Knowing Your Digital Camera: Tips for Experienced Users

Are you using your digital camera to its full extent? Did you pay for the latest and greatest gear but only use the features available 5 years ago? I will help experienced photographers find out what you are missing out.

#1 Knowing the ‘Expanded Limits’

Forget about the thrill of reading all the marketing material from Camera manufacturers. The first thing you should do when receiving a new digital camera is to test its limits with the expectation that it should be greater than the existing gear that you are replacing. It does not matter what the ‘maximum ISO’ is until you decide it is acceptable to you. Similarly, the battery capacity may have increased but so does the power consumption of the camera! The best thing you can do before using the camera extensively is to take sample photos to truly understand those ‘limits’ that matter to you. Take it to a low light condition and push ISO to the highest you can accept, take it out on weekend trips to test the battery capacity for your shooting style. Put on your heaviest lens (hopefully this does not apply for us 35mm lens photographers) to see if you can carry it and walk the distance. Take some photos of fast-moving objects for the best burst rate and focusing speed. Test the video and audio recording functions (if this matters to you). Test your camera with your accessories from photography bags and memory cards to tripods and camera straps to find out how you may be able to use the camera in a way that you were not able to before. Doing this allows you to reap the majority of the benefits you have paid for.

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#2 Making the best of ‘unique’ features

Nowadays every camera manufacturer has its own unique features that improve the experience for certain types of users. These features may not be equally well implemented among all manufacturers. At the same time, the features may not benefit your specific photographic style. The next step you should take is to find out what the ‘speciality’ features of your camera are and how they are going to improve your photographic experience. It’s time to check out the manufacturer websites for ‘product features’. I am sure the marketing departments of all major camera brands do a good job to present them clearly to you. If you are relatively new to photography, the following is my quick summary to get you started:

Traditionally, Canon and Nikon have the widest selection of lenses, this is important if photography is your professional or commercial pursuit. Canon and Nikon DSLR are also very good at autofocusing speed and bursting rate (over 10 FPS), however modern mirrorless cameras bursting rate can be insanely high (you may wish to check out Sony RX series). Pentax builds extremely tough DSLRs with full magnesium alloy, weather sealed body. Pentax cameras also have in-camera stabilization (as opposed to in-lens stabilization from other brands) which reduces your cost in the long run. The stabilization unit also enabling cool features such as pixel shift and tilting. Fujifilm mirrorless cameras are famous for their proprietary colour filter that mimics classic 35mm film effects. The end result seems amazing to me. Sony’s pride is it’s CMOS manufacturing ability, for this reason, it is always the first to come up with compact, full-frame mirrorless cameras with sensors ahead of its competitors. Sony also provides its users with native support for Carl Zeiss lenses for those who are willing to pay a bit more for outstanding image quality. Sigma cameras, although less well known, has this unique Foveon sensor which features multiple layers to capture all of the colour information that visible light transmits, compared to a normal sensor, which captures a single colour at each pixel. Other features to look out for are audio and video recording, flash syncing abilities, dual card slots, GPS unit, wireless file transfer capabilities, star tracking, electronic viewfinders, high definition touch-screen LED etc.

Each camera brand has spent a lot of R&D effort to come up with these unique features so that they become the joy and pride of their followers. Make sure you use them to the full extent!

#3 Customising buttons, dials and menus

The ability to allow customisation is becoming more and more important as the camera body gets smaller and smaller. With small camera bodies, such as digital mirrorless, rangefinders, there is just not enough physical space for buttons or dials to give quick access to all settings. As a user, you will be responsible for determining the most commonly used functions and to customise the camera so you can change these settings quickly. If you have not done it yet, an intuitive place to start is the mode selection wheel. As an example, I have a ‘daytime street photography’ mode which I set the camera to a manual mode with the aperture at f/8 and shutter speed 1/250, depending on your camera (refer to tip #1) the ISO can be set accordingly between 800 to 3200. This allows me to quickly pull out the camera and take candid shots before being noticed without having to worry about changing anything (even focusing, see tips on zone focusing)

Modern advanced cameras also have physical buttons and software menu items for customisation. Use this according to your needs wisely. When I was experimenting with full manual vintage lenses, metering with pre-set aperture became my favourite custom setting. If accurate focusing is important, you may wish to have settings for focus highlighting or screen focus with magnification. Remember these are just examples, you need to be the person to determine what makes the most sense to utilise the limited real estate of the small camera body. Invest wisely!

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#4 Having access to new photo opportunities

I recently bought a Richo GR II. It is very, very old (at least in digital camera terms) given it was released in 2015. If you read the specification, it is a point-and-shoot APS-C camera with a fixed 28mm lens which doesn’t stand out in any way. However, the reason I bought it was because it allows me to take photos I was never able to. With the discreet body and small lens, I am able to get very close to people on the street and take portraits without being noticed. It also has a famous ‘snap focus’ feature which takes photos at a predetermined focus distance, allowing fast photo actions for the ‘decisive moment’ (find out who came up with this famous term in street photography). The battery seems to go on forever.

Your camera also has this ‘superpower’ awaiting for your uncovering. Is it superb high ISO image quality for night photography? Or freezing star tracks? Or does it have pleasing colour tones for skin colour (Canon)? Does it have a very fast focus and burst rate for shooting sports events and wild animals? Experiment with this potential ‘ superpower’ your camera offers.

#5 Reviewing and improving your workflow

For advanced photographers, the workflow may not be the most exciting topic but it is vital in making sure you get all the necessary things done in the least amount of time. Workflow requires the connectivity of a few different components: the camera, the memory cards, the media library and catalogue system, photo editing software, then storage, printing or social media. It may also integrate with client management systems, accounting and invoicing solutions, even your scheduling software. I suggest you maximise your camera offerings to enhance your workflow. Does it have wireless connectivity that allows post directly to Instagram or Flickr on your phone? Would you enable GPS and log the location of your photos? Does the camera body come with promotional offers that give you a good deal on professional software? If you have two card slots, what’s the best way to arrange photos between the two cards? Would it make sense to take jpeg as well as RAW format for quick in-camera selection of photos? Does a feature relieve you from carrying any physical hardware? The opportunity to improve your workflow is there if you think hard, and your effort will pay off.

If you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment below. Don’t forget to leave an email so you can get a notification when I respond.

See also: An in-depth comparison of the 35mm lens and 50mm lens.

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