Beginners in digital photography all start with the same ambitions, and most run into the same big obstacle. After buying the best camera within their budget (possibly their first SLR), they promise themselves they will really learn how to use it, and rise above daggy snapshots. After all, practice is free and you can delete your mistakes. So how can you go wrong?

Then they try to read the manual.

After a brave effort of trying to wade through pages of poorly written jargon, most people find the task too demanding. They switch the camera to automatic, and that is where it stays.

Does this sound like you? Don’t worry, you are not alone. But it is worth perservering, because taking great photos is immensely satisfying, and allows you to get the most out of your digital camera investment. Maybe you just need to approach it a different way.

Why do I feel it is so important to use the manual settings on your digital camera? Because your camera does not always know how you want your photo to look. Let’s take a look at three examples.

Example #1. Often you can make your subject really stand out by shooting it in the sun, with the background in the shade. This is a great technique for flowers, people, wildlife…all types of subjects. However, with two different levels of light in the one picture, it can be tricky to get the exposure just right. If you leave the camera on automatic, it might set the exposure for the background, leaving the sunlit subject badly overexposed. So you get a perfectly exposed background (which you don’t care about) and a burnt-out subject.

Example #2. Some subjects can only be taken in very low levels of light. Sunsets and rainforests are two simple examples that come to mind. In these situations, the light is only a fraction of normal daylight brightness. With your camera on automatic, it could set a shutter speed so slow, your photos will be a complete blur. Of course you can counter this by using a tripod, but in my experience people who rely on automatic settings usually don’t keep track of what their camera is doing.

Example #3. Action photos, or any photo with a moving subject, can easily be ruined by using the wrong shutter speed. Whether you want to freeze a moving subject (kids at a school sports carnival) or slow the speed to create a motion effect (waterfalls), your camera does not know how you want your picture to look. When you know how to set your own shutter speeds, and balance them with the correct aperture and ISO settings, you will get the result you want almost every time.

Learning the essential skills of photography is not as difficult as it seems. The mistake people make is to rely on their camera manual to tell them everything, which is not really what it is designed to do. Your manual is there to tell you how to adjust the settings for your camera, but it is not so good at explaining what the settings are for. So it will tell you how to operate your camera, but not how to be a better photographer.

A much better approach is to find a good, basic beginner’s guide that explains the fundamentals of good photography. There are plenty of books, ebooks and workshops available. Don’t get too involved at first. It may seem that there are a million things to learn, but you don’t need to go that far. If you can understand aperture, shutter speed, depth of field and ISO, you will know almost everything you need.

After that, it all comes down to patience and practice. With the right approach, and less reliance on a poorly-written manual, your skills will improve in no time. Like I said at the beginning, it doesn’t cost anything to practice and you can delete your mistakes, so how can you fail?

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