awe that I finally had my dream camera, not only did I want to make sure I understood how to use it, I wanted to make sure I understood how not to break it and make sure I took care of it because it was such a big investment for me. I spent two evenings on the manual before I even left the house with my shiny new camera haha. And I think that let me learn the how to really use it much quicker than most since I wasn't worrying about which buttons to push. But I think I am ready for step two now! I was thinking the other day I should go through it again and see what I am missing ;) Also whenever I do run into an issue that I can't figure out, google is very helpful, there is so much extra information out there! i.e. The manual didn't tell me why when I got my faster lens my manual focusing was never quite on until I found out via google search that the depth of field of the viewfinder was greater than the depth of field for the aperture I was using, and I either needed to replace it, use live view zoomed in if I had time, or stick to auto focus when I didn't have time to fine tune my focus in live view.

  • Will June 29, 2012 03:50 am

    Interesting advice, I really don't see how reading it over and over is going to help much. Most of the 'bells and whistles' are beginner features that are quickly outgrown. A real artist only uses about five settings. The rest is over complicated fluff.

  • Chris June 29, 2012 01:01 am

    Reading the manual is not sufficient. Reading the manual over and over with no application just becomes so much gibberish unattached to actual photography. You have to take lots of pictures, and deliberately put yourself in situations that challenge your knowledge and ability. This will ensure that you will get into situations where what you already know, no matter how much that is, doesn't work. That is how you find out what you don't know. Then you go to the manual, figure out what you should have known, and go out to exercise that new knowledge.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 29, 2012 12:51 am

    Reading the Manual, although it may sound a bit boring is super important. These DSLRs are tricky especially once you get off The Auto-Train! For example, to grab this shot at night at the San Diego County Fair, had I not studied a bit in advance would have been a complete bust!

    Nikon D7000, Manfrotto Tripod
    f13, 1.6s, ISO100, Auto WB

  • Tracy Gallup June 28, 2012 11:01 pm

    i completed step one on my own less than a month after getting the camera, I will now finish with step 2 thanks to your article! I agree 100% that this is a huge step in progressing your skills and knowledge. the more work you can do "in Camera" the more time you spend shooting not editing!!! I used to think, well what ever is in the camera is fine I will fix it in editing- I've totally changed that attitude after getting to really know my camera! GREAT Article!

  • Bill Pevlor June 28, 2012 10:54 pm

    Thanks for all your supportive comments and a big, BIG thanks to all who suggested using the PDF version of their camera's manual. A silly omission on my part. I have the PDF version of my camera's manual on both my tablet pc and phone. Because they are searchable, it makes finding info fast. I also keep the printed version in my camera case/backpack and use it as well.

  • angie washington June 28, 2012 10:17 pm

    My husband just bought me a camera off of e-bay. It was intimidating to consider the potential I had in my hands. I rifled through the cords in the bag and found no instruction manual; he bought it used. Sure enough I found the 147 page pdf file online. It was so freeing to read how to harness all this power! Thanks for step 2. Right in time for all the Christmas gatherings and festivities I will re-read the manual to be ready to catch the memories.

  • Siva June 28, 2012 10:05 pm

    Totally agreed. Went to India with a point and shoot, took loads of pictures and it's only when I came back home did I realise that the camera cold have done so much more if only I read the damn manual. Man, what a waste!!

  • Paul June 28, 2012 09:32 pm

    Totally! Also, having spent what, to me, is a sizeable chunk of cash on my camera, you better believe I want full value from it.
    And to echo David, it's good to get a guidebook too, as the manual often explains what and where a function is and how it works, but not why you'd use it. The supplemental guide I bought gave a lot of the functions some context. And re-visiting the manual later, as Bill says, often makes more sense.

  • steve slater June 28, 2012 06:16 pm

    Simple advice but so true.
    I never used to read the manual as I thought it was fun to learn by experimentation.
    Then I got a professional camera and "Oh Dear" no automatic setting and "what are all those buttons for?".
    I had to read the manual and now it makes so much sense that with a complex piece of kit to understand it fully starting with the manual to find out all that it is capable of.
    I think the next article to add to this is "understand the software"

  • Jan June 28, 2012 05:09 pm

    I have put the PDF files for my cameras and flash units on my iPhone. So have them with me all the time.

