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10 Tips for making the most of your new digital camera

Most of you are already experienced digital shooters. But if you're thinking of giving someone else a digital camera for the holidays--or know of someone who is getting their first digital camera, these tips can help make their experience an enjoyable one and give them a better chance of getting some great images. We've all heard--dozens of times--the horror stories of the new digicam owner who finds the camera slow, the images awful, the subjects blurry, and relegates their once proud new gift to the closet. It's a shame. By following some simple tips like the ones we provide here, everyone can experience the fun of digital! Even if you're an experienced D-SLR shooter, these tips will come in handy when everyone at your holiday party asks you to use their point and shoot to capture the moment for them.

  1. Be Prepared: Sure they are called "point and shoot", but digital point and shoots aren't. They are really point, get ready, and then shoot. If you grab any consumer digital camera and try to snap off a quick frame you'll get garbage. Digicams need time to 'turn on', acquire focus, check exposure, and heat up the flash. Pros have learned that even with the high end cameras it pays to be ready for the image you want ahead of time and have the camera "hot" and the focus on target before the action happens. Once your camera is ready to take the picture--when you've pressed the shutter release half-way and given it time to adjust and turn the ready light on--you'll be much more likely to be able to capture the action.

  2. Anticipate: Even when you have the camera ready, there is more shutter lag with digital than with film cameras. You need to be quick to act and even anticipate the peak of action by a little bit, to give the camera time to take the picture when it happens. Newer cameras are getting better and better in this regard. I'm shooting a lot this holiday season with a Canon PowerShot A80 (when I don't want to carry my Nikon D2H, of course:-) and as long as I give it a chance to acquire focus it is quite a bit quicker than the digicams of even a year or two ago.

  3. Steady: Logically, if it takes a little time for the camera to take the picture, you have to stay steady until it is finished. But it is amazing how many people forget that. I see dozens of shots ruined because the photographer stabs at the shutter release and then starts to move on before the camera has really taken the picture. The small size of consumer digicams often confuses photographers as well. Point and shoots are actually harder to hold still than the heavier D-SLRs and it is very tempting to "wave them around." If you want the best images, you have to work extra hard on good technique to hold your cute new camera still.

  4. Choose Your Viewfinder: Most consumer digicams allow you to see the scene through either a traditional optical viewfinder or in the LCD. The LCD provides a more accurate view of what you'll capture in the photograph, including your current camera settings, the effect of the lens zoom, and sometimes the choice of auto-focus sensors being used. But it has one major drawback. You need to be away from the camera to look at--possibly quite far away depending on your vision. That makes it much harder to hold the camera steady. The optical viewfinder allows you to hold the camera against your forehead for maximum stability, but provides little or no shooting data and often does not have an accurate view of the scene. Either one can work, but be aware of the limitations of each and make sure you practice holding the camera steady while looking at the LCD. If you're taking pictures of kids, you can use reversible viewfinders--that can be pointed towards the subject so they can see a preview of how the image will look--like the one found on the Canon PowerShot A80 to let the children compose their own picture by posing for the LCD. This is a great party trick and can give you some surprisingly good images.

  5. Read Some of the Manual. I'm not sure anyone really reads all of any camera manual, but I'm equally sure that if you expect to use any digicam without reading any of the manual, you'll wind up unhappy and the camera will be in the closet in no time. I'll help you though. The parts of the manual that are really important for digital point and shoots are White Balance, Flash, Image Quality, and Drive mode. Auto White Balance is getting much better, and new digicams perform well outdoors and when their own flash is used, but if you are shooting indoors with natural light you'll want to get familiar with your camera's white balance options and when to use them. Flash is important both because it affects your image and because with consumer digicams it affects your shooting speed. In most settings the camera will wait until the flash is ready to fire before it takes a picture. That can lead to a long delay and the loss of your prize shot. So if capturing the moment is more important than the precise lighting or exposure, make sure you have your camera set to a mode where it will shoot when you want it to, not when it wants to. Cameras often ship set to very low image quality--perhaps to make the small cards they give you seem useful:-) You'll only get great images if you take the time to set the right image quality. If you want good prints, pick the largest resolution JPEG with the least compression. Similarly, your camera will have a variety of settings for single or repeated or "continous" shooting. Experiment a little with how these work. Some cameras can shoot very quick bursts if you hold the shutter down--but if you let up you have to wait for the buffer to empty to shoot again. If you're used to the quick recycle time of a film camera this can be very frustrating. But for now that's life with point and shoot digitals, so learn your cameras modes and then get used to working with them.

  6. Skip the Computer. If you're not a big fan of using the computer, don't. Digital images are cool for emailing, and its great that you can fix red-eye or your friend's wrinkles using software, but just because you take digital images you don't have to learn to use a computer. Camera companies and printer companies are falling head over heels to give you ways to print your images without touching a keyboard. Canon, HP and Epson all offer models that let you insert your card directly into the printer and preview and print your images from the printer's control panel. Most of them suffer from needing to use a tiny LCD for reviewing the image, but HP has a very nifty alternative in their PSC 1350 All-in-One device. Called "Photo Proof", the printer creates a proof sheet and you check which images you want printed and what size. Then you scan the proof sheet back in (that's why it needs to be an all-in-one unit), and it makes your prints. Gallery quality? No. Easy? YES! If you're willing to step up to a larger investment, then PC Mag's top picks for stand-alone photo printers this year are the HP PhotoSmart 7960, Canon i9100 or the more expensive Epson Photo 960.

  7. Skip the Software. Even if you do decide to work with your images on your computer, you often don't need to fiddle with the software that comes with your camera. Unless it offers some unique features, you may be able to avoid loading it at all. Most cameras are compatible with Windows XP and Mac OS X right out of the box. You can plug them in and see your images immediately. Once you have the images on your computer, you can use whatever software you already have to process or print them. If you're planning to shoot a lot of images or send them off to editors, our own DigitalPro is a great option for heavy-duty Windows users, with Adobe Album 2.0 being a good choice for the casual photographer who uses Windows. On the Mac, iPhoto is free and fairly easy to use as well as offering many features including an interface to online album production. Windows XP also has some built-in photo features including links to online photofinishers. If you want to experiment with editing your images, you can also get Photoshop Elements 2.0 inexpensively, or it is bundled with many new computers and other digital devices.

  8. Skip Printing. Printing your own images can be incredibly satisfying. With the right setup of computer, printer, and software you can get results that equal or exceed those of any professional lab. But it can also be a source of severe disappointment. More often than not your first efforts will not meet your expectations and there will be some learning involved. If you don't have the time or inclination, or just don't like the idea of messing with special papers and ink cartridges, online services are now an attractive alternative. Ofoto, owned by Kodak, not only is creating very nice prints, but provides free software which you can use to view and upload your images. Shutterfly has a similar, competing, service and also offers free software. Your local camera store or traditional photofinisher has probably also gotten into this business and will have some ways you can produce prints from your digital images. If you want 'pro' quality, higher end online services and offer that as well. I use the archival Lightjet printing service at Pictopia for almost all my large format printing since it is frankly easier and cheaper than maintaining and calibrating my own equipment in my studio. When I take images as a favor at a party or sporting event, I upload them to either Shutterfly or Ofoto and let friends print them from there. It saves me the time and hassle of printing them "as a favor." If you do it professionally, Printroom offers you the ability to create your own "online studio."

    Be ready with plenty of digital film!

    However you print your images, you'll be recording them on digital film. New cameras come with tiny cards. You'll want to make sure you don't spend your holiday cleaning off your one small card, so buy an extra now. SimpleTech has 256MB CompactFlash cards for as low as $55, or a SanDisk 256 MB Secure Digital Card is $75, so price is no longer an excuse for suffering with tiny cards.


  9. Rescue your Photos. Nothing is worse than having a camera or digital media card go bad with all your precious images on it. It's enough to ruin anyone's holidays. Fortunately those images can often be recovered. The best program available to do this is PhotoRescue. Now is a great time to buy it, since Version 2 is now out--with added support for large cards and movies--and you save $10 by purchasing before they increase the price to $39. It is available for both Windows & Mac OS X.

  10. Practice! Every pro dreads that moment when a well-meaning friend or relative poses everyone at a gathering against some awful background and then hands them a tiny camera they've never seen before with about 20 little buttons on it and says, "Here, can you take the picture?" It's a no-win situation--even for a pro--to try and use a new camera and get a great image the first time. It isn't any easier for a new camera owner. Practice with your camera. Take photos of your family, friends or pets to get used to the controls, how best to hold it so you can compose quickly, and which scenes it can capture. That way you'll be ready to capture those images of a lifetime when the time comes!

Have fun and make the most of your new camera. The instant feedback it provides will open up a world of new possibilities for you. If you have a friend who is getting a camera, feel free to forward this issue to them, as long as you forward it in its entirety.
















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