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Getting started with a new digital camera

Did Santa bring you a new digital camera for the holidays? If this is your first digicam ever, congratulations, you are well on your way to capturing amazing images and preserving important memories, all at a push of a button. Before you begin taking snapshots, however, there is some prep you’ll need to undertake. Read on to learn more on how to use your new camera.

Rechargeable AA batteries from Energizer.

Charge Up

It sounds like a no-brainer, but before you slip the battery into the camera, give it a full charge by using the supplied battery charger – even if the new battery already does contain a bit of juice.

If your new camera is an entry-level model that runs off AA batteries, you should purchase rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. Our experience with regular alkaline AA is that, although readily available, they don’t provide enough lasting power before they need to be replaced. Rechargeable NiMH batteries, in the long run, are a better option.

Set the Time and Date

When you first fire up your camera, it will ask you to set the time and date. Don’t skip this process. Ensuring that your camera is set to the correct time and date will allow it to add the proper time and date stamp to your images. This will help you later on when you organize your photos on your computer.


SDHC memory card from SanDisk.

While mostly optional, there are some basic accessories that will enhance your digital photography experience right out of the box, such as a mini tripod or a protective case. If your digital camera gift did not include these items, check out our recent list of basic essential camera accessories.

There is one accessory, however, that every digital camera does require, and that is a memory card. Whether it’s Secure Digital or Compact Flash, your new camera will not include either. Most likely the card you’ll need is an SDHC variant that’s 4GB or more and Class 4 or higher (increase those specs for advanced point-and-shoot and entry-level DSLR models). Unsure about memory cards? Read our guide.

Read the Manual

When it comes to consumer electronics, most of us throw out the instruction book, power up the device, and ask questions later. If you are new to digital cameras, we highly recommend you glance through the “getting started” booklet to familiarize yourself with the camera (a second, more in-depth instruction manual is usually available as a PDF on an included CD). All digital cameras include the same basic functions, but where those functions are located varies from model to model. Spend 30 minutes to an hour exploring your camera while referring to the instructions, and you’ll know the ins-and-outs of it in no time. (If you’re stepping up from a basic camera to an advanced model, you should definitely brush up on all the features.)

Know the Modes

An example of a mode dial.

Whether it’s a basic point-and-shoot or a more advanced compact DSLR, today’s digital cameras are packed with lots of features designed to help the user take the best photos in a variety of situations. But knowing how to use those features requires a basic understanding of your camera’s shooting modes.

All cameras include an automatic mode, the setting that most new digicam users will rely on. In this mode, the camera takes care of the settings adjustments (exposure, light sensitivity or ISO, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, flash, etc.). All you have to do is compose, focus, and shoot. This mode is usually designated by a green rectangle or the word “auto.” Many cameras will also include scene modes, which are automatic modes that the user selects based on the shooting conditions (bright sunlight, close-up portraits, night shots, etc.).

You can take decent photos in automatic mode under normal conditions, but if you have an advanced camera, you should graduate to the camera’s other modes that offer more user control, especially when you want to get creative or shoot in difficult situations, such as low light. Program mode is a step up from automatic. Although the camera still handles many of the functions, the user can now make some adjustments, such as exposure compensation and white balance, for example. Two other semi-automatic modes – aperture priority (Av or A) or shutter priority (Tv or S) – give control over the depth-of-field focusing (Av) or shutter speed (Tv). These settings are ideal when you want to focus on the foreground subject and blur the background for portraits, or freeze a moving object. Then there’s the manual mode, which, as its name suggests, lets you control all the settings.

Once you have a basic understanding of what the modes do, you can then move on to adjusting other settings, such as white balance. Another mode you may see is video, which a lot of new cameras can now handle, so you can play with capturing both still and moving images. You won’t master the more advanced modes overnight, but knowing them and when to use them will let you exercise greater control of your camera, which in turn will lead to you taking more pleasant photos.


With film cameras, you had to be careful about the snapshots you take, making sure your shots are set up correctly. That’s because a roll of film has a finite number of images you can shoot before it needs to be replaced. Digital cameras, however, give you an almost infinite number of shots, so don’t limit yourself in your creativity. With a large capacity memory card, you can experiment with all the features and settings your new camera has to offer, so go nuts, especially if you’re learning the different shooting modes the camera offers. And don’t worry about deleting or editing your photos until after you’ve transferred them off the camera; remember, part of the fun in using a digital camera is composing your shots and capturing the moment, so don’t waste time editing them in camera.


GIMP photo-editing software.

Nearly all digital cameras include some form of rudimentary computer-based software that lets you edit your photos after you’ve transferred them. Unfortunately we are not fans of most of them. Skip the included programs that come with your camera and use a great free app like Google’s Picasa, which not only lets you edit your photos (cropping, resizing, adding filters, sharing, etc.) but also helps you organize them by time and date. Mac users can utilize iPhoto, which comes included on all new Macs. Want more powerful editing tools? Try the free open-source app GIMP, which gives you professional editing features but has a steep learning curve. For a paid version, check out the industry gold standard, Adobe Photoshop and its pared-down sibling Adobe Photoshop Elements. Both give you advanced editing tools that help you enhance the photos you’ve taken.

Got a tip for budding digital photographers? Share them in the comments.