  • Thelma Wickwere June 28, 2012 04:56 pm

    I like to take my manual with me anytime I think I might be cooling my heels waiting (doctor offices, when I give someone a ride, etc). While I wait, I browse through the manual. I always find something I didn't remember (my mind is a sieve) or something I want to try out next time I'm shooting.

    It really annoys me if a vendor doesn't provide an actual printed manual with my product. I want it in print, even if I have to pay extra for it. But, as "gipukan" said, it's also handy to have in pdf form either on your laptop or tablet. If I print it out, I like to do it in large print, so I can actually read the thing!

    I enjoy the articles at Digital Photography School -- always something handy. Thanx for the great columns!

  • Ikramul Fasih June 28, 2012 03:56 pm

    100% Agreed to what you said. Yes, I also did and now advice the same to every beginners to take the A5 size print and do the spiral binding for the User's Manual of your camera. Take only one topic a day. Practice it well and get the details of every terms, parameters, features or functions mentioned in the description on that page of manual by searching it for more information available on the net. Some time you might find that you are not even completed one page of that manual in a day, but that is OK.
    This might sound an old-fashioned to some because I experienced that now a days everyone wants a ready to cook meal or a quick fix solution to every problem without getting into the root cause of it.
    The above mentioned method fulfills two vital purpose:-
    1. You get familiar with your camera very well (which is essential to use it effectively)
    2. You get a systematic learning pattern because the user manuals generally follow an appropriate sequence and they are written in sequence of increasing complexity.

  • Richard Gunther June 28, 2012 01:50 pm

    In the words of a great Scottish philosopher "Read The BOOOK"

  • Jim J. June 28, 2012 01:17 pm


    I couldn't agree more ....I wenrt one step further and at the suggestion from another photographer I purchased a guide book for any new camera body's I purchase from Amazon called Magic Lantern and it is a much more user friendly read that the owners manual that comes with your camera. For under $14 dollars you can't beat it....!!!!! Good advice....JJ

  • David June 28, 2012 01:09 pm

    This is great - love your work!

    If you are a Sony user Gary Friendman expands the manual concept with all of the cameras - they are must have items and a great read to boot


  • Sahil June 28, 2012 09:52 am

    I have sincerely done step one.. Now maybe I need to do step 2.

    Thanks Mate.

  • Scottc June 28, 2012 09:25 am

    Very much agree, a lot of the capabilities of a camera are overlooked by the photographer.

  • gipukan (Rob Gipman) June 28, 2012 08:25 am

    Get is as a pdf and read it on your tablet or not a tablet owner then print is out on an A4/Letter format to make it read easer and to be able to use a marker like you used to in school :)

    My mistake I printed and read the XSI manual but I did not do that for my 7D! So here I go pdf on my tablet :)

  • Eric June 28, 2012 08:06 am

    I couldn't agree more. Because I'm a book nerd, I tend read the manual that comes with anything I buy, no matter how ridiculous. I get asked a lot of questions by other photographers and I wonder why they are asking something so simple. It makes sense, they probably didn't read the manual. Or the wealth of other literature out there.

    I love the guilty pleasure of people saying I just naturally take great photos when in reality, I simply read the books and followed the instructions.

    Step 2 is very important, and I realize why people would scoff. I recently went back and flipped through the owners manual and some of the supplemental books I bought for my camera, and it helps to cement things in your head.

    I hope people take your advice, it'll help them out, so long as they remember not to get *too* tripped up in the technical details.

  • BillyBoy June 28, 2012 07:49 am

    How strange this is. Have just started to reread a 3rd party book about my camera and just discovered a feature which I thought was reserved for the higher end models. So yes, I agree, re-read the manual/book as the first time you read the manual/book not everything make sense.

  • MikeC366 June 28, 2012 06:58 am

    Great advice. Now which box did I bury that manual in?

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed