What did you get? A Sony a series, perhaps? Fujifilm? A Leica, Canon or Nikon? This is for all you with newly-acquired digital cameras — or, as I like to call them, computers. Chances are, you are a little overwhelmed with the incredible array of new features available and are stuck between just wanting life and photography to be a simple joy but also wanting to make sure you’re using any new feature that is going to make your images better, or life easier. Here are the top 5 things I believe you should look for in your camera to have it run at its optimal:
Custom Menus, Programmable Buttons
This is the first thing I do with a new camera — look for ways to ease the experience of going through menus and getting my fingers adjusted to the camera. There’s a wonderful phrase used by the French: mise en place. It means everything in its place and is traditionally used by chefs as a pre-cooking ritual of preparing ingredients, sauces, cooking utensils and everything else; putting them in precisely the right place — and the place where they always go — so that the process of actually cooking is unencumbered by looking for where things are. They are exactly where they need to be, and this allows the chef to focus and get in the flow.
Use your own version of mise en place to arrange your camera in ways that make it distinctly yours. Every new camera comes with plenty of options here, including hardware buttons all over the camera that can be programmed for various functions. One of the most common things people do to customize buttons is to assign focusing to a button on the back of the camera where your right thumb sits. It’s called back button focusing and is a popular technique that can be very useful in a number of situations. But this has been done for many years. Today, you can use function buttons to start up the camera’s wifi, change your focus assist, switch in-camera looks, set a timer and so much more.
Similarly, camera companies have gotten wise that most shooters spend the majority of their time using a small portion of the cameras features and either offer a short cut menu already propagated with options, or give you space to make it your own. Customizing your shortcut menu, wherever it is, is a thirty minute adventure that will save you a whole lot of time when it comes to shoots. So important has it become to be able to have intuitive controls on cameras that a number of people make their decisions on cameras entirely based on the user interface.
In Camera Looks
Camera companies have also gotten smart in understanding that a lot of people don’t want to have to spend a lot of time editing their images, but are also getting more and more savvy about how they want their images to look. And while cameras have offered in-camera looks for a long time, they’ve taken a huge leap forward with new cameras. Today, it’s not just your usual black and white, sepia or warming filter that satisfies us — thanks to social media and a variety of apps on our phones, even the beginning photographer understands the power of different filmic looks. Fujifilm leads the way — as you might expect from a company with a long heritage in film — in giving you images straight out of the camera that can look like a whole variety of different film types and allow you to fine tune your grain and quite a few other things. But all new cameras are offering some version of beautiful, and often customizable, post-processed looks for images. This is not always what you need, but when it’s just about capturing life and not for a high-end client somewhere who needs to make fine adjustments to your images, these looks can be remarkably good and satisfying.
Use A Tripod, Use The App
If you’re shooting outside in nice light, sure, just shoot away. But we all know that a large majority of what we shoot is in difficult situations — especially when we’re inside. A tripod has always been a great tool to help you steady the camera and allow yourself longer exposures without shake. The tripod is still one of the most important tools for any photographer. However, making this even more of a useful tool is the significant upgrade in remote apps on your phone that communicate with your camera.
In the near past, connecting your camera to any app on your phone was a huge hassle. So hard and with so many steps as to make it nearly useless to anyone trying to get images quickly. But the last year or so has seen a big upgrade to this. Most new cameras have a one-two-three process now to connecting to your phone: first you have to turn the wireless connection on in your camera (which is why I keep that function front and center with a hard button push programmed just for it), then you need to connect to it in your phone through wifi or bluetooth, then you should be able to just launch the app. At this point, most apps will either automatically or with one click connect to your camera.
And the interfaces with these apps have improved greatly, too. You can now just set your camera where you need it and do everything from the phone. This can be helpful in everything from shooting parties to shooting landscapes and long exposures. And what’s more, the photos are then accessible from the phone, too — ready to download to your phone and share away.
Use The Articulated Screen
Not every single new camera has this feature, but enough new ones do as to make it nearly ubiquitous. If your rear screen is capable of tilting off the back of the camera, you have — in my opinion — one of the greatest new features of a camera since going digital. The articulated screen allows you to put your camera in many more places and explore different angles in ways that were near impossible a few years ago. You can hold it up high over your head, put it directly on the ground and even sneak it around a corner — all without having to put your eye to the viewfinder.
It’s sometimes nice to remember that getting great shots is not just about the lens and the sensor but about how you use the tool. The reason I love the articulated screen so much is that it, finally, offered a new way to use a camera. But because it sits so nicely against the back of it, it’s also easy to forget you have it. Flip that thing out regularly and watch all the interesting new angles you end up with.
Establish Your Look
New cameras have new sensors and these continue to improve and offer incredible dynamic range and quality of image — which really helps you push and pull your image to your liking in post. However, there’s another great use of a high-quality image, which is that it allows you to hone in on the kind of shot you want to get in camera. New shooters get caught up in correct exposure, when the real advantage of a great lens and sensor is being able to shoot in more creative ways. Some examples…
One of my favorite ways to shoot is with a slowed-down shutter speed. I’ll keep it open, handheld, for as slow as 1/30th of a second. Obviously this is going to create some camera shake and blurriness. I actually like that look sometimes, even though it’s technically a “bad image.” However, leaving my shutter open that long in older cameras was near impossible without putting a filter on my lens — which I don’t like to do, as it has the potential to degrade my image and is a pain to use. With newer cameras, I can actually bring the ISO down to incredible low values. My Nikon, for example, goes down to ISO 64 and then three levels below that, that don’t even have numbers! You can combine features like this with exposure compensation to give yourself wide open shots in the middle of the day — or longer exposures, as described — and still have a lot of information in those high dynamic range images.
And then there’s the other direction, with very low key light situations that can be captured beautifully, too. Another way I very much like to shoot is a bit darker in end of day light. The camera’s tendency is to want to make your golden hour shots look more like daytime shots. But I like to push it the other way and get my golden hour shots to look like last light of the day, with a lot of mystery. So, I’ll move to faster shutter speeds or smaller apertures, especially when there’s just a touch of light present. In older cameras, this was an extremely risky way to shoot because sensors had such a hard time with low light that it created ugly-looking darks and lacked all the subtlety needed to pull a shot like that off. Today, you can safely shoot low key like this and capture some amazingly cinematic looks by bringing exposure down, but fine-tuning those dark areas with ISO settings and small bumps in exposure compensation. Sometimes this will result in images so cinematic, you will be shocked at how dramatic they are.
The best thing about these great new features of cameras is not to try to achieve some kind of perfect image — that is actually not so hard and has been offered in cameras for decades — it’s to be able to achieve better artistic creations in places and conditions you weren’t able to before. With all of these five suggestions, you unlock the power of your camera, but even more, you unlock your own potential as an artist.
Thanks for reading. If you are looking for more articles like this, to help you raise your photography skills, I have many more. You might start here, as this gives a pretty good overview of all the articles I’ve written.